By Ricky O’Bannon

Like many countries that are anxious about whether a new generation will embrace classical music, America might do well to watch an ambitious new education program that will launch in the United Kingdom this October.

Ten Pieces is a 10-month education initiative by the BBC and UK arts organizations to “open up the world of classical music to children” through 10 selected masterworks ranging from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite to John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

Starting Oct. 6, free screenings of the Ten Pieces film will be shown to an estimated 100,000 primary school students. The trailer — which can’t be viewed by Internet users outside the UK — shows celebrities introducing and discussing each of the 10 works alongside space ships, animated racing cars, giant mazes, screaming green witches and a heavy dose of Fantasia-styled animation.

Ten Pieces 1
Ten Pieces 2
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Top: Animation used in Ten Pieces film. Middle: Khalil
Madovi in the film talking about John Adams' Short
Ride in a Fast Machine 
Bottom: Members of the BBC
National Orchestra of Wales on set in an aircraft hangar.

After the film launch, teachers will ask students to respond to individual pieces through their own compositions, dance, art or animation over the course of the school year. BBC Radio and various arts organizations will run workshops and programs during this time as part of the Ten Pieces initiative. Selected student projects will be showcased online and in Ten Pieces events and concerts during the summer of 2015.

The Ten Pieces initiative is extensive in its scope, but one of its key strategies in opening up classical music to children is through visual language — both in asking students to interpret the music through animation, art or dance (as well as music) and the strategy of the initial film that uses animation as well as staging and lighting effects for shots of live musicians, which wouldn’t be out of place for a rock show.

Visuals for classical music are not a new concept. Animation to accompany classical music was used by Disney’s Silly Symphonies in the 1930s, Warner Bros’ Merrie Melodies in the ’30s through the ’60s and Disney’s Fantasia in 1940. But the mixing of the two has not always been greeted with open arms.

Most film and music critics who saw Fantasia’s original release acknowledged that it certainly exposed uninitiated and young audiences to some of the great masterworks in the classical canon, but many also felt the music was no longer center stage and in some ways it was diminished.

“It is an overwhelmingly ambitious orgy of color, sound, and imagination. And, in being such it defeats itself,” wrote Chicago Tribune critic Mae Tinee in 1941. “How in heaven's name can one appreciate great music while the mind is distracted by the cavortings of gargoyles, dinosaurs, flying horses, plasms and the like? Granted that music and dreams always go together. BUT -- every listener wants to dream his own dreams.”

Later debates over adding visual language to classical music have continued to focus on Tinee’s objection. Do visuals distract or are they a useful tool by helping new audiences grab onto musical ideas that would have otherwise floated past their ears? For those who don’t have a relationship with a piece before seeing a visual, does that visual supplant any other relationship the listener can have with the piece in the same way many can’t hear Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries without thinking of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Elmer Fudd’s “Kill the Wabbit?”

In the early ’90s when orchestras first started dabbling with mounting video screens in concert halls, music professor Will Greckel argued that if orchestras didn’t adopt the visual language of the music younger audiences were listening to, orchestras could lose newer generations entirely.

“If we are to win more of the present generation into the concert halls of classical music, we must be willing to use means of communication that will break down the barriers of (what is to them) an alien musical style that is visually austere,” Greckel wrote.

Video screens and visuals are far more common in orchestra halls since Greckel authored his piece, and video artists are coming up with creative visuals. Many focus on adding a programmatic story to the music while others try to capture the emotional feel of the music, like a clever promotion for the Zurich Chamber Orchestra that turned a first violin part into a rollercoaster.

Composer and software engineer Stephen Malinowski’s Music Animation Machine allows music fans who would get lost looking at a score an intuitive visual way to understand the layers and structure of some of the great classical masterworks.

The debate over visuals in classical music is unlikely to be settled any time soon, but a pilot program for the Ten Pieces initiative does suggest that this kind of visual language mixed with classroom education can lead to greater interest from young listeners.

As for Tinee’s concern about Fantasia, the fact that Ten Pieces asks students to respond through an artistic project might also afford them the chance to “dream their own dreams” and not just settle for the visuals the film initially offers them.