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Jean-Michel Jarre has a new album out.

OK. I’ve got to start a blog post somewhere and it’s been a while since the last one so be gentle on me.

But really. Jean-Michel does have a new album out. Predictably it’s all big synthesizers and arpeggios, only this time it’s collaborating with other big synthy people, like Tangerine Dream and Vince Clark and Moby and … er… Lang Lang.. Still, it’s predictably Jarre enough for me today.

Jarre at his best is a serious musician writing big, complex compositions using electronic synthesised instruments. Hugely prolific – having recorded over 20 albums since 1972 and influenced generations of electronic musicians – he’s kind of the Mozart of electronic music. And like Mozart, he’s quite partial to a tune or two.

In the 80’s he famously transformed his concerts into huge outdoor spectacles of light and sound. I’ve written about these in a previous post (a long time ago). For me, the transformation of city skylines as a backdrop for music has always fascinated me.

—   —   —

Last year I embarked on a collaborative project with one of the orchestras I play with to create artworks of music and light in underground spaces. The Cobweb Orchestra is an amateur organisation that allows musician of any instrument and ability the opportunity to come together and play in an orchestra. There’s a number of regular weekly groups across the north of England and the project wanted to do something that united the whole membership and explore the region. And what unites the region is the heritage of going underground. Be that mining or shelter or transportation. So the Underground Orchestra project was born to play the music of the north deep within the land of the north. An orchestra playing underground is interesting and unusual. but an orchestra playing inside a light installation underground would be amazing and unique.

The difficulty comes with doing something that relates to both the location and the music, but doesn’t over power either. I wanted to do something that wasn’t stage lighting or lighting design, but could stand alone as an installation in its own right, yet became something again when combined with an orchestra.

—   —   —

Long before Jean-Michel Jarre there was Thomas Wilfred.

Wilfred was born in Denmark in 1889. As a teenage he moved to New York and began experimenting with light as an artform. In 1919 he created his first ‘Clavilux’. A machine which through the use of mirrors and coloured glass, performed symphonies of light. Each composition was contained on a glass master disk so that in theory a machine could play different pieces. In reality, the machines were very different – each more advanced and complex. Opus 2 had its first public performance in 1922 to huge critical acclaim. In the audience that night was Leopold Stokowski – but more of him later.

As purely analogue machines, the compositions have a quality and presence that I fear is somewhat lost on Youtube. The machines themselves included curved screens behind curved glass creating a unique three-dimensional effect. Wilfred was adamant that his light compositions were not filmed – he saw the quality of light as a distinct artistic medium – so the only compositions that remain are with the 30 surviving Clavilux machines.

The quality of light and colour perception is a main component of James Turrell‘s work too.

‘Breathing Light’ – James Turrell 2013

I think it’s difficult to work with light and colour and not be influenced in some way by Turrell’s mastery of the medium, although recently Drake’s music video for ‘Hotline Bling’ might have come a bit too influenced..

The conductor Leopold Stokowski was particularly interested in the relationship between light and music. One of the more colourful characters of classical music, Stokowski was a bit of a showman. He’d famously throw scores onto the floor if he knew the music well enough. He also dismissed with the baton entirely, instead preferring exaggerated gestures using both hands to conduct the orchestra. In some of his more extravagant experiments he would plunge the orchestra and theatre into total darkness with only a light on his white gloves. On another occasion he spotlighted himself to cast a shadow of his movements above the orchestra. However, Stokowski’s main claim to fame is his legendary appearance in Disney’s ‘Fantasia‘. The opening sequence and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue are pure genius:


 

The great things about underground spaces is they are dark. really dark. The kind of dark where you genuinely can’t see your hand in front of your face. This means that whatever light you use, it’s pretty much going to be the only light. Of course there are issues that with an orchestra, the musicians are likely to want to see their music, which means some white light. But if you make a feature of that light rather than try to hide it, even the reading lights become part of the visual and part of the environment.

 

The first venue in October last year was the ‘Victoria Tunnel’ beneath Newcastle. The Victoria Tunnel was built to transport coal from the mines to boats on the river Tyne and runs right underneath the centre of the city of Newcastle.  I wrote more about it last year. As the first of the events I was keen to find a voice for the future events. Somewhere between Turrell and ‘Fantasia’ is what I had in mind. Using mono-frequency lights to give me a saturated blue light to accentuate the Purkinje effect – the way things tend to look bluer under very low light levels and the way moonlight seems to be devoid of colour. By using LED lights I could strip away the rest of the spectrum as it just wouldn’t exist beyond the 465nm wavelength. It’s technical, and you don’t need to understand how it works, but when you’re in it it’s very different to seeing photos of it.

The Cobweb Orchestra performing Michael Betteridge's 'From Mine to Tyne' in the Victoria Tunnel beneath Newcastle upon Tyne. 22nd October 2014

The Cobweb Orchestra performing Michael Betteridge’s ‘From Mine to Tyne’ in the Victoria Tunnel beneath Newcastle upon Tyne. 22nd October 2014

The main challenge of the tunnel was the listed nature of the structure itself. This meant that I couldn’t physically attach anything to the walls. So instead I had to devise a way of keeping the lights in place purely by springing them against the walls using carbon fibre rods.

undergroundorchestravictunnel 008

The restrictions were amplified at the next venue – the York Cold War Bunker. Built to monitor fall-out levels in the event of a nuclear attack the site oozes with the cold, steely fear of ‘the bomb’.

