On the 17th September 2014 I visited Meare Fish House, near Glastonbury (OS map 182, 141 ST458417). Meare Fish House was not featured in my field guide, but theres a lot of information about it here.
It was easy to get to Glastonbury from Bristol by bus, and then I changed to a local Bakers Dolphin bus 688 between Cheddar and Street. I stopped off in Meare churchyard and had half of my packed lunch. I had read on the English Heritage page that the key to the Fish House is kept in the farmhouse nearby. I found the farmhouse right next to the church, and got my first glimpse of the Fish House in the field beyond.
The owner of the farmhouse was in, greeted me, and offered to show me the inside of the impressive old house. I was very grateful that he showed me some undated decorative writing in one of the upper rooms, and afterwards I set off for the Fish House, key in hand. It was exciting to cross the field and approach the Fish House for the first time. Slow moving black cows parted, and I opened the door. The cows remained curious and came to the windows to watch me inside.
The windows are glassless and open, and so the acoustics inside are not very contained or reverberant. Lots of air, wind, and sounds from outside freely come in – birds, tractors, aeroplanes, and the road. The upstairs floor has gone so it is like standing in a shell, with a high roof above and ornamental arches where doors have been.
When I sang into the corners and the chimney place I could find some close up amplification. My voice felt easily dispersed in the open space, especially mid range, so I veered it either high or low to hear it best.
I looked at the interpretation board inside, it said the house was built in the 1330’s, and it had a floor plan of the building. My first thought was how proportional it looked, with two upstairs rooms, one double the size of the other. It visually struck me as the ratio 2:1, which is the frequency ratio of an octave (a whole do-rae-mi scale). With this in my mind, I moved around the corners, then around the open space, singing octave leaps from different starting notes. Sometimes I found that I slipped into the interval of a fifth, which in the harmonic series is the next most stable or pure interval. Looking at the floor plan again, the 3 rooms on the ground floor and the two rooms above could be like 3:2 which is the ratio for the perfect fifth (or very nearly so). While singing I had a memory of learning how medieval cathedrals use a lot of these open ratios in their building proportions, and I visualised myself sounding-out the now absent 2:1 space above me in my airborne octaves.
I have previously learned how natural intervals had symbolic meaning to the medieval church, and early sacred compositions used octaves and fifths as the building blocks of their vocal sound-world. To me, these proportions of sound speak of the wonder of physics and the natural sonic world, and its no surprise that they have been independently discovered and revered the world over, still fundamental to so much music.
Thinking about the church’s organisation of musical intervals, lead me to reflect on the wider organisation of the church in that period – administration, control of resources, design, commerce, social structuring, and this building reflects all that. The innovative thing about this building is its layout – like an architectural version of organising sound. The second storey – the absent 2:1 floor – is the earliest existing example of building rooms above rooms, as we are now used to in two storey house building.
It may not have been used for storing fish as I had first thought, but it was a domestic house for the official in charge of the fishery, overlooking the prized fresh fish ponds which generated income for the abbey and was important to the livelihoods of locals. This was a high status building which used sophisticated building techniques, but in a small scale, like a miniature of a large house (a miniature can also be a musical form);
“The design of the house ingeniously contains the rooms found in larger houses within a compact space, combining economy with a dignity appropriate to the abbey and its official… it is a small scale version of a grander medieval house”. I thought of using my recorded octaves to try and make something resembling a scaled down choir, or chamber work, with them. Again, this seems to suit, as the upstairs was used as ‘chambers’.
Going outside the house, I saw how the ponds don’t exist now, they were drained in the 18th century, but the farmer had told me that there are semi-regular floods where the water makes itself known still.
I decided to walk back to Glastonbury along the same waterway the boats used to carry the fish to the abbey. The OS map showed a footpath straight into town, but I found lots of difficulties along the way and don’t recommend trying it. I was too late to enter the Abbey itself, so I went round to see its ruins rising above the wall of the car park.
Next field trip – Belas Knap long barrow. This will be my last field trip to new sites. After this, I will reflect on all the sites and plan the next phase of the project – creating the downloadable audio works.
For more drawings of Meare, see the gallery page.
Note: these tracks are panned to use both left and right, so for the best experience use headphones or stereo speakers.
These tracks are are composite arrangements (CA) of field recordings, or as I term them, ‘sound sketches’. Tracks labelled FR are straightforward field recordings (FR).
Thinking of the formative vocal aesthetics connected to the church of chant and drone, I wanted to see if I could use my recorded octaves to build up a kind of choral sound but in a small, form – a miniature. So I constructed my voice recordings from the Fish House to be like a chamber-choir of octaves (with the occasional fifth).
Track 1: (0.27 min) CA
This audio is constructed from the recordings I made in the corners and chimney place of the house, the sound is reflecting close to the walls. I spliced off the onsets (in breath and start of each sound) and endings of each sound I made, so that it creates a single varying texture of sound.
Track 2: (0.57 min) CA
This audio is made while moving around the open space. I layered the 5 recordings I made in the space, each containing several octave leaps, and panned them with voices to the left and 2 to the right (outlining 3:2). I varied the volume on each track so they weave in and out of prominence to the ear.
Track 3: (0.47 min) CA
This is a second audio from the open space recordings. Again I spliced off the onsets and endings of each octave leap, but this time I saved them, and used them as a foreground to a more vertically constructed and less overlapping drone.
Track 4: (0.44 min) FR
The sound of the key opening the padlock.
Track 5: (0.44 min) FR
The breath of a cow.