Music for the year 3000

21st February 1997 at 00:00
Music Makers: Infinity Diner BBC2 Wednesdays 11.20-11.40am Age range: 9-11

As a reviewer of schools programmes there are times when I have to swallow my feelings and remember that something I am not excited about might appeal to the pupils. Thus it is with "Infinity Diner", a series of five programmes in the Music Makers series for upper key stage 2, dealing with pulse, pitch, timbre, tempo and structure. For the moment, though, let me push my negative feelings aside and concentrate on what the programmes achieve.

Taken together, they make up a musical, with five songs, about a run-down cafe which, in the year 2999, has to host a celebration of the "Trillennium".

The setting is in 1950s Flash Gordon-style; the songs are lively, and are cleverly written with pedagogic intent. The jolly characters - a salesman, a cleaner, a cook and a waiter - are well played by multi-skilled singing and dancing actors.

Each programme takes the story along, while homing in on one musical focus. Thus in the second programme, on pitch, three characters are trying to start up VIK 60, the robotic food provider, by using a code of differently pitched notes.

The robot has a visual display which responds to, and illustrates, the notes played to it. This musical idea - four notes, sounded in varying combinations - is built upon in this episode's song "Diner to VIK".

In addition to the story, each programme contains two short documentaries, which usually feature professional musicians playing pieces relevant to the programme's musical focus. Pitch is illustrated by a jazz singer who plays with the melodic figures in "Summertime".

And in Programme 3, which is about timbre and texture, one of the inserts is a short presentation by Ensemble Bash, who specialise in percussion using home-made instruments, including saucepans and dustbins.

In other programmes these slots feature a wide range of excellent music, from the "Eriskay Love Lilt" sung to a haunting and minimal harmonium accompaniment, to an orchestral performance of part of Copland's "Appalachian Spring".

It was perhaps the excellence of these inserted sections that made the musical story of "Infinity Diner" seem irritating. The contrast between the freneticism and eager humour of the story and, for example, the quiet intensity of Bach played on the guitar by Huw Davies was quite startling. "Follow that!" I thought, and the trouble was that they did.

For me, it all had a faint hint of trying too hard to grab the attention of children - a lack of confidence, perhaps, in the capacity of the music to engage them on its own terms. Still, the important thing is whether it works in class.

The songs are printed in full in the Teachers Notes, which also contain lots of cross-curricular extension suggestions. The pupil pamphlets give the words and tunes of the songs, and also provide support activities. There is enough material in both for a school production of the musical.

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