Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

Table of Contents

Cultivating Creativity in the Music Theory Classroom: Telling Tales with Texture and Timbre

Deborah Rifkin, Ithaca College

How well do we foster creativity in our music theory classrooms? I think about traditional and ubiquitous activities in our subject, such as figured-bass realizations, dictation exercises, and chord-spelling drills, and I question whether we are doing all we can. I fear that music theory is commonly regarded as an antithesis to creativity among undergraduates because there is a prevailing focus on rote learning for beginning tasks such as voice-leading rules, chord spelling, and chord recognition. I would wager that most music majors think that music theory is not their most creative class.

But, it could be.

In this essay, I describe an analysis activity that was designed not only to promote creativity, but also to highlight timbre and texture—aspects of music that should, arguably, receive more attention in our undergraduate core curriculum. Gary Karpinski also advocates for better inclusion of timbre and texture in our classes and describes some activities that could serve as warm-ups for the one described here. As timbre and texture ascend in significance in 20th and 21st-century music, it is important to incorporate activities that not only cultivate creativity, but also develop strategies to approach, understand, and interpret timbres and textures in unfamiliar repertoires.

Fostering creativity

One means of fostering creativity is to provide a supportive environment that allows personal creative traits to thrive. In her 35 years as a scholar on creativity, Teresa Amabile has identified essential personal traits that are conducive to creativity. When designing exercises and activities for our classes, we can foster creativity by consciously promoting and rewarding these traits. Amabile identifies the following personal traits as necessary and emblematic of creative processes:

  • Perceiving in a flexible manner
  • Suspending judgment
  • Keeping response options open as long as possible
  • Exploring new cognitive pathways
  • Remembering accurately
  • Using wide categories and remote association skills
  • Breaking out of performance scripts
  • Exhibiting ideational fluency
  • Ability to use productive forgetting

In addition, we can minimize environmental conditions that inhibit creativity. Some of the circumstances that scholars have identified as inhibitors include: (Rogers, 1954; Crutchfield, 1962; Osborn, 1963; Amabile, 1979,  1995, 2000.)

  • Surveillance while working
  • Competition
  • Lack of self-determinacy
  • Constrained choice
  • Expected evaluation of one’s work
  • Contracted for reward (money)

A Case Study: Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral

With these traits and criteria in mind, I designed a series of in-class and outside-of-class activities intended to encourage and reward creativity, while also prioritizing timbre and texture in a musical analysis. I inaugurated these activities in a junior-level course on 20th-century music, but in retrospect I would like to include it much earlier in the curriculum. I chose Jennifer Higdon’s orchestral tone poem, blue cathedral as the basis for our inquiry and exploration. (To listen to the linked Spotify track, you need a free Spotify account.) Higdon (b. 1962–) is a Pulitzer-prize winning composer, who wrote blue cathedral in 2000. The work has been performed by over 400 orchestras since its premiere, achieving a level of popularity that is extraordinary for a contemporary concert piece. It is beautiful, accessible, contemporary, and written by a woman composer. For many reasons, it is a good choice for this exercise.

When I first heard the piece, I was struck by its vivid sound colors, contrasting imagistic gestures, and visceral and immediate appeal. I was also struck by how ill-suited these initial reactions were for building an interpretation based upon traditional tools of analysis. Whereas my reactions focused on timbre, texture, and ephemeral gestures, traditional analysis would subordinate these events to a grander, overarching system of sustained coherence based upon pitch and form. Whereas my reactions featured a perspective based upon immediately perceived events, traditional analytic techniques tend towards valuing hidden structures revealed by prolonged study. Based on these initial impressions, I thought blue cathedral would be an ideal piece to explore alternate, creative methods for building musical interpretations.

I introduce the work in class by playing the first two and half minutes. During repeated hearings, I ask students to write down a few sentences of prose descriptions of the timbral gestures that they hear. I encourage them to use metaphors, and to come up with multiple metaphors for each gesture they choose to write about. The work begins with quiet entrances of a triangle, vibraphone, crotales, chimes, and celeste. Given the title of the piece, many students relate this opening to an assortment of church bell chimes. About 15 seconds later, the lower strings enter with the second gesture, a descending line of planed triads that begin and end on C. Because of the extreme contrast in register and the tutti forces, students often relate this gesture to the ground, or to a community. The grouping of the triads into twos is often represented in student descriptions as steps of a journey. In the remainder of this first excerpt, the contemplative mood and registral extremes of the opening give way to a section that features solo flute and clarinet melodies supported by a lush orchestral accompaniment. Students typically relate the solo melodies to characters of a story. After students have had sufficient time to write several metaphors, they trade papers and read what their partner has written. If necessary, they elaborate on the metaphors they chose. In pairs, they discuss the similarities and differences between their descriptions. So far, this exercise has encouraged creativity by allowing for:

  • Perceiving in a flexible manner
  • Remembering accurately
  • Using wide categories and remote association skills
  • Breaking out of performance scripts
  • Exhibiting ideational fluency
  • Suspending judgment

