Imagine that you are ten years old and are invited to compose a piece of music to be broadcast on the radio. Do you have to be the most talented pianist in the country?
Do you have to have practised the violin since you were three? Or is it enough to be ordinarily curious about what sound is?
The radio challenge was clear and unusual: if you are under twelve, take a microphone and a tape recorder and try to capture the sounds around you - the sounds of an alarm clock, a bicycle pump, bottles, old hub caps, screams and shouts.
Make a three-minute composition out of it and send it in to us! And if you can, take your sounds to a studio and fix them up a bit, or load them into the computer that is perhaps standing in the living-room at home...
That's how the idea for an electronic music competition called “Break the Sound Barrier!” all started, and it became an important part of our new thinking on the theme of children and creativity in Norway for three hectic years during the period 1990-92.
Where have all the synthesizers gone?
It all began when the leaders of Ny Musikk the Norwegian section of the ISCM, sat wondering whether children were at all interested in electronic music. In 1990, it was jokingly said that Norway probably had the largest number of Yamaha synthesizers per head of population in the world, but who were all these people, and where were all the synthesizers? Were they being used by dance bands who wanted to add a little backing for the country's hotel dance floors and cruise ships? Was it only old rock musicians, still dreaming of a career who were buying these new-fangled sound boxes? Or was it perhaps their children who were overtaking them in order to change the music of the next generation? It was obvious that professional composers and musicians had acquired this kind of equipment, but who were all the others?
At the same time, we knew that today's generation of children is the first that has grown up in an overwhelmingly digital and electronic sound culture and have an almost global consciousness, in the sense that sound impressions from large parts of the world are immediately available. In a situation where most of radio and TV's sound images are generated industrially, and where the amount of music on offer is greater than at any other time in history, we asked ourselves what kind of effect this kind of audio-visual culture would have on the “artistic concept” of children's culture, or how spontaneous musical development would take place in this kind of child and adolescent culture.
From thought to action:
That is how our thoughts began to wander, and although thought does not always lead to action, this time it did. The circumstances could hardly have been more favourable. Ny Musikk had been asked to arrange the ISCM World Music Days, due to be held in Oslo in 1990, and while in many countries this event is regarded as a cross between a seminar and a sector meeting, large sections of Norwegian musical life were involved in arranging a musical event that could bring Norwegian contemporary music international publicity. Therefore it was not only what was presented in a professional context that was important. A unique initiative was taken for children's culture too, since the festival programme committee and NorConcert joined forces in arranging a competition in electronic composition for children under twelve years of age entitled “break the Sound Barrier!” Our intention was to find out if we could create an experimental forum for clever young “sound technicians”.
The youngest composer? Two years old!
The competition was immediately highly popular. We were allowed to present the competition on the most popular children’s radio programmes and as a result over 170 works were submitted the first year. A regular programme was broadcast every week in connection with the competition, giving us a unique opportunity to communicate directly with children from all over the country and play their works as they came in. And they came in! Diverse, humorous and environmentally conscious works were submitted from town and country. The diversity of ages was surprising too. Children right down to the age of two sent in their own tapes, and many participants were between seven and nine years old.
The variety of expression was also pleasing and entertaining. We had short snippets played with one finger on a Hammond organ and works lasting fifty minutes whose composers had obviously been inspired by people like Erik Satie and Pierre Schaeffer... In a way, it was a sign that the message and the humour of the American Fluxus movement had been received by pre-school children in the Norwegian outback. It was also interesting to note that a lot of girls took part in the competition.
How could this happen? For us who were used to attracting maximum fifty people to a modem contemporary concert, it was fascinating and surprising to suddenly be communicating with a whole culture of eager, talented children who wrote fan letters about the competition to Ny Musikk. The success went to our heads: had we suddenly become popular?
A great deal of the honour for this success must go to Lars Lønne, one of the most unconventional teachers I have ever met. Lars trained as a teacher, but for many years his most important educational aids have been microphones and computers. He was brought into the project at an early stage, which proved to be a stroke of luck.
Lønne had worked in the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) department for children and adolescents and became a member of a team that was willing to try new ways of using radio to communicate with children in the electronic age. For thousands of children in Norway, Lars Lønne will be remembered as the voice in “Super PC”, a radio programme where they can call a computer and take part in competitions and amusing games. He has arranged original competitions such as Nysgjerrig-Per for the Research Council of Norway, a club whose members include 1300 individuals and 100 school classes all over the country. The purpose of the club is “to maintain curiosity, which is important for future research,” as he puts it. Lønne has gradually acquired considerable expertise about the kind of activities children and adolescents want. “One of our biggest problems is that we currently create stressed children by over-stimulating them. Children must hang about more. It's healthy to be bored. That is when the ideas come,” is one of his theories.
