Friday, May 4, 2018

What is Elemental Harmony?

The idea of Elemental Harmony has been a source of discussion among practitioners of Orff Schulwerk since its inception. Various pedagogues, teachers, Orff geeks, and authors have attempted to define and codify this elusive concept since the beginnings of Orff Schulwerk in the 1920's. In the course of my preparations for an Orff masterclass at the University of Memphis this summer, I've had cause to think about this and how it might be presented in this context. Here follows an essay on Elemental Harmony that is the prelude to the chapter on Harmony in Orff Schulwerk. Feel free to comment and discuss!

When considering the idea of accompaniment, we are touching on one of the original intents of Orff Schulwerk. At the very beginning, there was a desire in the Guntherschule for students to be trained in playing technique and improvisation on instruments. Because the school was for dance and music, the idea of students creating and playing music in the elemental style as accompaniment for dance was essential.

The Orff instrumentarium was developed specifically because the instruments chosen were playable by students as they accompanined their own dances and songs. Later the instrumental activies included conducting as well. The instruments also lent themselves easily to  the style of music invented by Carl Orff around 1924 for the piano. He called this Elemental Music. It is in this style that the Orff Schulwerk developed and evolved, culminating in the five volumes of Music for Children by Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman, adapted by Margaret Murray published between 1950 and 1954.

In volume one of Music for Children, the drone and ostinato combine to create a unique accompaniment style that evolved into the modern bordun. Keetman described these accomaniments in Elementaria, published in 1974.

“It is best at first to use neutral accompaniments (main notes: tonic or key note, fifth or octave above, with even, continuous rhythms) that can be varied later through the inclusion of other notes.”  [Elementaria, page 63]

Carl Orff described the drone accompaniments in The Schulwerk.

“The drone is the most important and most widely found form of part singing and playing.  While one voice provides the melody the other sustains one note, the key note or fundamental note, either above or below the melody.  This is the prototype of our pedal note.  This drone develops itself in two directions,  first by sustaining a chord consisting of fundamental, fifth and octave, like bagpipes or hurdy-gurdy, and second in that the drone moves between a limited number of notes like an ostinato, the so-called  ‘wandering drone’ [after Curt Sachs]”  [The Schulwerk page 28].

These original writings, including Music for Children, left out any further detailed explanations of elemental harmony. In Elementaria, Keetman provides many examples of this style of accompaniment and lots of detail about instrument technique and performance, but very little detail is given about Elemental Harmony.

In 1991, Jos wrote an essay titled, “Updating Carl Orff’s Educational Ideas.” He outlined the importance of the Schulwerk as  containing a “timeless power.”

“The timeless character of the Schulwerk lies in its qualityof being elemental and pre-artistic. For Carl Orff the models in his five volumes make an inexhaustible arsenal of elementary musical and speech forms."

But this timeless power does not exclude the possibility of a free and creative adaptation for the present day. Exactly the opposite is true. The model character of the Schulwerk demands as a principle that the examples be constantly reworked in improvisation and in re-creation. [Updating Carl Orff's Educational Ideas, 1991]

Later in the same essay, Jos makes the point that not every teacher can understand elemental harmony just by score analysis and playing through the published models with their students. Jos thought it important to try and expand and codify exactly what was happening in the five volumes, breaking out the components and providing much more detailed explanations of each aspect of elemental harmony. Jos felt that a strong connection should be kept between his work and the original work of Carl Orff, but in order to be a growing and viable educational practice, Jos expanded Orff’s principles to include extensions to jazz, rock, pop, serial music, electronic and aleatoric music, creating new models for teaching and learning. When Jos expanded the basic tenents of Elemental Music to include models in the cultural styles of music making throughout the world, He was following Orff’s strong advice.

Every phase of Schulwerk will always provide stimulation for new independent growth; therefore it is never conclusive and settled, but always developing, always growing, always flowing. [Carl Orff quoted in Updating Carl Orff's Educational Ideas, 1991]

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