Monster Electric needs your help!

We should all be familiar with the term ‘monster’. We might think of them as a gigantic purple-furred creature with fangs and a frightening face or even come into contact with a physical one in our lifetimes. Running riot in our imaginations as children, growing older we forget about our furry friends or foes.


The question is, are they mythical? Are they nightmarish?



Read more

'The Ambassadors of Tomorrow' - Q&A with Robin Browning

Interview with SÓN Artistic Director

Change the world? Let's work with the youngsters - the ambassadors of tomorrow!

Why did the eWaste threat prompt conductor Robin Browning to action? We talk to the SÓN Artistic Director and find out what inspired him to shape the eWaste Project

Why eWaste?

Like a lot of people, I’ve grown concerned about environmental issues over recent years and struggle to feel like I’m doing the right thing, let alone anything of real impact. I’ve seen huge changes in people’s attitudes towards the planet, and towards recycling in particular. I’m not an ardent campaigner for global change, nor a terribly political animal, but reckon I’ve been doing my bit and aim to hold myself accountable for my actions.

Having said all that, the concept of electrical and electronic waste wasn’t on my radar at all really – apart from being dimly aware of things like a growing kitchen drawer of old phones, a basket of speaker cables, wondering what to do with that old lamp over there, etc. Then I met Ian Williams, one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, and Professor of Applied Environmental Science at University of Southampton. Discussing all sorts of possibilities, Ian opened my eyes to the scale of the global eWaste problem – why it was occurring, how it was worsening, and how few people seemed to be aware of it.

This was a matter of months ago, so right at the time when Greta Thunberg was widely known, plastics in the oceans a news topic of real significance, and Extinction Rebellion making a big impact. Yet I was shocked that electrical waste – despite figures showing it as the number 1 waste stream throughout the world – received far less media coverage than it warranted.

Conversations with Ian convinced me pretty quickly that this was an issue in need of far greater exposure, and that – between us – we had the means to do something about it. To cut a long story short, the ‘TRACE’ Project was born, supported by University of Southampton’s EPSRC Impact Accelerator Account. ‘TRACE’ stands for Transitioning to a Circular Economy, and aims to make people aware of how much change we can all make by reusing, re-purposing and simply fixing items – as well as sharing them – rather than discarding and replacing.

The SÓN eWaste Project

The youngsters in this project have made it all happen. They can be proud that it all came from them. It’s their response to a global issue, it’s their message and it’s their way of telling it

Robin Browning

Why was it so important to make it an education project?

Once funding was secured, we worked in tandem with artist Susannah Pal – who specialises in a visual artist’s response to eWaste – and began plotting the vision for TRACE over the next few months. Anca Campanie – SÓN Associate Director – and I worked together to agree our part of the project, and brought the SÓN team on board to push things forwards.

From the get go, we had clear ideas about how best we could impact lives, catalyse change and bring about some really lasting environmental awareness. The project, to my mind, had ‘education’ written all over it from the moment it began. Rather than commission a new piece for the formal concert stage (for example), we devised and began delivering a large-scale, 4 month education project, designed to culminate in a powerful, final performance of music that the youngsters had all played a key part in writing.

It’s worth stressing this fundamentally important aspect here: the students have real ownership of the entire thing, and they can be proud that it all came from them. In essence, it’s their response to a global issue, it’s their message and it’s their way of telling it.

So how did you begin catalysing such a response from young students?

We liaised with the staff at Otterbourne Primary, Hampshire, and began working with over 80 of the 3rd & 4th year students (ages 7 and 8). They’ve been as inspiring as any of us, and the teachers have been simply brilliant throughout, supportive, flexible and totally engaged with the project.

We began regular visits to school with Ian Williams and Alice Brock – a postrgrad research scientist at University of Southampton – to explain the global eWaste problem to children curious to know more. We invited the kids to bring in loads of their own eWaste, which we rummaged through, discussing where it might end up, what dangers it might present, the chemicals that could leach out of it, the injuries a broken case or screen might cause, and why this stuff is such a problem.

At the same time, we began workshopping ideas, stories and concepts for our final performance. We got the youngsters writing, singing, and engaging with the whole idea of waste electronics. ‘Bob the iPhone’ was born and the story expanded – where had he come from, why did he break and – crucially – where did he end up?

With workshop leaders such poet and songwriter Ricky Tart, SÓN Education Officer Ollie Downer (also a gifted choral conductor and trainer), and myself, we catalysed a catalogue of songs, rounds and raps. Alongside ‘Bob the iPhone’, another story was written about unwanted Christmas presents ending up on the scrapheap come Boxing Day due to disappointment.

And there’s more. ‘Dead Computer’ took shape from a punchy sequence of kennings – two-word micro-poems, an old-English and -Norse concept, connecting nicely with our own name of “SÓN” which is old English for “Music”. Here, the students began to personalise any electrical items they could think of, shifting them from being meaningless gadgets to having a real personality – a life, if you like.

So, a fitbit is a “step-counter” and camera a “photo-bank”. Chanting them, powerfully and rhythmically, we pitch them against another set of kennings, but this time representing the same items broken and no longer fit for purpose. A shattered phone screen becomes a “finger scratcher” and an old tv, lying in a ditch, a “soil-slopper”. The imaginations of these students, and the keen guidance of Ricky in steering it all, was incredible.

Some ended up on the cutting-room floor because we couldn’t quite make them work in the whole. One truly fabulous line from a potential rap was “Yo bro, Go Pro, no go Nintendo” – remember, this is from 7 & 8 year olds! ‘No Go Nintendo’ was, for some weeks, my working title for this whole project.

