A marvellous array of containers at the Manchester International Festival holds magical musical experiences for children of all ages.
Music Boxes links Abu Dhabi Festival to Manchester
A woollen finger puppet in the shape of a bee sweeps into the field of vision of a tiny baby. She follows it, transfixed, as operatic voices mimic its movements. The bee settles by the baby's hands, but there's no sting in this particular tale. The child touches the bee and beams a heart-meltingly wide smile of delight.
This kind of gorgeous moment is a regular occurrence at Manchester International Festival's Music Boxesevent, a co-commission between MIF, the BBC, Salford City Council and Abu Dhabi Festival - which means the capital can expect a version of the show in 2012.
Billed as an adventure into the world of sound and music for the very young, nine companies have brought work specifically designed for children to Manchester, setting up everything from ukulele workshops to interactive storytelling within the confines of a cluster of cargo containers.
True, the prospect of hanging out at a venue consisting of structures more readily associated with a major shipping terminal might sound terribly industrial. But Music Boxes' real success is to make such spaces - more accustomed to holding cardboard boxes than immersive theatre, after all - seem like the most magical places on earth.
But back to the bee. It plays a major part in Scottish Opera's contribution to Music Boxes - a show for babies aged 6-18 months called BabyO. Interestingly, the company wanted the piece to introduce babies to the association between movement and sound, but was keen not to be completely literal at the same time. "We didn't want a cartoony thing, with ducks going 'quack' and so on," says Jane Davidson, the company's director of education. "So it doesn't have a narrative really, not least because there's no point when your audience doesn't talk. But it is set in a garden full of things that perhaps babies have encountered, and I have to say they are always totally fascinated by the combination of the movement and the sound."
Of course, hearing is actually one of the first senses we develop in the womb. And so Scottish Opera took it upon themselves to try to find out what babies respond to in terms of pitch and dynamics. That raises a further question: how do we know what babies enjoy listening to at all? After all, it's not as if they can tell us.
"Well, the facial expressions tell their own story," laughs Davidson. "Our classically trained singers aren't going at it full blast because it's such an intimate space, but we were really interested, too, in something that was perhaps more contemplative and calming. And we've got a pretty sound academic base with this. Rachel Drury, our composer, is doing a PhD looking at how music impacts on learning, and we've had the input of some other university research, too."
All of which might make it sound like an over-theorised piece, but the joy of BabyO lies also in how much fun it is. "You've never heard so much laughter in your life," confirms Davidson. "There's one section where we have a feather dropping to earth to the sound of one chord. It ends in a 'bump', and it's the loveliest thing to hear these real bellylaughs from the babies - and the adults, too. It's just gorgeous."
Everyone leaves BabyO with a four-track CD - complete with feather - so the learning continues at home. And when the Music Boxes' production co-ordinator Helen Johnson shows me around the site, she's keen to emphasise the potential for this to be just the first step of a lifelong "adventure into sound and music".
"It's not just about providing a fleeting experience for babies and young children, but giving them benefits long after Manchester International Festival has ended," she says.
To prove her point, she takes me to the Pop O'Motion container. Inside, slightly older children are tapping away at laptops. But this isn't a depressing vision of their Facebook-obsessed future. They are busy creating a highly personalised version of an animated music video for the pop band Cornershop's song What Did the Hippie Have in His Bag?. When the session is over, they will also be able to take the finished product away with them.
Pop O'Motion has another level, too; the song was written by the Cornershop frontman Tjinder Singh in collaboration with a local primary school. "That was really interesting," says Singh. "In terms of the story of the song, it was all about getting them away from what their friends were suggesting and encouraging them to think for themselves. That to me was not just an exercise that worked for a song about a hippie, but a life lesson too."
Singh says that the creative environment in the school was like a hothouse of creativity, and it certainly feels as though some of that has rubbed off on the children at Music Boxes this week. What he's very keen to stress is that, as someone who wrote Brimful Of Asha - which went to number one in 1997 - he very definitely didn't dumb down the music or the lyrics for What Did the Hippie Have in His Bag?
"Oh no. I think kids see right through that," he says. "This is about allowing them to do something very different from what they're usually exposed to. Any sort of memorable experience you get as a child, you cling to and remember, don't you? Education is about having fun, about giving you a reason to do these things for yourself, perhaps. That's the level all the boxes, hopefully, should reach."
And as we finish our tour with the quite beautiful Dreamtime - in which the Belgian artist Inne Goris asks you to sit in a small white tent and create your own narrative to the sounds and lights beamed into the space - it's pretty obvious that Singh's hopes have been realised. The baby transfixed by the bee may not remember, in years to come, her trip to see BabyO. But somewhere, deep down, it will have had a lasting effect.