“As Long As You’re Communicating, It’s Music”

Nancy Mike and Kathleen Merritt at Hillcrest High School in Ottawa © Mary Gordon

It was late May in the band room of Hillcrest High School in Ottawa.

Ms. Jeannie Hunter’s music students were working with the funny and gregarious Canadian composer Tim Brady, and two throat singers—Nancy Mike of Iqaluit and Kathleen Merritt, originally from Rankin Inlet.
The kids were about to start composing part of a new piece of music that will be played when the NAC Orchestra performs in Iqaluit in the fall, and at a Family Adventures concert next spring. (Kids from Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit got to create another part of the same piece in April.)
Imagine.
Throat-singers in your classroom, learning about composing music from a real composer, and creating a piece blending throat-singing and orchestral music that will be performed by the NAC Orchestra.
If I was 15—and I was a true band person then—I would have been in heaven.
The session started with a demonstration by Nancy and Kathleen. The students listened closely to the women’s intense, rhythmic, primal sounds.
“All those elements that we study in music theory—timbre, counterpoint, what moves music forward— apply in throat singing,” he said. “By incorporating throat-singing into a European orchestra, we’re questioning things about the accepted wisdom. We’re saying, ‘Hmm. What is music really all about?’”
Tim spoke about how composers start with an idea, then play with that idea using material, chords, melodies, harmonies, phrasing, texture, cultural context and more to create a piece of music.
Then it was time to start composing.
Tim stood at the podium, arms frozen in the air. Then, section by section, he began to cue the students to start improvising. Using nothing but gesture, he’d instruct the flutes to flutter, the drums to crash, the trumpets to bounce, the throat-singers to sing, and all of it was improvised. The students continued for some time, and when it was over they started to laugh.
They looked a little amazed.
They’d made music.
The students got a turn at the podium too, sometimes making chaos, but more often than not, producing random and completely original pieces of beautiful sound.
Then more laughter.
“It doesn’t matter what you find,” Tim said. “As long as you’re communicating, it’s music.”

Listen to CBC Radio’s piece on the composition workshop.

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