On Chambers, Mansions And Rivers

Please enjoy this latest report for BBC Radio 4 and The World Service on the subject of last weekend’s series of performances in the bascule chambers underneath Tower Bridge. Hidden below the waterline deep underneath one of London’s most iconic structures, these cathedral-like spaces serve to contain the gigantic counterweights during the lifting of the bridge’s central span (each weighs about a thousand tonnes or something ridiculous like that), but until last weekend few indeed would have been aware of their existence and fewer still would have been granted the privilege of climbing down into the chamber for a closer inspection. In fact, for the many hundreds of people strolling along the bridge around lunchtime last Saturday, the only clue that something out of the ordinary was about to occur below them would have been the sounds of distant brass pulsing mysteriously from somewhere beneath their feet. Or perhaps a Robin The Fog-shaped blur that nearly ploughed into them while heroically sprinting the final 200 yards to the entrance down to the chamber – thanks entirely to the incompetent, ever-delayed machinations of the accursed Southern Railways. Sorry if that was your umbrella…

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The initial inspiration for the project came from a recording of this vintage machinery at work that was originally made by Ian Rawes of The London Sound Survey. Iain Chambers’ coming across it proved to be the catalyst for an original composition ‘Bascule Chamber’ in which the brass section of the Dockside Sinfonia play along with the sound of the bridge to uncanny and beguiling effect. Before long this unlikeliest of stages was set for a series of concerts featuring two more original compositions by Iain and an interpretation of John Cage’s ‘Aria’ by the soprano Catherine Carter; each performed live and taking full advantage of the chamber’s unique acoustics.

View of the bascule chambers from the gantries. Photo by Steve Stills

View of the bascule chambers from the gantries. Photo by Steve Stills

It doesn’t take much imagination to realise just how far up my street (or hidden somewhere beneath it) all this activity is, particularly as I’m a huge fan of both The London Sound Survey and Langham Research Centre, the radiophonic performance group of which Iain is a key member; so I’m aware of the potential for accusations of bias. Nonetheless, I feel no hesitation at all in labelling these events a triumph and it would certainly appear that the enthusiastic reception from the crowd bears me out. Equally, so does the many disappointed people I’ve spoken to since who didn’t manage to get tickets. All I can say is that I hope my report gives some flavour of what went on down there and that apparently the concerts will be broadcast in full on good old Resonance FM at some point soon. Plus you can find both of these estimable gentlemen discussing the project and much more on the London Sound Survey blog here.

Composer Iain Chambers and sound recordist Ian Rawes on site comparing notes. Poorly-focused photography by me.

Composer Iain Chambers and sound recordist Ian Rawes on site comparing notes. Poorly-focused photography by me.

VespertineYork

Moving on and continuing a busy weekend (though thankfully with less sprinting), I’d also like to present a few images from last Sunday’s sound installation at Mansion House in St. Helen’s Square as part of Vespertine York‘s latest sold-out event: A new sound-work created entirely from magnetic tape and the various ticks and chimes of the numerous antique clocks that until recently had populated this now empty shell.

Vespertine cordially invites the people of York and beyond, to a guided tour of the Mansion House with a twist! This event will be a rare opportunity to see the Mansion House as it is awaiting renovation; the unfurnished, raw building will provide the perfect backdrop for performances and music.

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The source material was collected a month or so beforehand. In the intervening period all of these vintage timepieces were removed, along with the furniture, carpets, paintings and other fixtures, pending the building’s year-long closure for extensive refurbishment. It was a strange experience indeed to bring these recently gathered sounds back to the newly bare walls and exposed floorboards – almost like filling this grand building with the memories of its own departed furniture. The results were very positively received by the groups of visitors touring the house, with one even moved to compare it to the soundtrack to Tarkovsky’s Solaris. That, my friends, is one way to make me very happy!

Vesp - installation 2

Also on the bill were the truly remarkable Sheffield-based anti-choir Juxtavoices and the multi-instrumentalist duo McWatt – both well worth checking out – plus food, drink, games, stories and more. And all for free! No wonder it sold out so quickly! Thanks very much to everyone who came along and showed their support and to Vespertine York for being such amazing hosts and for giving us such an awesome space to play with. It’s the latest in a series of events they’re curating, so their website is definitely worth a perusal and you’re advised to book your tickets early.

