Keys to change
Despite the impetuous cutting and drunken camera angles of youth television, Mad About Music avoids the dangers of flashy superficiality. These new programmes cover a striking variety of musical styles, made for a wide range of purposes. Much of it has been specially commissioned for the series and music is encountered at all three stages of planning, rehearsal and final performance.
Michael O'Suilleabhain is shown taking a traditional Indian rhythm and developing it on the piano in a Vivaldi-like harmonic sequence. We see the music growing, the rapt faces of fiddle and bodhran (a traditional Irish drum) players and the addition of an improvised saxophone melody. As we hear the establishment of layers of sounds from different yet compatible idioms, we also hear the "meeting of musical personalities" that one of the players describes. The title of the programme, "Fusion", is given a real and audible presence.
Elsewhere we witness two very different kinds of cello playing. Composer Dave Heath is moved by Jimi Hendrix (shown in full hands-and-teeth assault on his guitar) to imagine a tone that's "supposed to sound beautiful and ugly". His cellist is shown playing with a huge vibrato, making rough insinuating timbres. Later we see the cellist gently playing a minor key version of the crocodile song from Peter Pan as part of a lyrical elegy for a dead friend. These, together with dripping tracksuits plip-plopping drops of water in irregular rhythms and plastic tubes singing a pastoral air, form part of an intriguing item on "Inspiration".
Visuals and vocals of quite another kind feature in "MotionEmotion". A four-minute opera on the theme of aliens is created. We see an extract from the vocal score being recorded, a reminder that music professionals use written symbols as well as fingers and memories. We also see the opera itself. The steely melodramatic presence of the alien moving into a living room contrasts with its soft pleading sounds, made from conventional voice effects reversed on tape and mixed with mesmeric minimalist strings and tiny percussive touches from a ringing phone and rattling glasses. The technical procedures concerned in creating the sound track make an intriguing counterpoint to composer Jocelyn Pook's rather fey imagination.
Other programmes show three songs being written to order in a single day by three different composers and the making of distinct kinds of music video. It's rather disappointing to see Howard Greenhalgh switching from the Pet Shop Boys to the exalted intricacies of Bach's St John's Passion and coming up with nothing better than car-advert kitsch. Technology swamps taste. It's far more interesting when a little minute-and-a half drama is given a score by Jennie Muskett who thins out her musical texture (composed at the piano but played by a string quartet) to match the film's sad ending. Less is seen to be more.
Teachers will need to think carefully about using this series. Much is shown but little is explained, and the programmes on their own won't help pupils to explore the disciplines of improvisation and composition. But they make excellent use of many skills and judiciously used, can give young people a sense of the transforming power that lies in their own ears and hands.