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Young Musicians: The Ambassadors of Tomorrow

3 May 2021In Education, Concerts & Events, Creativity14 Minutes


This article originally appeared on the SÓN eWaste project blog. It takes the form of a Q&A with Robin Browning – composer, workshop-leader and project manager – right when the final performances we’re just around the corner.

Now, just over a year later, as we’re all emerging from lockdown around the world, the global environmental issues concerning Electronic Waste unfortunately hasn’t lessened in the slightest. The giant mountain of old phones, miles of cables, dangerous tv parts and smashed computer spares continue to litter the globe – particularly in developing countries – and we seem powerless to do anything about it.

But we can. We can all play even a little part, as these youngsters showed. This project impacted their lives just at the stage when they were arguably most open to it, and has carried real change moving forwards.

A follow-up post to this one is coming soon, complete with stats, facts and demographics resulting from the project. Scroll down and you can see the showreel from the final events and surrounding interviews.

Plans are afoot to continue the legacy and the mission – watch this space!

Why eWaste?

Like a lot of people, I’ve grown concerned about environmental issues over recent years and struggle to feel like I’m doing the right thing, let alone anything of real impact. I’ve seen huge changes in people’s attitudes towards the planet, and towards recycling in particular. I’m not an ardent campaigner for global change, nor a terribly political animal, but reckon I’ve been doing my bit and aim to hold myself accountable for my actions.

Having said all that, the concept of electrical and electronic waste wasn’t on my radar at all really – apart from being dimly aware of things like a growing kitchen drawer of old phones, a basket of speaker cables, wondering what to do with that old lamp over there, etc. Then I met Ian Williams, one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, and Professor of Applied Environmental Science at University of Southampton. Discussing all sorts of possibilities, Ian opened my eyes to the scale of the global eWaste problem – why it was occurring, how it was worsening, and how few people seemed to be aware of it.

This was a matter of months ago, so right at the time when Greta Thunberg was widely known, plastics in the oceans a news topic of real significance, and Extinction Rebellion making a big impact. Yet I was shocked that electrical waste – despite figures showing it as the number 1 waste stream throughout the world – received far less media coverage than it warranted.

Conversations with Ian convinced me pretty quickly that this was an issue in need of far greater exposure, and that – between us – we had the means to do something about it. To cut a long story short, the ‘TRACE’ Project was born, supported by University of Southampton’s EPSRC Impact Accelerator Account. ‘TRACE’ stands for Transitioning to a Circular Economy, and aims to make people aware of how much change we can all make by reusing, re-purposing and simply fixing items – as well as sharing them – rather than discarding and replacing.

The youngsters in this project have made it all happen. They can be proud that it all came from them.

Why was it so important to make it an education project?

Once funding was secured, we worked in tandem with artist Susannah Pal – who specialises in a visual artist’s response to eWaste – and began plotting the vision for TRACE over the next few months. Anca Campanie – SÓN Associate Director – and I worked together to agree our part of the project, and brought the SÓN team on board to push things forwards.

From the get go, we had clear ideas about how best we could impact lives, catalyse change and bring about some really lasting environmental awareness. The project, to my mind, had ‘education’ written all over it from the moment it began. Rather than commission a new piece for the formal concert stage (for example), we devised and began delivering a large-scale, 4 month education project, designed to culminate in a powerful, final performance of music that the youngsters had all played a key part in writing.

It’s worth stressing this fundamentally important aspect here: the students have real ownership of the entire thing, and they can be proud that it all came from them. In essence, it’s their response to a global issue, it’s their message and it’s their way of telling it.

"Yo bro, Go Pro, no go Nintendo"
Some amazing rap lyrics ... written by 7 & 8 year olds. What a response ... from the ambassadors of tomorrow.

So how did you begin catalysing such a response from young students?

We liaised with the staff at Otterbourne Primary, Hampshire, and began working with over 80 of the 3rd & 4th year students (ages 7 and 8). They’ve been as inspiring as any of us, and the teachers have been simply brilliant throughout, supportive, flexible and totally engaged with the project.

