Project Focus: Enabling Elementary Electroacoustics

    I already knew Lauren Hayes as a positively ferocious improvisor who builds and gigs on her own hybrid analogue/digital instruments. She's currently Assistant Professor of Sound Studies within the School of Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State University.
    At the 2016 ICMC in Utrecht las fall, I encountered another side of her research interests - bringing her life and practice to younger persons and creating little communities of young electroacoustic composers. After the dust of the academic year cleared, I had a chance to sit down with her and chat about the project of hers I'd heard about at the conference that blew me away. It turns out the work's continuing - she's been at it again....
    While I was at the ICMC last fall, I heard you give an amazing paper about a project where you worked to give school kids in Scotland the tools and guidance so that they could make their own audio works. How did that program come about?
    I was invited to design sound, electronics and music after leading some workshops for a colleague’s project in primary (elementary) schools. I spoke about the history of electronic music, gave a short live electronics performance, and then got the kids to interpret and perform graphic scores using Crackleboxes (Michel Waisvisz’s flagship STEIM instrument from 1975) and various handheld synths. The community arts coordinator - who is a wonderfully astute and creative woman - saw how readily the kids took to the technology, and spotted the potential for a large-scale project.
    What age range kids and what kinds of schools did you work with?
    The majority of them were 8-12 years old. We worked in mainstream schools within the local council area, along with two additional support needs schools, which offer resources for children with a variety of different needs ranging from disability to social and emotional factors. We gave the same ten weekly workshops to each school.
    I guess there are really two basic areas I was thinking about as you told us your story. The first has to do with setting up the projects with the kids themselves. Did you introduce them to kinds of music similar to what they made? Sometimes that can give a classroom a sense of what they might do, and sometimes it’s hard to avoid leaving them with the idea that you had a certain expectation. How did that work out in practice?
    I approached it the same way that I approach teaching university students: you can bring anything you already know/do/like to the table and we’ll build on that, but come with an open mind and you have to learn how to listen. We spent a significant amount of time in the first few weeks establishing listening practices (diving into Pauline Oliveros’ work for this) and developing vocabularies for sound. Actually, I was on a panel about electronic music at a festival with Lyn Goeringer recently, and she talked about developing listening pleasure. That’s a great way to think about it.
    Learning was structured over the ten weeks of this project by building upon the previous weeks’ work so that a sense of continuity was established. At the start of each class, pupils presented descriptions or recordings of sounds they had heard or noticed during the week. These sounds were used both as material for listening exercises, and as samples for sound manipulation and composition. Pupils were thus able to directly contribute their own material to the course.
    Anyone who already played an instrument was encouraged to bring that, too. We worked on extended techniques, improvisation, and electronic augmentation. I think that because open- ended exploration and play were such a big part of these workshops, we tried to focus less on final outcomes and more on things like learning through doing/making/hacking. For example, one of the kids came up with a really cool analogue synth by putting a light sensor circuit inside a zip-up pencil case, so you could open the zip very slowly and the synth would growl as the light made the frequency change. Another boy discovered that he could affect the sound by pulsing the torch on his mobile phone through an app.
    Was this an after-school program (sorry – don’t know if that’s an Americanism or not), or was this part of a specific kind of class or project... a “music class” or “art class,” or.... If it was outside of classrooms, did you have advisors for the kids working alone or in groups, or did the groups get together as their projects proceeded? How did things actually proceed?
    The majority of the workshops were scheduled during a regular in-class activity slot. In the second year of the project, we also worked in a few after-school programs at secondary (high) schools. Each workshop was led either by myself, or one of my expert guest musicians: composers, performers, and improvisers, all working with sound and technology. Each school was provided with their own set of sound equipment to keep for use throughout the week. In one school, a couple of girls even decided to start up their own lunchtime electronic music club where they would give demonstrations to other children about how to use the technology to make music. That was great to see.
    In terms of the logistics of what you did, I am really wondering about how the project was for the teachers themselves – I’m pretty sure that there may have been educators with whom you worked for which this was a completely new thing to do, and it may also be the case that your teachers might not really have thought of themselves as “tech-savvy” or “composers” or “engineers.” Were there some challenges there?
