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‘Whistle’ is about more than just a whistle. It’s about time – the here and now as well as historical, and place – both the ‘North’ and the individual places of the whistles. What the whistles do is link all those big and small ideas together.

At the heart of ‘Whistle’ of course are the whistles themselves.

As with previous incarnations, it was really important to get the right whistle and make it sound right. But as the project progressed the creation of the whistles took on their own narrative.

It started at the North Yorkshire Moors Railway in October last year. We went to see an LNER B1 locomotive in action and hear what the whistle sounded like.  The driver that day was a little reluctant to sound the whistle for any more than absolutely necessary for fear of upsetting the neighbours, so I could only snatch little snippets of sound but enough to get a feeling for the character of the whistle, and importantly, a pitch.

The whistle on a B1 is an ‘LNER standard design whistle’. It’s name is a little misleading as the London and North Eastern Railway had a number of different ‘standard’ designs over the years. The smaller bell-designed whistles on the large express locomotives, like ‘Flying Scotsman’ were higher in pitch but lacked a full bodied tone. The streamlined ‘A4 pacifics’ like Mallard drew heavily on their design from the massive art deco styled american locos and their whistles were similarly drawn from the US with distinctive tri-tone chime whistles. While these whistles were certainly distinctive and would have been a common sound in Newcastle up until the end of steam, these were quite complicated and expensive things to manufacture. The LNER imported their whistles from a Chicago based manufacturer, whereas the 1920’s ‘Standard Whistle’ was more homegrown in its design.

The first step to building a replica whistle was to see how the originals were built. I couldn’t find one for sale anywhere so instead with the help of the North East Locomotive Preservation Group, we took one off a loco at the historic carriage works in Darlington and took it apart to see how it went together.

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Whistles were traditionally made by apprentices at loco works. They were a great way to demonstrate a wide range of engineering skills without the precision and reliability of a mechanical part. So, while there are drawings for the whistles, the parts as constructed vary from piece to piece and no two are ever exactly the same.

The whistles for the piece were to be powered by cylinders of compressed air. While the principle of sounding whistles the way had been proven with my previous piece, this time the whistles would be outdoors for over three months in all weather and would need to fire reliably every day. On top of that, at least one of the whistles would be indoors and would need to be significantly quieter so it didn’t deafen the public.

A period of testing took place over a couple of months to find out how everything behaved in various conditions. We tested various solenoid valves to see what difference they made to the overall sound volume. The same with different brands of air regulators. Whistles were fired at different air pressures to find the optimum working pressure. A whistle was sounded repeatedly in a remote part of the countryside to find out how many blasts we could get out of each cylinder of air and in a separate test, we needed to see if rain got into the whistles and what would happen if it did. Importantly we needed to find out just how loud the whistles were  and also, how could we make a whistle quieter without ruining the tone?

With any project that’s not been done before, you really can’t do too much testing – as we were to later find out.

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The bell type whistle we used has been around for over a century and was built using the techniques and skills commonly used in loco building. We started off looking to see if there were any improvements we could make to the manufacturing process using modern techniques, but after a number of failed attempts we resorted to the same tried and tested techniques as the originals.

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original whistle in its constituent parts

The whistles are made in three parts – a large bell over the top, a cup at the base and a central stem that sat inside the cup that made the important air gap and held the whole whistle together. The key factors in the volume, pitch and tone of the whistle are the size of the gap in the bottom cup – this creates a column of air that is split by the lip of the bell and makes the sound. The cleanliness of the tone, and to a certain extent the volume is determined by the sharpness of the bell edge. The bell edge has to sit at a sweet point above the cup for the note to ring well. If the gaping the cup is too big or the bell edge is too blunt, the tone is muddied and the volume is reduced. Get everything just right and at the right air pressure the whistle screams loudly and the bell rings with a beautiful harmonic overtone.

