Take a chance

11th January 2008 at 00:00
Compositions don't have to conform to a simple structure - you can use random elements and still make interesting sounds, says Cathy Scott.


As a former professional violinist performing a contemporary repertoire, one of the areas I now find fascinating as a teacher is challenging pupils' notions of what classical music is. Although experimental music is part of some key stage 4 curricula, I wanted to introduce it further down the school, so designed a project for Year 7 where over several lessons they would look at aleatoric ("chance") music.

John Cage's 4'33" is the most extreme and famous example, with four movements of silence, the beginning and end of which are marked by the piano lid being opened and closed. The "music" comes from the sounds of the concert hall it's performed in and from the various fidgets and coughs of the audience. Many contemporary composers still introduce elements of chance by leaving, for example, the number of repetitions of a fragment up to the performer.

Pupils would also be confronted with a graphic score where, instead of notes on a stave, music to be performed is written out with diagrams or even explanatory text.

The best way of getting to grips with all this is to try creating music in this way, so the idea we used was a snakes and ladders-style board game with musical sounds and instructions written on each square.

These could be anything from conventional notes or fragments of melody on a keyboard to more unorthodox musical instructions, such as "meow like a cat" or even "try to annoy the teacher". Players roll the dice and must use whatever squares they land on in a final composition.

They then played the game and introduced further chance elements, such as the choice of instrument or number of repetitions, using another dice or playing cards.

Each version of their piece was notated using graphic score, which they finally performed. I encouraged them to include lots of vocal elements, either as notes, noises or songs. We had talked before about the variety of sounds their voices could make - speaking, singing and shouting, which then moved on to humming, chordsclusters, sliding pitch, singing at the extremes of the vocal range, whispering and so on.

In the end we had everything from lines of nursery rhymes to farmyard noises to the latest chart hits. They also used classroom keyboards and percussion and any of their own instruments they brought in.

Each pupil played the game twice, noting their outcomes with graphic score, performing the results and then discussing which was best and why, as well as commenting on others' performances.

Many of them got the most out of the more melodic sounding ones, but they also enjoyed the more whacky vocal ones. There were some atmospheric performances and some really interesting uses of the voice.

The contentious bit was the class discussion about whether or not this was "music". Initially they had been dismissive of the examples of contemporary classical music I played them, insisting it was just random noise.

They seemed very used to the melodic form and repetitive structure of the pop song and found anything outside of this a challenge. However, having been through a "proper" composition process and having had to practise quite hard to get their performances accurate, they were much more ready to see that musical form and structure has many sides to it. Still, the compositions that got the highest marks from the class were the ones that had plenty of melody and a recognisable beginning and end.

They were not convinced that all sounds are music, but found it fun and testing to perform more experimental music accurately.

Cathy Scott teaches at Aylesford School in Warwick.

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