This exciting project is part of the Winnipeg Symphony Orhestra’s Adventures in Music concert series, for 2020! Over 35 000 students have amazing educational experiences with our Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra EVERY YEAR, and this program, where students compose with, create visual art for, perform with the symphony is like none other. For this particular project, students from a few select classes are invited to create compositions based on a painting of Thor:
After they create this work, the chosen classes will have an amazing opportunity to work with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s Composer-in-Residence, Harry Stafylakis, who will collaborate with the students at their schools and hear their compositions. He will then take the compositions that students made and create an orchestral work for the WSO. Quite a powerful experience. Students from a class at my school were absolutely honoured to have this opportunity last year and loved thinking about that year’s project, which was looking at a poem and creating music as a response to the poem. You can read all about that project here. The process of thinking through the poem and how to create music for it, as well as the fascinating day of mutual learning and collaboration with Mr. Stafylakis was an incredible experience.
This year, I was given the chance to create my own lesson based on representing an artwork through a composition. I know that truly experiencing an artwork is more than simply looking at it and deciding if we “like” it or not. I had fantastic art specialists throughout public school, even in elementary school, where we would think about the art we were seeing, analyzing all elements and what an artist would be trying to tell us through their works, and I took a course in university where we visited the Winnipeg Art Gallery to see works of Wanda Koop to truly analyze what we were seeing, then create a collective drama creation at the end of the process to represent our response to her artworks. The idea of truly looking at this painting of Thor with students made me want to collaborate with an art specialist to make sure we are looking at art in a thoughtful way that connects to Visual Art as a subject. Thankfully Brent Johnson, Education and Community Outreach Coordinator for the WSO was able to connect me with Alison Froese to collaborate with and help me make sure I was headed in the right direction. I had found this link for how to look at art in four steps from the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. She agreed that this was a good way to look at art, and she shared some other examples of Norse art to share with students here, here, and here. Thank you so much, Alison Froese for all your help with this project!
I created a lesson, but really wanted to try it out with my classes to see what might transpire before I share my lesson with others at the WSO/MB Orff workshop! I am lucky to have 4 classes of the same grade to share this lesson with, to see the diverse ways they responded to the same painting, and the different conversations that arose. As I share the process we all went through, they will be somewhat mixed together.
While I love doing collective creations such as this, where all the students are learning along with me, and there are many examples of me doing so through this blog, this doesn’t make it any less daunting for me to try something new at the beginning of any project. When I set out to create a composition representing a poem last year, I was very nervous, because I didn’t know what was going to happen. It is a normal reaction when trying something new, and breaking out of safe patterns where we truly grow and learn. That is where we start with any creation: we don’t know what is going to happen. This is why I wanted to create a blog post showing how a creation unfolded for us in this situation, including all the conversations, responses, and “serendipitous discoveries” that we had throughout the process.
Often this concept of doing something unknown such as letting students truly create, while adding or discovering curriculum connections as one goes is uncomfortable and causes us to not want to try open ended projects as we are worried they might not “work out”. It helps with this stage at the beginning of learning to understand that the first stage of learning is “disorientation”, and is a completely natural stage. Students experience it all the time, but with collective creations that are open ended, or inquiry projects or Project Based Learning, we all learn together and the teacher is more facilitator and learning along with the students, naturally including their perspectives and insights, therefore the teacher needs to be able to work with this feeling of not knowing how a project may end up, and truly following the flow, while weaving in their expertise and outcomes through the process. You can see the learning cycle from Marilyn Taylor here:
Stage 1 – Disorientation: The learner is presented with an unfamiliar experience or idea which involves new ideas that challenge the student to think critically about his/her beliefs and values. The learner reacts by becoming confused and anxious. Support from the educator at this point is crucial to the learner’s motivation, participation and self-esteem.
As a learner in this process ourselves, we need to motivate ourselves to keep working through the process as we don’t know where it may lead. A master of this type of creative process is James Harding who I had the pleasure to attend his workshops for Orff in San Diego where I was absolutely thrilled to see this type of open ended creativity happening with students at the San Francisco School where he teaches, and then 3 sessions at the Canadian Orff Niagara Falls Conference! I loved how he took us through collective creations in each of his sessions, one of which I loved how he enthusiastically stated at the end that he really didn’t expect the lesson to go as it did while being truly comfortable with following the creativity, which is a marker of this type of creation – we don’t want to push the creation back in the direction in which we imagined it would turn out… it is amazing to watch as it grows into its own event. You can read my review of one of his enchanting Niagara Falls sessions here on page 10 of the Orff Canada Ostinato.
