The International Golden Record Project
Technology has made the world more accessible than it ever has been before. A high school student in the middle of Iowa can watch pop music videos from South Korea with the click of a couple of buttons (and they do!), articles in foreign languages are translated automatically, and news travels faster than the established media can share it. One of my favorite hobbies recently has been searching for videos of choirs from other countries performing the same repertoire as the high school students I teach. I share these videos with students in the hopes that they realize that they are connected to a musical culture that extends far beyond the borders of their community, state, and even country. This truly is a powerful conception.
All of these connections, however, are what I would consider “passive” connections to the global world. Sure, students can see that the wider world exists and that people in that world perform the same activities and share some of the same traditions, interests, and passions as they do. However, this realization does not necessarily translate into empathy for those traditions. Students don’t really see how the music they learn is important to membership in a global society. In the same way that cooking Indian food doesn’t teach you anything about people living in India today, singing songs written in Estonia doesn’t necessarily give students any greater sense of how that music is connected to what Estonians are doing right now, how that music may have influenced their musical culture, how the story in that music shapes and reflects their beliefs, and, importantly for today’s fast-paced, global society, how that music will shape the actions of those people in the future.
Enter the Golden Record Project.
I learned about this wonderful project through Nick Jaworski’s “Moving Forward With Music” blog. His idea was to use the Golden Record of the Voyager spacecraft as a tool to discuss how humankind represents itself to the greater universe with sound. He asks students to create their own track listing, so to speak. How would they choose the music? Why should certain songs be included over others?
With this as the template for the course, I decided to add an additional component. What if the students in my high school general music class not only had to create their own Golden Record, but they had to collaborate with students who would have an entirely different cultural and historically background influencing their musical tastes and preferences? It’s easy for a bunch of Americans raised on the Beatles and Backstreet Boys to agree that “Imagine” is one of the greatest songs of all time. What if their partner didn’t speak English, didn’t grow up singing hymns in church, didn’t grow up with western tonality as the only dominant cultural influence on popular music?
Bearing this in mind, we began an investigation of South Korean music. As it turns out, South Koreans have very different ideas about what music is most representative of humanity and what should be included on a Golden Record. It isn’t all Bach, Brahms and Beethoven. It doesn’t include Chuck Berry, Madonna or Lady Gaga. Even more important for students, some of the artists and instruments chosen were completely unheard of to students in Iowa. Now there’s a dialogue.
You may ask, “How do students dialogue with people half a world away?”
Why, technology of course! Once we found a school willing to partner, Google Drive, Skype, and a few other translation and technology tools provided the means to make this project a reality. Our students worked asynchronously with their partners in Korea. They began creating rough drafts of lists and supplied their reasons for inclusion. The documents they created often included links to videos or recordings for the other partner to listen to and discover. Students then began a dialogue on the music that they had supplied for each other. Starting with a simple word document in Google Drive, the partners would write ideas down and then comment on each item with questions, ideas, or suggestions using Google Drive’s editing mode. Once an outline had been sketched and a general list had been agreed upon, each side started adding multimedia (photos, videos, audio tracks), the information started being put together on Prezi, another service that allows multiple people to edit the same document simultaneously. This type of visual brainstorming and “scrapbooking” of ideas and information really helped projects come to life in the eyes and ears of the students. After several rounds of this dialogue, we hosted a live video conference using Skype. Students had the chance to speak to each other for the first time, chat about their projects, share stories about the music they liked and listened to, and to also give tours of their school buildings.
Admittedly, the finished project was not what I had originally expected, but it certainly made a major difference for the students. What started as an abstract understanding of music and people from across the world ended with personal connections, meaningful conversations, thoughtful dialogue, and, dare I say it, deeper appreciation for music (both foreign and familiar) than before. And to think that all of this was made possible by simply using technology that can be found in most schools and even in most students’ pockets.
When I was in middle school my teachers had all of the students use the same colored folder for each subject: red for math, green for science, blue for social studies, etc. Each subject was distinct and set apart from the other. Each subject was taught by a separate teacher in a separate room. My education through college continued in much this same way. This project was, is, a strange and new world for me. I was trained to teach music in a way that keeps music in its own separate folder, so to speak. But, in a world where the lines between nations, languages, ethnicities and other forms of identity and distinction increasingly blur and blend, it seems appropriate that this musical experience has taken the subject out of its assigned space and placed it in new contexts, creating new connections to fit a world full of “newness”.
How our students communicate and relate to one another twenty years from now will surely look different from how we do it now.
In this way, I feel that this project has practical, as well as academic, utility for my students’ futures. Music serves as catalyst to a larger conversation about how to live in a smaller world. It is why I will keep using this project in the future and why I think we, as music educators, should explore other ways to cross geographic, cultural, and subject boundaries with our teaching.
We often think of music and technology as existing in separate vacuums that occasionally collide, one aiding the expansion and access to the other. However, most of these connections are based not on musical understanding, but on musical consumption, novelty, and passive viewership. Technology and music have the potential to communicate more than just musical ideas across global boundaries. We can use both music and technology as the catalyst for a greater conversation about human society, the future, cultural values, and historical perspective, asking questions that develop ownership more than viewership, creation over consumption.
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