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.
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.
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
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
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 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 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.