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As an English Heritage site, every last detail was listed. The very fabric of the building and every layer of paint on its surface had to be conserved. The solution to this was to filter the existing lights to create bodies of colour to set moods and define space.

With such little time to install and so many rooms to transform, everything had to be as simple as possible. Still continuing the Turrell / Disney inspiration, each room had its own character. The depth of colour and its changes through the building added to the unsettling atmosphere of this Cold war relic.

CobwebsYorkBunker 006

In the women’s dormitory I used the same blue light as the tunnel, but added sound responsive white lights. The normally dormant pillows would progressively wake and glow in response to the volume of the music being played in that room.

CobwebsYorkBunker 001

The third location – the Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum presented its own challenges. Again the prime factors were the number of spaces (three) and the relatively short install time. One of the spaces was a drift mine shaft – a brick-lined tunnel sloping down into the ground about 80 metres long. There was enough space for three musicians to play at the bottom. However, there was a limit to the number of people who could be in the tunnel at any one time. I somehow needed to convey what was being played to an audience who may not even be in the tunnel.

the drift mine entrance

the drift mine entrance

For this I looked to Wilfred and his use of light as music. As it was a trio performing I figured they could be represented by the three primary colours of white light – red, green and blue. With each instrument linked to their own colour, the resulting projection would constantly change colour in direct response to the playing.

 

 

The next location was always going to be the centrepiece of the project. A full-sized symphony orchestra playing inside an iconic Lake District mountain. The space was vast – an old slate mine cavern deep within Fleetwith Pike at Honister. This would be the biggest orchestra of the project and at 80 – 90 people, the largest single underground audience. What was needed here was something on an equally grand scale.

Honister Slate Mine above Honister Pass in the Lake District, UK

Honister Slate Mine above Honister Pass in the Lake District, UK

A few years ago, when my studio was in a drafty barn on Stainmore, I was playing with smoke machines for a piece on the gothic decay of light in the clouds for a conference in Lancaster. This meant filling the studio with smoke to test the piece. At the end of the day as the sun was setting, my eldest came to see what I was up to and ended up playing in the shafts of light as they came through the gaps in the barn doors.

IMG_0890.JPG

It’s all so very Anthony McCall, but I liked the way you could see on top and underneath these shards of light. They had a real presence to them.

For the piece in Honister Mine I wanted to recreate those thin slices of light through the air – big flat, sharp slices in the way that slate is sliced cleanly down the grain.

testing the shards of light in a warehouse in Gateshead

testing the shards of light in a warehouse in Gateshead

‘Rive’ took weeks of development and testing to find the right light source for the right quality of light and the right sharpness of its edges. the installation inside the cavern alone took over a week.

Installing 'Rive' in Honister Slate Mine

Installing ‘Rive’ in Honister Slate Mine

The final piece was a series of thin shafts of light from the roof of the cavern to the floor. they had a solid, sculptural quality – you could look all around them and clearly see their edges, yet you could walk straight through them as if they were an apparition. Again this was a real experiential piece. No number of pictures or video really does them justice.

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By contrast, the final venue last week, was by far the smallest and most intimate. A single prison cell beneath the former town hall in Wallsend. THis was a very simple affair with musicians playing short 20 minute sets with room for no more than four players at a time. The cell door was kept closed and the audience could hear the music throughout the basement but could only see the players through the spyhole in the steel reinforced door.

wallsend prison cell

wallsend prison cell


The Underground Orchestra was no Jean-Michel Jarre experience. But neither did it want to be. These were small-scale performances in mostly very small-scale spaces. But was interesting was looking at the relationship between music, musicians, light, scale and location. The music was a key element – a wonderful programme of music from the Northern counties – historical and contemporary. Beyond being an investigation of the cultural heritage of the north, for me this was as much about exploring the landscapes that I live within.

There are many sides to landscapes. The underneath one was fun.

 

 

 

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Time is a funny old thing.

It’s always around but there never seems enough of it. And look – there goes another year of the stuff. Gone. Fortunately there’s another one now. I hope it sticks around a bit longer than the last one – there’s so much to fit in it this time around.

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There’s nothing quite like a long, bracing walk to flush away the cobwebs from the brain and kickstart it again after the holiday season. Yesterday I ventured over the hills into Weardale and beyond to explore Rookhope. Like much of the upper dales, Rookhope grew up as a heart of the industrial landscape of lead and iron mining.

Buried deep in its own valley, limestone and pig lead were transported out of the village by way of a rope-hauled incline. A mile or so up the hill the wagons were then transported by steam loco across the network of lines that criss-crossed their way over the North Pennines to connect with the wider railway network in Consett, Tow Law and beyond to Newcastle and the Tyne docks. The line at the top of Bolts Law, above Rookhope, was the highest standard gauge railway in the UK. The long sweeping curve from Bolts Law to the junction at Park Head has some of the widest and wildest views in this part of the North Pennines with views out to the Sunderland coast on a clear day.

That line closed in 1923, yet you can still see the ghosts of the sleepers along the line. Landscape has memory. That’s a good thing as it has lots of stories to tell.

ghost sleepers

I started the year off in Lochearnhead uncovering stories in the landscape within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. I’d been artist in residence since the previous September and was just refining some of the ideas I was working on. Some of the things I had become interested in were about sound and how in travelled in the vast wilderness landscapes of the highlands. I liked the two-way dialogue it had with the landscape – how sound could describe the character and material of the hills and lochs and woodlands and how in return the weather, temperature and ambience affected the quality and volume of sound.

