As part of the Winchester Arts Festival, 10 Days Across the City, I composed a cycle of three soundscapes for the auditorium of the Theatre Royal, Winchester. The cycle included a twenty-minute sound walk through a year of Winnall Moors and was accompanied by a sonic river, flowing through the public address system. These wet sounds came from recordings of the movement of water through the moors. I have spoken before about the myriad voices of water in the reserve, and also made reference to the history of water sounds in experimental music (drawing substantially on the academic Douglas Kahn, who devotes a whole chapter to this history in his excellent book, Noise Water Meat). The installation of a soundscape within a particular space requires a different form of composition. When creating sounds for radio broadcast, you are aware of a pressure to not dwell on a specific sound, but to continually move through the sounds, from one event to another. In an installation context, the audience are not generally hurrying to listen: you can allow sound time. Sonic ‘events’ can linger, emerge and fade away; sound colouring the space and filtering into consciousness. In composing the sonic river, I used duration to mask repetition, emphasising the fluidity and moving stasis of river sounds. The river runs as a twenty-minute loop, with slow changes in texture and current. The river ends with the same sound as it begins, the loop appearing dispersed, organic and un-repetitive, as is the nature of watery sounds (The blog version of the river has been shortened, in response to the more narrative structure of web-based events).
What I found particularly interesting at the theatre event was how the sonic river interacted with the architecture of the building and the other events occurring in the artistic occupation of the theatre building. The front of house public address speakers provided pockets of sound so that as you passed beneath them the water appeared to be dripping down upon you. In the non-spaces of the corridors and stairs that lead you to the auditorium, the wetness takes on a distinct echoic quality that remains evasive in terms of location. The sounds appeared acousmatic as the visual source of the sound was hard to determine: the wetness of the river responding acoustically to the space, whilst simultaneously washing away certainty, immersing the corridors in a general dripping liquidity. The word ‘acoustmatic’ has something of the theatrical in its origin; referring to a pupil of Pythagoras who sat behind a curtain listening to Pythagoras’ lectures, without being able to see him. The term has come to refer to sound or ‘acoustical impressions’ whose source we can not identify or know and can now refer to the abstraction of sounds in the electro-acoustic music or Musique Concrète of composers such as Pierre Schaeffer or our own wonderful Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, who as part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop gave us the classic Dr Who theme.
My interest in the river’s sound is more concerned with the spatial acousmatics which occur through the water’s interaction with the architecture, than with the aural abstraction of sounds from their original source. However, the composed river does contain sounds evoked through strategies which can cause abstraction: the hydrophone recordings of the mini-stream encourage an almost icy crystallisation of water sounds, resulting in a hard, clinking, isolated fragmentation; by inserting an aluminum wire into the bed of the mini-stream, the current of water turns into a textured, rubbing, vibration, akin to the rumblings of mechanical motion.
In the vertical rectangle of the theatre atrium, the river seemed to move away from the speakers from whence it sprang, the architecture pulling the water up into a sort of invisible sonorous cloud hanging above our heads. I could not determine if this was a result of the verticality of the space, psychologically orientating our ears to the normal English position of precipitation, that is, rain pouring down upon our heads, or if the architectural structure of the cube was bouncing the sound upwards. Either way, it was a subtle but distinct alteration in the perceived spatiality of the river flow. In the toilets, the river broke it’s banks, overwhelming the confined space and drowning the visitors with its aural condensation. In one of the toilets it became an unintentional soundscape for a piece of experimental wet theatre (Shady Jane, Sailing On), as a shingle floor and two soaking wet women greeted visitors: the supposed damp remnant characters of Ophelia and Virginia Woolf.
Through the back stage speakers, the Winnall Moors soundscape that was filling the empty auditorium escaped, creating pockets of dawn chorus in the dressing rooms, accompanied by the percussion, piano and pedestrian sitar of Hossein Hadisi’s, Avant-garde Composers Ensemble (ACE), who were moving around the building reacting musically to the architecture, each other and the entire soundscape.
On the first floor balcony of the atrium Sam Cave, one of the members of ACE, sat playing guitar (Picture: Dave Gibbons). Underneath him the pointed drops of water dripping from the river, mingled with a choir of people’s voices describing the space as they moved through it. The guitars beautiful pluck and twang of air echoing the percussive drops of a rivers current against the electrical sensuous fret of the hydrophone.