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Write cues for fine music

Composition is crucial in Standard grade music. Kenny Mathieson and, below, Judy Mackie look at two approaches

The BT Scottish Ensemble launched a new education initiative last week in Inverness and Perth. X:PLORE is a programme designed specifically for Standard and Higher grade music pupils and aims to help them explore elements of composition and key music concepts in a context that combines explication with performance.

The first project featured a contemporary composition for soprano, string ensemble and percussion by Welsh composer Rhian Samuel.

Daughters' Letters is a two-movement work that sets the texts of two contrasting poems extracted from Correspondences, a longer sequence of poems by the American writer Anne Stevenson.

Each poem in the sequence is a fictional letter, supposedly discovered in a house in Vermont in 1968. The sequence creates a kind of history of the house and its various inhabitants over many years. Samuel chose to set a letter from Marianne Chandler to her mother in New Orleans in 1840, and a letter from Kathy Chettle to her mother from the Good Samaritan Hospital in New York in 1956.

The first letter is upbeat, chatty and full of the youthful enthusiasm of a new young wife writing about a party she hosted in her new home. The second is much darker: another young wife has rejected her husband and new baby and is suffering from depression and angst.

Soprano Patricia Rozario and percussionist Tom Hunter augmented the 12 string players of the ensemble for the work, which was the centrepiece in the group's touring programme this month.

Heather Duncan, the ensemble's director, says: "We arranged two specific afternoon education concerts in Inverness and Perth as part of the tour. We also do educational work at other times, but it makes good sense to incorporate this kind of project within our touring schedule and we hope we can do more of this type of work."

Paul Rissmann, who recently vacated his post as education officer at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to pursue similar aims on a freelance basis, was asked to prepare and lead the hour-long sessions. Each began with the musicians demonstrating how elements of the music were created and how Samuel had used different musical ideas, techniques and instrumental effects in relation to the contrasting texts she was setting.

Mr Rissmann revealed the expressive as well as the structural elements of the two movements, using the musicians and a PowerPoint presentation. The latter was projected on a screen behind the musicians and served as a counterpoint to the performances.

The afternoons culminated in a complete performance of the piece, supported by both the text of the poems and structural pointers to the music on the screen.

Mr Rissmann also prepared a teaching pack for use in class, giving some background to prepare for the education concerts and ideas to work on in class and follow-up exercises in composition. "Daughters' Letters is a great piece but very modern, so we knew it would be a challenging project for teenagers," he said.

An in-service session for teachers before each event was also offered but the schedule did not allow for work by the musicians in schools. "This is a very busy term for Standard and Higher grade and it wasn't practical to go into school," said Mr Rissmann.

Four Highlands and islands schools - Inverness High, Culloden Academy, Dornoch Academy and Lionacleit School in Benbecula - sent parties of Standard and Higher grade pupils to the session at Eden Court Theatre in Inverness. Chris Rzuchowska, the music teacher at Dornoch High, said afterwards that the material presented could be applied to the work she was doing in class but gave an additional dimension that schoolwork could not provide.

"This gives them a chance to experience a very high quality professional group playing live," she said. "That is a very valuable thing in communities which are not close to the major cities and where opportunities of that kind are often limited.

"The teaching materials Paul prepared are very good but hearing it like this really brings it alive for them."

The ensemble has established a deserved reputation as one of the most imaginative chamber music groups in the UK. Its 10-year sponsorship deal with British Telecom ends in July, but it fully intends to maintain both its artistic momentum and educational activities.

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