How to Build from Jim Pepper’s Model to Serve Your Classroom Goals
The most basic component of Jim Pepper’s composition model is that he takes a piece of his family heritage, in the case of Witchi Tai To a traditional chant from the Native American Church is used, and he embeds it into a modern musical format. Music educators can have students extract a piece of their family heritage that is meaningful to them, and have them embed it in to a modern musical structure. For example Desert Medicine, I composed using Jim Pepper’s composition model. The work has four aspects that are inspired by my family heritage:
A drum rhythm that is inspired by a traditional Aztec dance called Venado (Deer)
The composition is in narrative form and follows the story line of a story I was told growing up about the Apache warrior women Lozen (c.1840-1890).
There is an improvisational section of the composition that was inspired by a musical tradition of the Apache Nation. According to Peter Aleshire in Lozen, before singers would present traditional songs they would improvise freely to express themselves.
I grew up as a traditional Aztec dancer (and continue to be) and the first dance that I learned was “Apache” which was dedicated to the Apache Nation as a symbol of friendship. In remembrance of this tribal bond, I composed Desert Medicine as dedicated to the Apache Nation.
Using Jim Pepper’s compositional model not only gives students (and myself, as a composer) compositional material from their own lives. It can also inspire students to do historical research, interview family members, learn a folk song or dance, or visit a history site. In preparation for Desert Medicine, I read Lozen by Peter Aleshire to learn about Lozen and the Apache Nation. I also visited the Ojo Caliente hot springs in New Mexico, which is considered the birth place of the Apache Nation.
The next step in building from Jim Pepper’s compositional model is deciding what musical concepts will be explored and represented in the composition. These musical skills or concepts can be used as parameters that enable the music educator to teach their curriculum. Examples of parameters are as follows; compositional forms, compositional devices, harmonic progressions, use of counterpoint, use of specific rhythmic concepts or meters, use of specific instruments, use of specific articulations and dynamics, and using contrasting. Parameters are to be fit to the music educator’s curriculum so that the classroom objectives are met. Below the parameters/objectives of Desert Medicine will be explained.
One parameter Desert Medicine needed to have was contrast throughout the duration of the work. Contrast was used to create musical interest. It also helped illustrate the story of Lozen; the battles that she fought in, the songs that she sang, the desert that she lived in, Ojo Caliente (the birth place of her people), the sorrow that she felt as her world was destroyed, and her supernatural ability to know the direction of the enemy.
Desert Medicine starts with percussion playing a rhythmic theme that will return throughout the piece. This rhythm was inspired by a traditional Aztec dance called Venado (Deer), which to me is symbolic of the desert because Mule deer live there. The cello enters with an ostinato figure, and gradually the violin and alto saxophone join in. From measures 23-30, the first contrasting section appears called “Healing Song” representing songs that Lozen used for healing purposes. The composition also needed to use the piano in an interesting way. At the “Healing Song” section, the piano plays in a high octave to create a surreal mystical sound. The alto saxophone plays a sparse melody, while the violin and cello have longer note durations. The piano has a repeated rhythmical part in the left hand. In the right hand, the piano plays the high register notes with staccato and accents giving them an interesting percussive sound. Each subsection of Desert Medicine is illustrating the story of Lozen and presents different thematic material.
Another objective in Desert Medicine was to use counter melodic lines. In the “Super Natural” section (measures 53-71) the alto saxophone has the melody; however, the violin and cello have melodic and rhythmic lines that will intertwine with, or counter, the top melody. The intertwined melodies are used to illustrate the supernatural abilities of Lozen to locate the enemies.
In the "Flying Birds" section (measure 76-91) contrast is used to depict the little birds, like quails and roadrunners, that fly around the desert and were a part of Lozen's world. Also, the "Flying Birds" enters after the improvisational section, symbolic of how nature's improvised movements give birth to songs. "Sorrow" is the following section, the tempo is decreased and the violin and cello have a mournful duet. Their mournful duet evokes the sadness that Lozen felt as she saw the world she knew being destroyed by her enemies.
Prominent musical themes that the listener could leave singing after a performance were another objective for this composition. The rhythmic theme described previously is one of the main themes, and is found throughout the work. At measure 31, in the “Ojo Caliente” sectiona melodic theme is presented that represents the Ojo Caliente hot springs in New Mexico. To give the listener a sense of musical stability and conclusion, a variation on this theme concludes Desert Medicine. The return to thematic material from the beginning was to help the listener remember the melody for the “Ojo Caliente”. As Ojo Caliente, is said to be the birth place of the Apache Nation, it gives the composition a sense of returning home. The last section of Desert Medicine is called “Faith”. Measures 113-135 use melodic material from measure 31, which is the thematic material representing Ojo Caliente. The Ojo Caliente melodic material is moved up a whole step and generally follows the original melody, but exactly. At measure 31 the cello waits to enter into the melodic material. At 124 it enters right away as a harmony, making the end interesting and more dramatic.
Another parameter of Desert Medicine was that it needed to mimic Schoenberg'sPierrot ensemble’s instrumentation. The Pierrot instrumentation is flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano (it can also include percussion or a mezzo soprano). The Desert Medicine ensemble uses violin, cello, piano, percussion and uses an alto saxophone instead of the flute or clarinet to create a modern music ensemble from the Pierrot ensemble.
After the students have chosen what material from their family heritage they want to incorporate and understand the parameters set by their teacher, they have the ingredients to build their own compositions. The size and intricacy of the composition can be decided on according to the musical level of the students. Once the composition is complete, students can be encouraged to help each other rehearse and present each other’s compositions. This can encourage students to learn about each other’s background and interact with each other in a cooperative and inclusive way.