Live Music Sculpture – St Paul’s Cathedral

Just a quick share of a beautiful piece I was involved in, during this year’s City of London Festival.

This was London based composer Samuel Bordoli’s third Live Music Sculpture- a work inspired by and created for the space it is performed in.
Where “live musicians are arranged throughout an architectural space and the musical ideas move, jump and flow between them. This creates the impression of physical, three dimensional sound which an audience or spectator can explore at will. A live music sculpture is specially constructed to resonate with the unique acoustical properties of the
building it inhabits which means that it can only be performed within the particular space it is created for”

The piece for St Paul’s was stunning. The choirs and horn soloists blended beautifully with each other and the architecture, and the effect of so many musicians spread across such a huge space was very special. Although we performed it five times over the course of one day I was very sad when we finished! And I even managed to score my own 15 seconds of fame when I ended up in the Guardian’s Best News Photos of the Day!

The video can’t capture the idea of space to the same extent of hearing (and seeing!) it live but it is well worth a listen.

You can look out for Sam’s next music sculpture here:


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November 30, 2013 · 8:45 pm

Music for the V&A Cast Courts

New on the Victoria and Albert Museum website, a video documenting our collaborative work with the inimitable violinist Peter Sheppard-Skaerved and amazing composers David Gorton and Nigel Clarke.

Needless to say, I was the least eloquent of this merry bunch, however do watch this video to catch a small insight into some beautiful music in a beautiful place.

And if you haven’t visited the Cast Courts yourself? You really should, utterly magnificent!

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“The Sounding Arch”

my first view of the bridge

my first view of the bridge

Maidenhead Railway Bridge isn’t just any old railway bridge. It was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the Great Western Railway, to carry their main line over the Thames in Berkshire. It consists of only two brick arches, so at the time of construction had the widest and flattest railway arches in the world. The GWR didn’t believe these would take the weight of the trains so insisted the construction framework be left in place for it’s opening in 1839, but Brunel indignantly lowered the wooden structure so it only appeared to take the weight of the bridge. Eventually this was swept away in a storm so the rest of the world could appreciate his masterpiece.

Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed

My project tutor at the Academy, Dr Briony Williams, brought the bridge to my attention not only for it’s historical and cultural interest (incidentally the bridge is also the subject of JMW Turner painting Rain, Steam and Speed- The Great Western Railway) but for it’s incredible acoustic under the right-hand arch, known as “The Sounding Arch”. I was very excited about visiting the bridge and checking out it’s famous echo, and it did not disappoint! I don’t normally post the whole of Interstellar Call in my blog but I’ve made an exception here because the echo offered so many different colours to the sound. There’s even some bonus material, as you’ll hear near the end, where I got distracted waiting for a boat and train to pass and accidently repeat the same section a second time.

The Sounding Arch

The Sounding Arch

Performing here was so much fun! The echo came back to me like thick walls of sound in moments of sharp articulation and yet warm and non-confrontational in the piano expansive phrases. My favourite use of it was in the hunting-horn passages. This is where I utilise the natural harmonics of the instrument by holding down the first and second valves together (this creates Horn in D/Cor in Re as the music requests) and playing all of the pitches on that same valve combination. This isn’t how I’d normally play those notes and the result is a visceral hunting-horn (trompe de chasse) style effect with out of tune intervals. I really enjoyed how the echo smeared the notes together and their dissonance lingers. Especially during the glissandi I play in the same passages. 



I could have easily spent a whole day in the Sounding Arch experimenting with all horn related sound. I’ll be back there sometime soon for sure.

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I love it when you stumble upon diverting pieces in the city: interesting architecture, cool graffiti, or maybe even a random sculpture in the middle of nowhere, such as Curlicue by William Pye.

The Oxford Dictionary tells us a curlicue is “a decorative curl or twist in calligraphy or in the design of an object”, which seems too simple a definition for a mathematical equation generating infinite numbers of beautiful shapes. My brain can’t comprehend it, let alone explain it to readers, so I’m just going to direct you to a website that explains it in fairly accessible terms.

Pye’s piece isn’t overly intricate, and to be honest not really my cup of tea as far as art goes, but the sleek design is befitting of it’s Canary Wharf view and I enjoyed the peace of it’s Greenland Dock location in South East London. The reason I was pleased to discover it was so I could experiment by playing Interstellar Call at it!

