Re-Framing Music-Making through Collaborative Composition
A Room of Her Own Workshops are a series of collaborative composition workshops for high school aged musicians, where they are invited to explore compositions by living, local, femme composers through creating original music. Each workshop is facilitated by Thea Martin, and is supported by a team of teaching artists. You can read more about the workshops here.
Many of the ideas and concepts discussed are heavily inspired and informed by the work of Eric Booth, who has provided such generous mentorship and guidance on these projects. Thank you Eric!
By Thea Martin
When I talk to the young musicians I've had the privilege of working with in the workshop series A Room of Her Own Workshops, I notice their understanding of what it means to be a musician transforming in real time. Many of the young musicians who come into the creativity-based workshops I run, previously would not have called themselves musicians, despite playing musical instruments to high technical standards. Many have never created music before. Others have composed in classroom settings, but often comment upon how different these experiences feel from their school environment. Together, we have been exploring and beginning to define what a re-framing of art-making processes can look, feel and sound like. These workshops have resulted in engaged, meaningful experiences for both the young people and artists involved, with exciting, original, musical outcomes. The musical learning in A Room of Her Own Workshops is shaped around, and stems from the connection between the young people involved, as they strive to understand each other's ideas and perspectives.
"(These workshops have) ..opened my mind to a broader understanding of what it means to create and be creative, through discussions and activities, and just the whole workshopping experience. This helped to put less pressure on myself when being creative." - Lily, age 17.
A Room of Her Own Workshops stemmed from a deep belief that centring creativity in music education through truly valuing young people's ideas, perspectives and ways of connecting, is key to delivering engaging, high quality arts education. This essay highlights the discoveries I have made through these workshops as to how we can best create the conditions for collaborative, creative engagement. I reflect mostly upon our most recent workshop, When We Speak, with the intention to carry forward these understandings into my next projects, and with a hope that they find some resonance with your projects as well.
1. The Focal Work
The focal work is the piece of music that the sessions and activities of the workshop stem from. It provides a structure for the workshop and a source of compositional tools to unearth. In our 2021 project, we used Adelaide/Kaurna Land based composer, Anne Cawrse's string quartet piece A Room of Her Own. For our 2022 project, we used Meeanjin/Brisbane based composer, Lisa Cheney's piece for solo cello and electroacoustics, When We Speak. There are many reasons I selected these works, but a key reason was that both of these pieces deeply consider what it means to create, within the very fabric of the musical material. A Room of Her Own is a personal response to Virginia Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own, which considers the conditions required for prosperous creativity. When We Speak includes interview excerpts of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s voice in the electroacoustic track, talking about composing and being a ‘female composer’. An excerpt that features prominently is "create something personal, its the only thing that counts". Working with music that is a reflection on living composers experiences of being creative generates a point of connection to the work for the young people, as they themselves are about to engage in their own process of creating. The musical exploration of what it means to create, coupled with an effective invitation into this aspect of the work (see The Invitation below), creates the context from which we can invite young people into more unfamiliar sound worlds. When We Speak ventures into sonic territory that the participants had mostly never encountered, featuring electroacoustics and expanded instrumental techniques. If we are to do justice to the breadth of exciting contemporary music that is being created in our current composition landscape, we need to find the way in for those who may not have encountered these sounds before, so as to not isolate newcomers. Uncovering the compositional tools and techniques used in the focal work then flows on from this entry point, providing an initial, accessible lens through which participants can explore the work and develop their own ideas and processes.
"Lisa Cheney's piece was extremely inspiring and made me see music-making and creativity in a whole new light. I had no idea electroacoustics was even a thing, and to be able to have a first taste of it in such a magnificent way was just such an honour. Both my skills and understanding of creativity have been greatly benefitted from working with this piece and I’m so grateful for the opportunity." - Josh, age 14.
Both of these focal works also contain references to and quotations of other artworks (Virginia Woolf, Rebecca Clarke, Margaret Sutherland and Clara Schumann in A Room of Her Own and Kaaija Saariaho and her work Sept Papillons in When We Speak). This places the work the young people are about to engage in, into an entwined story of art-making; an enmeshed, connected and constantly evolving tradition of music-making. I believe this is key to demystifying the composition process and dismantling the 'lone master composer' narrative, by viewing music-making as something inherently connected to people and their communities. The music we create in small groups during the workshop often quotes excerpts or fragments of musical material created together as a large group - something I highlight to the young people as being something that both strengthens and connects their compositions, hopefully instilling confidence in their capacities to create something new, whilst knowing and hearing that their music is deeply interconnected.