That being said, it is completely acceptable to start out selecting some musical criteria from our Manitoba Music Curriculum that you wish to achieve through the process, if there are elements you feel the children should work with more. If you want them to work on musical form, or musical expression, or exploring different metres, these are all wonderful goals to explore through the creation. No different than when a chef wants to experiment with a certain type of food creation that consists of specific ingredients and see where it might take them.
Starting out – looking at the painting:
We went through the 4 steps of Practicing Looking at Art , and had many conversations about what we saw… elements, actions, moods. We talked about how this is Thor, the legend, not necessarily Thor from the recent movies. However, there are many connections between the 2, but because this painting is from 1905, this painting itself is not connected to the 3 different Thor movies. We talked about the various elements that are in the movies that are connected to legendary Thor, but that the way things played out in the films aren’t necessarily connected. Most important is that movie Thor doesn’t have a chariot led by goats. Legendary Thor clearly does have a chariot with goats, as can be seen in this painting. You can look up Legendary Thor vs Marvel Thor and find a lot more information on this. Do so with your students as well, as it is interesting and may affect how they create the music for the goats, if they choose to include that.
Your students would have their own responses, but in my classes at my school, after going through the 4 steps of looking at art, we generally decided for ourselves that Thor is riding very quickly (as you can see from his hair blowing, and the wind under the chariot) towards something. We don’t know what… a battle? A war? He has lightening coming from his hammer, and there are thunderclouds forming so quickly that there is still golden light shining, as is often the case when thunder clouds start to appear. He is the god of thunder (again, a good idea to read up on legendary Thor with students), so the thunder clouds and lightening surround him. Below, a completely different scene plays out… a calm farming scene with ox pulling a plough. We thought about how the clouds under his chariot which may also be wind (and the wind that also seems to be a cape behind him) is a dividing feature between these 2 moods of this painting. We talked about how when you fly in a plane, it may seem cloudy below but there is a different feeling up beyond the clouds where it is still sunny, and that is the “world” where Thor lives. So Thor is up above the clouds taking care of this or that situation, racing to perhaps a battle, while life continues below for mortals.
Creating musical themes from the painting:
We divided up the painting, drawing a line across the artwork ( on my interactive white board), to show that there is a scene above the clouds, and below, that seem to have different moods, we felt. I put squares around the areas we felt we were inspired by for our composition. Each class picked different things, but here are some:
Wind under the chariot
I made the squares with different colours, then asked them to pick the parts they were inspired by and start creating the sounds they wanted to use to represent those areas just with voices or body percussion. I could hear the hammer, and melodic contours for other parts, and percussion sounds for the thunder clouds… I placed the different colours around the room (whatever you have, paper, scarves), and children went to the colours of the part of the painting they were inspired by. For example, if the thunder clouds had a blue circle, then I had a blue scarf in a corner, and students went over to it to start discussing how they would represent the thunder clouds through music. I visited each group and we would talk about if drums should immediately be loud when the actual storm isn’t there yet, the thunder clouds are just starting to come. Or, how can we use our bodies to show the movement of the wind and how can we transfer that to a melody on the barred instruments. A favourite statement of mine with Thor’s hammer is that he isn’t building a house with it and tapping it over and over, it is a powerful tool that slams down once, and how can we represent the build up to that, and the power of it with the instruments in our class. With one of the classes I didn’t give an expectation of creating a musical theme for each element, so it ended up being more percussive. With subsequent classes, I added the criteria of wanting to separate a sound effect (and I used the example of Darth Vader’s breathing through his mask) and a musical theme that is used to represent him. We talked about Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and how we don’t hear the sound effect of sweeping brooms when the brooms arrive, we hear a musical theme that demonstrates their relentlessness. A wonderful activity with students is to watch one of my favourite films of all time, an NFB film called The Sandcastle and talk about how there are actual sound effects such as Foley artists would do, then instruments (mostly ones we have in our classrooms) being used as sound effects, and instruments being used as musical themes for different characters in the movie. I show this to students often, and use it for various reasons as something I can refer back to when needed. We talked about how those themes sometimes incorporate the movement of the thing being portrayed but it’s still a melodic theme. There are so many examples of music that is created to have the impression of some element of nature or an animal etc, like Carnival of the Animals by St. Saëns, les réflets dans l’eau by Debussy, The Snow is Dancing = Debussy, Venetian Boat Song – Mendelssohn, Peter and the Wolf – Prokofiev etc etc.
Excerpt from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Or working as a class?
