Composing Across the Spectrum

-Below is the text of the article that appears in the current issue of EPTA’s Piano Professional-

Nothing can be more satisfying in the early stages of a new composition with a pupil than exploring scores. For me, all composition should start with research; listening to similarly scored pieces, exploring a particular composer in depth and perhaps even researching a particular compositional technique as adopted by a group of composers. Thalia Myers’ wonderful Spectrum series unendingly surprises me with such a wealth of compositional intrigue; her carefully selected volumes offer such breadth of compositional approach that regardless of the composition a pupil is working on (or even writing myself) one can perceive with immediacy a mass of inspiration. If you are a teacher who is regularly asked by pupils to help with the dreaded GCSE and A level composition coursework, or to offer much needed inspiration to those who find composing a challenging task, you will find a great deal on offer in all of the piano volumes in Spectrum series to spark off even the most struggling young composer.

All the pieces in the series offer a glimpse of a composer’s approach encapsulated in microcosm. Each piece offers a potential starting point, or an approach that could be adopted by a pupil in much need of inspiration. The first Spectrum volume for example has a wonderfully evocative short piece by Philip Cashian, ‘Landscape’. This piece can be used to demonstrate a work that is structured by timbre and density, through a colourful harmonic approach. It would be advantageous to play this to a pupil and let them perceive the structure of the work – modelling how a piece need not be structured through the repetition of melodic ideas but through the careful gradation of harmonic and textural density. There is a real sense that the harmonies were discovered by Cashian through experimentation on the piano, and in turn pupils can be encouraged to find interesting combinations of notes on the piano free of the restrictions of triads. Fitkin’s ‘Sazz’ further shows how through extension of triads and the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated triads one can create a beautifully expressive miniature.

The second volume of miniatures is wonderful for demonstrating some extended techniques on the piano. ‘Nyanyushka’s Song’ by Jeremy Dale Roberts exploits the delicacy of harmonics – experimenting with a pupil on how to create these and how they might be used in a piece would follow naturally. Philip Cashian’s ‘Slow Moon’ demonstrates how the pedal can be emancipated to create a cloud of sound, and like his piece in the first volume of Spectrum, it shows a sensitive approach to register and the careful pacing of increased range between the highest and lowest notes. Tavener’s ‘Zodiacs’ is a striking piece – perhaps less so on paper but when demonstrated to a pupil they cannot help but be struck by the exciting effect produced by leaving the sustaining pedal down for such a long time. ‘Foglie d’Autunno’ by Edward McGuire will inspire pupils to consider less regular approaches to metre – and anything to free them from the burden of common time is welcome. Such pieces can seem daunting to analyse but it can be an enjoyable experience spotting how a composer has structured such a short work and by modelling such structures they can appropriated by the pupil as necessary to help them structure their own pieces.
Even more breadth of compositional approach is evident in the third volume of the series and I would suggest showing pupils ‘Wrist Rock’ by Kevin Volans – not only as an example of effective toccata style writing but also how even the most economical of ideas can be developed to create a meaningful miniature. Discussing with a pupil how the opening creates the rest of the piece would be highly useful for helping them consider how they might shape and structure a work based on an opening idea. Naji Hakim’s ‘Dumia’ demonstrates a wide range of textures and will encourage pupils not to neglect the possibilities the piano offers; not only does it highlight the range of sonorities afforded by exploiting the lower and higher registers but it shows idiomatic writing. Much inspiration will be gained from the opening and the use of hand-crossing. Paul Ruder’s ‘Shooting Stars’ offers an effective solution to the use of repeated patterns with subtle variation that will prevent a listener losing interest if a pattern is repeated too much without variation. Encouraging pupils to vary anything repeated is highly advantageous if they are making use of repeated patterns; looking at how the patterns in Ruder’s piece move in and out of phase would be worth drawing attention to when discussing with a pupil. ‘Lavender Field’ will be of interest to many pupils with its immediately attractive sound world and it is useful to draw pupils’ attention to the cross-rhythms and unexpected harmonic shifts. Anything to help pupils escape the primary triads in their writing should be encouraged, and this miniature will inspire that.

Spectrum 4 is an impressive collection of sixty-six miniatures and it features such a vast array of differing approaches that it could be considered the most useful as many of the pieces are a page long and allow even the beginning composer to perceive the compositional intent of a particular piece. For example ‘Gentle Darkness’ (Ananda Sukarlan) shows how the interval of a perfect fifth can be used exclusively to good effect, or the freedom afforded by Gabriel Jackson’s ‘September Chorale’. The latter piece shows a good method of demonstrating harmonies for a work, through the movement of one note at a time to create a new chord (see the example below). Michael Zev Gordon’s ‘Crystal Clear’ will inspire a sensitive approach to chordal writing and facilitate a freer approach from the pupil. This fourth volume includes works that require the use of pre-recorded material and it might be worth exploring these to help a pupil realise there is no right and wrong in composition but the realm of possibility is far broader than they might believe.

All the pupils I have used the Spectrum series enjoy seeing the work of living composers. I think it is essential for teachers to expose pupils to living works – if we are to inspire the works of tomorrow we need to play them the works of today. There is indeed a place for the wealth of repertoire from the past and our pupils will gain plenty of inspiration from listening to Brahms as they will Bach but Spectrum offers inspiration that is much more within the grasp of the younger composer. The pieces in all volumes are not too long – making a pupil believe that they too can write a piece of similar length – and the clarity with which one can detect the approach adopted by each composer allows a pupil to feel they understand ‘modern’ music and it is not to feared as perhaps some teachers might suggest. I welcome further additions to the series and implore those teachers who do not have them next to their piano to go and get them – you will find them a wonderful tool in helping your pupils organise the sounds in their imaginations and get them on paper.

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