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From time to time I have the good fortune of enjoying a curry with my friend Paul Harris, and as often as not we end up sat at a piano, diving into his latest musical doodles…
“I’ve been working on my next Piece a Week book, and this is what I’ve got so far”,
…or similar words will precede his playing, with the modest disclaimer,
“I’ve only spent a couple of days on these, so they aren’t all quite as I want them yet.”
This is followed by a performance of some 20 pieces, all composed within the preceding 48 hours or so. And even though I know that Paul, genius that he is, can routinely pour out another set of brilliantly characterful and playable pieces, I am consistently amazed at how creative yet well honed his gift for composition is.
Bartók famously resisted teaching composition, and he had a point. How does one even begin?
With his latest creation, Musical Doodles, Harris perhaps offers something better: an opportunity for any musician, however elementary and whatever their instrument, to have an enormous amount of fun exploring the nuts and bolts of creativity, quite possibly developing their understanding, experience, engagement and musical inspiration in the process.
Let’s take a look at Musical Doodles…
According to Faber Music:
“Musical Doodles is the secret to having fun with composition!
Imaginatively created by Paul Harris, this inspiring book is all about rediscovering a love for writing down music through musical doodling: enjoying and engaging with creating music on paper…
There are no rules here. Composing music is an entirely natural form of human expression. This book is simply about writing pieces to suit your instrument or voice and your imagination. Have fun!”
The book is published in landscape format, with a super cover that will appeal to children and the young at heart. The illustration is by Bill Jones, whose cartoons have previously appeared in Private Eye and other magazines, and who we soon discover contributes enjoyably witty illustrations throughout this book.
Within, Musical Doodles looks somewhat like a child’s puzzle book on first inspection, each two-page spread given over to a mixture of simple instructions, inspiring line drawings and workbook-style staves to fill in with musical ideas.
Here’s a couple of samples, courtesy of Faber Music (click images to enlarge):
Harris’s idea here is to offer lots of imaginative starting points for making up music, quick triggers to inspire creativity, all introduced with his pithy text and enhanced by the visual joy of Jones’ cartoons. And I think it’s a brilliant idea!
With further thanks to Faber, here are some “filled in” examples that they have kindly supplied:
This rich feast of imaginative prompts unfolds with little sense of structure or progression; the activities spread through the 40 page book feel rather more like a lucky dip. And of course, most can be used multiple times.
What I like best about this book is the fact that rather than trying to give a list of rules, procedures or theories about how to compose, Harris presents an imaginary playground in which budding creators can explore a periodic table of musical elements for themselves.
Alongside this, the author is unequivocal in his emphasis that composition can unfold most effectively of all when it involves a pencil and paper. As he puts it,
“This book is for anyone who would like to try creating music, and is particularly ideal for those who would like to have a go at writing music down. Writing music is often viewed either as complicated, with far too many rules, or something that a computer programme does for you. I’d like to invite you to enjoy the process of writing music once again. It’s the best way to learn and truly understand so much about music!”
Combining this commitment to music writing with the seemingly chaotic fun and directionless play that the book conveys seems to me to be a genius move. Musical Doodles never feels like a text book or curriculum project.
And the message seems clear: nor should composing!
I am sure from our curry evenings that this playful approach is in part how Harris creates music himself, and as a composer I can confirm that I work in the same way. So how better to approach the topic of composition than to adopt the same playful, inquisitive approach to creativity that we ourselves use?
Musical Doodles is a wonderful little book, and I can see it being helpful not only to younger learners, but to anyone who wants a fresh perspective on making music, and is ready to have fun in the process…
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