In spite of his fear of over-stimulation, he was keen on helping to get this project off the ground, perhaps precisely because he realised that “Break the Sound Barrier!” was all about stimulating curiosity; it was something children could react to if they wanted to without authorities standing over them and deciding for them.
This was the aspect that Lønne was so good at focusing on, by creating a framework around the competition which made the children react by composing. But in addition to the competition, we also created opportunities for pure commissioned works to be prepared in cooperation between professional composers and various children's groups, one of the best children's choirs in the country, a municipal music school and an ordinary school class. Composers Kjell Samkopf, Johannes Goebel (Germany) and Alistair MacDonald (Britain) were invited to prepare works that were then finished with the children's groups. The fascinating thing was that the most exciting result came from the school class of which no-one had any artistic expectations. Here we saw a different aspect of musicality than we usually do; in cooperation, in the use of scrap and metal in the composition process, and independent participation in the composition process, where the children from the choir and the music school behaved in a more disciplined manner.
Encouraged by this success, we continued. We changed the concept a little, and invited young people up to the age of eighteen to contribute. Naturally, the results were far more professional and the final concept developed into a real multi-media happening, where the winners of the first prize, the group Shower Power from Namsos, used professional light design and the whole stage at the Henie-Onstad Museum to present a full-blooded show to the accompaniment of their own electronic composition.
For the competition the following year, we prepared teaching aids in the form of a twelve-page booklet and a cassette containing instructions for how to compose using many different sources of sound. Lars Lønne and I (Geir Johnson) found ourselves tramping around in Oslo on some very cold winter days, making sound objects of various types by banging on football goal posts, wandering in the snow, listening to the oscillations in the traffic and rattling chains. Then we went home and fed the sounds into the computer and composed two small pieces that could be used to instruct school classes. I am immodest enough to maintain that not many people have prepared teaching aids in composition for minors to be broadcast on the radio!
Another innovation took place when we invited composer Lasse Thoresen to present one of his electro-acoustic works as a children's programme at peak listening time that Faster, as part of the educational package. Thoresen went through his work and analysed it from beginning to end, explaining how he had constructed his composition and what these “strange” sounds meant to him. We didn't get any reactions from the child welfare authorities about this either!
In the second and third years, we invited the excellent string ensemble from the Barratt Due Institute of Music in Oslo to perform a commissioned work written by two young composers at the prize-giving ceremony. We thought that the combination of some of the best child talents on the creative side with some of the finest performers was fitting, and this also resulted in three concerts focusing on children's art. It was also interesting that we communicated very little with children who were undergoing traditional musical education. We mainly reached children who are not aiming at a classical musical career, but are interested in sound as a phenomenon. In other works, I believe we stimulated the imaginations of children who were auditively motivated.
For many of us there is a clear distinction between children with a “potential for composition” and children who are “potential musicians”, where the former are perhaps more auditive and the latter are both more motoric and more interested in musical tradition. The auditively motivated children will, I believe, be able to create their own sound images. At least one of our prize-winners began to study composition at the age of fourteen, encouraged by his success in “Break the Sound Barrier!”
We sometimes had to ask ourselves “What do the young people out there think of us? What do they expect of this competition?”
Some of the works that were submitted were of a high standard, but issuing an open invitation to send in works through a microphone was sometimes bound to lead to strange results. Nevertheless, the interesting thing was that we very seldom received works in purely pop format. You would think that children and adolescents would be fairly one-tracked when you hear the music that is on offer in the media, but works came in to "Break the Sound Barrier!” that were free and spontaneous in concept, and which occasionally were of high artistic standard. The competition always produced worthy winners in the three years it lasted. The strange thing is that when you plan to communicate with children and adolescents, it is unbelievable what you get in addition. That is why it was so disappointing at the end of the third year when the NRK withdrew. It was much more difficult to communicate through schools, because the channels there cannot be controlled as easily as through a regular radio programme at peak time for children and young people.
Today, “Break the Sound Barrier!” has become one of the heroic projects of the past. We remember the concept, when a busload of children came from Jølster to receive the first prize they had won for a collective sound composition. And how the mayor and the local newspaper came along to record the composers from the village below the Jostedal Glacier. If they hadn't, they would have regretted it.
The finest composers of our century showed us long ago what the experience of auditive fantasy can mean. Unfortunately, they are not the people who decide what is of cultural value.