We began regular visits to school with Ian Williams and Alice Brock – a postrgrad research scientist at University of Southampton – to explain the global eWaste problem to children curious to know more. We invited the kids to bring in loads of their own eWaste, which we rummaged through, discussing where it might end up, what dangers it might present, the chemicals that could leach out of it, the injuries a broken case or screen might cause, and why this stuff is such a problem.

At the same time, we began workshopping ideas, stories and concepts for our final performance. We got the youngsters writing, singing, and engaging with the whole idea of waste electronics. ‘Bob the iPhone’ was born and the story expanded – where had he come from, why did he break and – crucially – where did he end up?

With workshop leaders such poet and songwriter Ricky Tart, SÓN Education Officer Ollie Downer (also a gifted choral conductor and trainer), and myself, we catalysed a catalogue of songs, rounds and raps. Alongside ‘Bob the iPhone’, another story was written about unwanted Christmas presents ending up on the scrapheap come Boxing Day due to disappointment.

And there’s more. ‘Dead Computer’ took shape from a punchy sequence of kennings – two-word micro-poems, an old-English and -Norse concept, connecting nicely with our own name of “SÓN” which is old English for “Music”. Here, the students began to personalise any electrical items they could think of, shifting them from being meaningless gadgets to having a real personality – a life, if you like.

So, a fitbit is a “step-counter” and camera a “photo-bank”. Chanting them, powerfully and rhythmically, we pitch them against another set of kennings, but this time representing the same items broken and no longer fit for purpose. A shattered phone screen becomes a “finger scratcher” and an old tv, lying in a ditch, a “soil-slopper”. The imaginations of these students, and the keen guidance of Ricky in steering it all, was incredible.

Some ended up on the cutting-room floor because we couldn’t quite make them work in the whole. One truly fabulous line from a potential rap was “Yo bro, Go Pro, no go Nintendo” – remember, this is from 7 & 8 year olds! ‘No Go Nintendo’ was, for some weeks, my working title for this whole project.

And what’s next – what happens to all these songs?

We fuse it all into one whole piece, intertwining ambient sounds (which we’ve sampled from live electronics, some from junk the students brought in) with our string soloists, percussion and keyboard / synth players. This all links into the songs, with passages of spoken words – written and read by the children themselves – about what it all means, why we wrote what we wrote, and at the very end, what kind of world they want to grow up in.

I’m spending the next couple of weeks locked away in my studio doing probably more musical creative work than I’ve done for years. I’m really excited to create all sorts of sounds which we can weave around the children’s fabulous songs, so we can tell this very important story with maximum impact. I’ve got soundscapes coming out of my ears – now I’ve got to get them all down on paper (or Sibelius, because who uses paper these days to compose?). I’ll be using Ableton, too, setting-up rhythm tracks which the youngsters can rap over, built from both standard percussion samples and a load of more obvious, noticeably electronic sounds. So, for example, ‘Dead Computer’ will actually be built on a complex, yet flexible rhythm backing of old computer bongs, iPhone lock sounds, keyboard clicks, doorbells, car alarms, Mario Cart, speak-and-spells – that kind of thing. Funky and a bit retro. With 85 kids chanting rhythmically over the top.

But we’ve also got lines for strings and live percussion, all mixed in with these electronic sounds. Plus more standard songs involving simple choral rounds, where we divide the choir in two, as well as a really powerful final rap, a kind of grime hip-hop track, about a massive robot made of old discarded junk who befriends and rescues all his sad, unused electrical friends. It’s called ‘Monster Electric’ and features lines such as “He turns Dr Dre Beats into beatbox mics, fairy-lights into Ferrari lights”, featuring 6 rapper MC’s from the school. Brilliant!

Finally, what will become of the project beyond the final performance?

We’re mid-way through the making of a  film of the entire project – from initial sessions at the school where they first heard about electrical waste, through the brainstorming of words and building up of songs, to the final rehearsals with orchestra and eventual performances. We’ll have a film that tells the whole story of the SÓN eWaste Project through the eyes of the youngsters themselves, right up to when they’re all nestled together on the concert stage, doing something they’ve never done before – singing and rapping in public about a subject they’ve begun to really understand.

We want to continue this way into the future, and ultimately treat this wonderful experience as a pilot for something far bigger, far more impactful, and capable of changing even more lives.