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Fairyland to unveil Fairy Music Farm

Oakland Tribune , Aug 22, 2008 by Martin Snapp

THIS WEEKEND, Children's Fairyland will unveil its first new attraction in four years -- Fairy Music Farm, a brightly lighted, 118-foot-long tunnel featuring one-of-a-kind musical instruments on the wall that children can play as they pass by.interior of Fairy Music Farm Tunnel

The instruments include chimes, gongs, a wall harp and a 3-foot- diameter "rain wheel" that the kids can turn in either direction, causing tiny ball bearings to ride to the top and drop down, making pleasing sounds as they fall.

"Our challenge was how to keep the kids moving through the tunnel," said Daniel Schmidt of El Sobrante, who designed the instruments. "So we created instruments that are activated by the kids stroking them as they pass, just as they do naturally with a stick when they walk past a fence."

Though each instrument is unique, all of them can be inexpensively repaired with readily available materials.

"The wall harp uses regular guitar strings, and the chimes are made from standard metal tubing that you can get at any hardware store," Schmidt said.

Adorning the tunnel's walls are murals depicting fairies from a diversity of cultures and ethnicities, working together as they use music to nurture giant fruits and vegetables.

"Fairies usually have a reputation for being mischievous," said muralist Biliana Stremska of Oakland. "But our fairies are very cooperative and helpful."

The fairies are modeled on real kids, some on Stremska's son's pre-school playmates, others on pint-sized park visitors. "With their parents' permission, of course," she said.

Fairy Music Farm was created by an interdisciplinary team of four local artists --

Schmidt, Stremska and two Berkeleyans: composer Richard Jennings and artist Lynne-Rachel Altman, the team's leader.

"We started with 24 competing proposals, including a really impressive presentation from some folks at Pixar, but this one floated to the top," said C.J. Hirschfield, Fairyland's executive director. " It was only later that I found out why: They consulted the experts -- their own kids."

"The children are our collaborative partners," said Altman. "From the very start of this project we ran our ideas past them, and they told us what would work and what wouldn't."

Altman's 10-year-old daughter, Raffi, suggested making the fruits and veggies in the murals as big as a kid.

"She said they should be big so when you walk through the tunnel you'd feel like one of the fairies," Altman said.Fairyland Music Box

Outside the tunnel's entrance is one of Fairyland's storybook boxes, featuring a song with music by Jennings, lyrics by Altman:

"Fairy farm, grow my little song/Plant it in the ground, tend it all day long/Hear the beat of fairy wings /As we help all growing things."

The song is performed by Jennings' 10-year-old twins, Zoe and Max, and he credits their feedback for its composition too.

"Whenever I heard Max walking around the house whistling a phrase or Zoe singing it, I knew I've got something that works."

It was through their children that the team met each other in the first place.

"I know Lynne-Rachel because our children were in the same pre- school co-op," said Stremska. "And she knew Richard because their children go to the same elementary school. He brought in Daniel, and now Daniel's daughter, Pilar, baby-sits our children."

Fairy Music Farm kids on benchThey also inspired each other.

"I was singing Richard's song as I was designing the courtyard in front of the mural," Altman said. "That's how I got the idea of reproducing the music in terrazzo, which is glass letters set in concrete.

"Biliana helped me a lot in the design, too," she added. "It's been very collaborative. In fact, this is much bigger than the four of us. We've gotten input from a lot of directions."

Fairy Music Farm is located between the Pirate Ship and Play Island. It's a total re-imagining of the old Thumbelina's Tunnel, which had been closed for the last 30 years because it was too dark and scary.

"As a child, I was scared of that tunnel because kids would run through it screaming, and I had a visceral reaction for years," said Altman. "So taking a space that was loud and scary and transforming it into a place where people have a positive auditory experience was very important to me."kid playing chimes in tunnel

Fairy Music Farm was funded in large part by the city's Public Art Program, with money from Oakland Measure DD.

Hirschfield said she was floored when she went hat-in-hand to Public Art Coordinator Steve Huss and project manager Christin Hablewitz, and they gave her more than twice the money she had asked for.

"How often does that happen?" she said.

"It was an easy decision," explained Hablewitz. "This is a model for what public art can be."

Most of the money went for materials. For the artists, it's been a labor of love.

"We did this for our kids -- and the kids of Oakland," said Jennings. "Maybe Max and Zoe can bring their own kids here someday and say, 'Hey, that's me singing!' "

Reach Martin Snapp at