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Posts from the ‘Sound art’ Category

Another me, another way

Another me 3

The self-portrait above was painted by an inmate of Vinney Green Secure Unit, a young offenders’ facility in Bristol. It’s part of “Another Me”, an exhibition of artworks by people incarcerated within the criminal justice system, currently on show in the Spirit Level rooms at the South Bank centre, below the Festival Hall. It caught my attention when I noticed that it had been curated for the Koestler Arts foundation by Soweto Kinch, the brilliant composer, saxophonist and bandleader. Anything Kinch is involved in tends to be worth your time, and “Another Me” is no exception.

At Koestler Arts’ building in Wormwood Scrubs, he went through 7,610 entries submitted in 52 categories from UK prisons and British prisoners abroad. His selection spans a range of media, from conventional painting and photography to wall-poetry, music of various genres (which you can hear through headphones), all ranging from the sombre to the defiantly whimsical. There’s a particularly extraordinary piece made from used nitrous oxide canisters found in various London locations — outside a school, an off-licence, a night club, a hospital — and labelled and framed in the style of Victorian museum objects under the title “Nitrouonites: Future Fossils”. As you walk around, you’ll hear the sound of drifting saxophones and electronics: a non-invasive but gently atmospheric sound installation specially devised by the curator.

Many of the works display great technical skill, but I was struck by the one at the top of this piece, a particularly eloquent and moving articulation of the exhibition’s theme. As another of the artists writes in a commentary on his own self-portrait, the title of show “suggest(s) so many possibilities, reflecting on past actions or future selves. It speaks of the masks we all use in our day-to-day lives. Our best selves, our worst. Perhaps most powerfully it suggests change is possible — there can always be another me, another way.”

* Another Me is at the Spirit Level exhibition space of the Royal Festival Hall until November 3. Soweto Kinch performs his new work The Black Peril at Hackney EartH on November 22 with an ensemble including the drummer Makaya McCraven, the bassist Junius Paul and members of the LSO, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

The Height of the Reeds

Humber Bridge 1

Halfway through the 40-minute walk across the Humber Bridge on Saturday,  I started to slow down. Eventually I came to a halt and just stood there, looking out over the water. The reason: I wanted to enjoy the music.

What music? A sound installation titled The Height of the Reeds, a contribution by Opera North to Hull’s year as the UK’s City of Culture. It was composed by and features three of my favourite Norwegian musicians — the trumpeter/singer Arve Henriksen, the sampling wizard Jan Bang and the guitarist Eivind Aarset — in collaboration with the Hull-based sound artist Jez riley French, who made field recordings of the noises emitted by the suspension bridge’s component parts, including the resonances of its vast anchor chambers and the creaking of its many steel wires. The arrangements for Opera North’s orchestra and chorus are by another Norwegian, Aleksander Waaktar. Also embedded in the piece are translations of words by the Norwegian poet Nils Christian Moe-Repstad, read by three Hull voices: the actors Barrie Rutter and Maureen Lipman and seven-year-old Katie Smith, a pupil at a local primary school.

You listen to it on a pair of headphones attached to a small receiver worn on a lanyard. The piece lasts 41 minutes; it’s in eight sections, each transition triggered at a particular point during the 2.2km walk across the bridge. It begins quietly, with some of the sounds recorded by French, and with the young girl’s voice. Thereafter I was too busy listening to take notes, but there are several passages of heart-stopping beauty as the music accompanies your journey from the north to the south shore. Were it available on CD, I’d have bought one as soon as the walk was over, and I imagine many others will feel the same.

As for the bridge itself, you can’t spend time in proximity to such a thing without admiring the genius of the civil engineers who turned an architect’s design into physical reality. I was awed by the sheer mass of the tilted and tiered concrete blocks holding down the structure at either end, the soaring simplicity of the two towers, and — most of all — the sense of countless lines and points of tension held in stasis by spun steel wires (well, not exactly stasis: the centre of the bridge, which carries four lanes of traffic with a walkway on either side, is designed to accept lateral movement of 4m in high winds).

All sorts of thoughts cross your mind: some to do with the weather, which is liable to change during your passage, and others concerning the landscape’s ancient history and its reshaping in the age of human intervention. As you approach the southern shore, you see a bed of reeds, a muted orange against the pale grey-brown river and the dark green of the riverbank. Visible in the far distance are the steel chimneys of an oil refinery, an arrangement of silver pipes looking like some strange percussion instrument from another world.

The good news is that the installation is open to the public for the month of April; the bad news is that all 5,000 tickets have already been sold. In the light of that success, it’s hard to believe that Opera North and the Hull authorities won’t find a way of prolonging its run. The bridge was opened in 1982 and has a design life of 120 years, so future generations could be enjoying this remarkable creative response almost a century hence. I hope they get that chance.

Loud, louder, loudest…

BerghainThis building, for those who don’t already know it, is Berghain, probably the world’s most famous techno club. It opened in 2004 in a building formerly used by East Berlin’s electricity company, now surrounded by waste ground near the Ostbahnhof station. Its sound system is said to be the best of its kind in the world, and it was put to good use this week at the opening night of a four-day festival called A l’Arme!, which is billed by its curator, Louis Rastig, as an “international jazz and sound-art meeting”.

The first highlight was the opening DJ set by Mieko Suzuki, who spent an hour making a simple drone evolve into something rich and strange, with mesmerising subtlety. Then came a duo performance by the saxophonist Colin Stetson and the bass guitarist Bill Laswell, who exploited that legendary sound system to the full.

In my time I’ve stood next to a nitro-burning Top Fuel dragster as it warmed up for a four-second, 300mph quarter-mile run, underneath a Vulcan bomber as a combined 80,000lb of thrust propelled it in a steep climb from low level, and within spitting distance of the Who’s PA. All of those would be in the range of 120-150 decibels. Stetson and Laswell were louder than any of them.

For the best part of an hour they made great waves of noise in which pulse and pitch were subordinate to the overall intention of filling every cranny of the concrete and steel space. The muscular, athletic Stetson made his bass saxophone howl and groan, using effects to produce many simultaneous sound-layers. The expressionless Laswell prodded at his pedal-board and picked at his strings with a deceptively delicate touch while filling the room with stomach-loosening lines. If you were standing a few feet from one of the speaker stacks, the volume generated a breeze that ruffled your hair and made the fabric of your clothes ripple. Ear plugs were available.

It was brutally exhausting, but somehow magnificent. Goodness knows what Adolphe Sax and Leo Fender, creators of the instruments that Stetson and Laswell were taking to the limits and beyond, would have made of it.