Multicultural Influences in Western Music at Mather High School (2008-2009)

The Question

How do composers use culture and ethnic backgrounds as inspiration? How do basic musical elements (such as rhythm and melody) contribute to the feel of a piece and to the compositional process? How can composition create an opportunity to tell something about and discuss other cultures?

The Process

Fifth House Ensemble partnered with the advanced band and orchestra classes and music directors at Mather High School for a six-week, ten-visit residency that centered around world music.  In groups of 3-6, students selected a country whose music they wanted to research.  They then dissected parts of the music (including form, scale and melodic content, and instruments unique to that music) in order to compose their own piece of music for their instruments.

In classroom visits, members of Fifth House reviewed parts of a composition though several daily lessons and exercises.  Students had specific assignments to acquaint them with each part of the music to provide a starting point for their compositional process.  After the group lessons, students divided into their groups and began by researching their chosen music.  After deciding on one or two examples to use as models, students began taking apart the music and isolating its building blocks (ostinato rhythms, whether the music was in a specific form, if it used different types of scales or tonality, and if there were ethnic instrumental sounds that they could re-create on their own instruments).  Then, students composed simple melodies, rhythms, and accompaniments, and rehearsed their compositions with members of Fifth House and their teachers.

The Final Project

The residency culminated in a final all-school performance in the auditorium where students both performed their original compositions and spoke about the culture they chose to represent, the music of the culture, and their compositional process.