Tom Deveson welcomes an inventive resource pack for newcomers to electronic music. THE SOUND EXPERIENCE: SOUNDING IT OUT Dawsons Music, Warrington Pounds 99 + VAT Age range: 11-16
Ravey Davey Gravey in Viz likes to groove to the bleeping sounds of supermarket bar-code readers, reversing lorries and his own life-support machine. His electronic fetishism seems a long way from the mundane classroom reality of hitting xylophones with unmatching beaters on wet Thursday afternoons. This resource pack aims to bring two musical worlds into some kind of creative contact.
It's a hefty and durable-looking plastic box slotted into five sections. Each contains a folder of materials whose combined aim is to explain the uses of music technology within school. The suggested age range is the younger end of key stage 3, although this seems rather optimistic.
The "how to" section is a set of reference cards for the inexperienced. These are full of advice on how to set up, plug in and switch on, and cover recording, amplification, layering, transposition and reversing of sounds in a set of straightforward diagrams using clear symbols.
They are complemented by The Cupboard, a folder of 40 more cards covering the topics of recording, MIDI, synthesisers, hi-fi and quick reference. These give detailed instructions in both the basic and more advanced skills needed to get the machines to do what you want. They don't disdain the questions you might be afraid to ask - like the difference between a jack plug and a DIN plug (illustrated) or between a channel and a track. The reference section is designed for individual classroom use, with space to write in your own essential details: "the MIC IN socket is located...".
The heart of the whole pack is a set of 12 suggested composition worksheets for the classroom designed around the use and investigation of music technology - although the precise degree of expertise is left undetermined. The projects can be worked through while using the technical reference sections, according to the confidence and ambition of teachers and students. Machines are always at the service of music, not the other way about.
The projects are pleasantly inventive and wide-ranging. One is about exploring sonic worlds, with microphones acting like microscopes to bring the listener into close concentration on what's really there. The idea of getting past language to the aural Ding-an-Sich might be illusory, but it's a more than useful way to start making discoveries. Another project, Lifesongs, takes its start from the music of whales and birds, looking at the relation of speed and pitch, repetitions and controlled glissandi at different rates, all done by mechanical means to ensure a musical outcome.
The teacher's notes are thoughtful and at times provocative. Some of the suggested work, such as following a graphic score of one of Britten's Sea Interludes, would probably challenge many 15-year-olds.
And the advice that "you might be able to obtain a Tibetan singing bowl" will be greeted with irony or scepticism by most hard-pressed departmental heads.
But the general approach is friendly and supportive, and concerned with making apparently sophisticated or hazardous approaches to manipulating sounds seem feasible and unthreatening.
The soundtracks contain recordings including music by David Bedford and Trevor Wishart, as well as bent notes and scrunching cellophane. At a time when Muzak is becoming satellite-controlled it's good to welcome a project that wants to restore musical choice to the electronic novice.
Tom Deveson is music adviser for the London borough of Southwark