Music buying habits of teenagers, copyright and my quietest lessons of the year

For the last few years, during the art and cultural awareness course that I teach to my fourth years (15-16 years old), I have included a series of lessons that focus on the theme of the remix in all areas of culture and how the copyright laws affect both creators and users of culture.

It is an area that is close to the pupils and leads to interesting discussions. I asked them this week about their music buying habits. When I was at school as a teenager, everyone spent money on actually buying the vinyl or CDs of their favourite bands. This week in one of my classes of twenty-four pupils, just four had ever paid directly for a music track (either in the form of a physical object or legal download). A number of others pay indirectly by using Spotify but the majority either download from ‘other’ sources or simply make do with YouTube or (and I still find this slightly surprising) listen to the radio.

The content of the lessons certainly doesn’t just stop at our music buying and listening habits though. I focus more on the creative people whose work in their field could be described as a form of remix and the collisions this may or may not bring with the laws of copyright. This may be in music, film, visual arts or design.

The core of the whole series of lessons is try and get the pupils to evaluate their own position and opinions in just how creative any form of remix is and how this may compare to comparable but ‘non-remix’ work forms.

When I present them at the start of the module with the question of who is being the most creative; someone who takes a box of watercolour paints and makes a picture, someone who plays a Mozart piano sonata or someone using a computer to make a remix? Almost without exception they all choose for the painter. Not that surprising maybe, but it’s just an initial thought in opening up their minds to the world of the remix in all its forms and what it actually means to be creative. In doing this we touch on the laws of copyright, intellectual ownership, the lengths that some cultural practitioners go to in order protect their work and the impact the digital world has had on this complex and changing field.

I make use of some excellent online material such as the films below:

Having presented them with a range of examples and situations to consider I also ask them to have a go at creating their own remix.  I have two main assignments that I make use of.

The first is a digital graphic design assignment. It sounds straight forward enough. They have to design a poster for a music festival. I provide them with a limited collection of image material, a set of about twelve varied pictures that they may use. They are allowed to rework work them, crop, filter and add colour to them. They are also required to add the necessary text to advertise the festival, but the twelve images are the limit, they are not allowed to source any of their own images.

Of course at the end of the design process there are recognizable elements and overlaps in all of the posters. But what is interesting to see, and the pupils see this also clearly for themselves, is that some have been a whole lot more imaginative and varied in their use of the basic material.

The second practical assignment is to use one of the online remix studios and sound libraries to create their very own remix. I use www.soundation.com or www.looplabs.com. They both offer similar possibilities, extensive libraries of sounds and rhythms. Each fragment is just that, a fragment, mostly very short. These have to be combined and built up into a composition.

Let me be clear, I am not a music teacher, this is a little outside of my field. However, in a sense, it is not about producing a beautiful, complex and immaculately combined track. It is about giving the pupils a chance to work with preexisting sound fragments, to order and manipulate them, to challenge them to see just what they can achieve in this very new area of creative practice for them.

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They respond well, once the headphones go on I get my quietest lessons of year. Eyes are glued to the screen, tongues often nipped between lips of concentrated faces. We subsequently spend a lesson listening to the results. Some can really be quite impressive, combining varied sounds and subtle transitions, others, if I’m honest, sometimes sound like a kind of brown, musical soup!

Whichever assignment is chosen, the most important question of all comes at the end. Whilst working on your remix or poster design, making use of ‘other people’s stuff’ as your raw material, ‘did you actually feel like you were being creative?’

Such a ‘cool’ day of lessons…www.virtual-emotions.nl

If you work in education you are often all too used to being in the centre of attention during your lessons. It’s fantastic when the chance comes along to take a back seat and just watch. Today was just such a day for me. It was an unusual in other ways too, in fact not a day of normal lessons at all really, instead a day of workshops for my groups of fifteen and sixteen year old pupils in the context of our broad art and culture lessons. The workshops formed a part of a series of lessons that focus on the role of new technologies in the cultural world and artists and creative people who are involved in this area. We spent time looking at the design work of Daan Roosegaarde for instance, a creative and experimental designer who leans heavily on new technologies in his work.

For examples of Roosegaarde’s work and a film about his activities follow this link.

Seeing and thinking about such work, and discovering a little about the personalities behind it, can be a real eye opener for a teenager. However in terms of engagement it is no secret that actual direct involvement and participation can be a fantastic learning experience, which brings me back to today’s workshops.

