Rock of future ages

5th March 1999 at 00:00
Sheffield's music centre is no haunt for ageing hippies. Its equipment lets pupils create the next generation of sounds. Kevin Berry reports

Propose a school trip to the newly opened National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield and you will suddenly find yourself soaring into the stratosphere of popularity. If ever there was an institution to guarantee pupil appeal then this would be the one.

But if you are expecting (or perhaps dreading) something like London's Rock Circus, which has costumes, instruments and various bits and pieces from rock legends dead and alive, then you might be in for a surprise. This is not so much a case of music that has already been and gone, but more of that which is yet to come.

Inside the futuristic and bold Sheffield steel structure, the centre is full of interactive exhibits that require some serious application. It is not simply a case of stand and stare, or even stop and listen, but make your own music.

Experiment with the sound effects, try an extra track, change the rhythm, play individually, make up a band - the possibilities are dazzling. If your own imagination falters, then you can borrow an existing tune from, say, Garbage or Texas, then fiddle with it by varying its musical elements.

And if you need help, the centre has a roving education team to assist. Amanda Cookson, the outreach and education manager, says: "They will take the activities on to another level."

It has four galleries, each housed in a huge drum, which is an inspired touch. The most interactive gallery is the Making Music one. This comprises four clusters, each looking like a lunar module, devoted to a particular aspect of the music business. At the electronic cluster, for example, six instruments such as drum pads and keyboards, can be played while children listen to their efforts on headphones. One earpiece carries the sound of the individual's own instrument, the other conveys what the group sounds like. There are soundbeams for children who may have a hearing disability and infra-red headsets at each cluster.

The electronic cluster has a possible three million combinations of sounds. Here, in what can only be described as a dance floor in miniature, there are 12 coloured pressure pads on the floor. When children stand on one a sound is played, so they can create a constantly changing tune, either individually or in a group. Any teacher who has the foresight to bring a tape recorder will be feeling very smug at this point.

In the Perspectives Gallery there is a larger dance floor with a 24-screen video wall. Here children can chart the development of dance music. Obviously, they will need no encouragement to have a go at making their own.

One of the services that the centre will provide for schools is a supply of live artistes. "If a school group wants an African drummer, then we will get one in for them," says a spokesman.

Although the centre is not a mausoleum for ancient rock memorabilia, there are moments of nostalgia provided by on-screen newsreel footage and timelines. But this is part of the centre's attempt to set popular music in its social and historical context.

It is an exuberant, optimistic place which sets out to celebrate and explain popular music in a serious way, although it is not without humour. Teachers have been consulted from the earliest design stages and it has already been tested by many satisfied youngsters.

* The National Centre for Popular Music, 1 Paternoster Row, Sheffield S1 2QQ. Tel: 0114 296 2626. Open daily from 10am, last admission 3.30pm. Group rates available

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