Whilst living in London in the mid 1980s, I began performing music with technology whilst studying Ghanaian palm drumming under Master drummer Isaac Tagoe at Jenako Arts and for a certificate in Music Workshop Skills at Community Music where I learned some of my most important aspects of teaching and of musicianship under free jazz drummer and charismatic pedagogue John Stevens. John played with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and engaged large groups of students with his large personality, in a true display of dynamics, starting each workshop piece from silence and returning to it at the end, teaching discipline whilst expanding on the boundaries of individual and group possibilities and ensuring through his method, that the novice could work alongside the most skilled musician, with both challenged in equal amounts.
On completion of the course at CM I became a visiting music technology tutor at St Martin's School Northwood, near my home, teaching 13-14 year olds to sample and sequence with an atari computer, a drum machine and £2000 worth of sampler with 0.5mb of memory. Concurrent with these classes I was performing my own sample and drum machine based music at clubs and raves around the London area. On occasion I was able to include the group's work in my performances. On one occasion a boy managed to erase the entire rhythmic contents of my drum machine on the day of my biggest concert, to an audience of 10,000 people. It was not the last time I have used my own equipment in the class room and it is not the only time I have regretted it, but this was before budgets for technology, and particularly music technology were prioritised for education. Curiously, in the light of that, I was offered and bought a 1970s Roland synthesiser from the school, which had been sitting unused in the music classroom cupboard for many years. I still use it today.
In 1994, having released several records and performed countless live improvisations from my Atari computer, as Ramjac a name taken from Kurt Vonnegut novels, alongside Orbital, the Shaman and the Irresistible Force, I returned to Community Music and built a computer based music production studio at Community Music House, their Farringdon Road base. I ran private classes in music technology and soon began teaching on CM's Music Technology Training Certificate, the Music Teacher Training Course, which I took myself first. I worked on outreach programmes teaching in schools and youth centres, re-organised CMs equipment and sound engineered for their numerous in house events, cobbling together continually shifting configurations of sound systems, built out of any and all the various equipment available. My favourite was a fifteen foot pyramid in the centre of the room, with a Renault 5, doors open and lights flashing, on the stage.
As a key holding caretaker of the building, I facilitated many events there, and ran studio sessions into the night. Thus I had great conversations with many important figures in my own self-configuration; Marshall Allen, Otimo Yoshihde, and Maggie Nichols an angel with matching voice. It was a pleasure to facilitate and participate in her Gathering events. I worked alongside Asian Dub Foundation and many fabulous though unsung musicians and artists over a five year period. I count all such meetings as a part of my learning.
In 1998 I joined forces with another CM tutor, Nixon Rosembert, and moved my studio to Mango Multimedia in Spitalfields, where we continued to teach privately and for CM, whilst recording sessions for bands and producers including sessions for the Botchit & Scarper label Freq Nasty's Incredible Acoustic Properties.
In 1999 I was invited to join WAC Arts then called the Weekend Arts College, to initiate a music technology module on their Arco Plus course for 16-25 year olds. When WAC moved into its present home at the Old Hampstead Town Hall in Belsize Park, rebranded as WAC Performing Arts and Media College, I suggested building a recording studio, which duly came about, complete with an apprenticeship scheme which I implemented in the appointed role of Studio Training Manager, with three WAC students. We worked on college and commercial projects and I brought the apprentices with me whenever possible in my own engagements, which included a two day session in Abbey Road Studios, a large budget Japanese anime soundtrack and a festival in France. In the studio we facilitated students and commercial clients, rock and jazz bands, hip hop and grime artists, garage, techno and drum & bass producers, voiceovers, plays, a capella groups and singer songwriters of all kinds.
Whilst working at WAC, I was invited to work with a performing arts group for people with disabilities called Wonder WAC. Originally leading music through drumming, I developed a music technology engagement for the group through the use of Soundbeam. I encouraged the recruitment of more staff conversant with audio technology, and the acquisition of suitable equipment. This developed into taking technology and percussion into schools and to collaborative teaching with distinct roles overlapping when needed, in an excellent working relationship enabling us to handle more ambitious projects combining percussion with live technology, triggering samples and projecting light trails directed by wii controllers which responded to the frequencies of the percussion instruments.
My role expanded to that of a group leader for term time activities and as a leader of the week long Oasis residential activity trips for up to 25 people. The technology based programmes expanded too, often based around the studio and in the new music technology classroom, fitted with ten computer based music workstations.