Vesp Sunset

And as a last-minute edition to today’s business, I’m happy to announce that I make an appearance in the latest issue of Caught By The River‘s regular publication An Antidote To Indifference, writing about some of my adventures in tape, alongside articles by Melissa Harrison, Chris Watson, Richard King, Emma Warren and many more. This is the second issue to be edited by legendary sonic curator Cheryl Tipp of the British Library’s Sound Archive (amongst many other goodly works) and thus promises to be even more of a cracking read than usual. Pre-order your copy here.

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News of the new Howlround album arriving imminently. But after all this I might want a nice lie down first…


Saisonscape: Decay – Touring With William Basinski And Kepla

Now that the dust has settled, please take a moment to enjoy some sights and sounds from last week’s Saisonscape: Decay tour, where Howlround played a trio of dates across the UK alongside the great sound artist and tape-loop manipulator Mr. William Basinski and recent Quantum Natives signing Kepla. The video and images shown here were from the final night of the tour at The Kazimier in Liverpool, which was perhaps the most visually impressive of the three, with the loops teetering and wobbling upwards from the stage and disappearing over the balcony. It’s a miracle the whole thing held together at all, quite frankly, even with all the scaffolding parts and other heavy metallic items lying about backstage that we borrowed to stop the tape jumping off the spools…

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My enormous gratitude must go to Art Assembly, in particular the amazing Julia Dempsey, as well as Messers Basinski and Kepla for being such affable and entertaining touring companions, not forgetting Victoria Hastings for doing such a fantastic job of documenting the whole thing. More photos to follow, no doubt, but I think it’s this one that makes me the most proud:

Saisonscape Decay Line-up

Must also thank everyone at The Kazimier as well as Cafe Oto in London and Salford’s Islington Mill for their warm welcome. I haven’t had a moment to go through all the recordings yet, but doubtless more audio from these events will surface before long. The response from the crowd each night was hugely encouraging and bodes well for the imminent release of our new album…. but more on that later!

Oto


How We Used To Live And How He Used To Loop

Not quite sure where the last week has gone, but here is my report for BBC World Service and Radio 4 regarding the recently released documentary How We Used To Live. Directed by Paul Kelly, written by Travis Elborough and Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne, with a beautiful original soundtrack supplied by the band’s Pete Wiggs, it’s an archive movie that has been getting some splendid reviews, including five whole stars in The Guardian.

Produced to promote a screening of the film with a live soundtrack at BFI Southbank in London as part of their London On Film season, it’s appearance on these pages is indeed a little late to be of any practical use, but the season continues throughout the summer with many other delights in store and I’m reliably informed that How We Used To Live will be imminently available on DVD via Heavenly Films. I certainly hope so, it’s one of my very favourite cinematic experience of the last couple of years. Have a listen while admiring the following stills to whet your appetite:

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In other exciting news I was granted a rare insight this week into the working methods of the late musicologist, instrument-builder and experimental musician Hugh Davies, with a trip to the Science Museum‘s labyrinthine storage facility at Blythe House in West London. Their vast archive contains a number of his original tape loops and other equipment donated by his estate, and it was my job as a reel-to-reel tape loop aficionado to help with their cataloguing and digitising, along with Aleksander Kolkowski (who you might remember was responsible for the museum’s Denman Exponential Horn exhibition last year) and Dr. James Mooney of Leeds University, whose research project into Hugh’s work was the catalyst for all this activity.

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The Science Museum Revoxes are a good deal shinier than mine, with lots of extra knobs. And knobs are important.

It was a task not without its challenges as much of the splicing tape used to create the loops had dried out completely over the years, requiring careful replacing – but in a way didn’t cause any damage to an already aged and brittle format, which required a most steady hand. Much of the material appeared to date from the early 1970s, though some may have been a decade or more older than that and indeed I worried that some of the tapes would be completely unplayable – apart from anything else it’s very hard to play even fresh tape loops without damaging them a little, they don’t give up their secrets easily. Thankfully they displayed tremendous fortitude and and nearly all of the loops in the collection rewarded our patience with some strange audio treasure of one sort or another. Housed in a variety of domestic cardboard boxes (including the former home of some Zartbitte Schokolade, complete with Hugh’s hand-written notes, doodles and another annotations, it was a humbling to think that we might be the first people to hear this material in over four decades. And of how much longer the sounds buried within these loops might have survived had they not been captured digitally. The boxes have disappered back into the archive and who knows when they’ll next see the light of day? It could be another thirty years!

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Who better for this job, quite frankly?!

Obviously I’m unable to share any of this material with you – it’s not my research! But James was very excited by our findings, as we all were, and I’m sure at some point in the future he’ll be ready to share them with the wider world. Until that happens, I’ll leave you with a classic short clip of Hugh at work, including some virtuoso egg-slicer action!