Some key stage 2 students in London are creating an artwork with a difference. Dorothy Walker reports on a project that broadens ideas of musical composition
Tubular bells, coconut shells and a clutch of vintage handbags are providing musical inspiration for Year 5 pupils from All Souls Primary School, London, in an innovative composition project designed to help students to broaden their musical horizons through the creative use of everyday sounds.
The oddball items come from the BBC Radio Sound Effects Store, a collection of props used in the days before digital technology could be relied on to signal the clatter of horses' hooves or the genteel tinkle of tea-time china. The bells featured are those in Radio 4's The Archers - the chimes of St Stephen's Church, Ambridge. Other objects range from a pair of flip-flops to six creaky-hinged doors.
The hoard was unearthed recently at London's Broadcasting House, and provides one of the themes for an ambitious public art initiative designed to accompany the seven-year redevelopment of the building. Artists have been commissioned to create a series of public installations, which in turn provide the starting point for collaborative projects with schools.
All Souls pupils are working with composer Duncan Chapman and artist William Furlong on The Sound Journey, a series of 10 full-day workshops held at 21CC, the BBC's interactive learning centre in London. The students are using music software to explore the sounds they find in everyday life, and will incorporate them in a composition to be installed at Broadcasting House.
Inspiration for the project is Furlong's artwork, Acts of Inscribing, on display at Broadcasting House. Eight street-level loudspeakers broadcast a sound sequence created with items from the Sound Effects Store, which also featured in a giant photo-collage mounted on the facade of the building.
The first workshop took pupils on an accompanied walk to Broadcasting House to discover Furlong's work for themselves. Erin Barnes, project manager at 21CC, said: "When they got there they were amazed - it was wonderful to watch their curiosity. When we outlined the project, they were able to make a big contribution to the dialogue."
Three workshops were devoted to gathering and exploring a variety of sounds. Pupils took MiniDisc recorders on to the street to capture the sounds of road-sweeping machines and car exhausts, and spent a fun day experimenting with the contents of the store.
Chapman and Furlong demonstrated how to vary sound effects on computer - playing a recording backwards, for instance - and encouraged students to talk about their favourite sounds as a prelude to choosing what should be included in the final composition.
Rosie Condon, Year 5 teacher at All Souls, said: "The project is really helping students think about music in a different way - they are discovering that music is around them in everything they do. They are developing listening skills, thinking critically about what makes a good sound and how sounds blend together.
"They have been exploring how sounds change when they are recorded - the bells made quite a coarse sound on the recording. It would be interesting to continue doing recording in school. Working with the artist is a big benefit - he likes what the students are doing and they can discuss their ideas with him. At the beginning, they found it difficult to verbalise their opinions, but they are now beginning to describe sound in a different way."
Furlong said: "The next stage is to structure the material, using sound to construct a picture that indicates a journey - it should evoke an atmosphere or experience rather than telling a story. We are all surrounded by sounds but seldom listen to them, and yet they do articulate our life and our environment.
"The project is about listening to things outside the normal categories of music and narrative. It suggests that not all music has to be made by instruments or virtuoso musicians. Six squeaking doors can provide a wonderfully entertaining performance."
Duncan Chapman, who leads many composition projects in schools, said: "We are a very visually oriented culture, and are rarely driven by our ears.
Often we make music as a response - a bolt-on to something narrative or visual. So it is good to work on a project which is about listening and developing a greater awareness of sound. We are also used to working with music that has a beginning and an end, so creating an installation performance will be challenging for the students, as people can arrive and leave at any time. How do you draw people in and make them want to stay?"
The workshops were filmed by the BBC as the basis for a learning resource for schools. Erin Barnes said: "The idea is to adapt the project so that it can be led by a teacher and done on a school budget."
* 21CCTel: 020 7665 8350 www.bbc.co.uk21cc