As with the previous whistle piece, the whistles had to be re-tuned to allow for the colder temperature of compressed air as opposed to steam in the originals. This was done with a plate cast as part of the central pillar. In the finishing stages this plate could be machined at different thicknesses and heights to give a variety to the final notes. We could have made all the whistles exactly the same pitch, but by retuning them all very slightly, there is a general dissonance between the whistles adding to a more cacophonous sound to the ensemble.

A set of blank patterns were made in steel for each of the sections. These were then sent to the foundry to be cast in brass.

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The casting was done at William Lanes in Middlesbrough. Once a town synonymous with steelworks and metal foundries, William Lane is now the last working foundry in Middlesbrough. Started in the 1890’s as a brass works, the methods used have hanged very little over the past 120 or so years. The patterns are embedded in wet sand to create a negative moulds. Lamp black is used to coat one side of the mould to prevent the second from sticking so that the patterns can be removed for making the next mould. A new mould is made for every casting. The brass is prepared from copper and zinc and melted to around 900º C. It’s then poured into the mould and left to cool. Once cooled down sufficiently, the sand is knocked out of the mould and the casting is revealed. The pouring channels and other flashing is removed along with the outer layer of sand residue in the fitting room and the the castings are then sent back to the engineers for finishing.

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The finishing was mostly done on a lathe – the bell sections were taken down to a thickness of a few tenths of a millimetre. the angle of the knife edge being taken to around 15º (it was more accurate than that even). The cup section was similarly turned down and included a small, but vital parallel section at the top lip. The centre stem was threaded to fit inside the cup and the tuning baffle turned to the right pitch for each whistle and made a snug fit for its corresponding bell. Any gap between the bell and baffle would result in extra overtones and spoil the purity of the tone. Once all machined, the whistles were polished to a brilliant shine and numbered wth a stamp on the stem.

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The finished whistles were wrapped and crated ready for installation.

Along with the drawings made from measuring real whistles, I also tracked down an original engineering drawing for a standard whistle  – drawn at Stephenson Works in Newcastle for all engines built at Darlington. This cemented the heritage of the whistle we used. For me it was important that not only was the design we used from Newcastle itself, but that the engineering was done in Darlington – the birthplace of railway engineering. I wanted the build of the whistles to say something about the engineering history of the North East. Its so much part of the life blood of the region in understanding where its come from. But also vitally important with the narrative of the Great Exhibition that we can show that not only do these skills still exist but they exist at a level of excellence that can only come from that depth of heritage.

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Above all, these were whistles fit for a Great Exhibition.

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Whistle, as an installation, looks to celebrate the engineering heritage of the North of England, but also looks at who we are in the North and the sense of place.

The Great Exhibition of the North could have been anywhere north of Cheshire (I know, don’t get me started on basic geography). However, it’s ended up in Gateshead and Newcastle, so I wanted to see what defines the place in order to start a conversation about its future trajectory. Where does it come from?

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An early 18th century map of Newcastle clearly showing the route of the wall

The Town Wall was built around Newcastle around the 12th Century – primarily to defend it from raiding parties from across the Scottish Border. It was typically 24 ft high (8m) and seven feet (2.5m) thick. There were six main gates – including Westgate and Newgate – and 17 towers – of which parts of six still remain. At its prime it was considered the most impressive town or city wall in the whole of England and was only breached once – by the Scots during the English Civil War. Although over the centuries it fell into disrepair, most of the wall survived into the late 19th Century and there are photographs of most of the towers before the late Victorian redevelopment of the city centre. It’s important to note that Newcastle never had a City wall – it didn’t become a city until the 1890s, by which time most of the wall was in ruins.

Although the wall is by no means complete now, there are surprisingly large amounts still standing, and even in the absent sections its route still survives.

