Bush House Lifts And Glasgow Arches: Two Installations

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Some of the visitors to this site may be aware that when not fiddling around making funny noises, I occasionally draw a wage making current-affairs based noises for the BBC World Service, which last week marked it’s 80th birthday with a number of special events occuring around it’s headquarters, the iconic Bush House building in Aldwych, Central London.

Not only was all this revelry a celebration of the World Service’s continued existence in spite of eight under-funded decades of budget cuts, service closures and various attempts at character assassination by The Daily Mail; it was also to bid a very fond and rather sad goodbye to Bush House, it’s home for the past 70 of those years. One of the most interesting of these events was Tuesday’s ‘Farewell to the Stairwell’, a programme of musical performances celebrating the many different cultures and musical talents of the people working in this remarkable building. A large number of staff from various departments across the World Service contributed their skills, and throughout the day the walls and ceilings echoed to the sound of music from Burundi, Kyrgyzstan, France, Bulgaria, Uzbekistan and many other exotic locations. And of course I managed to work it into an excuse for yet more fiddling…

Fiddling? Oh, yes. My own contribution was a sound installation that played throughout the day in the Bush House lifts, consisting of a number of recordings I’d made using the sounds of the stairwell itself as a source material. A laminated poster (it had to be laminated to avoid becoming a ‘fire hazard’) explained to passengers just what was going on, hopefully concisely enough to be read in the brief span of a lift journey to office or studio:

“…The sounds you are hearing were created entirely using recordings made in the Centre Block Stairwell, often in the small hours of the morning; featuring a squeaky door handle and the sounds of someone whistling. These recordings were then taken into the studio to be looped and edited using one of the surviving tape machines. No artificial reverb or echo has been added, these are purely the sounds of the space. A Work in Progress….”

To add a little more detail (as hopefully you’re in less of a hurry), the Portland Stone-constructed walls and high ceilings of Bush House’s Centre Block make for a wonderfully resonant space and this lift installation was the first fruits of a recent project of mine making recordings in the stairwell and landings of Centre Block, often at night, using a portable hard-disk recorder or mobile phone. These recordings were then taking down to the basement studio S6 and dubbed onto quarter-inch tape. As I only had two tape machines at my disposal, loops are created by bouncing the recordings between the two and playing them back at different speeds, gradually working them into rough compositions. Thanks to the lovely sonorous qulaity of the stairwell, it takes surprisingly little effort to get some genuinely strange and otherworldly sounds from a recording of something as simple as a door handle. The only thing I needed do was adjust the speed of the playback and the arrangements of the sounds into loops and phrases. The natural echo of the space did the rest.

The following is a wildtrack recording I made by riding up and down in the lift a few times during the evening. I was really pleased with how the recordings blended in with the natural sounds of Bush House, not just the usual hustle and bustle, but a special stairwell performance on the second floor landing by a group of Georgian singers which fades in and out of the recording as the lift passes that particular floor.

I received some really great feedback from various passengers in the lift over the course of the day, some of whom compared it to Whale song and reportedly abandoned their various errands to ride several times up and down the building listening. A couple of very geneorous folk even drew analogies to the work of BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which made me very proud indeed. Others were slightly more disturbed, complaining that they thought the sounds they were hearing were the result of some sort of elevator breakdown. This is possibly due to the oversight that although there are ten lifts throughout Bush House, only the four in Centre Block were equipped with an explanatory poster. Apologies to anyone who was spooked, having once spent forty minutes stuck somewhere between the third and fourth floors of the North-East Wing, I can readily sympathise.

I must say a huge thank-you to one Lucy Gibson, for organising an incredible day of events all over the building, of which my installation was only a part, arranged at the very last minute (due to my own tardiness!); and to Clive, Vince and Dave in the Operations room for going to considerable efforts to pull it off. I still have a lot of work to do before I’m ready to properly unleash the finished results, but I hope this has whetted a few appetites in the meantime. It really is amazing what you can do with a spool of tape, a mobile phone and a sense of adventure!

The other news is that Factual Uncertainties, a spoken word ‘list’ piece by Leila Peacock (for which I produced the sound design) was selected to be part of this year’s Sound Thought Festival at The Arches in Glasgow. The connection between this and my lift installation is that this piece was also recorded in the basement of Bush House, where I do all my aforementioned extra-curriuclar fiddling. You may remember my writing about ‘Factual Uncertainties’ on this site back in October, when the Berlin-based branch of the ‘Don’t Panic!’ website ran it as a feature. If not, or if you just didn’t quite make it to Glasgow in time, here it is again:

The annual festival of mould-breaking music, sound and performance returns.

Brought to you by Glasgow University postgraduate students and the Arches, Sound Thought is two days of interdisciplinary compositions, performances, installations, presentations and provocations, travelling across disciplines, between genres and way beyond expectations. [...] Expect blindfold journeys through dark corridors, noise, argument, pop song endurance and outright murder, lost correspondence to Chris De Burgh, ultra-minimal improv, the most exciting chamber ensemble in the country, stupidity, seriousness, and music for understanding, transgression and change…

As part of the festival, the piece was played on Friday 19.00-21.45 in Arch 6 and then again on Saturday 11.00-19.00 in the Foyer. Naturally there was a whole bunch of other exciting stuff to see and hear as well, so why not have a gander at the online brochure to find out what you missed?

One thing you definitely haven’t missed yet is Leila’s ‘Anatomy Of Invention‘ exhibition, which is running in the same venue until 31st March. Apologies for once again quoting verbatim from the press bumph, but they just write these things so much better. Besides, everyone else does it:

A series of prints which takes as its premise a small book of Scottish Country Dances which the artist found in a charity shop. Filled with immaculate diagrams for over 150 different folk dances, each is a map of physical intent – a potential narrative.

Like performance scores, each delineates a line of intention for the participants relying on a highly complex system of symbols to be read correctly. Like Beckett’s silences, Hanne Darboven’s numbers and Emily Dickenson’s dashes, here symbols are a way of writing without describing – turning print into action, dashes into dances.

Written in colloquial Scots, the humorous names speak of a vibrant oral culture: Kiss Under The Stars, Land O’Cakes, Soldier’s Joy, Wicked Willy, Rest And Be Thankful… In stark contrast to the grids of symbols, each name lies in wait like a story, as yet unwritten by the feet which will dance them.

Such an exhibition would be well worth the extortionate price of a cross-country rail ticket or the hellish discomfort of a 14-hour National Express nightmare, I can assure you (in case it’s not clear, I’ve stopped quoting the press release). And hopefully they’ll be more to follow, as Leila is veritable ideas machine, and looking set to be increasingly in demand this year. But in spite of this, I’m still  hoping to convince her to take some time out from her hectic schedule and contribute one of her lovely monologues to this Bush House sounds project. Fingers crossed.

In fact, I’ll address her directly: Will you help, Leila? Will you?! No pressure!


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