2. The Invitation
The invitations are the central questions used to bring the young musicians into a headspace where they can find immediate personal relevance and aesthetic interest, AND there is a desire to explore beyond their initial individual responses, as a collective. The question must come directly from a key element or idea of the focal work, and must give permission to the young musicians to explore the depths of what creativity looks, feels and sounds like. In reference to Anne Cawrse's aforementioned work, we use the following invitation at an early stage in the workshop (following initial warmups that led us into the invitation);
"Imagine you have a room. What would your room need to look, feel and sound like, in order for you to be your most creative in that space?"
This question has worked very well in workshop settings with teenagers, for whom considering the relationship between their personal spaces and identities is often already embedded in their thinking. The invitation is intentionally open-ended, to be used in an individual brainstorming context. In our 2021 workshop A Room of Her Own, we used this invitation before introducing the focal work, to place the young people into the same headspace as Virginia Woolf, who was considering the necessity of having a creative space, and the composer, Anne Cawrse, whose piece is a personal reflection on her relationship with creativity and access to space. In a sense, this 'levelled the playing field' between the young musicians and the works and artists they are encountering, beginning their idea explorations from a common place. The musical material created by the young people then stemmed from these initial brainstorms, as they were asked to imagine a space where all group members would feel comfortable creating within, and were guided through a series of activities, using their brainstorms generate rhythms, motifs and textures. In When We Speak, again we used this invitation after initial warmups, as both a way to introduce the foundational ideas of the workshop, and also to establish understandings and processes of how we wanted to work together over the course of the day. To do this, after having shared about our individual creative spaces, I asked the young musicians "how might it benefit us today, to know about each other's ideal creative spaces?" This gave way to conversations around empathy, preferences, choices and how they might best represent and negotiate our shared interests and differences in the music they would go on to develop together. Again, we referred back to these brainstorms to generate musical material.
"This was my first time experimenting with composing music and allowed me to play with a range of rhythms, melodies and incandescent sounds. The creative space made me feel so comfortable and free, where I could share my ideas of what my ideal room would be, to be in my most creative zone." - Jessica, age 15.
3. Creating WITH and ON our Instruments
This is perhaps the key point that really makes collaboration composition work. This is how we give young people the permission to create freely and with confidence, as it draws upon what they know best as young musicians - how to play their instruments. If you were to walk into a group session at these workshops, they would look fairly similar - a group of young musicians and a teaching artist (usually around 4-6) sitting in a circle with their instruments, deep in discussion or playing through an idea. There is no sheet music or music stands in sight, except perhaps for some brainstorming paper. Musical notation can function as a tool to support them if needed, but is not something they need to rely upon. The teaching artists support and guide the young musicians by asking them questions that facilitate creative decision making. Music is composed through playing through ideas, listening, evaluating, adjusting and then making changes together. This can look and sound like a lot of trial and error, improvisation and engaged discussion. The young musicians will gradually find a musical language and way of communicating that works for them. They learn about each other's instruments practically, by sharing their skills and instrument techniques with each other. By composing ON their instruments, they are confident in playing their parts, because they write them to best suit their own technical capacities and individual strengths and musical interests.
"I definitely feel like my ideas were heard and valued. Every time someone would suggest something, my group would consider it and discuss whether it would fit in the composition and where if so. This mindset allowed everyone to have a great time and come up with a great composition."
During When We Speak, participants also experimented with using their voices as instruments, by recording their conversations around the invitational question, "what would it sound like, for us to create something personal together?". They selected audio excerpts of their discussions to integrate into an electro-acoustic track. This was powerful to witness, as it allowed the participants to think about sound in new ways, considering how our voices can become musical materials, as well as how we can enhance the meaning of our words through music. Additionally, this allowed us to capture the collaborative environment in action, by recording some of the incredible discussions that happen in the group sessions, and embedding those within their music.
What does it mean to be a young musician? I believe that our answer to this question can be so much more expansive than what we currently offer young people in their music education journeys. I want young people to not just be recipients of technical training, musical style and interpretation, but also to work alongside their peers and teaching artists to discover, generate and experiment with all of the complexities of what it looks, feels and sounds like to collaboratively create new music that is truly reflective of themselves.