Langley Schools Music Project
a ridiculously bad plot idea for an after-school special from
guitar-playing Danish hippy with long hair and sandals ... becomes
elementary school music teacher in mid-1970s rural western Canada
... has no idea what or how to teach ... lets the kids sing songs
they really like.
Then, after concocting deceptively simple vocal
and instrumental arrangements, he records the 60-kid chorus in
first takes using two microphones and two-track equipment
in an echo-laden gymnasium. He presses a few hundred vinyl LPs,
no doubt to help mollify the well-intentioned but ever-skeptical
something good: 25 years after the fact, Innocence &
Despair (Basta) hit the record store shelves
click for a sample.
Twenty-five years pass. Record company turns mothballed
LP into CD. And CD featuring songs of the Beatles, Eagles,
Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie and then some gets
good reviews and starts to sell.
Great, you're thinking. A remake of The Music
Man, only this time the professor makes good. Big deal.
But then ... the plot takes a final turn away from hell: It's
And Innocence & Despair, a 21-song CD by the third-through-fifth-graders
of the Langley Schools Music Project, is the unlikely result.
The album, actually culled from two sessions, in 1976 and '77,
is a time capsule capturing the sheer, simplistic beauty of
many of the pillars of popular song while displaying
the life-affirming purity that can surface when enthusiasm,
not commerce nor technique, rules the day.
Sure, you're thinking. Itd be cool if my kids
choir recital sounded like that some day. But can this disc
really be any good? Or is it some kind of soon-to-be-over-hyped
circus sideshow that might be amusing for a song or two, but
not really worth my entertainment dollars?
Well, for starters, there is lightning-in-a-bottle
brilliance about these particular kid-versions. An indefinably
dark quality runs through the music and provides artistic tension.
But, in addition to the despair and the innocence, there's uplift,
too. The kids sing with style and grace and make great
use of volume variations and the multi-part arrangements.
Still, that may be damning by way of faint praise.
So maybe it's time to hear from the Danish hippy music professor
himself one Hans Fenger.
"I knew virtually nothing about conventional
music education and didn't know how to teach singing,"
Fenger says, according to the CD's liner notes. "But the
kids had a grasp of what they liked: emotion, drama and making
music as a group. Whether the results were good, bad, in tune
or out was no big deal they had elàn."
In the kids' hands, "Good Vibrations"
straddles a line between darkness and light that belies the simple
accompaniment guitar strum, xylophone, sleighbell, bass
in a way adults could never muster. The kids reduce the
song to adolescent whisper: "Gotta keep those good vibrations
..." Then they build into an unbridled roar, before falling
back to whisper as the song goes to fade.
are still alright: Click to read recent e-mails to Mr. Fenger.
A little girl's solo turn on "Desperado,"
sung against spare piano, is filled with an older woman's knowing
sense of heartbreak. But though the spirit of the reading is well
beyond the kid's years, you just know she understands the
words she's singing because the simply told Henley and
Frey storyline conjures fine art out of basic grade-school vocab.
Herman's Hermits' "I'm Into Something Good"
is a full-tilt hand-clapping exercise in glee. And Bowie's "Space
Oddity" gets an elaborate, unearthly treatment. As legend
has it, that's a Coke bottle sliding down the guitar strings to
provide the proper science-fiction aura.
"The backing arrangement is astounding,"
Bowie relates in the CD liner notes. "Coupled with the earnest
if lugubrious vocal performance you have a piece of art that I
couldn't have conceived of, even with half of Colombia's finest
export products in me."
That the cymbal is clearly off a slight beat here
and there is no big deal it keeps us paying attention.
And yep, Paul McCartney's "Band on the Run" (a full-length
version) really rocks.
Overall, Fenger feigns a bit of a ragtag rock-band
sound with two-string bass, xylophone and various additional percussion.
That's mostly the music man himself on piano and guitar.
And the bottom line is that, at the time of the
project, there really was no bottom line. Innocence & Despair
represents the byproduct of a bunch of kids lucky enough to be
shown respect by an adult who used instinct and creativity (and
probably more than a little luck) to display the power of art,
song and jubilation.
"But then I never liked conventional children's
music, which is condescending and ignores the reality of children's
lives, which can be dark and scary," Fenger says. "These
children hated 'cute.' They cherished songs that evoked loneliness
Says renowned avant-garde composer John Zorn: "This
is beauty. This is truth. This is music that touches the heart
in a way no other music ever has, or ever could."
In the bigger picture, perhaps the most amazing
thing is the tangible evidence of unfettered and eternal joy that
can come about when human beings of all ages handle each other
"Hey Mr. Fenger," writes one former student.
"I am thrilled to know that you are doing well and still
The letter is one of many posted on the record company's
Schools Web site since the album was released in October (a
surprising number of the kids seem to have become music professionals).
"I'm sure," the grown-up Langley kid continues,
"that all of your students have walked away with a little
something extra in their lives just from knowing you. I will never