GCSE A-Level Composition


Composing a Minimalist piece can be a really rewarding process if you get it right. I have seen students get really high marks at both GCSE & A-level and I have enjoyed working with them on their pieces. Where it all goes wrong is when students fail to really grasp the style and genre. Minimalist music can often be far from minimal and can in-fact be quite complex. I always insist on them undertaking lots of listening and also coming up with a story or a theme for their piece. Here are some thoughts I have gathered under the heading of key terms – old AQA Areas of Study. My thinking is that these bullet points can be used for discussion, inspiration or just some thoughts for a teacher or student. I may unpack some of these a little further in a future blog. But for now, have a read and see what you think.

Rhythm & Metre

  • Time Signatures – these do not have to be the common, predictable time signatures and can change regular and at random times.
  • Syncopated Rhythms – a great place to start a minimalist piece is with a highly exciting syncopated rhythm.
  • Poly-rhythms created through layering & phasing
  • Organic approach – the piece grows and develops and the rhythms evolve as the piece moves forward. But there needs to be a plan and it mustn’t get boring, particularly when being entered for a GCSE where pieces need to be stimulating!
  • Understanding how Phasing can work to have different tempi and rhythms at the same time. Phasing is a tough one and listening will help students to really grasp its power and execution.

Harmony & Tonality

  • Arpeggios are broken chords and can be used to form an Ostinato
  • Harmony is created as the parts are layered
  • Longer note value ideas could be in the form of chords.
  • The piece could be based around a specific Mode or Scale – I find working in modes can be quite rewarding for students.
  • Harmonic rhythm can be slow – chords change gradually or at least fairly slowly. Just changing one note in an ostinato and affect the entire chord. But Harmonic Rhythm can also then be fast and chords and change frequently, maybe through use of a descending bass-line.

Texture & Melody

  • Polyphonic Texture – at last students can understand what polyphonic truly means!
  • Canonic sections – minimalist music is a great place to really play around with textures.
  • Poly-Rhythmic Texture – It is great to really play around with rhythms layered on top of each other and combine triplets with straight rhythms.
  • Resultant melody from the layered ostinati – Creating a melody above a load of different layers and using notes from each layer is an exciting process and often produces some excellent melodies!
  • There is not really a need for a “classical melody” as the ostinati combine to form a sort of minimalist form of melody that is created by all the layers coming together.

Timbre & Dynamics

  • It is important to use an interesting “mix” of instruments – they do not have to be a common grouping. Piano is great for the Ostinato and a good example of this combined with strings is in Music for 18 musicians by Steve Reich.
  • Students should avoid just using percussion. I mean it is quite fun to just use percussion, but they should use a mix of tuned and un-tuned if they do.
  • Dynamics can be played around with and can change either a lot or a little. Detail in minimalist is important.
  • It may be that an electronic approach is taken and therefore the sounds used can be changed and altered digitally – reverb, reversal etc (using software such as audacity)

Structure & Form

  • Minimalist pieces really don’t need to have a clear structure, although it is crucial that students are able to explain what they have done at each point in the piece. They should be able to put together a composition road map that details the techniques they have used.
  • Minimalist pieces do have a sort of organic and yet mathematical structure to them, and this should be explained and analyzed. The process is not simply random and does need to follow patterns. The point is that it is just very different to a Classical Ternary Form piece.
  • It should be possible to see how the ideas detailed in the road-map are present in the composition.

Just some thoughts on minimalism that might help you and your students. I guess what I would say is that it is a style of composition that is sometimes hard to fully define but is amazing to work with. Students need to listen to the music of Steve Reich and Phillip Glass and get inspired to try it out for themselves. There is so much they can learn from this genre.

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