Music By Degrees: “The Jam”
Blog Creative-Process Essay
By Rie Manaloto
A micro component of the large-scale collaborative work, Music By Degrees, “The Jam” is an Expanded Practice program that harnesses different kinds of media such as live music, film, theatrics, soundscape and unconventional music improvisation. The main objective of this multimedia project is to present a concise depiction of the campus life of a music student in the University of Western Sydney’s college of Music using a musical and theatrical approach. It demonstrates the typical setting, activities, processes and experiences a music student undertakes throughout the degree. The main narrative centres on how a student experiences working on a university assessment–the processes of composing, arranging music, finding inspiration, collaborating, performing, and just having fun. This performance is created in collaboration with Amabelle Garcia, Gerielle Guzman and Mary Vargas.
The collaboration process between the group members has been a healthy relationship that displayed good and solid teamwork despite some contrasting views and personalities. Everybody is given the chance to voice out an opinion or conviction; everybody contributes an idea or insight into the canvas that paints the overall picture of our project. All the members are able to support and critique each other’s views and creative input, and this interdependence, according to John-Steiner (2000), is crucial in developing successful and intelligent partnerships.
The conceptualisation of this project is imbued with the artistry and style of two project installments: one is a drama musical film entitled “August Rush”, and a previous Expanded Practice work called “Beyond Play.” Both bodies of work incorporate the idea of music making presented in an unconventional fashion. They both challenged, if not redefined how music can be created from nonmusical elements and objects. The 2007 film “August Rush” directed by Kirsten Sheridan, and under the musical direction of Mark Mancina is a family-oriented drama that tells a story of a precocious orphaned boy who seeks out to find his long lost parents and discovers his precocious musical talent along the way. The bottom line is the family is drawn back together in the end by the music audible only to the three of them. In terms of sound design, this film is popular by using and integrating raw environmental sounds and other soundscape elements into a remarkably engaging rhapsody of musical sounds, imbued with improvisation and other extended techniques. It spearheads this concept by stating that “The music is all around us. All you have to do is listen.” The other installment is entitled “Beyond Play,” a previous Expanded Practice project written and directed by myself in partnership with Gerielle Guzman that showcases music, film, imagery, acting and theatrics to deliver the concepts of sensory exploration and nonverbal communication in a three-act theatrical performance. The story is first established in the film while the second half materialises live on stage. In the absence of spoken word and verbal language, music and emotions are delivered through acting, unconventional playing (i.e., communication via table drumming).
Hence, these factors have been selected and combined to form the umbrella concept of the work. The next step is deciding on what story to tackle and present. Since the aim of the overall macro project, Music By Degrees is to promote the university course to an audience of potential and aspiring music students, the group has identified a theme and developed a storyline that centres on the student life in the college of Music coming from the perspective of the students themselves. And, this aspect of life enclosed in the project’s theatricality is what being referred to as the ‘jam’.
The group has decided to use a visual representation through filmmaking and theatrical staging. The performance has been divided into two sections: the first section presents a short anecdotal short film that demonstrates the life of a music student in the process of completing assessments; the second section comprises the live performance that rolls out the continuation of the story that commenced in the film. Additionally, the songs performed in the live segment communicate a subliminal meaning that supports the purpose of promoting the university degree. The first song called “More to Music” is a four-line stanza composed by myself that borrows the tagline used by UWS Music that states, “There’s more to music at UWS.” Thus, the song goes, “There is more to music, there is more to see. Can you feel the rhythm? Can you feel the beat?” It campaigns for the degree’s eclectic and modern approach to music; that music is beyond what we already know and are familiar with. The second song, “Change the World” by Eric Clapton, in a subconscious sense, tries to suggest that UWS is changing the world, changing the world’s view of music. This is done in an indirect, almost devious manner, but the meaning behind it manifests the purpose of the selection of these two pieces.
The overall project design is permeated with a minimalist fashion—from the project staging to music making. The presentation moves away from a vivid, elaborate staging but focuses on the unencumbered act itself. The actors become responsible on establishing the time, setting and context in which the act is situated. To establish a minimalist classroom setting, firstly, a table with various objects on top (e.g., books, computer, food, water bottles, etc) is mounted on the stage that serves as the setting indicator to tell the audience that the act is set in a classroom. Additionally, the movements of the actors wherein each one acts as if immersed in his or her own little world, occupied by an activity (i.e., studying, chatting with someone on the phone, sketching, working on assessments) complements the manifestation of the contextual setting.