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The current online map on Street Map shows the route of the wall as a dotted line

The challenge for the installation was to find sufficient sites around the wall to place whistles. As they are powered by cylinders of compressed air, the sites had to be secure. At around 130dB they are also very loud, so they had to be well away from ear-level or a safe distance away from the public. The simplest place to put them was on the roof of buildings. That meant finding and securing premises with flat roofs and good access. With a target of 18 venues across an entire city this was far from straight forward. Besides the medieval structures of the actual wall, most of the other buildings along the line of the wall were part of its subsequent history with their own architectural interest. Newcastle is a city rich in history and architectural heritage. Outside of London it has the highest number of historical buildings in England. Newcastle has 53 grade I listed buildings, 153 grade two-star, 558 grade two, 42 scheduled ancient monuments and 12 conservation areas. This in turn created its own set of issues and logistics in terms of getting permissions. In the end 17 locations were identified, which in turn held their own connection to the town wall and the history of the city:

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1: Newcastle City Library – New Bridge Street West.

This was a relatively easy starting point for me as I had untaken a short residency there last year and had a good relationship with the team there. I’d already been up on the roof so I knew it was a great place to host a whistle.

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A drawing from 1825 of Carliol Tower – then a private house

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The 2009 City Library building. Note the angled entrance atrium set at the same angle as the original tower (above)

The current city library was completed in 2009 and was the third library building on the site. The previous one designed by Sir Basil Spence – architect of Coventry Cathedral and Trawsfyndd power station amongst many others – was part of T Dan Smith’s vision for Newcastle’s ‘City in the Sky’ network of elevated walkways. However, by the millennium it was deemed too dark and oppressive and no longer fit for purpose and demolished in 2007. The new library was built to be future proofed as the role of libraries evolved. Built on the site of Carliol Tower on the north-east corner of the town wall, the new facade of the library echoes the idea of a tower and is orientated to match the original 12th century tower. There are some stones from the town wall recovered during the works on display inside.

2: Euro Hostel  – Carliol Square.

The next tower along the wall from the library – Plummer Tower – still exists. Originally known as Carliol Croft Tower, it was home to the guild of Cutlers, then to the Guild of Masons in the 18th Century who subsequently enlarged the building to the street to how it is today. It’s now home to a team of architects who specialise in historic buildings.

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Plummer Tower

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The view back to the library from the Euro Hostel Roof

Unfortunately the tower has a pitched roof behind the front parapet and with no easy access up there it couldn’t be easily used for hosting a whistle. Instead, the whistle is on top of the Euro Hostel opposite. This has a clear line of sight to the whistle on the library, but also has its own town wall history. The Hostel sits on the site of the town prison. Closed in 1928, you can still see the old execution chamber out the back. ‘The Ware Rooms’ bar is named after the place where one of its former inmates hid his stash of stolen jewellery.

3: Holy Jesus Hospital – City Road

The motorway slices unceremoniously through the line of the wall, with the mainline railway intersecting it from the opposite direction removing all traces of the wall itself. The next tower along the line – Austin Tower – probably lies somewhere beneath Manors Car Park.

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Austin Friary Tower. The part to the right of the door is original and contemporary with the Town Wall. To the left is the wonderful helix ramp on Manors Car Park. The original Austin Tower lies beneath the car park somewhere.

The next nearest spot is Austin Friar’s Tower. Austin Friary was home to a group of Augustinian monks from the 13th Century. The 14th Century tower is all that remains of the friary, although it is now attached to Holy Jesus Hospital – a 17th century building used to offer lodgings – hospitality – to freemen of the city. This is now one of the oldest brick-built buildings still in use. The tower was altered in the 16th century after the dissolution of the monasteries, and became a strong room to protect valuables in the event of the town wall being breached.

The Whistle was to have been installed on the roof of the tower – now in the hands of the National Trust – however, the access costs and logistics were escalating rapidly so this one had to be postponed at a late stage.

4: Sallyport Tower – Tower Street

This building straddles the meeting point of the town wall and Hadrian’s wall. Built on the base of a roman tower, this is the oldest site on the wall. The gate gets its name from being the route the army would rush out to engage with any attacking party – where they would ‘sally forth’. The tower was mostly destroyed in the siege of 1644 – the only time the wall was breached. The building was restored in 1716 with an extension on the top by the Guild of Shipwrights and Carpenters who used it as a meeting room.