Once students have developed, discussed, and compared their metaphors, I present the composer’s program notes for the piece, which present some of her own metaphors for the work. Higdon writes that she wrote blue cathedral around the one-year anniversary of the death of her brother, Andrew Blue. She imagined a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky and wanted the music to sound celebratory, soaring upwards. Class ends with a group discussion comparing their metaphors to hers, which invariably leads to a conversation about authorial intent and an opportunity to debunk the popular idea (among students) that the composer’s intention is the only worthy interpretation. Nonetheless, I have been struck by how closely students’ description of the flute and clarinet melodies adhere to Higdon’s description, correlating the flute to a female character and the clarinet to a male, and further associating their intertwined melodies as sibling (or sometimes romantic) interaction.

Continued Creativity and Discovery Outside of Class

Building upon the class activities and discussion, students continue their metaphoric interpretations of timbral gestures in a homework assignment. The assignment spotlights several more excerpts, and asks students to repeat the descriptive activities we did in class. I encourage them to not only create metaphors for what they hear within each excerpt, but also to relate their metaphors between sections, in order to represent the journey that Higdon describes in her program notes. In other words, I tell them to construct a story based upon the development of timbral and textural metaphors. For our purposes, I will skip to the last of the excerpts of the assignment, which is the final minutes of the piece, in order to show how the at-home work builds upon the in-class activities.

For the final excerpt, (8:12–10:28 on the Spotify track), I ask students to think about closure, in particular to attend to differences between musical closure and narrative closure. I explain that musical closure typically requires some type of circularity or repetition. Musical repetition is an important means of creating form, yet it seems antithetical to the linear, goal-oriented trajectory of a story. As Peter Kivy explains, musical closure involves repetition and a sense of unity, whereas narrative closure is more linear, a storyline. In blue cathedral, the final section reiterates gestures from earlier in the piece creating a sense of musical recapitulation, yet there are also significant timbral changes. I ask students to describe how these timbral changes create closure in light of the metaphors and story they’ve described earlier in the assignment. Asking students to construct a story from the accumulated effect of their timbral metaphors utilizes the remaining creative traits that were not addressed in the classroom exercise. For example:

  • An at-home assignment allows for keeping response options open as long as possible.
  • Focusing on the difference between musical and narrative closure emphasizes exploration of new cognitive pathways.
  • Asking students to prioritize timbre and texture in their interpretations invokes productive forgetting of the usual emphasis on pitch, rhythm, and form.

In the last minutes of the piece, all of the gestures from the opening have been muted and toned down compared to their first iterations. The sustained tutti string chords of the opening have been replaced with a lone sustained and eerie fifth created by rubbing wet fingers across crystal glass; the chimes of the introduction are represented in this final section by Chinese reflex bells. One by one, orchestral players put down their instruments and gently shake Chinese reflex bells, creating a very gradual diminuendo into a muted and exotic chime effect. Many students interpret this muted effect at the end as a representation of distance. In addition, they hear the final solo clarinet melody as Andrew, alone in the final stage of his journey. His community, however, is united. By the end, every orchestral player either shakes a Chinese reflex bell or rubs a wet finger around a crystal glass, creating a quiet, tranquil shimmer reminiscent of distant ringing bells. This last gesture combines two important timbres and textures of the piece. The first is the sustained, tutti string chords of the first section, which represents the grounded support of the community; and the second is the chimes and bells heard throughout, which symbolize the passage of time. It’s a poetic moment, in which a single timbre is associated with previous gestures of support, community, time, and groundedness, creating a final impression of tranquility and acceptance.

Using vivid musical gestures, innovative sound colors, and a diverse palette of orchestral textures, Higdon creates compelling musical stories. In an email exchange we had in 2007, Jennifer Higdon confirmed in words what already seemed apparent in the music:

I do compose with communication in mind. . . . I became so tired of pieces that didn’t engage the performers and the audiences that I started to wonder what the point is. . . . I achieve whatever I achieve by constantly asking myself in the composition process, “Is this interesting to play and listen to?”, which is not an easy thing to guess. I don’t actually know what achieves or defeats this purpose in the music . . . but I do want the music to communicate. . . . if it’s not doing that, it’s not achieving its purpose.

Higdon tells us that the purpose of music is to connect—to communicate—with our audiences. More than ever, 21st-century musicians need to be able to write and talk about the music they perform and compose, helping audiences relate to their art. Our students need storytelling skills; they need to be creative not only in their interpretation of music, but also in explaining it to others. The theory classroom is an ideal arena for cultivating these skills. The activities and assignment described here not only promote creative engagement with a contemporary piece, but also provide a model of how to invite listeners into a more meaningful rapport with modern music. Although blue cathedral is an ideal first assignment in creative storytelling, the activities presented here can be extrapolated not only to other repertoires, but also to other aspects of music.

This work is copyright ⓒ2014 Deborah Rifkin and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.