Critical Encounters With the Music of Mozart - A Collaborative Composition Project
One of the most enthralling ways to experience music, is to have the chance to really get inside its inner workings, and to hopefully come away somehow changed. While program note-esque learning, such as historical notes, composer information and an understanding of stylistic challenges are all incredibly important and valuable ways to build understanding of a piece of music, there is some special sense of connection that emerges from being able to create in response to the music you are encountering. This was my initial focus when beginning to plan a collaborative composition project based around Jamin Hoffman's arrangement of Mozart's Overture from The Abduction from the Seraglio, a piece selected for the high school string orchestra I work with for it's high energy, memorable thematic material, rhythmic drive and technical challenges. Although I began with a focus on finding creativity- centred ways to encounter The Abduction from the Seraglio, my research and ideas led me to spend much more time outside of Abduction, and instead within the music that inspired Mozart's composition.
The result? 2 miniature compositions were created by students in response to analyses of examples of Turkish mehter music, with a focus on the exploration of what it means to play music that is derived from a sense of "other", in our current social and political context. These were performed alongside the arrangement of The Abduction from the Seraglio, creating not only a new way for students to conceptualise the music they had been rehearsing, but also to create a new context for audiences to experience the music of Mozart in.
The Abduction from the Seraglio is not a stand-alone piece of music in it's use of Turkish setting, idioms and musical ideas. Everyone from Haydn to Beethoven explored the sounds of Turkish 'Janissary' military bands or the 'alla turca' style in their music, which consisted of a few heavily reduced defining musical traits, mostly the addition of percussion and piccolo, as well as "repeated notes, chromaticism, unison melodies, large intervallic leaps, simple harmonies, irregular phrasing, quick alterations of major and minor modes, duple meter with accents on strong beats, and sudden changes in dynamics" (Weiss, 2017). The music that European composers were attempting to portray was that of mehter bands or mehtertane, who were court ensembles of the Ottoman Empire that played at a variety of occasions and ceremonies from as early as the 13th century.
Turkish culture was treated by European composers as "other", illustrated in the reduced interpretation of individuals in their music through unyielding stereotypes of exoticism, with depictions of characters as barbarous, buffoon-like and degraded. There is ongoing debate as to whether works such as Abduction should even continue to be performed, or if we should reimagine the stories to reflect current social and political attitudes (and consequently, whether as a result of such attempts artistic integrity is lost). While most of the overtly problematic material in Abduction is found in the opera itself through the characters, theatre and text, there still remains an avenue for discussion on this topic that is focused solely on the musical approximations of mehter just in the Overture. (I have linked a few articles that articulate these ideas much more clearly and in more depth than I am able to give sufficient time to here, at the end of the article if you are interested).
Through my reading and listening, I found myself being pulled towards a discussion with my students of the importance of developing an attitude for encountering music that acknowledges and critically evaluates the circumstances from which it has arisen, what it has been informed by and the cultural factors that are enwoven into the sound. I wanted students to feel comfortable encountering the music that is so heavily embedded in our Western canon with curiosity- not with blind worship but with careful examination, leading to an informed and meaningful understanding.
These topics could easily have led to lengthy discussion sessions, however as the educational setting in which we were working was an orchestra rehearsal, I wanted to keep the emphasis upon the music, whether it be through listening or playing. The fastest way to begin that process was by having students listen to examples of mehter ensembles. I selected two examples, as students would later work in 2 groups to respond to the pieces. The first, a video of a mehter ensemble performing Ceddin Deden, a song that regularly comes up when one begins to research such music. The second, a recording of a track titled Çeng-i harbi recorded by a series of ensembles under the DÜNYA label, from an album titled "A Story of The City: Constantinople, Istanbul" (which I would really recommend listening to)! It is worth noting that these examples are not how mehter from the 13th century would have sounded, as when the mehtertane were dissolved in 1826, it was through the Western approximations that the music later found a resurgence in Turkey. We then worked through the pieces in groups to answer a series of analysis-focused prompts I had devised, to draw out the main musical features students could observe. The idea was for students not to replicate or imitate the music they were hearing, but instead to creatively respond to the ideas they could distinguish using their own instruments and technical capabilities, allowing them to recognise their own personal creative processes, limitations and strengths.
Through these initial prompts, the students were almost entirely self-directed in the succeeding collaborative compositional process. My role became to offer new perspectives, ideas, ways to approach problems, and occasionally more direct instructions to establish a new basis from which students again could experiment with their own ideas. I could quite easily describe the fantastic music that was created, and detail my own observations of how that process occurred, but I feel that it is best articulated by the students themselves. The following notes were written and read by students during our premiere of the pieces to the audience, published here with the students' permissions.
Our work was influenced by “Çeng-i harbi”, which translates from Turkish to “Cymbals of War”. It is a very atmospheric piece, using clashing cymbals and rhythmic ostinatos to effectively paint a picture of a battle underway. While Çeng-i harbi represents war, our piece draws inspiration from it to represent the atmosphere on a battlefield, just after a battle has taken place. Instead of using cymbals in a typical manner, we instead employ a new method of playing the cymbal with a bow, which provides a haunting resonance. When the cymbal is played with the mallet, it is muted and echoes the long gone sounds of war. The melodies and harmonies are all improvised, using notes in the A Dorian scale, and each part blends together to form a tranquil melody.
Ceddin Deden is the name of the piece used as inspiration for the second group. It follows a strong bass rhythm, using its repetitive nature to keep it upbeat and lively. The composed piece, following Ceddin Deden, uses notes in the key of F natural minor, and using a range of intervals and rhythms, we constructed a theme used as a signpost for familiarity. Then within this theme, individual melodies can be found. These were created by incorporating specific rhythms and intervals into given phrase lengths, all resembling that of the original piece, and with each of these elements combined, our piece was formed.
Linking back explicitly to the music of Mozart is perhaps the area of this project that I most neglected. While I could certainly hear and feel the increase in the level of understanding in students' playing, their engagement, the questions asked about the music, and the high standard of music created, I did miss the important step of creating a clear space to articulate our reflections on the implications our compositions would have for how we would understand and perform the Overture. While I truly feel the learning was evident, a tangible reflection process to consolidate the ideas explored would have further benefited all involved.
I leave you now with the opening quote from Kary Hardy Campbell's fascinating article about mehter music that I feel really encapsulates the breadth of how music can permeate cultures, and the resulting sounds that are created from it. The heart of this project really became about understanding our place in a constantly evolving story of musical traditions, and how from it, we can most meaningfully create the music of the future.
"You hear its echo when the cymbals crash and bass drums boom during a marching band's performance at a football game. It reverberates down the centuries when an orchestra marks the final measures of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. And it resounds when a rock band blasts a concert hall. It's the unmistakable sound print—the musical DNA—of the colorful mehter musicians, master bandsmen of the Ottoman Empire."
JANISSARY MUSIC IN THE WESTERN CLASSICAL IDIOM by Kira Weiss
Mozart's 'The Abduction from the Seraglio' from NPR Music
Whitewashed or just plain colourless? by Tim Ashley
Mehter Music Echoes Down The Centuries by Kay Hardy Campbell