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Sallyport Tower. The foundations are Roman, the ground floor is mostly the original wall. The upper storey is a 17th century addition

The building is currently being run as a wedding venue so the whistle isn’t permanent here.

5: The Jolly Fisherman on the Quayside – Milk Market

From Sallyport Tower, the wall curved gently down to the river. There was no wall as such built along the quayside with the river itself forming the main defence.

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The Tyne Inn pub on the corner of Milk Market. Note the use of stone on the next door building following the line of the Town Wall

The pub most recently known as ‘the Jolly Fisherman’ or the ‘Waterline’ or even the ‘Tyne Inn’ is a grade II listed building built as a pub in 1904. This sat on the corner of the Milk Market and was once part of the busy quayside activity. The ground floor of the building along Milk Market reflects the line of the wall that ran down to the river along this point.

The pub is now part of the ‘Tomahawk’ restaurant on the Quayside. The whistle here sits on top of the hanging sign bracket.

6: Live Buildings – 55 Quayside

This relatively new building is one of the few sites without historical precedent. Sandwiched between a 19th Century quayside inn and the 18th century customs house, in never the less has an unparalleled view of the river and directly opposite the Sage building. From the balcony you also see the rooftops of the neighbouring buildings with a clear view of the bell on the roof of the Customs house next door. A reminder of a time when sound played a bigger role in signalling and communication across the city.

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Probably the best view from the Quayside. Next door is the Customs House, complete with bell on the roof

The building is now home to Zerolight – one of the ever-growing number of tech and software companies in the city. Here they develop virtual and augmented reality technologies for the luxury car market.

7: Guildhall, Sandhill

The original plan was to site a couple of whistles on the towers of the Tyne Bridge – it being an unmistakable icon of the city. However, every summer the bridge and surrounding buildings become nesting sites for rare kittiwakes. These small sea birds normally nest on cliffs above the sea, but since the 1950s this has become one of only two inland nesting sites for the birds in the world. So the Tye Bridge and many other sites along the quayside cannot be used or accessed during the breeding season.

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The whistle installed on the roof of the Guildhall. The original bells can clearly be seen on the far end

The Guildhall beneath the Tyne Bridge is one of the frequently used nesting sites. However Kittiwakes are fussy birds and only nest where they can see water. So the side facing away from the river is free from nesting birds.

The Guildhall is a Grade I listed building dating from 1665. Built as the seat of local power it was home to the various Guilds who had their individual meeting rooms at each of the castle towers. It was the town hall until the end of the 19th Century when the town became a city. It’s been redesigned and extended at several points over the centuries – the curved east end was designed for the fish market by notable local architect and town planner John Dobson. On the roof is a cupola with a chiming clock. However, below the clock on the north side is an earlier set of bells with the chiming mechanism within the central roof. More reminders of the use of sound within the cityscape.

8: Quayside Inn, 35 Close

This is the last surviving of the original quayside warehouses. From the 16th century this part of the riverside was a maze of narrow streets and houses with numerous warehouses lining the quayside beneath where the High Level Bridge is today. Both sides of the river were busy with ships being loaded and unloaded.

On the 6th October 1854, a fire broke out at Wilson’s worsted mill on the Gateshead side of the river. This rapidly spread to a nearby chemical works which subsequently exploded. Stones were shot hundreds of metres across the river. The force of the blast destroyed the riverside buildings in Gateshead and ripped off the roofs and blew in the shop fronts on Newcastle’s quayside. Burning debris quickly spread through the densely packed buildings along the quayside on the Newcastle side and before long the twin fires decimated both cities. The fire could be watched from the newly opened High Level Bridge.

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35 Close sitting beneath Stephenson’s High Level Bridge.