    This was definitely the biggest challenge. Everything was completely new for almost all of the teachers, from the technology to the types sound practices we were exploring. And I’m talking about the music teachers here as well as class teachers. Despite pre and post-series training and creating a course manual, leaving a lasting legacy was difficult. All of the teachers were utterly enthusiastic about the project and commented on its multidisciplinary applications, as well as how well we managed to engage children who did not have traditional music backgrounds. However, I think we need to find more effective ways of imparting the decades of combined knowledge and experience of the course leaders to the teachers which will allow them not only to repeat what was done, but also to keep developing it. This would likely require institutional or governmental support.You can’t become a piano teacher just by reading a book about it; you have to be heavily involved in the practices (of playing and teaching) too.
    The other part of the project is the gear pr0n bit. I’m really curious about what hardware and software the kids used to gather and then edit and organize their piece. Can you talk a little bit about those tools and your experiences with the kids learning to use them/get comfortable?
    It was crucial not to show all this fancy gear and then leave the kids with no way to continue what they were doing at the end of the course. I created an equipment box for each of the eight schools we worked in (shared with another eight the following year). We provided laptops, high- quality portable speakers, littleBits KORG synth kits, Makey-Makey kits, microphones, sound cards, sound recorders, DIY electronics parts, and so on. You could pretty much complete a doctorate in computer music with that stuff alone. On the other hand, you could also make some of the instruments that we built for less than five bucks.
    With 20-30 young kids in a class we didn’t want to work individually on computers so we appropriated materials from the classroom, which, along with the electronic gear and the acoustic instruments that were brought in, allowed us to cover ten different weekly workshops covering a broad range of topics. It also enabled the pupils to take ownership of their hybrid instruments: a nine-year-old might be the only person who understands how to play their newly- fashioned creation. We focused around playful, open-ended, embodied, and collaborative learning, often involving the manipulation of physical objects rather than point-and-click approaches. It isn’t surprising that the Victorian Synthesiser aka The Celebrated Jumping Speaker of Bowers County, created by fellow synthesizer aficionado John Bowers, is used in numerous other sound-making workshops due to the both the excitement that building one’s own electronic instrument brings, the simplicity of the design, and immediacy and tangibility of sound production that it enables.
    We also created four standalones using Max/MSP which were used for processing instruments, objects, and voices through a microphone; hooking up controllers; arranging sounds into short compositions; and matching samples to video. If you present these things in a fun, playful way that invites curiosity, then it’s really not difficult to get them to feel comfortable using technology. For example, I made a patch that does basic pitch transpositions, distortion, and delay. I envisaged us playing instruments through it. In practice, it was much more effective to introduce this kind of sound manipulation by giving everyone a chance to process their voice: who doesn’t want to sound like a chipmunk or a monster when they’re eight? Describe different dynamics of sounds; draw visual representations of musical excerpts; then shaping sound with a graphical amplitude envelope in Max/MSP is no problem.
    When the kids were all done, what did they do with the results – play them for each other and their friends? Burn ‘em to CD for Mum and Dad? Put ‘em up on social media somewhere?
    It was really important to have time for reflection at the end of each session where each group would perform what they had worked on or listen back to what was recorded or composed. As the weeks went on, each class amassed a collection of recordings of their performances and audio samples. I believe that some of the classes shared these on their school blogs. We had considered getting each school to share their work via social media sites but we didn’t manage to negotiate the security issues in time.
    I’m sure this was a major undertaking and that you, yourself, really learned a lot along the way. What did you discover in the course of the project, and are there any lessons for a “next time?” Do you feel like you’ve got the beginnings of a kind of “mobile” little workshop for kids?
    I learned that it is possible to give sixteen laptop performances in a week - I’ve gotten incredibly slick at setting up my equipment. I also learned that numerous eight-year-olds in Scotland have been “making dubstep for several years”. I’m really pleased that the equipment is being used again this year in a new project by one of our mentor musicians Jessica Aslan, although, as I mentioned earlier, supporting the educators is the biggest problem and something that I’m still figuring out how to tackle.
    I recently ran a series of workshops in Phoenix, where I’m currently based. I definitely took much of what we did in Scotland into this project. This time we worked with children from backgrounds of homelessness and abuse. Being in Arizona, we were able to work outdoors, basing the project around my current research in site-responsive sonic art. Someone recently told me that they don’t do workshops with children because their music is too serious for it, but I don’t really buy that. Everyone that I’ve worked with on these projects is deeply serious and highly accomplished in their musical practices. What I’ve really discovered in this venture is that if we do the hard work surrounding how we present and teach music technology, and to whom, we might have a much richer diversity of people making electronic music, which, of course, can only lead to better art and better music.