There was also another narrative about National Parks – why they exist, who they exist for and how where they are, and the role that railways had in opening up wild landscapes to a wider population as an antidote to urbanism.

trossachs

The result of all this was a proposed 18-mile long sound installation based on steam engine whistles up a disused railway line. I’m genuinely excited by the ‘Whistle’ piece. I’d set out looking for a way to work with the scale of landscapes you get in the Scottish Highlands.

Back in February we did a first test using a couple of whistles in Glen Ogle. In April we upped that to six over two miles. That’s the longest distance I’d ever worked at so there was lots to learn. BBC Radio Scotland came down to see how it was going – you can hear the broadcast piece here:

Also in April I installed another sound piece. This time indoors in a gallery. The ‘Curlew Machine’ recreated the call of the curlew within the vaulted painting galleries at the wonderful Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle in an attempt to capture the audible essence of the open North Pennine landscape as part of the ‘Gods Bridge’ group exhibition. Although the machine didn’t actually make the bird sound – there’s a blog post about why that was impossible – the sound was a recording of a brass whistle I created and sounded using the metal machine as a speaker unit. Just as the ‘Whistle’ piece uses the landscape to temper the sound, the ‘Curlew Machine’ used the lively acoustics of the barrel-vaulted roof to carry the bird song right through the entire building. The painting galleries are on the second floor so wherever you were in the museum the sound came from somewhere overhead – just as the lonely curlew call is in the wild.

curlew machine

May brought another three pieces into the landscape. This time back in the Lake District. A series of works and events which uncovered the history of looking at the landscape – from strategic Roman defences, through the picturesque and romantic movements to WWII lookout posts and subaquatic recordings.

‘Lookout’ was a concrete WWII pillbox clad in 3,000 reflective baubles:

Lookout

‘Scope’ was a giant kaleidoscope overlooking Windermere:

scope

and down at the southern end of Windermere, at Fell Foot Park, ‘Drop’ had its final outing:

drop at fell foot

In between were Chinese watercolour workshops at Rydal Hall, magnetic poetry on the car ferry and in two locations artist Bryony Purvis sent people’s mobile phones 1,000ft up into the sky under a bright yellow weather balloon.

_DSC3078---Version-2 Image0000027---Version-2

There’s a whole blog post on this project too..

June saw the creation of ‘Ravens’ – a artwork in grass designed to be seen from the sky. 2014 was the year the Tour de France came to Yorkshire. The media was full of pictures of huge crowds in beautiful green countryside. One of the comments I frequently get when doing lectures overseas is that people didn’t realise how stunning the north of England was. The Tour de France in Yorkshire not only showed the classic beauty of the county’s countryside, but also the spirit of the communities that live and work there. Creating a piece for one of the world’s largest sporting events was a truly memorable experience made even more special by the people and community I got to work with.

ravens

The summer months were marked by some of the sunniest and hottest weather in recent years. It was also when I moved out from my house on the mountain to somewhere equally stunning but more practical. I also moved into a sparkly new studio thanks to the wonderful people at UTASS. Having a proper studio away from home for the first time in years has been huge step for me. Although I feel like I’m still moving in, I can already see a change in the way I’m working. How that manifests itself over the next 12 months is yet to be seen, but I think this could be significant step.

studio pip

The autumn saw two last projects. The first was a low-key project with an infants school in Workington in West Cumbria. A really quick project working with five and six year old kids. We did big paintings – big for them (A3) and then scaled them up really big to a drawing in grass (25 metres). The original idea was to use big tarpaulin stencils to bleach the grass and change its colour by restricting photosynthesis. Probably too technical for a 6 year old, but potentially interesting for me. However, we probably started too late in the season and for what ever reason, after 6 weeks it wasn’t working properly, so we had to cheat a bit. It’s not a masterpiece and I don’t really do schools projects, but I quite liked the simplicity and naivety of the kids drawings. I quite like the effect too. Might use this again sometime…

grass drawing

The other piece saw a 22-piece orchestra perform in a 6ft wide tunnel underneath Newcastle. The collaborative project with the Cobweb Orchestra, composer Michael Betteridge and myself was a pilot for a larger series exploring the musical and subterranean heritage of the northern counties.  Michael wrote a new site-specific work for the orchestra which was performed alongside a programme of mostly new works from the North East. The thinking was a concert underground is an amazing thing in itself, but combining it with a light installation we could transform it into something incredible. The concert in October in front of a sell-out audience of 60 or so standing in pitch darkness was pulled together on a shoestring. To compound the problems the Victoria Tunnel is a listed structure so I couldn’t attach anything to the fabric of the tunnel. Still, I like a challenge. I used mono-frequency light sources (at around 465nm) – under low light conditions this part of the blue spectrum stimulates the brain in the same way that I use red in daylight. Something known as the Purkinje effect (it’s technical). The result is that visually the orchestra were in a block of pure colour. Doesn’t work so well in the photos (it relies on you being there) but still looks good with the head torches.

tunnel

In between all those things there’s been an endless stream of research and preparation for lots of new projects for the future. Quite when those futures will be is subject to lots of variables. Some are finance issues, some are way more complicated. Either way, they all take time. Fortunately time is going to be around for while yet.