Furthermore, the music making aspect is also inspired by minimalism by using the table and the objects on it as the main percussive instruments and thus demonstrates an overt reduction of the percussive component. In one phase of the performance, the combination of sounds coming from random objects like books, papers, pens, chips; along with human produced noises like chattering, coughing, yawning, and murmuring, all have produced a rhapsodic cacophony of noises that eventually have turned into a rhythmic instrumental augmented by the guitar and the piano. Integral factors such as rawness of sound, reduction and diverting away from the conventions become the aesthetic properties of the performance. And through a minimalist approach, all these performance elements have been highlighted effectively and have become more intimate, clear and powerful.
The filmmaking direction has been entrusted to my care, from casting, screenwriting, shooting, to video editing and musical scoring with the support and creative input of the other three members. The filmic material is shot in different locations within the Music area in the university. It features a student, Mary who is in the busyness and haste of completing set of assessments for a range of subjects.
The short film has featured Mary working on an essay, borrowing books from the library, which is one of the essential phases of essay writing in the course. It also shows the disc section in the library that has a massive collection of music and sound resources available for all music students. The music practice rooms and the MIDI laboratory are also featured along with other facilities like pianos, music workstations, the Pro Tools software, MIDI synthesisers, etc. Some of the scenes incorporate a delicate flare of humour. A few examples are the practice rooms scene in which Mary struggles to find a practice room because every single one of them is occupied by other students (bit players: Amabelle, Gerielle and myself) who either use the music rooms to actually practice or not; Mary accidentally throwing off her guitar pick inside the guitar while playing; and Mary looking obnoxious when she sees a picture of Lady Gaga in one of the research books.
Short filmmaking is a craft that has always held fascination for me, as it is an innovative manner of storytelling. This phase takes part in the reductive, minimalist artistic style; as a short film, in general, is a condensed version of the full-length film capturing a rather smaller yet intimate set of events, without the need to present an extensive background of the story (Corbin in Thurlow, 2008). The filmmaking aspect, to a large extent, is inspired by the short films created by “The Jubilee Project”, a philanthropic nonprofit organization that produces motivational short films and documentaries aiming to promote awareness and inspire action concerning certain issues about health, society and human relationships. On a personal note, their videos are quite relatable, inspirational, easy to watch and are capable to evoke thoughts and emotions among viewers. The projects render very simple stories, but entail a very creative handling of camera techniques and an adept approach in film editing that prodigiously create interest and fascination in viewing experience of the audience. Although lacking some professional knowledge and experience in this field, I have attempted to the best of my ability to construct the material in close resemblance to the Jubilee pieces—short, compact, entertaining, and thought-provoking. As a beginner, the film is expected to be raw, candid and experimental.
Moreover, musical scoring is an essential element of the cinema experience as it sets the mood of the images and intensifies the emotional impact of the story. Tonks (2001) states that by duplicating, contradicting or even acting regardless of the action and dialogue, film music is the unseen narrative voice communicating everything the audience need to feel. Because of unavoidable time constraints, the group has decided to accumulate a range of musical resources to use to serve as the aural component of the finished visual material instead of coming up with an original film soundtrack. The opening music is the instrumental version of the rock song “Jam” performed by Cooky Chua and Kevin Roy. It has been chosen to signify the dynamism and enthusiasm infused in studying in the university, the sense of epiphany and the momentum arising when working on an assessment. It sets the mood for the entire film and also inculcates a positive effect about the campus life of music students. Furthermore, a recording from the August Rush soundtrack entitled, “Dueling Guitars” by Heitor Pereira and Doug Smith was used all throughout the sequences featuring the assessment process. It is also used for the purpose of providing a subtle allusion to project’s major influence.
In conclusion, “The Jam” is built upon the concept of Expanded Practice, imbued with minimalism, rawness and a sense of breaking away from conventions. It is an experimental venture into the realms of film and theatre while attempting to spearhead the uniqueness and innovativeness of the Bachelor of Music degree in UWS. In addition, it is an ideal opportunity to exercise healthy and intellectual collaboration with like-minded colleagues, who potentially have contrasting, yet substantial perspectives that give rise to an even more creative, all-encompassing panorama of insights and artistic ideas. These pieces of knowledge and a rich amount of experience are of paramount significance in continuing to cultivate and enrich my personal skills and capabilities for further involvement in this field of expertise in the near future.
Castle, N. (Writer), Hart, James V. (Writer), Castro, P. (Writer), & Sheridan, K. (Director). (2007). August Rush [Film]. Burbank: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
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Manaloto, R. & Guzman, G. (2013) Beyond Play. [Live performance]. Kingswood: University of Western Sydney.
Pereira, H. (2007). “Dueling Guitars” [Performed by Heitor Pereira and Doug Smith]. On August Rush (Music from the Motion Picture) [CD]. Sony BMG Music Entertainment.
Roy, K. & Chua C. (2005). “Jam” [Recorded by Kevin Roy and Cooky Chua]. On Pinoy Ako [CD]. Philippines: Star Records.
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UWS Music. http://theresmoretomusic.uws.edu.au/.