The SÓN eWaste Project

"Yo bro, Go Pro, no go Nintendo"

Some amazing rap lyrics! Remember, they're written by 7 & 8 year olds. What a response to this topic, from the ambassadors of tomorrow

Robin Browning

And what's next - what happens to all these songs?

We fuse it all into one whole piece, intertwining ambient sounds (which we’ve sampled from live electronics, some from junk the students brought in) with our string soloists, percussion and keyboard / synth players. This all links into the songs, with passages of spoken words – written and read by the children themselves – about what it all means, why we wrote what we wrote, and at the very end, what kind of world they want to grow up in.

I’m spending the next couple of weeks locked away in my studio doing probably more musical creative work than I’ve done for years. I’m really excited to create all sorts of sounds which we can weave around the children’s fabulous songs, so we can tell this very important story with maximum impact. I’ve got soundscapes coming out of my ears – now I’ve got to get them all down on paper (or Sibelius, because who uses paper these days to compose?). I’ll be using Ableton, too, setting-up rhythm tracks which the youngsters can rap over, built from both standard percussion samples and a load of more obvious, noticeably electronic sounds. So, for example, ‘Dead Computer’ will actually be built on a complex, yet flexible rhythm backing of old computer bongs, iPhone lock sounds, keyboard clicks, doorbells, car alarms, Mario Cart, speak-and-spells – that kind of thing. Funky and a bit retro. With 85 kids chanting rhythmically over the top.

But we’ve also got lines for strings and live percussion, all mixed in with these electronic sounds. Plus more standard songs involving simple choral rounds, where we divide the choir in two, as well as a really powerful final rap, a kind of grime hip-hop track, about a massive robot made of old discarded junk who befriends and rescues all his sad, unused electrical friends. It’s called ‘Monster Electric’ and features lines such as “He turns Dr Dre Beats into beatbox mics, fairy-lights into Ferrari lights”, featuring 6 rapper MC’s from the school. Brilliant!

Finally, what will become of the project beyond the final performance?

Yes! We’re mid-way through the making of a  film of the entire project – from initial sessions at the school where they first heard about electrical waste, through the brainstorming of words and building up of songs, to the final rehearsals with orchestra and eventual performances. We’ll have a film that tells the whole story of the SÓN eWaste Project through the eyes of the youngsters themselves, right up to when they’re all nestled together on the concert stage, doing something they’ve never done before – singing and rapping in public about a subject they’ve begun to really understand.

And the micro-site on which you’re reading this blog post – dedicated to the project and all associated people and ideas – will be constantly updated with material long after the final gigs. Films, interviews, soundfiles of samples and things we’ve produced, so much more.

We want to continue this way into the future, and ultimately treat this wonderful experience as a pilot for something far bigger, far more impactful, and capable of changing even more lives.

See the final performances!

2 showcase performances in March 2020

Sat 7 March 2020
The Cube, SUSU building, University of Southampton
Performances at 1330 (sold out) and 1430 (tickets still available)

Part of #SOTSEF – the University’s Science and Engineering Festival 2020

About #SOTSEFBook tickets

New team member for eWaste Project

New Marketing Intern for SÓN eWaste Project

Expanding our team as the eWaste Project gathers pace

As our performance event approaches, we’re expanding the team behind the eWaste Project to include a new Marketing Intern. We’re delighted to introduce Claudia Shaw to you all and to welcome her onto our team.

We asked her to share a little about herself, and tell us why she’s so inspired to tell others about global environmental issues

A warm welcome from me – Claudia Shaw – SÓN’s new marketing intern! With the recent Australian bush-fires storming the media in a frenzy, the emphasis on needing to take more care for our environment has proved ever more necessary. However, in a modern world, constantly evolving technologically, this encompasses a lot more than just recycling plastic. In the phrase ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’, we forget about the former and primarily focus on ‘recycle’. This in itself is good, but in recycling are we really active in helping the environment? Or do we pop our waste in the blue bins, letting it be collected on a Wednesday, in a kind of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude? The focus with #eWaste is to encompass all three – reduce flippant electronic consumption, reuse components that are still functional and recycle those which aren’t or not of use any more – it really is that simple!

In my third year at the University of Southampton studying English and History, I have a passion for writing, the arts and the environment. Along with many students my age, I am conscious in reducing my own carbon footprint with food that I buy and eat (flex-itarian, if you will) with trying to cut down on animal produce. Similarly, Stacey Dooley’s investigation on the fashion industry’s secrets or entrepreneur Grace Beverley pushing for attention to the harms of fast fashion on the environment, has re-shaped my own interests in fashion and sustainability. e-Waste is also a topic swept under the carpet as with more technological developments, pressure to keep up to date with the newest iPhone – even though yours is perfectly fine! – appears to be a social MUST like food and water. My aim is to keep updates on the project that attempts to voice and tackle these issues.

I am ready to take on my new internship role for SÓN and am excited at what their eWaste project has to offer. An exciting project with an electric 80 children singing, it is certainly a break from the mundane posters or advertisements that make concerns about the environment and waste like a chore, out of our control or just pretty fluttering colours whilst minds gawking at the television sets question whether they have time to make a cuppa or not. The project is a refreshing resonance. A visit to the school earlier this week to get a grasp for the songs and children involved in this project was exuberant – I was overwhelmingly impressed. The children’s energy for Monster Electric and Dead Computer are techno triumphs!

The flickering flame that burns within me was ignited with when I read about this project. Watching Alicia Keys’ opening performance at the Grammys this week, she is correct in claiming art and music are universal languages that speak to everyone. Therefore, song in this SÓN Project is a perfect medium to project issues of eWaste and the environment with the voices, arguably, most important: the children of the future.