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“What do artists do?”

I looked over the sea of hands suddenly shot up from the hundred or so gathered five and six year-olds. Feeling all teachery standing up there at the front of the assembly hall, the choice was mine to make – pick one. Any one. I was pretty sure they all had the same answer. I don’t remember which and I picked in the end, but the response was like a punchline

“They paint things”

It’s not just small people even. I doubt I’m alone among artists either – that response when people ask what you do, you say ‘Artist’, they say “what do you paint?”.

My standard response is “skirting boards. Occasionally”.

There’s a general assumption that art is something you put on your wall. At best it’s something other people put on gallery walls. And don’t get me started on “art in unusual places”… what’s THAT supposed to mean?…

The flip side of this of course is that I obviously have walls at home and I like art. So what do artists have on their walls? I clearly don’t do wall stuff, and even if I did I doubt I’d have any of my own work at home. It’d be like an accountant having spreadsheets on the wall, or plumbers having their best soldered joints in frames.

I remember going to one artists house and seeing a small Dali on the wall – apparently a swap with Dali himself. I’d love to have one like that. Even just a Dali would be nice…

The other week, quite by chance, I got a signed print by one of my heroes – Storm Thorgerson. Actually I’ve not really thought of him as a hero until recently. I guess he’s probably most known for his iconic album covers for Pink Floyd – that prism for ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, and the flying pig over Battersea Power Station for ‘Animals’.

animals cover

‘Animals’ Pink Floyd – design by Storm Thorgerson / Hypgnosis

Back in my youth album cover design was a big thing. Factory Records had Peter Saville,

blue monday cover.

‘Blue Monday’ by New Order. Design by Peter Saville. Die-cut sleeve to look like a floppy disk (big old one)

'Technique' - New Order. Design by Peter Saville & Trevor Key. 1989

‘Technique’ – New Order. Design by Peter Saville & Trevor Key. 1989

4AD had (and still have) Vaughan Oliver

'The Moon and the Melodies' - Harold Budd, Elizabeth Frazer, Robin Guthrie & Simon Raymonde. Design by  Vaughan Oliver. Photograhy by Nigel Grierson. 1986

‘The Moon and the Melodies’ – Harold Budd, Elizabeth Frazer, Robin Guthrie & Simon Raymonde. Design by Vaughan Oliver. Photograhy by Nigel Grierson. 1986

'Filligree & Shadow' - This Mortal Coil. Design by Vaughan Oliver. Photography by Nigel Grierson. 1986

‘Filligree & Shadow’ – This Mortal Coil. Design by Vaughan Oliver. Photography by Nigel Grierson. 1986

and almost everyone else had Rob O’Connor at Stylorouge.

Juju album cover

‘Juju’ – Siouxsie and the Banshees. Design & Art Direction by Rob O’Connor. Photo artwork by Thomi Wroblewski. 1981

what kind of fool cover

‘What Kind of Fool’ – All About Eve. Design & Art Direction by Rob O’Connor. Photography by David Scheinmann. 1988

At the time I looked to record covers as where the exciting photography was and what I ultimately wanted to do. Peter Saville was pushing record sleeve design as works of art in their own right – most of the Factory records never featured the name of the band, or even album on the front and created a strong visual identity for the artists. Vaughan Oliver and photographer Nigel Grierson as 23envelope in contrast exerted their very individual style on every band that came on the 4AD label – unifying the label visually while transcending the style and nature of the individual bands (and not without a bit of a marmite split of support from the bands themselves). While many labels still chose to put pictures of the bands and singers on the records, these studios were turning product into a work of art.

The Factory / 4AD aesthetic (and particularly Grierson’s photography) was certainly in evidence in my early forays into record sleeves:

found

‘Found’ – EP. Waterglass. 1995

That strong visual element within certain streams of music I think shaped my musical tastes. I’m still guilty of judging a book by its cover. There are so many great bits of music and books I’d never have discovered if it weren’t for some brilliant photography on the cover.

But long before all that was Storm Thorgerson – the father of album cover art. Beyond every Pink Floyd album, his first studio – Hipgnosis – then subsequently Storm Studios – created some of most striking and downright surreal images of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s:

houses of the holy cover

‘Houses of the Holy’ – Led Zeppelin. 1973

deceptive bends cover

‘Deceptive Bends’ – 10cc. 1977

momentary lapse of reason cover

‘A Momentary Lapse of Reason’ – Pink Floyd. 1987

wish you were here cover

‘Wish You Were Here’ – Pink Floyd. 1975

All classics in their own right, so I suppose were part of the cannon of music design and consequently part of the collective consciousness of artists working in that arena. Still, by the late 80’s, early nineties they all seemed a bit.. well, prog-rock and so dropped out of what I considered to be cool and relevant.

Yet, somehow bits must have stayed put in my psyche and could occasionally be seen subconsciously in bits and pieces, like this shoot for a theatre company where a man wakes up in a subway station at rush-hour:

sleepyhead

promo shoot for Vanishing Point theatre company in Glasgow. I’m guessing it’s about 1995. Looks like Kelvingrove subway station. Really was rush hour and had to wait for two trains to come in at the same time.

