The Agit Reader

The Langley Schools Music Project
Innocence & Despair

March 8th, 2018  |  by Dorian S. Ham

Langley Schools Music Project, Innocence & DespairThere are things you can’t predict: the return of the Flat Earth Society, “raw water,” Three 6 Mafia winning an Oscar, etc. In that vein, who would think that private press recordings of Canadian children singing would be a hot ticket item? But that was the case when a chance discovery at a thrift store led to putting one of the songs on a mix CD destined for the ears of WFMU’s “outsider music” enthusiast, Irwin Chusid. That led to Brian Linds, the discoverer, to send nine more songs, which instigated Chusid’s search to track down the origins of the record, leading him to Hans Fenger, the music teacher responsible, as well as a second LP. The journey could have stopped there, but Chusid had a bigger vision. With permission from Fenger, the school system, and the singers he was able to contact, he and Bar/None released the two albums as a new collection titled Innocence & Despair, credited to The Langley Schools Music Project in 2001. The project quickly became a cult hit and critical favorite with many celebrity fans, including David Bowie and Neil Gaiman. Now, 15 years after that release, Bar/None is revisiting the project with a vinyl release including expanded liner notes, and for the first time on the domestic release, the entirety of the recordings from which the albums were made. (Previously, they were available only on the European release.)

The Langley Schools Music Project has had quite an extended life for something that wasn’t intended to be heard outside of the school system. As a new teacher in 1976, Fenger was looking for a way to make music education interesting and fun for students. Armed with enthusiasm and the teachings of Geoff Orff, whose self-designed instruments are heavily featured on the recordings, he went about recording 60 students from four schools live to two-track tape in a school gymnasium between 1976 and 1977. The resulting two albums were intended to be mementos for the participants.

But what presumably gave the albums life beyond the novelty of the story is that the song selection is probably as far from “kiddie” music as one could imagine. Fenger has said that the students helped lead the song selection with more mature choices than one would imagine. So while of course much of it is shaped by the popular music of the time like the “fun” music of the Beach Boys, there is an undercurrent of melancholy that anchors the proceedings. The kids relished the opportunity to be dramatic, and that’s on full display. I mean who would program a children’s choir to sing Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” or Bowie’s “Space Oddity?” But the performances never seem gimmicky or too big for the performers. On the contrary, there’s such a lack of affect, it’s entirely disarming and charming. As part of the teaching process, Fenger discussed what the songs’ lyrics meant and the kids seemed to take the lessons to heart. They’re not just singing the songs, they’re performing them, interpreting the lyrics and reacting appropriately.

While the initial Innocence and Despair release took a “greatest hits” approach to the original albums, there were distinct difference between the two recordings. The first was focused on the full choir, while the second album brought some featured soloists to the table. It’s from the second recording session that one of the most cited songs comes from, Shelia Behman’s rendition of The Eagles’ “Desperado.” If you’re looking for the titular mood of the album, this song might that be the one that catches you off guard. With just a simple piano backing, it just might wash away years of threadbare Big Lebowski references. But if that’s not your cup of tea, the whole overall collection is charming enough to warm most hearts. Who can stay cold in the face of a raucous run-through of the Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night,” with the overenthusiastic drummer hitting the cymbals a wee bit too loud and slightly offbeat? Who can resist the bizarreness of the Klaatu (by way of The Carpenters) song “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” closing the record? If nothing else, the anomalous album is a testament to the power and joy of music and the serendipity inherent in those moments of creation.

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