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The Langley Schools Music Project
Elementary’s cool
by Mark Anderson

ere's a ridiculously bad plot idea for an after-school special from hell:

Out-of-work 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 parents.

Into 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 all true.

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. It’d be cool if my kid’s 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.

The kids 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 and sadness."

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 with care.

"Hey Mr. Fenger," writes one former student. "I am thrilled to know that you are doing well and still teaching."

The letter is one of many posted on the record company's Langley 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 forget you."

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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