In the intervening years I’ve sought to find my own voice and visual path, and finally split from my music industry trajectory when I moved to Cumbria. Being out in the sticks has immersed my work with a whole new world of inspiration  and learning together with a whole different culture. The music industry has changed loads too – the downsizing of scale from 12″ vinyl to 6″ CD covers took away some of the visual emphasis. Since then iTunes and digital downloads have removed music from its packaging entirely. Around the same time MTV moved away from non-stop music videos and that great music design industry has largely slipped away.

 

Storm Thorgerson died in April last year. As with any passing of a great cultural figure there’s a period of reflection on that person’s achievements and a rediscovery of their forgotten genius. Storm Thorgerson, like Vaughan Oliver and Peter Saville, comes from an era before digital manipulation. Oliver’s textural creations were created through a deep understanding of the reprographic processes and print technology to build up layers upon layers of image, graphics and text. Thorgerson on the other hand took a much more direct approach – to create the images for real and photograph them. Thorgerson’s images become more than just fantasies – they really happened. A product of immense prop building and researching the best landscape in the world to make it happen.

What I found most fascinating was now I saw another artist creating vastly ambitious temporary installations in vast open landscapes.

audioslave

‘Audioslave’. 2002

Coming at them from completely different places, the themes are so familiar

watercolour cover

‘Watercolour’ – Pendulum. Design by Storm Studios. 2010

red boxes

compare to ‘red boxes’ – installation on Ullswater for James Cropper Speciality Papers. ©stevemessam2009

smell the coffee

‘Wake Up and Smell the Coffee’ – The Cranberries. ©Stormstudios 2001

'Fairhaven Bubbles'. Probably my most Thorgersonesque piece to date. ©stevemessam 2012

‘Fairhaven Bubbles’. Probably my most Thorgersonesque piece to date. ©stevemessam 2012

As a commercial artist there’s a lot of output. Thorgerson seemed to publish books of his designs every few years. Sure the quality varies, and if I’m going to be particularly critical, I think a lot of the styling in the more recent work feels very dated and less contemporary – less aware of its time and place.

But then there are still gems.

The cover of ‘Only Revolutions’ by Biffy Clyro is Thorgerson at his best.

only revolutions

‘Only Revolutions’ – Biffy Clyro. Design by Storm Studios 2009

The theme of Revolution has a narrative of struggle and conflict – the figures face each other in a blindfolded dual. Each concealing heir weapon behind their back – a rolling pin and a knife. The resolutions having broken down, the peace table in flames. The huge flags rise in the air catching the wind, their colours reminding us of the French Revolution and Delacroix’s Marianne in ‘La Liberté’

'La Liberté' by Delacroix

‘La Liberté’ by Delacroix

This is where great album cover art works for me. Here is an image that’s more than a pretty design. It has depth and narrative like a Rennaissance painting. As a photograph it has authenticity, yet it has a real mystery and fiction too.

I’m glad I rediscovered Storm Thorgerson’s work. It’s a shame I came back too it too late and never got to meet him.

There are those influential people you look up to and aspire to become, and there are those that speak to you in a way that deeply affects how you think and work, or you connect with in such a way you follow their every output. Then there are those who you may or may not know about who just happen to think the same way or do things the same way – those are the people you share a path with.And then sometimes when you’re walking along your path and by chance you find someone who’s already managed to get to where you were heading. Those are your heroes.

…..

I’ve not gotten round to putting my print up yet. It’s all framed and standing on the kitchen table. But that’s the kind of thing I put on my wall.

print 006

 

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Despite the unusually mild winter I don’t seem to have done as much walking recently as I had hoped. So it was great to get out at the weekend and go tramping up some Pennine Hills.

This week’s walk was down in the South Pennines (West Yorkshire) from Haworth. I’m doing a piece near there later in the year and wanted to get a feel for the landscape. I also wanted to get the whole Brontë thing out of my system so I could look beyond that literary baggage the area wears. So my destination was ‘Top Withins’ – a ruined farmhouse on Haworth Moor.

‘Top Withins’ must be the most visited non-place on the Pennines. A former hill farm, it was reputed to be the inspiration behind ‘Wuthering Heights’ – a lonely, remote farmhouse high on the hills although there’s no evidence to suggest Emily Brontë ever went there or even knew of it. I’ve never read the book – I’ve tried a couple of times and not got very far. I’ve even resorted to an audiobook version too, but I just end up falling asleep with no idea how far I got each time. Still, it’s big in Japan – the Pennine Way even has footpath signs in Japanese:

japanese signpost

I first encountered Top Withins on the cover of ‘Literary Britain’ by Bill Brandt. I got ‘Literary Britain’ when I was about 15 and was the first photographic book I ever had. My early years of photography were heavily influenced by his dark, high contrast, grainy pictures of desolate landscapes and hauntingly empty buildings.

'Top Withins' by Bill Brandt

‘Top Withins’ by Bill Brandt. From ‘Literary Britain’ 1951.

The farmhouse doesn’t look like that anymore. Brandt visited sometime in the 30’s or 40’s. By the 60’s the windows had been blocked in and the roof started to collapse. I expected to find a beautiful ruin of crumbling walls and maybe a standing fireplace – they’re always built stronger. Instead, the powers that be have decided to restore the walls with fresh pointing and remove the unstable gables. The result is a stone box with all the romance of a nuclear power station. Did Ruskin mean nothing to these heritage folk? Ah well…

top withins 2014

I’ve become very familiar with my own existence on a windswept hill farmhouse over the past six years. As my adventure in this wilderness is drawing to an end I’ve been more conscious to witness and record the essence of life up here on my hill.

