Lawless Harmony: Music Inspired by Antarctica

by Charles Berthon


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




The project

Sixteen students from Impington Village College, Cambridge, UK and sixteen from Gymnasium Gernsheim, Germany took part in a highly successful music and language project. The project saw the students working together to compose a musical composition based on the CD-ROM, Antarctic Waves. Through their contacts via a website and during their visit to Germany, the students made excellent progress as musicians and linguists. Furthermore, we saw remarkable developments in the students maturing as young adults. Their engagement with the scientific and environmental aspects of Antarctica brought a greater understanding of their place in the world and how their understanding of it will affect their own and others' lives. Their engagement with these issues as young people from different countries added a whole new dimension to their experience and will, I believe, live with them for the rest of their lives.

Initial ideas

The project was inspired by Antarctic Waves, a CD-ROM produced by the British Antarctic Survey, to inspire musical composition through the medium of scientific research. Data from Antarctica had been transformed into musical form that was attractive to young people, while at the same time being highly informative and accessible. Five areas of current research were highlighted: Ocean Life, Wandering Albatross, All Sky, Whistlers and Surfing a Glacier.

Students began by investigating the CD-ROM and discussing the scientific issues they encountered. We were very lucky that one of the scientists from the British Antarctic Survey was able to visit our school and augment the student's knowledge of Antarctica. He was also keen that students from both countries were able to contact him via e-mail and this proved to be a very useful way of sourcing information. It also gave the students a very mature outlook on e-mail communication as they were contacting an adult who was treating them as young scientists and they responded appropriately. Corresponding with an adult outside the school environment and with professional artists was also of great benefit to their view of the project.

The website

A video artist set up a website dedicated to this project. This was of crucial importance to the success of the project. It gave another dimension to the variety and complexity of communication between the two sets of students, with their teachers and indeed between the teachers in Cambridge and Gernsheim. The website had three key elements:

  • a virtual mixing desk, in which students could combine text (both from web sources and their own creative writing), audio, video and still images;
  • a message board, which attracted lively and informed debate about the scientific and creative issues they were facing; and
  • a chat room, in which these issues could be discussed 'live' and in which social contact could be made with students from the other country.

The Impington students, in particular, were extremely quick to see the potential of the website and were immediately involved in lively discussions every evening. The virtual mixing desk allowed us to film the students performing their initial compositions and to upload the video. This enabled the students from both countries to discuss the progress of compositions and to see each other prior to the visit. This in turn provoked lively debate on the message board and we, as teachers, could involve ourselves in these debates while also guiding students to useful sources of information, such as websites.

Impington students were able to try out their written German in an informal and social setting, with one student in particular playing a key role in welcoming Gernsheim students to the site. They discussed the shape of the composition they were to work on in Gernsheim and shared their creative writing, which was to be an important part of the project.

The chat room was of great appeal to all the students and was very much seen as their domain. For me as a teacher it was very interesting to get involved in discussions as the atmosphere was very informal. One could engage with students in a way that would simply not be possible in school. It was also fascinating to see how Impington and Gernsheim students 'met' each other in this medium. By its very nature it broke down social barriers and promoted friendly discussion. Impington students, after a rather reticent start, became increasingly confident communicating in German and Gernsheim students were able to use their English very effectively. As a teacher, I was able to ask the Gernsheim students about their compositions and had an interesting discussion as to what a musical 'style' was. This proved to be interesting both linguistically and philosophically!


Students worked in small groups on each area of the CD-ROM to compose initial short pieces which would then be woven into a bigger tapestry in Gernsheim. A composer visited Impington to work with the students in developing their ideas. They were encouraged to consider more carefully how instrumental sounds combine and to reduce the amount of musical ideas they were using under the old adage that 'less is more'. This was an important lesson and one that produced some thoughtful responses.

Students in Gernsheim also composed pieces - a new experience for them - and were able to share them via the website. Impington students shared their experiences working with the composer and gave advice and guidance to the Gernsheim students where appropriate. Co-operation was on a high level even before they had met. Therefore, when we met in person in Gernsheim we already had a substantial amount of musical material with which to work.

Our week began with the composer directing some rhythmic games as ice-breakers, which allowed students to use their names and therefore get to know each other. This led into improvisation sessions with instruments, which were very fruitful and produced some of the musical material that would form the final work.

In the middle of the week we had a break from composing and visited a Museum of the Senses near Frankfurt. This was not only a well-deserved break, but also directly contributed to the students' composition. They were bowled over by the exhibits, particularly a Chinese gong which they could actually sit inside and feel vibrating. Another memorable experience was a suspended drum that could be hit or bowed and made a remarkable number of diverse sounds. On returning to their composing the students had a heightened awareness of the subtlety of the senses. They made marvellous sounds by 'preparing' the inside of a grand piano and hitting the strings with beaters to make wonderful sympathetic resonances.

By Thursday the pressure was on to complete our composition and to prepare for the concert the next day. We now had a title for our piece which had come from one of the Impington student's creative writing and seemed to sum the group's feelings about Antarctica: Formlose Harmonie/ Lawless Harmony. All the improvisation work earlier in the week now paid dividends as the students were able to express themselves more freely and to respond quickly and creatively to suggestions from the composer.

The film element of the project was also at an advanced stage and the students discussed with the video artist how the visual image could be integrated with music and indeed how the music might respond in a live situation to the images. The students were very keen that their creative writing be included and worked with the composer to incorporate song and chant. They consciously made decisions to sing in their foreign language and this idea spilled over into the video. Although they knew that the initial performance would be attended by German speakers, they worked with the video artist to include text in both languages. Teachers helped them to translate their poetry and this was incorporated into the film, sometimes phrases within a poem alternating between languages in a patchwork of image and text. Therefore, students were working creatively with language, not simply translating.

The performance

The debut performance of Formlose Harmonie/Lawless Harmony took place in the Gymnasium Gernsheim Hall on 28 February 2003 to an audience of 200 students and staff. The audience was drawn into a sound world that for many was a new experience. The level of concentration and explosive applause after the final notes told us everything we needed to know about the success of our composition. It was a spellbinding performance, one that the performers and we as staff could be immensely proud. Gernsheim students had been exposed to a whole new world of musical composition and Impington students to a new way of working with professional artists. However, the real inspiration had been to see the meeting of 32 students from two cultures working towards a common goal.

© Charles Berthon. Mr Berthon is Director of Music at Impington Village College, Cambridge, England.



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