Frankenstein walks again

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Creative sparks have been flying in the run up to a modern monster musical involving 300 pupils, writes James Allen

Under large hand-made pictures of blue skies, sandy-coloured castles and lush forests, pupils at Jamestown Primary in West Dunbartonshire have been rehearsing a song about leaving "the land where the grass grows green".

Jamestown is just a stone's throw from Loch Lomond and the gate to Scotland's first national park in Balloch. Yet, when these children, along with choirs from Ladyton, Bonhill, Christie Park and Levenvale primaries, perform the song in the premi re of Code Name: Electric next week, it will take their minds a long way from images of hills, glens and lochs.

The world of Code Name: Electric - a 25 minute piece for five children's choirs, keyboard, electric string quartet and bass, composed by Karen Wimhurst - is that of Frankenstein, other monsters and laboratories.

However, this is not a gothic horror style production but rather a modern take on Mary Shelley's novel.

This is the first large-scale collaboration between the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's education department and West Dunbartonshire Council. Three hundred primary children are involved. As well as the choirs, pupils from Gartocharn, Haldane, Renton and Highdykes primary schools have been working with a theatre director and designer and producing figurines of scientists, monsters and images that can be projected on to the back wall of the stage at Vale of Leven Academy.

In overall design, this is similar to the SCO's Music for King Arthur project, which was premi red in Edinburgh's Usher Hall last year by pupils from four primary schools in the city. Using a classic story as its starting point for a music project has several benefits, says Stephen Deazley, the SCO's education development director. "When we're doing a performance project it means that there is a lot of understanding already there," he says.

"Everyone knows who Frankenstein is, who the monster is. They have their own ideas and images that they can bring to it.

"Even though we're wrapping it up with ideas about contemporary scientific practice, we're still talking essentially about 'the monster' and that's a very strong image to have in your head as you sing," says Mr Deazley, who has been rehearsing with the choirs and will conduct the performance.

"Some of the text is quite complicated and you do have to explain it, but the framework is quite solid. It's not something that takes a great leap of imagination.

"That's why we look at big, classic pieces of mythology to commission works around."

The 200 young singers have also been working with the musicians of Mr McFall's Chamber, who will be playing electric as well as standard stringed instruments in the performance.

The five songs in the work deal with such issues as embryos, plasma plates, cloning and cyber waves. To help the children understand the key ideas, the Glasgow Science Centre's roadshow was brought along for the project's launch in September and the choirs were given talks on electricity and Dolly the sheep.

"We have touched on a part of the curriculum that these children will come across in early secondary school," says Eona Craig, the council's arts and education links officer, "and because we've introduced the concepts in a quirky way the children will remember them. They have a vocabulary of terms they have become acquainted with through a singing project.

"It's about being imaginative in using the arts as an educational tool in other curriculum settings."

The project has not only been a way of introducing children to science issues, but has also encouraged pupils from different schools to meet and work with each other.

"This is actually a project about transition," explains Ms Craig. "Many of the pupils involved will be going into S1 next year, so this is a time for all of the kids to see each other and work together in their new secondary school."

For more on the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's education work, contact Stephen Deazley, tel 0131 478 8341www.sco.org.uk

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