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Herbie Hancock

From Devo As Potatoes To Philip Glass On Sesame Street: Childhood TV Highlights You Might Have Missed

New blog explores the wondrous world of experimental music on children's TV.

It has always been amazing what those who entertain children can get away with. The Brothers Grimm peddled parables of the utmost brutality and John K. trawled the deepest depths of repulsion with The Ren & Stimpy Show. The conventionally questionable subject matter suggests that these adults are projecting their infatuations on the single most captive audience. Yet thanks to the overclocked minds and imaginations of children, this entertainment material performs the crucial leg work of stimulating the young in ways that, say, a colorful ball or a mothers' baby talk can not.


Mike Haley offers a reason why. “To a young set of eyes and ears every stimulus is a new experience unto itself, not something to be filed into predetermined categories. They soak it all in with zero filter.” Haley runs the recently inaugurated blog Experimental Music on Children's TV. It's a simple Tumblr which catalogs the intersection of edu-tainment television with weird sounds, futuristic instruments, and musicians both famous and obscure. As a catalog, the blog offers a surprising array of approaches to entertaining, educating, and stimulating. Haley guides visitors through all sorts of ideas on technology and the child's minds through the specific lens of experimental music.

In videos of Magas and Nobunny culled from the Chicago-based public access show Chic-a-Go-Go, you'll see unkempt men in eccentric outfits generally spazzing out while performing, with children either standing around confused or dancing along. On the other end of the spectrum, you have synthesizer demonstrations, such as Thomas Dolby and Suzanne Ciani explaining the ins-and-outs of electronic sound.

While there seems to be a wide gulf between the two types of videos, both look to tap into the wonder offered by novel sound and funny noises. Nowhere is this more evident than in a clip from Sesame Street in which Herbie Hancock demonstrates his CMS Fairlight, playing around with a sample of a young Tatyana Ali's voice to the jubilation of four tiny observers.


Wonderment is exactly what carved a place for experimental music in children's television throughout history. One of the earliest figures in the crucial intersection of these disparate realms was Raymond Scott, whose “Powerhouse” you would recognize from any number of cartoons. He made a long transition from jazz composer for Looney Tunes incidental music to electronic pioneer in the '60s and '70s. You may recognize one such electronic work as a prominent sample on J Dilla's Donuts. It is not Scott's Looney Tunes compositions that appears on EMOCTV, but those of his collaboration with Jim Henson. Throughout the late '60s, Scott would score a number of Henson's experimental shorts. The one featured, “Wheels That Go,” plays with transportation and motion.

Henson's visuals here border on the avant-garde-- as did much of his work with Raymond Scott-- putting the clip in line with some Sesame Street segments about circles and the alphabet, scored by Philip Glass and Joan La Barbara respectively. Mike Haley's posits that “Children deserve to be challenged, exposed to  sh*t that is forward thinking, left field, and just straight up weird. Luckily you come across experimental music and sound a good deal in children's TV.” Haley as a father of two daughters--a three-year-old and a nine-month-old--is someone who has undoubtedly inundated himself with questions of how and when to challenge children. When do you potty train? When do you teach her how to read?


The paradox of experimental music for people these young is that they don't find it weird. Don't forget that most conventions of taste are imposed and then learned, meaning that “difficult” music would not come off as difficult to those who don't know better. “Basically an adult sees a nail and grabs a hammer. A kid see's a nail and chooses literally anything, even if it doesn't exist,” explains Haley. He adds the disclaimer “don't let your kids f*ck around with nails.” It's this openness which fascinates Haley, who sees a closing of the mind as inevitable. "The harsh reality is that most parents and grandparents jam a filter into kid's tiny brains. When they get into school and mingle, that filter spreads like a gross rash."

Reversing the old truism that television ruins minds, much programming oriented towards children actually capitalizes on a total lack of inhibition and lends kids a space to explore their overactive imaginations. Hence, we see clips of Pee Wee Herman doing his "puppet dance" to The Residents, or Devo turning into potatoes and flying away mid-song on Yo Gabba Gabba! To an adult, these bits seem like an indulgence of the absurd, but to kids, they are just an indulgence.

Culling fun from the weird goes back decades, as evidenced by an appearance by Bruce Haack--a man responsible both an oeuvre of

children's music

and a prog masterpiece called




Mr. Roger's Neighborhood

. Here, Haack makes a series of bizarre sounds on a homemade synthesizer while a dance instructor by the name of Miss Nelson gets children to jump around and pretend to ride bicycles. We see Mr. Rogers sit cross-legged, observing, with a placid smile on his face. The reverie validates Minister Rogers' his oft-stated credo, “You always make each day a special day. You know how. By just your being you.”