I expected to perceive my sound as more harsh than normal, due to immediate reflections of sound waves from the smooth metal surface. On one side of me was the river but the other side was nicely sheltered by blocks of flats, so I hoped to get an intimate, contained response, but I wasn’t sure how the river would affect it. It is an unusually quiet space, limited people traffic, but I was almost immediately aware upon my arrival of our location in the flight path for City Airport and passing ferries.

Here are my results:

This was the first outing of my new Zoom H2 Recorder using the included mic windshield, and set to 4 channel surround so I could get a good representation of the ambient sound during my performance (rather than just me playing the horn as I could have recorded that at home!) The H2 is great, really happy with it, but somewhere between Audacity and Soundcloud I feel some of the recording quality has been lost. The recording itself isn’t the best representation either, which I think was due to my positioning the mic a little bit too close to my horn in a triangle with the metal tube.

So, I’m going to tell you how it felt live.

It was louder than I expected! I pointed the bell of my horn in the direction of the buildings rather than the Thames so it was nicely contained and comfortable. But more exciting, was the brief echo I got from the sculpture itself. I guess that might be because inside the hollow tube acts as a resonating space for the sound (like you would find in a church, but on a much smaller scale) so it created a short and restricted echo. I’m disappointed the recording didn’t pick this up.

I’ve posted the first section of Appel Interstellaire today. This is because I was amused to hear on playback that as it was a fairly windy day and I hadn’t secured the mic stand enough, there were moments of rattling on the recording. In my Soundcloud clip, the gust of wind fortuitously coincides with my half-valved noodling (see photo on right to read what Messiaen notated to get this effect) and I liked the way it added to the atmosphere! I’ve tagged the section on Soundcloud so you can hear what I mean.

Back soon with more Messiaen moments and my continued journey to master the art of live field-recording.

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Another Place

I recently enjoyed a fantastic weekend hiking in the Lake District. On our journey North from London we made a detour to Crosby Beach near Liverpool so the driver could stretch his legs. I couldn’t help but release my French Horn from the car too because, as you’ll understand, Crosby beach is home to 100 lifesize cast-iron sculptures of the artist Anthony Gormley!

All of the sculptures face the horizon as Gormley “harnesses the ebb and flow of the tide to explore man’s relationship with nature”  The piece, entitled Another Place, interests me because the artist states: [at the seaside] “the prevalence of sky seems to question the earth’s substance” which I think resonates nicely with Messiaen’s heaven gazing in  Interstellar Call. 

Aurally I was intrigued because, like most people, I love the sound of crashing waves and I hoped playing at a sculpture would ease the efforts of performing outside (which can be surprisingly hard!) Instead of battling against strong coastal winds and losing the sound the instant I performed it. The cast-iron sculptures are weathered and naturally coarse, so provided the perfect reflective surface in order to create a natural acoustic (as far as my basic understanding of acoustics goes!)

But my spontaneity meant I was unprepared to record my performance! Thankfully we managed to cobble together something. Which you can see here:

You’ll notice that to the observer it looks like a blue cloth resting on a pair of running shoes! But, it is in fact my iphone wrapped in a blue cloth for a windsock, to prevent that horrible crackly wind sound you get over the mic if it’s not covered up, resting on shoes to act as a mic stand. I used the voice memo function on my phone to record. It’s not perfect, but it was on a phone so I’m just grateful to the wonders of modern technology!

If you want to check it out, I’ve opened a soundcloud profile to share excerpts from my field recordings with you:

What the recording fails to capture is the intimacy of performing here. As you can see from the photos, the tide is out so I was a long way from both the road and sea, removing all obtrusive sounds. I really enjoyed the waves crashing in the distance. It was comfortable to play there, peaceful and performing to the sculpture felt like I had an audience, as crazy as that sounds!
There were a number of people on the beach so to some extent I did have an audience. But they were all so far away I felt like they were disengaged from what I was doing. (I was later informed by my friends that all were in fact staring at me, but noone moved in closer to hear better, I was interested to observe)
It strikes me now that throughout the course of this experiment I’ll be able to watch a lot of “audiences” respond to encountering a musician in their space, which is not something I thought about before. But is something I’ll be writing about again no doubt.
So until then, enjoy your Bank Holiday weekend!

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Headphones in the Theatre

Since I watched Sadler’s Wells’ incredible pop-up show, Electric Hotel, last summer I have been preoccupied with the place of headphones in site-specific performance.