This spring the lapwings and curlews are back in much greater numbers than last year. Their eerie calls echo around the hills and bring a very distinctive upland dawn chorus.

Last year, as part of the ‘Gods Bridge’ project, I proposed a machine to make the sound of a curlew. The idea was to fill the painting galleries in the Bowes Museum with the sound of curlews. I had already looked at dissecting its distinctive ‘bubbling’ call earlier so while on paper I knew what was needed, making that a reality was a whole different thing.

flock of curlews

First up was just getting the right notes and tone. I scoured the internet looking for the lazy way of doing things in the hope I’d find just the right bird call. I bought the only one which claimed to do a curlew sound – and it was rubbish! So back to the drawing board and after numerous attempts with varying sized brass tube I built a slide whistle which came close. The hundreds of curlews gathering on the field outside my window gave me plenty of reference material to check it by.

Next was the problem of the trilling notes.

The spectral analysis pointed to a two-note rapid trill. I tried a sine wave swoop at the same speed as the curlew to see if it was an even up and down slide:


Obviously it’s not that.

Another whistle build revealed a closer possibility. Whistles are on the surface simple things – a narrow flow of air is passed over a hole where it is split and the reverberated air makes the note. By increasing the length of the whistle tube the note is lowered, shortening it raises he pitch. The diameter of the whistle determines tone and the size of the air hole controls the volume. Only it’s not quite that simple. Subtle changes to the shape of the hole can make huge differences to both the tone and the note. Then there’s the scale. Blowing more air can increase the pitch, considerably more air can change the scale completely raising the pitch to the next step of harmonics. By chance rather than design I ended up with a whistle which when tuned to the lower note of the call would switch to the upper note by changing the air pressure blowing through it. Could this be how the curlew is making its two note trill? A bit like yodelling. The difficulty was that I just couldn’t change the air pressure I was blowing at fast enough to even get close the speed (about 9Hz). Birds don’t have a diaphragm to control their breathing and air flow when singing. Instead their entire ribcage squeezes their lungs and is far more efficient at controlling fast speed changes than we are.

bellows

This led to the realisation of significant design flaws in my simple birdsong machine. I had anticipated that a slide whistle would control the pitch (notes) of the call, while bellows would provide the air with the whole thing powered by two simple cams – one for pitch and one for phrase. However, while the bellows method works well for cuckoo clocks and chirping mechanical birds, the longer notes of the curlew trills are just too much for moderately sized bellows. Even by rebuilding several paper bellows to increase the volume of air they move, and switching to airtight plastic-coated nylon bellows skins, getting a long enough note to do all the trills was going to take bellows much larger than the scale I wanted to use.

The whole trilling thing was looking to be far far trickier to achieve using pure mechanics alone. However, curlews have a wide range of calls. The bubbling sounds are so complicated for the bird that they can only do them while gliding and not flapping their wings. While in flight they have another distinctive two-note call.

Besides, I was getting far too hung up on the ‘Machine’ bit of the piece and losing track of the original audio experience.

So, here’s the final piece as installed in the opulent painting galleries in the Bowes Museum:

 

The sound is that of the flying call of the curlew made by the brass whistle and powered by bellows. It’s a recorded sound played through an induction speaker on the machine itself. The overall effect is what I wanted even if the method of making it isn’t as hoped.

Still, it was always going to be an attempt to recreate the sound. As it stands it’s not an entirely successful one, but as a first step it’s a good one. The bug has finally bitten though – the Curlew Machine #2 is a real possibility in the future. The next version will use fans to power the ‘breaths’, a butterfly valve will oscillate between high and low pressure notes, a step motor would change the lead pitch and the whole thing controlled by a micro processor. But that’s for another day.

For now the painting galleries echo to the sound of a mechanical curlew overhead and a small essence of the big wide North Pennines is brought inside for a bit.

 

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One of my favourite blogs at the moment is a podcast from the editor of LensWork – a photography publication from the States. I don’t subscribe to the magazine itself – I rarely keep up with periodicals anyway, but the weekly podcast has become a most eagerly awaited event each week. The editor, Brooks Jensen has a wonderful speaking voice which just exudes considered wisdom. Although each week his thoughts are centered on photography they are as much about approaches to art in general and a great source of contemplation. In the week when Grayson Perry’s much regarded Reith Lectures questioned ‘What is Art?’, Jensen recalls the opening paragraph from an early 20th Century book by Robert Henri – The Art Spirit:

“Art, when really understood, is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things – anything – well. It is not an outside, extra thing”

What is art? It’s doing something really well. I like that.

In another post he talks about the Isaac Newton idea of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ – learning from the greats that go before you. But more than that, he talks about finding the artists who are trading the same path as you – your fellow travellers. The idea that as artists we are not alone in our direction and that there are others going the same way – and instead of looking at them as competitors they should be seen as companions.

gasometer oberhausen

THis week I found myself in the presence of my giants. I went to Germany to see a work by Christo and earlier today I played in my all time favourite piece of orchestral music – Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony. To most this probably doesn’t seem as much a deal as it was to me. I can’t express how significant both are to where I am now.

