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  • Thea Martin

Group Montage Composition with String Orchestra - The Unanswered Question

By Thea Martin

Creating new music with an ensemble is an extremely exciting and rewarding experience for all involved. Students lead their own learning, engaging them directly in shaping their experience, regardless of their playing ability on their instrument. An ongoing challenge with school ensembles is the varying levels of playing abilities students possess, and so selecting suitable repertoire can be difficult. However, when composing new music, this obstacle is almost entirely removed as students will create at their own level of capability. As a teacher, it gives you the opportunity to work more as a facilitator and guide, removed from the traditional conductor podium, and into the role of an equal creative partner with your students.

During these challenging times where opportunities for performances and concerts are limited, composing new pieces has provided a new and exciting goal for students to work towards in their rehearsals. The following project came together over 2, hour long rehearsals. The ensemble I was working with is a string ensemble (sadly with no violas) of about 20 students from year 8-12, ranging from beginner level to around Grade 3 AMEB.

The work I selected to base this composition project off of was Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question". I selected this piece for a few reasons - first, it is relatively short so the entire piece can be listened to within a rehearsal without students losing concentration. Secondly, it is an example of program music, and uses the technique of montage and layering, which provides a wonderful compositional process model for group work. Finally, it is an incredibly thought provoking piece of music that would most likely lie outside of the realm of music most students would have encountered or listened to. I have found that accessing more experimental music through creating, allows students to put aside their reservations about the piece, and to more deeply engage in the music by focusing on the creative ideas behind it.

This project is derived from a Music Learning Guide I originally wrote for primary school age students that has been modified for this ensemble. Below I share the plans for each rehearsal and the progression of the composition, with some commentary on the overall experience.

Rehearsal 1: Introducing 'The Unanswered Question' and Brainstorming

Material and Setup

- Students will sit in a circle for the beginning of the session

- A whiteboard/smart board, paper and textas are required

As this rehearsal will require time for listening and verbal analysis, I think it is important to keep the focus on playing as much as possible, as it is still an ensemble environment, not a classroom music session. As a result, I felt it was important to begin the rehearsal with their instruments.

Warm-up Exercises

  1. Have students play an ascending and descending G major scale to get students listening to intonation. Then, have different students lead in the scale around. This is to get students other than the section leaders used to leading the group.

  2. Ask students to find a continuous, soft, shimmering sound on their instruments (ex. sustained notes, trills, tremolo, tapping etc.) Then cue them in by pointing around the circle to build the sound layer, and lifting or lowering your arms to indicate crescendo and decrescendo.

  3. This time, ask students to find a singular short sound on their instrument (ex. pizzicato, tapping, staccato/accented bowed note) Again, point around the circle to cue students in.

Exercise 2 and 3 are based off of exercises I have seen Julian Ferarretto use in his workshops. The purpose of their use in this session is to get students to think about the variety of sounds that can be made on their instrument.

Introduction to Texture

Before listening to 'The Unanswered Question', I wanted to make sure students had an idea of the types of musical textures so they could better analyse what they were listening to, and learn how different textures can be created for their own compositions.

  1. Ask students to play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' or something similar by ear, starting on the note B. This is an example of monophonic texture.

  2. Have half the orchestra play a G chord while the others play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' as an example of homophonic texture.

  3. Explain that the final texture we will be looking at is polyphonic, and ask students what they think it might mean, and how it might look if it was drawn.

This is how I draw the polyphonic texture. Having a basic understanding of these 3 textures would give students something specific to listen and look for in the score when showing 'The Unanswered Question'.

Listening to 'The Unanswered Question

Before listening to the piece, ask students what a collage is in visual art. Then ask them to consider how this might to relate to the piece as they listen. The link to the video used can be found here.

