My education in experimental music came in my college years. Between volunteering at the campus radio station and living in a cheap apartment building in a neighborhood that had historically been a freak magnet, I hooked up with a cadre of students from a nearby music school who were into the weird stuff, and were cool enough not just to clue me in on 20th Century classical, the New York School, atonality, musique concrète, et al, they even invited me to make music with them. Over the course of two or three years, we filled up a metric shitload of blank tape and killed a lot of innocent cannabis plants, and it was all time very, very well spent. But seeing this BBC documentary on a late ‘60s experimental music program in the schools of Shoreditch, London, UK, made me wish I’d been from a time and place where I could have had many of those experiences (likely minus the cannabis, or maybe not) in elementary school.
The doc puts student works on display, starting with a piece exploring “heat, radiation, relentlessness, intensity, stillness,” with instructor Brian Dennis (the man who literally wrote the book on Experimental Music in Schools), who then gives a conducting demonstration, and a demonstration of tape effects. There’s a lengthy, edifying, truly wonderful visit to a class of very young children learning the creative use of tape recorders, and a science fiction story by one of the students, scored with music and sound effects made by his classmates. Then we’re treated to a lively and cacophonous student composition, scored with an invented notation. The program concludes with a genuinely creepy piece of drama, written, scored and acted by the students, wouldn’t you know it, about a cholera epidemic.
The sophistication on display here, even from some of the much younger students, makes me weep for the ultrashitty way US public schools treat arts education. (While athletics, naturally, are the inalienable milieu of young gods…) To keep myself from indulging in a rant about this—and I’d say nothing that hasn’t been said better by others, really—I transcribed my two favorite quotations from teachers in the program. There IS great educational value in difficult music, to wit:
“The children in this school have a great variety of creative experiences, musically, and we do try to make sure that the music is part of activity. All children are very interested in tape recorders, televisions, radios, in fact that is nearer their experience than are a great many nursery rhymes. Creative tape recording teaches them self-discipline, because they soon realize that if they talk at the wrong time it spoils somebody else’s work.”
“The children do have bizarre noise-making sessions as play, but I think this is quite a valuable experience. They soon learn that once they get used to the sounds, they need some other form of organization if they’re going to get more enjoyment. So naturally they progress to electing a leader or conductor, and they find there’s some need for notation of a sort, so they invent one, and they’ve progressed then from play to composition without actually being taught.”