First up I travelled to Oberhausen in the Ruhr Valley in Germany (armed with my trusty Leica and virtual rolls of Ilford HP5plus) to see ‘Big Air Package’-. This piece is unusual for a Christo piece as it is inside, and also it’s been up since May. However, despite admiring all his work for years and all the apparent similarities between his and my work, I’d never actually seen any in real life.

big air package by christo

The Gasometer in Oberhausen, at around 100m tall, is now the largest space dedicated to showing art in Europe – bigger than both the Tate’s Turbine Hall, and Paris’ Grande Palais. Within that huge, post industrial space, Christo has created one of the largest single works of art. Standing at over 90m high, ‘Big Air Package’ does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a big parcel of air wrapped up in PU-coated nylon (the same material I used for my Paviljong in Sweden last month) and bound with rope. The entire piece is kept up purely by a volume of air pumped in by constant fans.

It’s not a new idea – he made a number of ‘Air Packages’ back in the 60’s – the largest at Documenta ’68 took two large cranes to install and three abortive attempts to get the engineering right.

air package at documenta4

Christo and Jeanne-Claude 5,600 Cubicmeter Package, documenta IV, Kassel, 1967-68 Photo: Klaus Baum © 1968 Christo

The piece in Oberhausen is over 30 time the volume of that previous package. To me the interesting bit was how the piece filled the entire volume of the space in the Gasometer. I’ve been looking to do a piece that works on a similar level for a few years now, but so far none have managed to happen yet. The first was for a castle in Lancashire, the second for a victorian greenhouse in the southwest. For now they’re both on my ‘to be realised’ list and sure they will happen so long as I keep thinking they’re a good idea.

orangey visual

visual for a large inflatable piece inside a victorian orangery – now resigned to the ‘unrealised’ file

So it was good to see a piece like that realised. Of course, this was much much larger than any I’d planned to do. How many artworks have you been to recently where you can go up the side of it in a lift?

lift beside big air package

The volume inside was just as impressive. A vast white cathedral space. Very Kubrick. Very Turrel. But the whole experience bit was all very Christo.

inside the big air package

inside big air package

Down the road in the Ludwiggalerie at Oberhausen Schloss, there was a small exhibition of the original drawings and models of the ‘Big Air Package’. Uniquely, Christo funds all his large works entirely through the sale of preparatory drawings and models. It’s an elegant business model which I think I’ve written about before. Again, I’d seen pictures of these works on paper in books and on video but I’d never seen the real things. THere’s a real simplicity in his mark-making and incredible vision for how the final piece will look. The way the light works within that vast white space inside the package was so strikingly predicted in his drawings. THey’re both illustrations of engineering and things of great beauty in themselves. And so covetable – I could really see how his business plan works.

big air package drawings by Christo

detail of big air package drawing by christo

It’s the detail you get from a great work of classical music when you get to play in it. Listening to a performance or a recording is one thing. There’s that whole audio experience and where that takes you. But playing in one you get to see how it’s all made – the engineering bits that hold it together.

When I was doing my ‘O’ level music, the only thing I learnt, that I didn’t know before, was that Tchaikovsky was a raving queen who married an nymphomaniac. Emotional torment doesn’t even come close. It’s funny considering the current political stance in Russia that the writer of so much patriotic Russian music was gay. Don’t tell Putin. Shhh!

score cover

For me personally, Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. First performed just nine days before his death, it’s the pinnacle of his musical career. Although still in a traditional four movements, Tchaikovsky starts to twist the order of things. Before then the last movement was the big rousing finale – think Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s 9th, or the big tunes in Dvorak’s 9th. But for Tchaikovsky, the big rousing finale march comes in the third movement. He follows that up with one of the most incredible emotional bits of scoring in the forth. A big epic sweeping strings thing that just tears at the heart. The end, just a rumbling fade that leaves you exhausted.

Playing in the piece you get to see how he did it all. Tchaikovsky uses a lot of doubling up on tunes – with a number of different instruments playing the same thing, which detracts from the distinctiveness of individual instruments and creates entirely new palettes. Within these he plays around with the mix passing melodies and phrases across the mix, so as a listener you’re not entirely sure what instruments are playing what, it’s just a complete sound.

However, the bit that’s long fascinated me is the very start of that final movement. It starts with a soaring, emotional melody – the kind of thing that inspired a million film soundtracks.

However, no one actually plays the notes you hear. The first and second violins have slow, leaping  parts but your ear picks out a distinct melody from the two.

score of finale theme

How he ever worked out how that happens, I’ll never know. For me it’s just the epitome of his genius.

Today marks the 120th anniversary of the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony and his last performance.

I’m a big fan of Christo’s work and Tchaikovsky, although in many circles there’s a bit of snobbery that dismisses them both. For Christo he’s often dismissed as just pure spectacle with no substance. To many Tchaikovsky is ‘just ballet music’. Maybe it’s because of their accessibility that gets viewed as populist (as if that’s a bad thing anyway). What they both have in common is a desire for creating things of beauty. The art-world seems to have a problem with aesthetics – that things can be made just to be beautiful. Tchaikovsky was unapologetic in his desire to make music that was elegant, emotional and beautiful. ‘Big Air Package’, like all of Christo’s other work, doesn’t do anything else – it doesn’t move, or change colour or say anything about the place or materials, or the artists even. It’s just a thing of beauty – and that’s it.