After listening to the piece, have a brief discussion as a group. Some key questions to ask are:

1. What are the three layers?

2. Which one is monophonic, homophonic/chordal and polyphonic?

3. What does this music make you think of?

4. If it were in a movie, what might the scene be?

5. Why do you think the piece is called "The Unanswered Question?"

From there, introduce and discuss the concept of program music, and the specific description Ives gives for the three layers, which are:

1. Strings: "the silences of the Druids, who know, see, and hear nothing.“

2. Solo trumpet: "the perennial question of existence

3. Woodwind quartet: “the fighting answerers.”

Creating a New Piece

The concept behind this composition is to use the idea from "The Unanswered Question" of layering 3 separate musical textures that each represent something different, to tell a story of the students' creation.

1. Have students break into groups for 3 minutes, where they will together come up with some kind of story, image or idea they would like to depict musically. They must use at least 3 contrasting layers to tell the story. Some examples could be representing a storm, (the layers might be wind, rain and thunder), or describing a problem in the world such as climate change (the layers might be the earth, the sun, and humans).

2. After 3 minutes, write down the ideas of each group, and vote on 1 idea that the whole ensemble will use.

3. After 1 idea has been selected, as a class discuss what the 3 layers will be. Consider:

a. What is the layer depicting?

b. What instruments could be used?

c. What could the texture be?

d. What could the dynamics be?

e. What could the tempo be?

f. Should there be a melody?

g. What could the mood be?

I think this works most effectively if one layer is continuous and perhaps drone-like, similar to the role of the strings in "The Unanswered Question." If possible, help direct the students ideas so that this will be possible!

4. Split students into 3 groups, and assign them each one of the chosen layers. Provide them with paper and pens to write down ideas, but emphasise that you want them to view music notation as a potential helpful tool, not a main priority. When creating soundscape/textural ideas, often no sheet music is required.

5. Act as a facilitator, moving between groups that the students are self-directing to assist in the development of ideas. You can provide a new perspective if they get stuck, and push them to consider things such as how do they know when to start, how does their idea finish etc.

6. At the end of the first rehearsal, have the groups show each other what they have been working on, to see what still needs work, and how it might all fit together.

The New Piece

The idea that my students came up with was to depict a crime, where the 3 layers would be the crime scene (a kind of atmospheric, tense backdrop), the police, and gunshots. I tried to balance the instruments between the groups, however there had already been some ideas for using Bartok pizz. to depict the gun shots, so I put 3 of the cellists into that group.

Rehearsal 2: Putting it All Together

In the 2nd rehearsal, 30 minutes was dedicated to finalising and rehearsing ideas in groups, and 30 minutes to putting it together as a group. The group depicting the 'crime scene' had moved towards a chord progression in the key of G minor with some short melodic motifs interspersed throughout. The 'police' group had come up with a story of hearing police sirens (glissandos), a crashing sound (an accented open string chord) and the sound of glass shattering (a descending scalic motif).The 'gunshots' group decided to do a 'round' of Bartok pizz. between the 3 cellos that gradually would accelerate, accompanied by tapping of the violin bodies.

Some examples of the questions I asked each group during this session are as follows:

Crime Scene:

1. How might we create a really tense moment for the climax of the piece? We then discussed dissonant intervals, and they decided to add a tremolo dominant 7th chord.

2. How do we know when to change chords? Who are you watching? What are you counting?


1. How can we involve the violin players more (at this stage they were only tapping on their instruments)?

2. How can we end your section of the piece? The students decided to have a final Bartok pizz. cued by one of the cellists on the note G that will all play.

To put it all together, each group first played their ideas to the rest of the ensemble. We then discussed an order for when each layer would come in to best tell the story. From there, we experimented with adding the police and gun shot layers over the crime scene layer. Students presented ideas about changing dynamics, the length of each layer, how the piece would start and end etc.

Below is a diagram of the final form of the piece.

Reflection and Next Steps

An important part of the process that I did not do was reflect with the students at the end of each session on their progress. Reflection from all is so vital to understand how your thinking, skills and sense of self has altered during and after the completion of the project. While I had a general sense that students enjoyed the project, collecting qualitative data and having a debrief discussion is something that I think would have added to my own understanding of the outcomes of the project, and also further empowered the students to recognise their learning.

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