The workshops were provided by Edwin and Frans Jan from www.virtual-emotions.nl. It’s not so easy to describe what they do, but let me try. With the help of a camera, a computer an area of a classroom is scanned continuously. The computer senses movement within this area and throughout this zone various sounds are located. By moving the sounds are activated and the degree and type of movement effects the volume and other qualities of the sounds.

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In effect, by moving your body and being expressive with your arms, hands and legs, you ‘play’ the space like it is your musical instrument. Stand still, and slowly all sound fades away. This is about movement and making music, it shouldn’t be confused with dancing, in fact it is kind of the reverse of dancing. With dancing the music comes first and we move as a reaction to the music, with virtualemotions the movement is the trigger that creates the music.

It was fascinating to watch pupils tentatively enter the space and discover the effects of even the smallest movement. I hadn’t anticipated just how far outside the comfort zone this was going to be, particularly for the boys. It was strange, and in a way a little disorientating, but as the penny started to drop and some in the class started to see just what the possibilities were, the class slowly loosened up and started to let go.

Having initially had a go in the space individually the pupils started to use the space in groups of two or three, allowing interactions between them to start taking place, again fascinating to watch how the pupils succeeded (or not) in working with one another.

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We can offer offer our pupils many creative activities at school. But today’s workshops were something genuinely different. Interestingly the pupils who play a musical instrument or have had dance lessons didn’t necessarily seem to be at an advantage. The ones who thought and listened carefully to the consequences of their actions were ultimately the ones who achieved most. Such alert self awareness is definitely a skill that we should stimulate in all areas of education!

“Abstraction?……they’re too young to understand it”

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“Abstraction?……they’re too young to understand it”. This was pretty much the advice I was given by one particular teacher when I was doing my art teacher training. I was rather shocked at the time and it has been a comment that I have often thought about since. I have always been drawn towards art with a strong abstract qualities and it is also important in my own studio work. The point this lecturer was trying to make was that in terms of art interpretation it was undoubtedly easier to give a fifteen year old a figurative image with a strong sense of narrative. It gives them simpler things to work with. The entry level is easier.  I get all that, but does it mean we should avoid abstraction? Of course not, that would be crazy, we would be neglecting way too much of art history that way.

Abstraction is difficult for many teenagers, why just paint lines, shapes, colours and textures when you could paint objects, people, places and stories? It does need some careful explanation. And so this week I will begin a short series of lessons that I often do with my groups of fifteen year olds that focus on trying to show why and how some artists set about making largely abstract work.

There are various ways in which this can be done. Some teachers, like my own teacher when I was at school was amongst them, choosing to make use of figurative art that has been reduced and reduced until little that is recognizable remains. I choose though to try a route that hopefully is more recognizable to a teenager. Drawing links to music (instrumental in order to avoid confusion with narrative lyrics) or contemporary architecture. I try to show pupils how non-representational sounds in the case of music or forms in architecture can work to produce, expressive, engaging and complex results.

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They are used to becoming emotionally engaged in a favourite piece of music or enjoying the wow factor of the gleaming metal lines and reflective surfaces of a modern building.  It is still something of an intellectual leap to discover some of the parallels that a visual artist might be trying to explore. But is it too difficult to make it worth trying to explore it? Certainly not, in fact I would say quite the opposite. When it comes to working with pupils on practical work on the theme it offers creative possibilities to pupils who with many other sorts of art assignment may struggle.

So what was it a again that cultural life gives us?

On my way backwards and forwards to my work I pass through the Dutch town of Nijmegen. On this journey I don’t normally see much of the town, it is simply the place where I normally change trains, each time having just five to ten minutes to make my way from one platform to the other.

A couple of weeks ago a piano was positioned in an open space on one of the platforms where there is a high roof above. An invitation was placed next to the piano inviting anyone who wants to, to take a seat and play for the passers-by. It is an approach to public performance that I have seen elsewhere, but here in Nijmegen it has certainly been an instant hit. Even when I pass through the station at 6.50am there is almost always someone playing, and in the afternoon it is often a lot more than just the piano, just now it was piano, double bass, guitar and accordion all playing together.  And it was also plenty more just passer-by that they were entertaining, they had a whole audience.

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What is it that culture gives us is a question I often enough have to field from pupils at school. A quick look across the platform in Nijmegen certainly gives one answer, joy, pleasure and a tangible lift in emotion, that is certainly what I experience as I move by. There’s not even an open guitar case on the floor for loose change to be thrown into, this is about sharing and coming together, be that the players themselves or the ever changing audience.

Others have certainly also been noticing the performances in Nijmegen as this film shows: