Foghorn Requiem – Return Of ‘The Grand Old Man’

The Foghorn shortly before it’s big moment. It would have been VERY foolish to stand this close once things got started (though many did)

An extraordinary adventure last Saturday, witnessing The Foghorn Requiem, one of the strangest and most memorable musical performances I’ve ever encountered, standing with many hundreds of others on the cliff-top near the Souter Point lighthouse listening to horns of all sizes calling out to one another across the waves; then a mad cross-country dash while frantically editing in order to have my report ready for transmission on the World Service the following morning. Thankfully Virgin trains was running on time for once and my ridiculously over-priced ticket granted me access to a table and a power socket, so by the time my enormous fluffy microphone  and I arrived back in Euston, my three minutes destined for the morning’s editions of ‘Newshour’ were pretty much knocked into shape. I wrote a quick cue for the benefit of the presenters, made a final nip-and-tuck, gave it a metaphorical pat on the head, uploaded it onto the BBC server then fell asleep on the nightbus.

And so I’m very happy to say the following morning the Souter Point Foghorn was heard by an even greater number of people than the hundreds (thousands?) present on the shore,  those on board the huge Ferry that joined the flotilla of much smaller craft gathered off the coast, and of course the many, many thousands more within the horn’s reputed 20-mile range, who no-doubt cocked a quizzical ear to the skyline:

“For well over a century they brought comfort to some and terror to others, but in recent years the distinctive sound of the foghorn has all but disappeared from the UK coastline, rendered obsolete by modern technology. But yesterday the locals in South Shields in the North of England were treated to a sound that many thought had disappeared forever. The Souter Point Foghorn came out of retirement in spectacular fashion to lead a flotilla of ship’s horns and a sixty-piece brass band in an ambitious musical tribute to a vanishing tradition. Hundreds of spectators lined the cliff tops and covered their ears in anticipation. Foghorn expert Robin [The Fog] joined them”.

I’m not going to add too much more as I hope that the above does this ambitious event a reasonable amount of justice. Sarah Angliss, the Brighton-based composer, roboticist and all-round genius has written far more eloquently on the subject on her own blog than I could manage on this much sleep, so feel free to head over there and have a read. But I must offer huge congratulations to artists Lise Autogena, Joshua Portway and composer Orlando Gough, who worked so hard over the past couple of years to bring this incredible event to fruition. A few days before the performance Lise might indeed have commented ‘It’s crazy to work so hard for so long for something that only lasts fifty minutes’, but what an unforgettable fifty minutes they were. It began with the massed ranks of the Felling, Westoe and NASUWT Riverside Brass Bands slowly marching to their positions along the cliff path, a lone trumpeter atop the lighthouse itself and the specially-tuned horns that drifted in from the flotilla gathered off-shore. Thanks to Joshua’s unique technological innovations the musicians and ships horns were able to play in synchronisation in spite of the distances involved, creating the curious spectacle of ancient apparatus and ultra-modern GPS technology working together to serenade ‘the grand old man’.

Foghorn Brass
Thanks to technological innovations, conducting a 60-piece brass band and 50-piece flotilla was not quite the logistical nightmare it jolly well ought to be.

Ah, yes, the ‘grand old man of the sea’. The title of this page comes from a comment made by one of the Newshour Editors attempts to describe the sound of the foghorn itself which was far better than anything I’d come up with – so I decided to steal it. It was no mere sound but an actual physical presence – it simply vanquished everything in it’s path. I was standing some reasonable distance from it’s distinctive twin mouths, but every time it sounded I discovered that my upper lip would twitch involuntarily for a few minutes afterwards, a sensation entirely new to me. Rather off-putting when you have hands full of microphones and nothing to steady it with. Mind you, compared to the large number of wailing children escorted to safety by their parents every time it blew, I thought I handled the whole thing rather manfully!

Foghorn Crowd
A lovely family day out compromised only slightly by the large number of terrified children

In spite of Orlando’s evocative score, the single most memorable moment was reserved for the the climax of the performance, when the foghorn gave everything it had in one final, epic, minute-long roar which managed the curious feat of being both ear-splittingly, spine-crackingly loud and incredibly moving. It was like the death-throws of some huge monster tearing out it’s lungs until there was nothing left but a whimper. As a sound it was both frightening and fabulous. As a metaphor for the local area’s slowly dying maritime traditions and ship-building history and of all the other foghorns up and down the land falling silent in turn, it was enough to bring tears to your eyes. Not so manful after all..

This recording I’ve made in no way does it justice. But how else could I explain?

Thanks should also go to Chris Weaver and Fari Bradley for their most valuable help, Connor Walsh for somehow being simultaneously adventurous and practical and Bernice, Debbie and the PR team for literally saving my bacon on the day. Well, not literally, but the pints will certainly be on me next time they find themselves in London. Perhaps they could bring my ears with them? I think I left them somewhere on that cliff-top…


Author: Robin The Fog

Sound Artist, Radio Producer, DJ, founder and chief strategist of tape-loop proejct Howlround. Devout Catalyst.

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