We had a helluva Composition Seminar here on Friday. Students spent the last month visiting classes in other art forms – Dance, Sculpture, Film and Drama — and reported back to the rest of us about how these classes are organized. The results were provocative: I’m curious to know what S21 readers will think of them.

At the beginning of the year, students in the Dance Choreography class were given an ordinary seashell to ponder. Their first assignment was to draw it. Next they had to write a poem about it. In the third class, they were asked to create still poses that expressed something about the shell. Then they had to develop movements from the poses they had devised. These movements in turn became the themes of the dances they were going to create for the class.

(Notice that these choreographers are devising their movement “themes” without listening to a note of music.)

At that point, they were given a form, which went something like this: theme – traveling variation – climax – transition – theme – chaos – traveling recap. In the chaos part, they were required to exchange feet and hands, ie, their feet had to do whatever their hands were doing in the theme, and vice versa.

Then they were given a Bach Partita – I don’t know which one, and neither did they – to adapt their movements and form to.

Combining free-ranging whimsy and strict structure, this process struck me as odd but potentially very effective.

Next up: a pair of students gave a presentation on their visit to the Sculpture class. The first and most important thing about it, they said, was acoustical: the class took place in an immense, blaring room, and the radio was pumped up with modern punk throughout the entire session. For our composition students, the effect was completely disorienting – they couldn’t imagine having to work in that kind of chaotic atmosphere.

Everyone in the sculpture class (@20 students) was working on an identical project: trying to make something exciting but nonrepresentational using only balsa wood and paper. Unlike typical composers, students in the sculpture class shared ideas and materials freely – if someone needed an extra chunk of balsa, there was always someone nearby willing to hand some over. Again, the din was constant. The work was very physical – it was common for students’ hands to be bloodied and bandaged.

The course follows a recurring three-day process. Day One: discussion/introduction (usually involving slides) of project. Day Two: free work time. Day Three: critique from instructor and peers.

In addition, each student was required to keep a sketchbook, and fill 50 pages with sketches every term. I’m thinking of requiring this for my composition students: aimless doodling is such an important part of the creative process, and should take place daily.

The composition students made an effort to recreate the atmosphere of the sculpture class in their presentation, simultaneously speaking without any reference to one another, so we had to pick out bits and pieces of what was being said from the general chaos. It was a mini-Cage-happening in our Composition Seminar.

One of the students shared an epiphany he had about the different ways we experience different art forms: with visual arts, we usually take in the whole object first, then focus in on details, while with music we are given a series of details from which to construct a concept of the whole.

The third presentation was on a Film Editing class. This class is divided into three groups of four people each. Every weekend the groups shoot new material. During the week, each group edits its material down into a five-minute sequence. The editing process involves taking 20-30 minutes of film and cutting a sequence in which the various segments connect into a convincing narrative – even if that process requires altering the original chronology of shots.

The class sessions are organized very much like a music masterclass: each group screens its edited sequence, classmates critique the results, and then the professor gives his suggestions. In this case, though, the technology allows the professor to instantly demonstrate alternatives, eg, how about if we cut from here to here, or insert this shot, or prolong this one? A few points and clicks, and the sequence is completely changed.

The focus is on creating logic and mood with both the chronology and the pacing of the edits. The artistry comes in matching the mood of the edits to the character of the material.

The final presentation was on Drama Fundamentals – an acting class. An entire session was spent on one scene; the class was broken up into couples who had to perform this scene for their peers. Every breath, every eye flicker, every vocal inflection means something to an audience, so the actors are trained to be very aware of their bodies. The very physicality is a bit foreign to most composers: our students were given a quick lesson on how uncomfortable it can be to stare at a couple making out ten feet away from them.

Not something we are likely to try in Composition Seminar anytime soon.

But the most powerful lesson for young composers is the degree to which actors must surrender to their work – maintaining aesthetic or intellectualized distance results in a stiff performance.

All of these reports gave our students – and me – a lot to think about. In this brief summary, I have, of course, left out a lot of what was said, some of which was really compelling. I’d be curious to know if S21 readers have had similar, or dissimilar experiences involving other art forms besides music composition. Seems there’s a lot to learn from our peers in other disciplines.

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