Clowning Around Creating Music at Home (Instrumentalists) >

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Clowning Around

In 1914 Russian composer Igor Stravinsky composed Three Pieces for String Quartet. A string quartet is a music group (ensemble) made up of 2 violins, a viola and a cello. The 2nd Movement, was inspired by the music hall performer and clown Little Tich and his Big Boots routine. Stravinsky said this about his music:

'the jerky movement, the ups and downs, the rhythm – even the mood or joke of the music - was suggested by the art of this great clown'

The piece is constructed from just five musical gestures. A musical gesture is a musical idea that you can recognise more by its shape and character than by its melody or rhythm. Listen to the 2nd movement (0:55) and see if you can hear the five different gestures. It could also be fun to move around your space imagining you are the clown in the music. 

The 5 gestures could be described like this:

  1. The opening loud slide down 
  2. Plucking the string (pizzicato)
  3. A short lyrical melody going up then down
  4. Loud dramatic stabs with grace notes
  5. Frantic fast semiquavers 

Listen to Maja demonstrating the 5 gestures on the violin. You could try drawing the shape of each one.

For a PRINTABLE version CLICK HERE

Please send any music you create to learning@bcmg.org.uk 

Music examples by Jenny Wood and Maja Pluta. Drawings by Jenny.

Your Turn!

In this activity you are going to compose your own music inspired by clown like movements. Instead of composing a quartet, you are going to create a solo piece for you to play. First of all create and mime five short clown movements e.g.

  1. Juggling
  2. Walking down steps and tripping over
  3. Wobbly unicycle
  4. Honking nose
  5. Knocking over a bucket

Thinking about the shape and character of your mimes, see if you can transform each of them into a short musical idea on your instrument. Take time to find interesting sounds - maybe playing it in an unusual way - and make sure each of your ideas is distinct and contrastingListen to Jenny making musical ideas from the list above on her oboe:

When you have five musical ideas inspired by your 5 movements, try drawing an image or symbol to remind you or each one. This will help you create a music score of your music later.  Make sure your drawings remind you of the shape of your musical ideas. Here's Jenny's drawings - can you guess which is which?

clowning around compilation

Listen again to the Second Movement. Do the five gestures always sound the same? If different, how are they different? You might notice that sometimes:

  • The notes are higher or lower
  • Something new is added to the end of a gesture
  • A different articulation or way of playing is used
  • The musical gesture is repeated

When something is similar but different in music we call it a variation. Play around with your musical gestures using the ideas above and any other variations you noticed.  Draw new images/symbols to show how the ideas are similar but different:

unicycle variationgoing down stairs variation

Now decide on what order you would like to play your ideas. This is the structure of your music. You can repeat ideas and revisit ideas. Stravinsky liked to put contrasting ideas next to each other. You could create a secret narrative or story to help you organise you ideas. Use your images/symbols to help you plan and structure your piece. You can move them around to try out different structures. Make multiple copies if needed.  Decide which version you like best and perform!