I was part of the team that won a bid to Camden Council for a £350,000 grant for a web based radio project which became known as WAC Wonder Web Radio which continues some six years later with funding from the BBC Children in need charity, the last award being for £150,000. The project has been one of the most tangibly successful for me at WAC, the other being the apprenticeships. Having a web based project ensured a wide reach for the participants in the studio, with listeners from around the UK and from as far afield as Europe, the USA and Japan. With many students consistently engaged over the six years, we have been able to see and indeed assist in their transition from bullied underachievers to competent, witty and indeed talented radio content providers and presenters, with a real sense of direction for and ownership of the radio shows. Several students are now involved in further education, exhibitions and strong real life as opposed to online social groupings.
WAC rebranded a second time as WAC Arts and in 2012 asked me to take over the recording studio as an independent project contracted to the college, providing recording facilities for courses and for the student community, whilst operating commercially as a recording studio and maintaining my role as a tutor on the various programmes that run each term. I ran the studio, rebranded as Hampstead Music and Voice Studio, or HMVS with Eva Brandt, a former student of mine on Community Music's Step Up course for practicing musicians wanting to train in music technology. Eva continues to run the studio today and I maintain my association with remote work and periodical visits back to the UK.
Between 2004-2010 I taught at the London Symphony Orchestra Discovery project in St Luke's, Old Street. The main programme was called Remix the Orchestra, where school groups would reconfigure samples of the orchestra, pre-edited and meta tagged with key and tempo information, alongside the sounds of their choice from Apple's Garageband library. I was also an LSO animateur alongside musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra, working with young participants in technology and orchestral combinations, resulting in live performances in Luke's concert hall. Because of my experience working with young people with disabilities at WAC Arts, the LSO asked me to work with the Unknown Band, a group made up of mature people with disabilities, playing mostly blues. We recorded several sessions and in a happy twist of fete, the project has recently been recording at HMVS.
Karina Townsend, another ex student of mine from Community music in the 1990's, is now the Music Technology Co-ordinator at the City Lit, London's longest running adult education organisation. After attending two public sound art events which I ran in 2011, and after the award of my masters degree in sonic art from Middlesex University in 2012, Karina asked me to put together a sonic art course which we titled An Introduction to Sonic Art which I taught between 2012 - 2013 before moving to Vienna in early 2014. The course recommences in October 2014, taught this time by Dr. Charles Matthews.
The course attracted some very exciting artists who produced some excellent contemporary sound art. The energy provided the impetus for a monthly sonic art show and tell event held at HMVS which ran for six months and became a valued event for an emerging sonic art community in London. Show and tell events continue with my periodical returns to London.
In Vienna I'm working as a native English speaking teacher at the Cambridge Institute and I continue to work remotely for my London clients and consult for HMVS. Teaching English is a new string to my educational bow and I am enjoying it immensely, drawing on aspects of my teaching experience but applying them to a new subject in new ways. I continue to look for exciting opportunities in Vienna as I develop my own sound art projects here. My aim is to continue teaching English and to teach within the field of sound art, audio technology or disability.
Since knocking down a wall and building my first studio out of a broom cupboard in 1994, I have continued to teach private students as well as courses for colleges. My pedagogy has been informed by my experience as a performing artist and studio based programmer and producer. The experience I draw on most of all today, is that of over 20 years teaching in a variety of subjects, locations, circumstances and to a wide variety of students.
The youngest students I have taught were a large group of primary school children, in a percussion workshop in Grange Primary School in West Harrow, where the 'magic bells', a collection of bells and chimes from around the world were passed around a seated circle of six year olds, also from around the world. The sound followed the children as they passed the heavy knot of bells to each other around the cirlce. Their enchantment and curiosity, especially about which bells were from their countries was magic indeed.
Veteran ska musician Laurel Aitken, was 75 years old when he came to me in the mid 1990s to learn sampling and sequencing. He told me about playing marimbulas in his youth in Cuba. He is the eldest person I have taught. "I know I can have another hit" he said. When I said that we could transfer some recordings on digital audio tape (DAT) from DAT machine to DAT machine, he said " In my day we would have written a song about that. 'Dis to Dis, Dat to Dat.'"
John Stevens - Photo: Carlo Suzanni