A good friend and colleague, who was preparing to teach a music theory class for the first time contacted me this morning. She asked a simple question:
“What’s a good ice-breaker to get my theory class started?
Here’s the best one that that I know…….
I teach at a small liberal arts institution. Many of the students come to us from small towns in Ohio. Some of these students have benefitted from quality instruction in the arts; most of the others have had more limited introductions. A significant percentage of our new charges are first-generation college students, which is exciting.
In this scenario, one quickly realizes that fundamentals are crucial and you are not going to be able to skip them. But before diving into the particulars of that obligation, you need some motivation, a reason for students to want to take the first of four classes with the words music theory in them.
Enter Arvo Part.
This is not the Arvo Part that most people know, the post-minimalist, deeply spiritual composer from Estonia who creates music that encourages the listener to pause, meditate and contemplate. This is not the composer whose musical persona seems to stretch over centuries of musical style and sensitivity. I am talking about the Arvo Part from an earlier, more experimental period, one that took place in the years proceeding Part’s self-imposed exile from active composition. For more information on this topic, there are numerous books and articles……
Part’s earlier compositions (pre-1976) reflect the considerable efforts of a talented contemporary composer, one that was schooled in serial composition and extended techniques for modern instruments. The composition that I most often use from this period is a concerto for cello and orchestra, titled Pro et Contra. This is a three-movement work that clearly reflects the Baroque concerto principle but in a fresh and invigorating manner.
Here are some simple instructions for using this composition in your class:
1. Prepare your students to listen to a piece of unidentified music. (Pro et Contra, but they do not need to know this yet) Tell them that the excerpt is rather short, so they should pay careful attention. They are to describe what they hear in any terms they wish, technical or not.
2. Play the opening gesture from movement one. The students should hear a simple, D Major triad, played by a sizable ensemble. Stop the recording right then; do not go on. To be fair, play it two more times. After all, one learns more from repeated opportunities to hear an unfamiliar piece of music, do we not?
3. Ask your students to react to the “excerpt.” What did they hear? Don’t be afraid to state the obvious! You can also determine valuable data from determining what one has NOT heard so far (ex. No melody, discernible meter, etc.…….) Students will be impressed with the amount of observations that can be made if you handle this exercise successfully.
4. Now comes the fun part. Ask them to be the composer. They have written the opening gesture. What comes next? Encourage them to dream. Assure them that there is no one right or wrong answer to this question. Make a list of the possibilities.
5. When the previous step has been exhausted, let them hear Arvo Part’s “solution.” Play the excerpt from the top, beginning with the sonorous D Major triad. Watch the class reaction carefully to the absolute cacophony that is the next gesture in the piece. For those with more limited musical backgrounds, this may come as quite a surprise.
6. From there, the solo cello is introduced for the first time. Fascinating timbres are the operative words here, as the cellist employs numerous extended techniques in presenting the solo instrument. Let them hear a good chunk of the first movement, but be sure to fade out before the second movement begins.
7. Discuss! Describe what they hear. Was Part’s solution a plausible one? Was it a logical choice or a complete surprise? This may be some student’s first introduction to pantonal music, extended technique, etc. Make it a positive experience!
8. This is also the point where I like to discuss musical expectations, to lay the groundwork for future discussions in analysis. I tell my students that whenever we listen to a given musical idea, our minds begin to develop expectations for what will be heard next, whether we realize this or not. Sometimes the composer will satisfy these expectations; sometimes he/she will move us in a different and even unexpected path. These decisions create both tension and excitement, making music a viable and living art, one that is worthy of our time and attention.
9. The concerto principle dates back to the Baroque era. Do your friendly neighborhood musicologist a favor and tell your students what this means. The element of contrast in this concerto is also visited through the sharp juxtaposition of compositional styles throughout the piece. Somehow, it all works; Part is a superb composer, one who is worthy of our respect.
10. Mvt. II: This movement is no more than a simple chord progression, a quick transition from the intensity of the first movement to the driving rhythms of the third movement. The function of this passage is not unlike similar passages in a Bach Brandenburg Concerto. You have heard this sort of progression before in other works from the Baroque era. The harmonies are tertian, and traditional functional harmony rules, right down to the final Phrygian cadence! The excerpt below is a very rough reduction:
Arvo Part: Pro et Contra, Reduction of Mvt. II. All rights reserved.
I sometimes return to this movement later in the theory class sequence, when students have a better appreciation for harmonic progression. This same concept can be applied to the very end of the concerto, where Part returns to Baroque-era harmonies. One time, I extracted the opening chord, the second movement and the final chord progression of the concerto and played them back-to-back in class, without filling in the contemporary passages that come between. Only later did I allow my students to hear these seemingly traditional passages in the larger context that Part provides in Pro et Contra. This enabled the class to understand Part’s poly-stylistic approach in a fresh manner. There are so many ways to use this piece from a pedagogical standpoint!
11. The third movement has a captivating energy, and a more experienced class further down the line can make some interesting observations with the teacher’s help. I hear a certain influence from Olivier Messiaen, the Turangalila in particular. You may detect other influence as well.
While I have varied my musical examples considerably over the years of my teaching career, I always keep this contemporary composition close at hand. It surprises my students; it also angers, delights and amazes them. Once we discuss the work in a larger, historical context, they begin to understand. The light goes on, as they begin to see and hear a larger picture. Thank goodness for the moments when this happens!
FYI: This is my favorite recording of Pro et Contra, a lively and vibrant performance that is available online via Naxos, Spotify, or in the traditional CD format from various sellers. There are other performances out there as well, and you are free to explore.