This method of letting them go off in small groups, above, to create their theme in a small group is different than my method last year, where with each element of the poem we all looked at together and decided what we would want to bring out. There is no reason for the difference, either method can work, based on what you are comfortable with. It depends on if you want to make sure you keep having focussed discussions about each element as a class or if you feel small group discussions facilitated by you are fine. It might also depend on how often you send students off into creative groups to compose. This is a very common occurrence to create music in small groups and large groups in my classes starting as soon as they are my students which used to be kindergarten, but now is grade 1. They even spend the last bit of June composing and presenting their compositions each class… it is so amazing to watch that I am enchanted and inspired by each and every class for the last bit of school before summer. Because they are so used to going off into groups and composing, it is very natural to say “Who wants to do Thor’s hammer? Off you go!” and they create, with me visiting their group and discussing how to focus their ideas around what we are seeing in the painting. It is during these creations they make that I will share the names of musical concepts that they used naturally in their piece, and we talk about them as a class. For example, one group may use the idea of canon in their creation, or another may use crescendo, and we all talk about it. This is high level learning where they have synthesized various musical concepts we use in the music room and created something from it.
I chose to do small groups, so I will continue with what we did:
In some cases, when I let groups go off into areas of interest, such as thunder clouds, I could tell they weren’t sure what to do, as the facilitator. This is where as the facilitator, I can step in and start to help them focus their ideas, by providing some support, or scaffolding. For example, with one group I actually brought the whole class over and we all moved close together, and made ourselves small and low to the ground, and then we rose up and spread out in the room, like we imagined thunder clouds would as they arrive. This may help them think about how they might create a melody for that. But, I may find out by the next class that they still aren’t sure how to proceed. From there we could all imitate the movement again and decide (either continuing in a small group or as a class) how we could transfer that movement to a melodic contour which would build into a musical theme for the clouds. Then, we can talk about what we want to do with that melodic shape we created… do we want to use repetition? Do we want to use augmentation? Play it in retrograde? Maybe many different compositional devices (or click this link) could be used to demonstrate the clouds puffing outwards, upwards, downwards, slower, faster in some places… maybe with a quick speed or accelerando to show it is growing quicker and quicker, and perhaps with a crescendo as it gets closer, adding orchestration to add to the building of the clouds… and then everyone can vote together if they agree with any of these ideas. Or maybe through this discussion someone starts to get an idea of what they think they would like to add here and you put that in, too, because everyone is collaborating and it’s exciting!
Listen to each theme:
Take time to listen to each theme as a class, and get students to explain why they chose the melodies, instruments etc that they chose, and what they were trying to portray through their choices… Because it is a collective creation, you can invite the whole class to share ideas to potentially add to their theme, or share things they think are working etc.
I love to show students examples of composers doing these same things that they are doing, such as describing their musical thought processes. Here, Vincent Ho does this on his website. He is explaining how he used music to convey his relationship to the Arctic, with his Arctic Symphony:
For the first movement, I. Prelude – Lamentations, I wanted to open with the sense of wonder and enchantment that I felt when I first arrived in the Arctic. To convey this, I decided to compose a very simple harmonious chorale for the strings (Prelude) so it may invite the listener into the world that I walked into. The next section takes a different turn (Lamentations). After learning about some of the things that were occurring to the Northern environment and their ramifications, I thought to myself “if the land could sing what would it say or sound like?” This thought process led me to the creation of an emotion-laden song without words (conveyed primarily through the strings). For every emotional statement and sorrowful cry, the sounds of cascading harmonies and free-floating melodies drift in and out like Northern winds.
What is the final form?
Now that they have created a musical theme for each element of the painting that is of interest or “spoke” to them, we can decide how to use them in our creation. With one group, we decided to hear each one separately, then repeat with them layering over each other until they are all playing at once, culminating with the smash of Thor’s hammer:
Okay so that image above is Marvel Thor, but a lot of them do have that image in their head, and both versions of Thor have a powerful hammer!
I created a general non-traditional notation map to follow for this so they could see the how each element would go based on how they played:
This graphic shows the form of the above elements (it says A, but it could be moved later):
We talked about how this would be the easiest way to hear each element on its own because even though all of these elements are happening at the same time in the painting, we look at each one and consider each one separately. I also asked several artist friends who use painting as their medium and even though they all would go about painting differently (one started in one area, then would move to the next, another would circle back and visit areas again on their canvas, and one would go all over with no particular pattern) they would all be focusing on one area in each moment… so our musical creation matches how we might look at it; first looking at clouds, then looking at the colour of the sky etc… but then taking in the whole painting at once and having everything play together.
