Various Artists: Childish Music

[7 November 2005]

By Dan Nishimoto

Adults Just Don’t Understand

Once upon a time, the wonder of discovery seemed so fresh. A turn of a knob unveiled uncharted territory. A step forward carved a fresh path. And a mere glance unlocked an entire body of responses, and responses from the entire body. Before the age of “I know” came the era of “Oh wow.” However, as each of us sheds the birthday suit and dons a more “becoming” outfit, we can easily forget the visceral immediacy of a first or repeated impression.

The balance of an open heart with a knowing mind seems a novelty when a random act of human kindness is a sticker slogan and kindness towards a fellow in need is a human-interest story. Indeed, when the Dalai Lama speaks of the temperance of reason with compassion—child-like, as opposed to childish, behavior—the idea seems even more an ideal, something to be attained, not retained. The quality is not entirely niche. Any self-preserving artist must remain open in a like manner. After all, what art has flourished in the absence of youth and vitality?

Musician Ekkehard Ehlers has taken this idea to its natural conclusion with Childish Music, a compilation to “define a new genre” that embraces this spirit. Culling “naïve sounds” from a cosmopolitan cast, the contributions are actually direct and lucid (of the 25 tracks, only four go over four minutes); Ehlers commissioned about half of the pieces, but the great majority of them stumble to one beat. Spare and careful layering of sounds gel the CD together. However, whether this is necessarily “childish” is debatable. The Cerebro dance of Lawrence’s “Falling Down a Dam of Mashed Potatoes” makes for cardigan-tugging headphone house, but is not necessarily more ‘kid-accessible’ than Superpitcher. F.S. Blumm seeks new aural spaces on “Fa”, but hardly past familiar territory. Not to say that contributors should have been expected to submit something outside of their ‘normal’ repertoire, but rather that there was nothing necessarily ‘un-childish’—in both the musicians’ approach and the music’s audience—about their music in the first place. In fact, Ehlers’ categorization speaks mostly to a skewed vision of the nature of youth in music.

Perhaps because “children’s music” is often perceived as an elementary social-cultural exploration (e.g., Dan Zanes and Raffi), Ehlers may have responded with a more literal take. The bubble-blowing bath of Fan Club Orchestra’s “Mika Bubble Sing” is likely more familiar than a goose-call-imitating kazoo. However, identification, qualification, and judgment are not hallmarks of engagement for either early childhood or an open mind; they are tools of refinement, hallmarks of age. Most of the early youth (ages three to five) I have taught and worked with confirm the idea that process is the key to a concrete experience. Of course, the vast bulk of them took great pleasure in successfully identifying a sculpture as that of a lion or pointing out a painting of an alligator—some had even read a book and flexed knowledge on each beast’s strengths—but it was art-making activities that solidified their connection with these images. Instead of recognizing a familiar sight, they learned through active participation that variations in line control emulated the wrapping patterns of a mummified cat, or a complete curve of a pencil stroke became a picture of an eagle’s eye. The abstract became realized as—voila!—art.

Certainly, many of Childish Music‘s cuts are just plain fun, and will likely inspire budding artists. The catchy hooks of Maher Shahal Hash Baz’s Magnetic Fields-style pop “Good Morning” and La Grande Illusion’s post-Pixies, “Here Comes the Sun nod” on “Let’s Pretend” are a gas to twirl to. Even the normally stoic Nobukazu Takemura gets oompa loompah on the baby Mark Rothko’s for “Vibrante”. However, there is nothing uniquely accessible or engaging about this compilation (Note: review copy did not include the “luxurious 32-page full-color booklet including extensive liner-notes”, which was subsequently not considered for this piece). Did the contributing artists need this framework to just get loose? Will the evil Spongebob cover make the dope tykes go crazy? Adults, please do not discuss this with your children. Instead, just take a cue from the true child’s credo: Just Do It!

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/various-childishmusic/