Much of my early experiences of composition teaching was exploring the processes of other composers and recently I’ve become fascinated by how other composers and musicians have reimagined the work of others. A student of mine introduced me to the work of the pianist Christopher O’Riley, sharing an album of Radiohead songs O’Riley had reimagined. I asked O’Riley what had lead him to work with the Radiohead songs: ‘I have done transcription on occasion from very early in my career. There is the capacity of the piano, the only instrument, to my mind, capable of emulating, despite its percussive nature, the lyricism of the voice or sostenuto instruments, the enormity of a symphonic orchestra, or the merge-point between music and noise inherent in a rock ensemble. I’ve done transcriptions of Stravinsky (released by Nonesuch) in his ballet scores for Apollo and l’histoire du Soldat, Delibes (the famous duet), Bach (Trio Sonata in C, the Dorian Toccata and Fugue) and Piazzolla (Verano Porteno). I came to hear Radiohead’s music in 1997 at the release of their album, OK Computer. I have always been drawn to luscious harmonies (Ravel, Rachmaninov) and contrast/counterpoint (Bach, Shostakovich) in any music i enjoy. Radiohead fulfilled those requisites in a way that made me seek out lots of their concerts, B-sides and rarities. I was amazed at the quality throughout their catalogue. No one in popular music had such a consistent quality of work, to my mind, since The Beatles. Their interweaving voices, each song really a culmination of threads every member of their quintet contributes, invites a particular texturalization at the piano; very organically exciting music with which to interact/reimagine’. It was this ‘consistent quality of work’ that O’Riley had really brought to the fore in his transcriptions, and it made me reflect on the important of having models in the composition process and working with pre-exisiting material is of real benefit to our students when they are developing their own composition skills. Separating the generation of ideas from the development of material will allow students to experience the latter more fully, rather than get stuck with the former and never quite achieve the development of material that allows them access to the higher mark bands in GCSE and A-level music.
Transcription is nothing new, and O’Riley sees his work connecting with a broader tradition for pianists to transcribe popular music of the day: ‘There is that covetousness of pianists for the magic of other instruments, other works not originally intended for the keyboard, but inspiring and tempting to assay. Liszt’s arrangement for solo piano of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (my most recent recording) was clearly borne of an impassioned advocacy, but also, perhaps, a desire for integrity: subtitled ‘Episode in the Life of a Young Artist’ the Symphonie is arguably more dramatically imparted by a solo artist rather than a teeming orchestral horde.’ Encouraging students to find pre-existing material that truly excites them is the ideal starting point; it could be a classical piece they are learning, a song they are obsessed with, a samba piece they have recently learnt in an ensemble. The nature of the starting material is irrelevant. Material that gives a student a real musical buzz is ideal.
Once a student has settled on their material, the next step in exploring transcribing approaches is to listen, listen and listen again. This is how O’Riley approached his work with Radiohead songs: ‘Each song arrangement was the result of hundreds of listenings, followed by a germ of an idea; usually not the melody and harmony, but something like the looping guitar intro to Let Down, the bass and drum hemiolas of All I Need, or the commonality of guitar noise and yelled vocals in Paranoid Android. I always found one thread that was leading me through. Much of the difficulty has to do with the randomized bass ostinati i would write: they were to be emulative of the chaotic aspects of noise, overtones, etc. I strove to be non-repetitive as possible in the accompaniment/motoric features, and that, coupled with my trying to get all the elements active (the feeling of the listener, in the best of Stravinsky, Liszt, Godowsky arrangements should be the incredulity at the music emerging from only two hands) made for each succeeding arrangement becoming more and more demanding on the performer. Once I had written something that looked pretty unplayable, then learned and performed it, that raised the bar of difficulty or the next one; not purposefully, but certainly potentially’.
Encourage your students to find a different piece that has a process that is worth emulating. I find the ABRSM Spectrum Piano series ideal for exploring compositional processes; many of the short pieces has a singular process at work (the careful progression of chords in Jackson’s September Chorale, the relentless perfect fifths in Sukarlan’s Gentle Darkness). Once they have found a piece with an intriguing process worthy of emulation, set them the challenge of putting their chosen material through the same process. Could they add a perfect fifth accompaniment to a song by One Direction? Could they harmonise the melody from a Beethoven String Quartet by harmonies that only move by step?
It was equally encouraging working with young musicians at Pro Corda to reimagine their chamber music, this time as a group, by combining fragments from the repertoire students were learning during the course to create new works. Only notes from the original chamber music was used to devise new works. The final devised pieces were intriguing conglomerates of the originals and led to a renewed understanding of the music. When the reimagined pieces were performed alongside the originals, it was particularly effective. So working with pre-existing material can free our students to experiment more freely with developing material; the emotional detachment (as the students were not the ones to create the material) means they can be more liberal with how they manipulate the material, and be more ready to discard material. This kind of activity could work well with a whole class at GCSE and A-level, or indeed at earlier key stages. Ask students to bring in a piece they are learning. Ask them to select three of their favourite chunks from the piece, and put the students into small groups (perhaps three or four). Ask them to create a new piece by putting their favourite chunks of material into a piece. Encourage them not to keep the original intact, but to experiment with it. You’ll be surprised how sophisticated the response can be to developing such material when students are not generating the material.
I asked O’Riley if he felt reimaging non-art music repertoire encourages engagement with popular music by classical music enthusiasts or vice-versa: ‘I think it goes both ways. I’ve had young fans of my Radiohead material write to me, saying they see I’m playing a Mozart Concert near them in San Diego, and thanks to our shared musical cameraderie, he’s always being considering ‘checking Mozart out’. I played Radiohead’s ‘Airbag’ as an encore after a Chopin Concerto, and a friend coming to meet me backstage reported a little bun-haired lady humming the melody in the elevator. My attraction to the music of Radiohead, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Portishead, Cocteau Twins, The Bad Plus is due to the same criteria that leads me to Bach, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and so it’s the characteristics of those musics, not the genre, that attract me to them. And that can work on both sides of the listener/performer membrane’.
Transcribing and reimagining material could never immediately lead to a coursework submission, but students learn a great deal from the process; they learn strategies to manipulate material, and they learn how to experiment and be brave enough to test out processes. The next logical step is to try something original, and after a student has reimagined pre-exisitng material you’ll find it hard to stop them wanting to compose something of their own.