But it’s beauty done really well.

And that’s art.

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It’s been a while since I last revisited the ‘God’s Bridge‘ project. That’s part of the problem with long-term projects – other things come along and take over your brain space. With a shed-load more in-depth projects lurking on the horizon, I thought I’d get in quick and do a bit more before my brain gets swamped with engineering calculations and complicated maths again.

I last left the ideas looking at the underground nature of this geological anomaly in the North Pennines. It’s been an unusually dry summer here and tracing the route of the water isn’t going to happen if there’s just no water around. However, what it did do was allow me to get to bits that are normally inaccessible and have a poke around.

Gods Bridge over dry river

Last month I visited again with some proper kit to experiment with photos of those underground passages. This is what one of the tunnels looks like lit just with what little daylight gets down there. That’s one of the joys of digital photography. The Nikon sensors in particular are quite incredible in low light. In fact the light levels here were so low I couldn’t really see very far, yet with a few seconds exposure it has a whole new life.

River Greta underground

The colours are fairly natural, although I did process them through DxO to look like I shot them on Fuji Velvia – which I would have done back in the day. It has a lovely punch to the colours without being over saturated and is particularly flattering for UK landscapes – makes the blue sky a bit bluer and the green fields a little more lush.

Anyway, much as I love exploring the North Pennines through photography – I’ve got a whole chunk here on Flickr – I was looking for something else from this.

While following the riverbed back upstream to see if I could actually find some water, the air was suddenly full of birds. Not the sparrows and starlings of towns and villages, but Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Lapwings and Curlews:

The North Pennines are a lonely landscape – big swathes of nothing. A great place for solitude. Only remote places are rarely empty and certainly never silent. Birdsong has a strange way of summoning up landscapes. Take the distant call of peacocks:

Peacock

To me that’s all lawn and topiary.

In mid-spring a deciduous forest in Sweden sounded like this:

An nightingales are an incredible sound. They only sing for two weeks every year:

Birdsong is a fascinating thing. To start with, birds don’t whistle – they sing. The shape of their beak doesn’t come into it. It comes from the throat like us. Humans have a larynx – a bit of flappy tissue and muscle which vibrates in airflow and creates all the basic sounds we make. We further adapt them with our lips to form words for instance, but the singy bit is all voice-box. Birds on the other-hand have a syrinx. It’s a bit like a larynx, only it can make sound with air flowing in both directions – so birds don’t need to stop to take a breath. Many birds have a syrinx with two bits so they can effectively sing two different sounds at the same time. In a way they are the ultimate singing machine.

zebra finch syrinx

syrinx of a Zebra Finch

Recent research in the States have created an artificial syrinx and can emulate complex songs. There’s a bit on the BBC site here

Birdsong has been a primary source of influence to artists and composers for centuries with countless compositions based on familiar bird calls. From the 17th Century Athanasius Kircher who first transcribed the song of a nightingale into musical notation to the 20th Century French composer Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Catalogue d’Oiseaux’.

By far my favourite artworks on birdsong are ‘Dawn Chorus’ by Marcus Coates – where birdsongs were slowed down and mimed to by people in ordinary morning locations with the video finally sped back up to pitch:

and ‘Syrinx’ by Pamela Z – again the bird songs were slowed right down to a lower pitch and replicated by her voice, and then raised back up to the original pitch and speed.

However, that’s great for traditional song birds, but the sounds that fill my landscape are very different and more complex in different ways.

Oystercatchers and Redshanks are fairly straight forward. Lapwings are ubiquitous – also known as Peewits due to their mating call. However, their vocabulary is extremely varied and almost alien at times:

(the beating sound in that clip is a Snipe – it makes that sound with its tail)

By far the sound that best sums up the vast open landscapes of the North Pennines for me is the whirl of the Curlew. The sound comes from way up above and bubbles across vast distances. It trails off in a descending tone, a built in dopplar effect which seems to accentuate the vastness of the landscape.

This clip has been filtered to remove lots of the background noise and other birds. It’s really difficult to just get the pure sound of a Curlew.

Messiaen captured the call of the Curlew and its sorrowful loneliness over the fells like this:

messiaen-curlew

It’s still got that trill element and the rising tone – represented as glissandos over a decaying drone chord. It’s got a melancholy about it that feels right and is a beautiful invocation, but it’s not the sound of a Curlew.

To figure out how the real sound is made I slowed the filtered recording right down to a manageable pitch and speed:

You get an idea of its construction from this sonogram of one of the repeated call sections:

curlew call spectrogram

From that I transcribed a basic score. I’ve done it in 3/4, but on reflection it’s probably 6/8. and an alto flute I figure is fairly close.

curlew-song2-1

so, I got the software to play it, sped it back up and it sounds like this:

Terrible.

So unbelievably bad. Though not really surprising – art is never simple. Making good art is hard work. OK, so it wasn’t a real flute playing in the first place – just a sequenced sample so lacks that natural element. Even so, this emulation of upland birdsong is far more complicated than I thought. Yet fascinating all the same. It’s going to take quite some time to get this right. I’m still not fixed on the idea of a perfect replication. I quite like Messiaen’s feeling for the bird and may yet go down that route, but there’s still something about challenging yourself and pursuing it until you get it just right and until I really have to dedicate my brain space to engineering calculations, I think that’s what I’ll do for now.

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