Music GCSE: Developing Melodic Writing - 'The Chairman Dances' by John Adams

The Chairman Dances was written in 1987 as a companion piece to Adams' earlier work about the meeting of president Richard Nixon with China's leader Chairman Mao.

This short film is a composition workshop based on creating a piece of music inspired by 'The Chairman Dances' by John Adams.

The workshop is designed to help students understand how to create a thematic composition, developing melodic and harmonic ideas.

This short film is from the BBC series, Tips for Young Composers.

Teacher Notes

Listen to this piece, and comment on the structural changes that happen.

Explore the story of the piece with your students, and compare the narrative with the musical content.

How does Adams keep the joins between the sections smooth?

What minimalist techniques can students identify in this piece?

_How does Adams create contrast in the texture and the melody?

Split the class into several groups.

Ask each group to create a piece using minimalist techniques.

Problem solve how these separate compositions can be performed as one homogenous piece.

The performance of 'The Chairman Dances' demonstrates several things: a modern symphony orchestra, a fully developed minimalist style and an influence of Eastern music, specifically Chinese.

During this short film, the camera focuses on different instruments in turn. Show how the orchestra works together and how the composer highlights different instruments at different times.

Initial work could be based on research into the development of the orchestra, prior to watching this video, and/or minimalism.

Students could research the music of John Adams, Terry Riley and Steve Reich.

Curriculum Notes

This short film will be helpful for teaching GCSE music composition. This topic appears in OCR, Edexcel, AQA, WJEC KS4/GCSE in England and Wales, CCEA GCSE in Northern Ireland and SQA National 4/5 in Scotland.

More from Tips for Young Composers:

Instrumentation - 'Fingal’s Cave' by Mendelssohn
Instrumentation and Melodic Writing - Monteverdi’s 'Toccata from Orfeo'
Melody and Instrumentation - 'Petrushka' by Stravinsky
Texture and Structure - Bach's 'Prelude in C Major'