School of Noise

We Enrolled at the School of Noise, the Workshops That Bring John Cage to the Kids

More white noise, less Jack Black.

May 21 2015, 11:54pm

School of Noise

Somewhere, in a room in East London, the squeal of excited children is competing with the whoop and wail of oscillators and analogue filters. Besides a table crammed with ring modulators, tape machines, and a drum machine that looks like it belongs on a Saturn 5 rocket, a bearded man with a kindly voice is explaining to a group of primary school kids how the Roland Space Echo works.

"And then can we make a song?" one of the girls asks irrepressibly, "And we'll be famous?"

"Well..." the man, a little tentatively, starts to agree. But soon the question is forgotten in the sheer thrill of experimenting with strange sounds and archaic-looking gear.

There are synthesizers, turntables, a homemade crackle-box, what appears to be — and in fact is — a morse tapper, presumably salvaged once upon a time from an old telegraph office, now put to use as a signal generator at the start of a daisy-chain of electronic effects. "I did an SOS!" one boy proudly declares, his dots and dashes immediately transformed into bleeps and whoops by a battery of guitar stomp boxes.

Read about the time THUMP tried to make a summer anthem on a set of modular synths.

Welcome to the School of Noise, a kind of S-Club Juniors — if the S stood for Stockhausen. Since September 2014, this unusual educational establishment has been introducing pre-teens to the world of avant-garde electronic music. I sat down with two of the founders, brothers Jacob and Dan Mayfield, to talk about how it all came together.

"Over the last couple of years, I've been doing various workshops at festivals with kids," Dan explains over lunch at the end of one morning's session. "I was doing things like making cardboard record players, or sometimes doing binaural recording sound installations. Lots of little bits and bobs to do with sounds. I've always had really good feedback from people who really enjoyed these different, slightly alternative ways of understanding sound. So I wanted to have some way of bringing all that together. That's where the idea for the School of Noise came from."

Dan's cardboard record players, made in minutes at the likes of End of the Road and Green Man Festival in the summer of 2013, are a minor miracle — seemingly no more than a folded sheet of craft paper with a stuck on safety pin. They may sound a bit wobbly when you turn the vinyl by hand, but to something so cheap and simple produce recognisable music at all has the effect of immediately demystifying the whole process of sound production.

Photo via the School of Noise

This is a major part of the point. As Dan's brother Jacob explains, "We want to get away from the seriousness of experimental music. My degree was in experimental electronic music and it's such a serious cultural environment to be in. We wanted to just bring some fun into exploring sound and collaboration. For people to enjoy themselves and get a nice feeling from it."

While Jacob was studying electronics, Dan took up acoustic ecology, the study of living things' relationships with their surrounding soundscape. It's a discipline that brought into focus for him the idea that "all sounds are communicating something." He tells me of an epiphanic experience, aged 19, upon first hearing of Cage's 'silent' piece of music, 4'33", when he suddenly asked himself, "what if we only listen to one piece of music and it starts when you're born and it ends when you die?"

Such a question would sound bafflingly pretentious from almost anyone else, but the Mayfield brothers have such an open, unaffected attitude to music that it's impossible not to be seduced by it. It's an approach, I suspect, that comes from their background playing folk music. Dan, in particular, has gone from playing fiddle for groups of Morris Dancers to session work for the likes of Darren Hayman, Withered Hand, and the Wave Pictures.

The specific inspiration for School of Noise, however, came from an archive BBC film that became an unlikely YouTube hit. "Last year sometime," Dan explains, "a friend of mine, David Shepherd, from the band Ellis Island Sound, posted online this video about the Shoreditch Experimental Music School. I watched that and thought, this is fantastic!"

That video, which has since turned up on blogs like Dangerous Minds, Synthtopia, and Boing Boing, shows the composer Brian Dennis in 1969 conducting a class of pupils from Shoreditch School, a secondary modern now absorbed by the sprawling campus of Hackney Community College, through a performance of "a sound picture based on ideas associated with heat" composed by the kids themselves.

The impressionistic, semi-improvisational nature of the piece feels fresh and contemporary in precisely the way that my own school music lessons didn't. It's typical of Dennis, a former member of Cornelius Cardew's groundbreaking Scratch Orchestra and part of a wave of pedagogical thinkers bringing exciting new approaches to music education in the sixties and seventies.

Having watched the video, Mayfield went out and bought Dennis's two long out-of-print books, Experimental Music in Schools and Projects in Sound, for a tidy sum on E-bay and found each one to be a goldmine of interesting ideas and novel approaches. "It's just a really inventive way of getting kids to play around with experimental music," he tells me. "I liked what he did because it was skimming away a lot of the complex language and making it accessible to an 8 year-old. We've been taking some of those ideas and trying to add in more contemporary equipment and styles as well." So alongside the reel-to-reels and ring modulators, at the School of Noise you'll also find things like the Korg LittleBits kit, Dentaku's fascinatingly versatile and hands-on Ototo synth, and the Sonic Pi open-source software suite.

Photo via the School of Noise

For all its high-tech and high art, though, the fascinating thing about the School of Noise – much like the Scratch Orchestra that Brian Dennis was a member of in the sixties and seventies – is that it treats the avant-garde as a real folk tradition. As Jacob Mayfield emphasised to me, it's about "roots", "collaboration", and "having fun." If along the way some of the kids are encouraged to open their minds and their imaginations and maybe even create something extraordinary for themselves, then all to the better.

Later on, the children will learn how to make graphic scores, like John Cage and Cornelius Cardew, to build structure out of the welter of sine tones and fluttering sonorities. "There's no wrong way to do this," Dan reminds them. "You can be as imaginative as you like." So the kids get busy with felt tip pens and coloured stickers, plotting out the shifts in tempo and modulations of timbre of their respective devices. By the end, it all still sounds pretty chaotic – but it's a start.

Future workshops will deal with things like making up foley sounds for films, psychoacoustic illusions, Chladni plate images, and on June 6th, they'll be taking what they've learnt to the Union Chapel in Islington for a live performance alongside theremin wizard and film composer, Sarah Angliss. "It's quite a fun journey that I think we've only just started on," Dan tells me. "There's so much you can do. If we can just create a little bit of intrigue..."

Head here for more information on the School of Noise