Comparing and contrasting the sites I am considering focusing on
At this stage of the project, I can start to compare what I have gathered from each site in relation to the others, to help me feel out where to go forward in terms of making more developed sound works for visitors to download. At this stage I am taking particular interest in the sites listed below as having most potential for this, partly because of their contrasting qualities.
Here are some of my thoughts and impressions, in note form. They include initial thoughts about how this could develop into something approaching musical works – brainstorming forms, techniques and sensibilities which could be used as working approaches distinct to each site:
Bradford on Avon Medieval Tithe Barn – it has an immediate ‘wow’ factor – it’s a very impressive space to walk into and is very accessible. This accessibility – it being so near a town and with a car park, station etc means that it has potential for a live performance version of the project. The outside is audible inside and vice versa – sound travels within and without. The curious multiplistic nature of the echo transforms one voice into many voices – interesting in considerations of vocal polyphony. Upon entering, there is an urge to make sound in the space, particularly high notes and other supported sounds. The ease with which sound is carried across the space makes this particularly satisfying to do. The stone masons marks imply forms / formations to me (see drawings from first visit), and could be used compositionally and in spatial or choreographed performance. The site offers distance/s, sonic arrangements and the possibility of the combination of movement and sound. The barn has electricity, so could have lighting, could also plug in speakers for pre recorded sound in combination with live, and use of a laptop for live streaming.
Compositionally, this site could be explored in a number of ways. One thing is to consider the relationship between history of the church and vocal music in the context of the evolution of western harmony. The organisation of sound and naturally occurring intervals (octaves, 5ths, 4ths etc.) into chant, plainsong and later elaborations (ars nova, polyphony, polychoral, madrigals etc) remains a foundation of western musical forms. The character and structure of the space could be integrated to reflect the methodical nature of medieval construction, and the administrative culture of the church and wider society. The medieval period can be seen in terms of a struggle for organisation – provision, protection, control, and rules in the face of famine, death and human nature. Seeing God in pure harmonic intervals cannot ultimately prevent human drama; dissonances and corruption leak in, which can hint at instability, a future dissolution.
The Gloucestershire Neolithic Long Barrows – (particularly Uley, Stoney Littleton and Belas Knap, all of which you can physically enter. This may get narrowed down to one site specifically in time). The difficulty of entering, and of seeing and hearing inside, is an element of their character. They are closed in atmosphere, a closer quality in contrast to the Tithe Barn which is so open. Darkness and mystery – how much will remain unknown about these sites allows creative space for present tense experience and interpretation. These are places where you are alone with death. They have an intimacy and a presence that is very sensory. Breathlessness – the difficulty of breathing makes it hard to sing – the body is folded up, the voice can’t travel far or go high, is held close by earth, again in contrast to the tithe barn.
These barrows are in their very entering evocative of burial – you are buried when inside, you feel the weight of the earth above you, enclosed by it and its darkness. The voice makes a fittingly close, ‘dead’ sound. It has a texture of being up close due to the enclosed space, and I found myself blindly and instinctively making sounds to find my way, shaping and mapping the interior with my voice, sonar-like. Vocally, the barrows seem to respond well to glottal sounds, including coughs, and certain high and low frequencies. Middling tones tend to not resonate and be quite stationary. Would drums and chant have been used around or even in these barrows? They are very ‘bodily’ places, and I enjoyed developing ‘found rhythms’ at Belas Knap; the non-metronome nature of the breathing-pattern based rhythms I made very much had a combined origin of the body and the site. I would like to follow up the idea of rhythms with the barrows. In terms of any notes or melodic elements, I wouldn’t want to just use anything too similar to modern music, such as standard tonality. Something human sounding, implying undefined ritual, ceremony, community, ancestors, yet with an unfamiliar or ancient feeling, hinting at a musicality or intention always just beyond grasp, keeping its secrets, a mysterious form, always slipping away. I don’t want this one to be too obvious. I would want the constriction of breath to feature compositionally, as well as the sense of discovery, effort, and journey to reach the sites portrayed – encountering hills, wind etc, and in the case of Belas Knap, physical concealment and nurturing within the landscape.
Early Victorian bridge at Over, outside Gloucester – is different again to the Tithe Barn and the Barrows. It feels like a wild card. The way it comes into view is interesting and suggestive. It is glimpsed while passing by on a heavy road, like an apparition that makes you doubt your own eyes. It is actually quite accessible, not quite as much as the Tithe Barn but more so than Stoney Littleton.
It has a very strange presence, a big, heavy, grand stone construction which still essentially works – it is abandoned but not actually not a ruin of a bridge. But it is a bridge to and from nowhere, it connects no two roads anymore. This gives it a ghostly feeling despite its grandeur and density. It generates a strange feeling of being lost in time, being obsolete, of being left behind. It is romantic, uncanny, solid but ethereal, very physical yet floating. It is surrounded by weeds, overgrowth, muddy flats with car tyre marks, it has a hint of the neglected or discarded about it, of macabre or illicit happenings. It has an aspect of the gothic about it, of Victoriana. This ties in with its age – it was built between 1825 and 1830, exactly when the classical era ended and the romantic era dawned. This neo-gothic influence reached its peak between1825-1900. For me this abandoned bridge suitably evokes something ghostly, a sense of haunting the space around it, with the river flowing forlornly beneath it, like in so many tragic songs and poetry. With an air of intoxicating rotten plants, of sleepiness, of a hypnotic, trance like limbo, this place seems like a half world, a wonderland, a folly. The musical elements should cast a dreamlike, haunted, other worldly atmosphere and sensibility. The environment could be referenced in a composition – the constant ‘drone’ of the nearby cars could feature as a basis, or constant, for pitching. It is not dissimilar to the constant sound of the flowing river. Pitches could ascend from this in proportions relating to the arc of the bridge, rising from its ‘chord line’ (as in the architectural term, see the original blog entry for more).
There is also the potential for a call and response element – building on the way I called out under the bridge from one side to another, allowing the voice to echo in the opposite side of the arch, then overlaid the tracks so they seemed to hear and respond to each other. I could find ways to audibly represent the ‘ghosts’ of passing bodies across the deserted bridge, as I experimented with in another of the sound sketches I made on my first visit. Either way, the eerie disconcerting nature of the site should come across, it is odd like a beached whale, a grand yet redundant form.
Something to consider with all the sites is use of language, words text. Evoke the vowel-ness of Latin for the barn? Create language-like sounds for the barrow, with meaning open to interpretation? What might languages have sounded like then, is there any way to know? A poetic use of words for the bridge?
As these ideas develop informed by further site visits, I will research the sites and their histories further. I will keep recording the material on site, and in direct relation to the site (echoes, acoustics, relationship of a singing body to that site). As I build my material I can consider what compositional approaches I want to take.
Below is a pair of drawings, which are based on diagrams in a library book I am reading, The Handbook of British Archaeology by Roy and Lesley Adkins and Victoria Leitch (published by Constable, London, 2008), from the chapter about Neolithic long barrows.