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Let's start at the very beginning: new music for young children

The Sound Barrier : Blog

There are many things we know now about how important the early years are in a child's development. We know that it is in the first few years of life that a child's brain is more active than it will ever be at any other time, as neural pathways fire off and form in every direction. We know that this means that children learn more then than they ever will later in life – critical lessons about how the world works, and how they fit in with it, and how they can manipulate it and work with it for their own ends. They are lessons that children learn based on the massive plasticity of their young brains, and the vibrant curiosity that results from this. Everything else that is learned afterwards is, in essence, just building on these foundations that are set down in early childhood.

No matter what we do or don't do with young children, they will learn from us. It is just up to us whether those lessons are helpful and enriching, or harmful and toxic.

And so it is, too, with how children's minds are shaped in their creativity and their appreciation of how creativity is expressed artistically. Like in music.

Just watch a young child for a few moments and see how they make music. They learn to do it very young and usually the sounds they produce are a wild pandemonium of bashing and smashing, of dissonance and irregularity. We think of it as noise and we are usually quick to teach them not to do it, and we instead steer their minds into the sorts of sounds that we think to be more refined, more appropriately organised, more 'musical'.

In some ways it is strange that we continue to do this, when our own openness to new music has advanced so much over the past several decades, and where awareness of new sounds in music, and of the value of experimentation, is so much more widespread. And yet this willingness to experiment, to venture out of the known and formal boundaries of convention, is something we seem to steer children away from at the very time when their potential to use it is at its most unbridled.

Urban Arts Berlin, a project that has a strong commitment to the intersection between new music and building stronger social cohesion, through a whole range of ventures that reach out to and involve musicians and composers from around the world, has just taken on board this challenge to recalibrate the ways in which young children experience music, and to allow them to engage with new music ideas in ways that will stimulate the curiosity that is so uniquely wired into them.

It is called SONIC LITTLE CAT, and it has brought together the work of sound artists and composers from around the world into a compilation comprising 15 pieces that all find very different ways of responding to the challenge to create a short piece of sound art or new music – just a few minutes long – for young children. Tonight's edition of The Sound Barrier brought you all of the music from this brilliant and vital project.

The consequences are as extraordinary as they are varied. Some build on simple basic musical material, such drawing on simply mathematical structures to form changing melodic progressions, like the opening piece It's a Numbers Game by Mark Estall; or drawing cleverly on the song that Julie Andrews sings to the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music in Shepard Train of Do-Re-Mi by Eric Wong. There is the lullaby-like charm and majesty of Dakota Letter to Fernando Blake which project organiser Verónica Mota composed for her own son, bringing into play multicultural vocal tonalities with modern Western electronics; or the entrancing yet slightly spooky sleepiness of Unstillness of the Night by Elizabeth Chavez. Polipiel create a mosaic of toy-like bounciness in the Lullaby, while Bern Schuman works with little electronic bleeps and spurts, like dreams of tiny fireworks, in the shortest piece on the album, Fingerübung IV.

The variety is wide, the creativity is dazzling, and the opportunities it can give to young children to explore a musical path that differs from what mainstream commercialism has to offer are limitless.

Each of the pieces is described on the SONIC LITTLE CAT Bandcamp page where you can also buy the album as well as donate to the project, proceeds of which go to community organisations around the world, devoted to child welfare and to addressing disadvantage amongst children.

Playing the album in full left me with just enough time to also play two pieces from Karlheinz Stockhausen where the children of the expansive universe of the LICHT opera cycle also get to learn music. Their teacher is Eve, the mother of the world. The music goes way beyond what children are taught in more conventional music schools – here sounds swirl around everywhere, from the spectacular magnificence of Eve's KINDER-ORCHESTER in FREITAG aus LICHT ('Friday from Light') to the sounds of heavenly bedlam as Eve's echo, embodied in the character of Ave, enchants Eve's children with her music, which they copy, as she prepares to entice them into the sky in DER KINDERFÄNGER ('The Pied Piper') from MONTAG aus LICHT ('Monday from Light').

It is delightful reminder that children will follow - it is up to us where we lead them.

You can listen back to the show as well as view the entire playlist, here on the website if you want to follow up any of the music played on the show.

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