The ox and plow scene:
By the time we moved onto the scene below the clouds, we had experienced an odd weather day. It is very interesting to connect to our real life experiences so we can connect to art, which was actually section 4 of how to look at art, mentioned at the beginning of this post. At first, when we had looked at the farm/ox scene at the beginning of the project, it just seemed calm and perhaps oblivious to what was happening above the clouds. However this particular day, all the students had been called inside before the first school bell rang because the sky was ominous. The air was calm, there was no rain. There was no wind… but there was rumbling of thunder and flashes of lightening. It took almost 45 minutes for the intense storm to actually arrive, but even during the calm before the storm there was a foreboding feeling. It changed the feeling in the scene below for us. So that group created a calm, but minor mode mysterious sounding theme, to reflect that something is coming.
Putting the themes from the whole painting together:
Perhaps the form could change, having an ABACAD theme, where we experience the calm but foreboding theme below, then to the action of the wind, then back to the calm below, then to the thunder cloud, then calm theme again, and culminating with the smash of Thor’s hammer theme. This would mean we might change the form from the above, but only if the group all agrees as using this as an idea for the final form… if everyone feels it makes sense as to how to experience the painting as a musical response then that might be a possibility. Others may come up with different ideas.We tried this:
With my class that was the furthest along, we made a ‘semi’ final form…We talked about how all of the changing elements in the sky might be affecting the person with the plow below… so, we agreed to:
1. Hear the wind,
2. Go to the farm below to feel their sense of mystery and foreboding.
3. We hear the thunderclouds section
4. Return to the farm to as in 2.
5. Thor’s hammer
6. Return to farm as in 2… but don’t stop playing.
7. With the continuing sense of foreboding on earth, one layer ADDED after another (therefore they start playing together),we hear the wind added back in, then the thunderclouds, with a culminating smash of the hammer and everyone would stop. From 1-6, it is the build up, often in the same way a coming storm happens, with us noticing the wind picks up a bit. Then we think “Was that thunder?”
Next class I may ask them if they want to change the format a bit… and have Thor`s hammer only play at the end, once all the other storm layers happen… kind of like when we hear a HUGE hit of lightning that shakes the earth… I mentioned earlier the intense storm we had, which had influence our change to the farm scene to have the sense of foreboding. That same evening there was a HUGE lightning sound that shook people’s houses so they definitely were able to relate to this huge smash feeling.
Adding another art medium?
I communicated with Alison Froese several times, and Joanna Black (with whom I took a course in Film Art at U of M – it’s amazing.. take it if you can) to determine what type of film style I would be creating if I were to record the final piece, and then use film techniques such as zoom in/out, pan, trucking etc to explore different areas of the painting in connection with the accompanying music. Ms. Black felt this would be a study in film angles and shots. One could do different angles and shots of the painting, with music that represents the responses the class had to the different areas of the painting. When I thought about it more, I thought perhaps with the form above, this may be the experimental film style: ‘Associational Film’. From my book “Film Art” by David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson (from the class I took… glad I kept it!) it says:
Many experimental films draw on a poetic series of transitions that create what we may term ‘associational form’. Associational formal systems suggest ideas and expressive qualities by grouping images that may not have any immediate logical connection. But the very fact that the images and sounds are justaposed prods us to look for some connection – an association that binds them together.
I may still do this! The musical form itself goes back and forth from calm to something intense, so if we were to make a video of the elements of the painting in this way that match the music, the short film would be associational by the definition above, as at first we may not know what is the connection between the calm/foreboding theme, and the intense themes between. I’m now trying to think of any musical form that does this… When we have rondo, for example, the different sections are just… different. There is no demonstration that they are connected other than they are in the same piece of music… but in this piece, there is an association between all the A sections (the calm but foreboding scene) and what is happening in the sky. Can anyone think of ‘associational form’ in any other pieces? Very interesting to have this film style used in music! Thank you again, to Alison Froese and Joanna Black for your collaboration with connection Visual Arts and Music learning!
Collective creations can involve a lot of loudness, and thinking, and confusing times, culminating in such rich learning. When my students had the chance to share their final piece last year with Mr Stafylakis, they enjoyed having a chance to explain what they were communicating with each section of their piece.
These students demonstrated they were able to synthesize all their knowledge and explain their thought processes using musical terms to communicate feelings and ideas to others through art, and I am thrilled that students will continue to get this opportunity this year, to share their response to an artwork!
Please check out Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in another amazing NFB film about the creative process.