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Ben Lunn: Marxist Notes on Music How to free our inner Mozart, Sama’ Abdulhadi or Stormzy

An impressive, jargon-free book that sets out to make music composition as easy as frying an egg... well almost

A NEW book by James MacMillan and Jennifer Martin entitled Creative Composition for the Classroom is a particularly welcome development, as it hopes to demystify what composing is, how it works and how it can be taught.

MacMillan is likely to be a familiar name for anyone brought up through the Catholic church or just eager about classical music.

Martin is quite a creative powerhouse, who deserves many accolades for her various work across Scotland.

The pair have been friends and colleagues for a fair while; however, their recent drive has come about thanks to their joint leadership of the Cumnock Tryst, a music festival based in the home of the great Keir Hardie.

Though many festivals would suggest they are “a festival like no other,” this is most certainly the case for Cumnock Tryst who have managed to celebrate the local brass bands, connect to the pit villages, and the farming communities, as well as commission and promote composers from Ayrshire.

Though concerts are the most public element, most of the connections built locally have been through numerous outreach schemes, many of which have focused upon composition — making this new release an almost inevitable compilation of their expertise, knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject.

The 11 chapters cover a broad variety and elements which a young (or young at heart) composer will need to consider.

Why compose? is a simple justification of why composition is such a worthwhile endeavour.

Covering simple justifications like composition’s inclusion in the curriculum, as well as more esoteric elements like how composition can be such a wonderful way to voice feelings which can simply be hard to describe.

It then throws a simple question to teachers — how to make the classroom suitable? And why is it advantageous.

These concerns are given a brief and simple answer, however the rest of the book continues in depth on how composition can feed musical learning and how musical learning can feed composition.

The second chapter demonstrates how wild and different music can be — and this is one of the overall strengths of the book — no idiom is given preference, no style favoured, all valued and have an avenue in which a budding composer or enthusiastic student can explore.

The follow-up prompts and consideration for discussion are quite illuminating also, as they do not given preference to “pure music” or “emotional music” — both are considered — and impetus is given to the importance of communicating if emotion/ideas are need to be presented to an audience.

Let’s Create! is the largest and most insightful chapter, as it doesn’t present the germ of composing as some divine inspiration or profound intellectual mathematical equation. Rather it can simply start from playing with musical ideas.

Developing ideas can be turned into a game of taking something simple like a basic rhythm and playing with it, exploring it and turning it into something elaborate or even original.

After a wonderful exploration of how rhythm alone can be explored and developed, pitch is introduced, then timbre, before finally thinking about how harmony and rhythm can communicate to give dialogue.

It explains the steps of what one has to consider when getting started — what are you writing about? Who is it for? Is it a speedy creature? And so on.

So, if a composer wants to write a piece about an important event, prompts like “was it a sad or happy event” helps the budding composer consider how they are trying to make the music reflect their idea.

The diagrams and musical examples are really well considered and do a lot to help give a young composer the tools to consider directing their ideas and later showing how these initial ideas can be expanded into something more decorative and more curious.

It reminded me of the WMA booklet Music in Post-War Britain where it describes music education as a process of building upon the curiosity of the individual.

Finally we have a practical guide which demystifies composing and shows it is an endeavour anyone can do given the time to attempt it.

Though I am not writing this as a book review, but more of a reflection of the book, I still cannot recommend it enough.

Hopefully teachers pick this up, but I also hope people who are curious about what composing could be like. It is approachable and it breaks it all down into manageable steps wonderfully.

Now that the difficult part of trying to work out how composing works has a nice solution, we can get back to the difficult struggles like getting the government to actually value an art form which benefits humanity.


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