So, do they have a place in live performance?

In Electric Hotel they certainly did. Composers Ben and Max Ringham used impeccable sound design/music to focus our attention in a piece that, with many storylines occurring on the multiple layered stage, would have otherwise bewildered me.

Electric Hotel, Kings Cross July 2010, photo: Carly Lake

Electric Hotel, Kings Cross July 2010, photo: Carly Lake

The headphones catalysed an unusual community experience, one that was simultaneously shared whilst remaining isolated. Which aided the atmosphere without being an uncomfortable “Silent Disco” scenario. And it meant we could lose ourselves in the performance despite being on a derelict area in Kings Cross, somewhere that would normally be full of noise pollution. I liked it a lot.

If it tours near you: Just go. I hear it was successfully reconstructed at Latitude this month, which is great news.

My next headphone-based observation is in Audio Walks. In theory I love the concept but in reality I’m yet to hear one that has enhanced my experience of an area.

My last headphone journey was the accompaniment to July’s Punchdrunk Enrichment collaboration with Arcola’s 50+ Theatre Group. The show itself was a community response to Dicken’s The Uncommercial Traveller, a collection of one-on-one experiences in a Victorian soup kitchen, sourced by Hackney Council’s Art in Empty Spaces initiative. The acting was great, the design, fantastic. A beautiful project, I completely forgot it was community theatre. I went with my friend Christine (check out her brilliant blog
on theatre audiences) and after sharing our experiences afterwards I came over with major theatre envy and wanted to go back and meet some of the other characters, if only it hadn’t been sold out!

But the optional Audio Walk was a disappointment. It started at Hackney Town Hall and lasted almost an hour, ending at the venue. I had hoped we would be aurally transported back to yesteryear to reimagine the East End in all its Dickensian glory but instead I was assaulted with a lot of traffic noise (it opened AND closed the piece), which I could have heard without the headphones, and some music I found mildly irritating. There were some Dickens readings on the download, so it should have been a good introduction to the piece and I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around Hackney, but for some unfathomable reason, I just did not like the audio walk.

Don’t get me wrong, I am normally a fan of Stephen Dobbie’s sound design for Punchdrunk, the man knows how to create a sonic atmosphere, but as with the curse of the audio walk: It just didn’t live up to my expectations.

If anyone out there can direct me to any audio walks, good or bad, I will gladly take a hike and report back. And if any readers want to experience one for themselves, then do try Subtlemob\’s Soho based embryonic experiment with the style.

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World Listening Day

Monday July 18th was World Listening Day, an event with origins in the World Soundscape Project, to promote awareness of listening and engaging with our local soundscapes. Having recently become interested in Acoustic Ecology I wanted to put my newfound knowledge into practice. So I enlisted the help of 30 East London school children from Arnhem Wharf Primary School on the Isle of Dogs.

These very lovely and imaginative 8 year-olds discovered some of the principles of Acoustic Ecology by first taking notes on their classroom environmental sounds (or soundscape) then we tiptoed out onto the outside walkway and listened to some local sounds and discussed those too. One child even declared he had heard a cricket! (Although I’ll admit I was slightly skeptical as we were on a 1st floor balcony in the middle of the city)

It was only after then that I performed Appel Interstellaire to them.  I’d already told them all I knew about Bryce Canyon and showed them some great photos I found online (I’ve even set one as my wallpaper I liked it so much!) and I set them the task of using the long pauses in the piece to imagine a soundscape we might hear if we were in the canyon. It was my intention to hold the pauses for as long as possible to give them space to do this. Of course the reality of getting a room of 8 year olds to stay still in long periods of silence, when you’ve already asked them to be silent for a lot of the afternoon, was more difficult than I thought! So I paced my performance to the concentration levels of the classroom, and it was an interesting experience. But I had a captive audience, and for that I was grateful.

In my opinion, for the performer, Site-Specific performance isn’t just about adapting to the location but also the audience specific to that location. I hope I’ll be able to gather more evidence of this as my experiment progresses.

After that we discussed our imagined environmental sounds. It was a diverse list from bats to growling wolves, werewolves and even shiny rocks. I really liked the idea from one girl of hot falling lava. Almost all of them were fascinated by the Messiaen which serves to remind me that we mustn’t be afraid of introducing unusual soundworlds to curious young ears. I’d like to take more time to play the piece to younger audiences and hear more of their story ideas. So watch this space…

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