What is now the Quayside Inn is the only building with a riverside frontage to survive. This is now a Grade II* listed building. The whistle is on the outside of the loft doors overlooking the river. This building would have been right on the edge of the river. The quayside has since been infilled so it sits nearly 10 metres in.

9: The Town Wall, Orchard Street

This is one of two lengths of intact town wall remaining. About 80 metres of the wall, most of it the full eight metres high, run along Orchard Street from Forth Street. A fruit orchard grew along this stretch of wall – hence the name. In the 19th century a works building was built into the west side of the wall where you can still see the post holes for the rafters.

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The wall along Orchard Street

A whistle was planned to sit in top of the wall along the walkway. However, access costs started to escalate so this site had to be dropped late on.

10: Central Station main concourse

From Orchard street the wall took a straight line across where the railway now stands before curving round through what is now the main station . With commanding views both to the west and south over the river valley there were three towers within the footprint of the station: Neville Tower stood at the far east end of the platforms and was the meeting hall for ‘the company of Wallers Bricklayers and Plaisterers’. West Spital Tower stood more or less on the concourse and got its name from the nearby St Mary’s Hospital. Stank Tower was on the corner of the entrance portico.

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The elegantly sweeping curve of Central Station’s roof

Central Station sits on an elegant sweeping curve, accentuated by the vast ironwork roof. The original station building was designed by John Dobson and featured the first great train shed roof, built the same year as the William Paxton Great Exhibition Palace and so considered the cutting edge of architecture of the time. John Dobson won a medal in Paris in 1858 for inventing the rollers used to create the curved girders. The station was officially opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1850 when it was mostly just a roof and some facades. The main station buildings weren’t finished in time! Their crests can be seen in the roof trusses.

11. Central Station entrance portico

Stank Tower sat on the outside corner of the entrance portico – just beyond the Cafe Nero kiosk. The original plan for the portico was for it to run the entire length of the station . the arches becoming alcoves each with its own statue. However, the scale and associated cost was revisited and a simpler portico was built as survives today.

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The original plan was for a portico running the entire length of the station

Central Station’s John Dobson lineage and importance in the development of the railway station has earned it a Grade I listing. The connection between the railway engineering aspects of ‘Whistle’ and its location are undoubtedly strongest at the station. By having two whistles within the station  – both indoors and in close proximity, the station is also by far the loudest and most obvious location. The dissonance between the whistles and the lively acoustic make it quite an experience on its own.

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Whistle in a much more modestly sized entrance portico

12. Gunner House

From Stank Tower the wall crossed Neville street diagonally and continued along that line up Pink Lane. Gunner House takes its name from Gunner Tower which stood on the site. You can see the base of the original tower outside the Town Wall pub next door (which also serves a very drinkable   and exclusive ‘Toon Waal’ beer). Gunner Tower became the meeting room for the ‘incorporated company of Slaters and Tylers’. The wall along Pink Lane was removed by the 19th Century.

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A drawing from around 1825 showing Gunner Tower as it remained then. The current Gunner House sits next door and is home to a Subway sandwich shop

14. Heber Tower

I know – there’s no number 13. Certainly unlucky for some – the site of whistle no.13 was never granted permission so was cancelled quite early on.

No. 14 however is on the wall itself. Heber Tower sits at the corner of the most complete section of wall still standing. West walls runs from Durham Tower, past Heber Tower, Morden Tower and ending with the remains of Ever Tower. Like Durham Tower, Heber Tower survives almost intact as when it was first built in the 13th century. Access to the walkway is via one of two internal staircases. Along the top of the wall you can clearly see the walkway and how it went through the intermediate sentry towers. From the 15th century the tower became the meeting place and was maintained by the Guild of Felt-makers, Curriers, and Armourers. In the 19th century the tower was used by a blacksmiths.

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View along the top of the wall from Heber Tower looking towards Merton Tower. The Fosse – or Town Ditch – can just be seen on the left. In the foreground is one of the 13th century carved heads

The top of the tower overlooks the last remnant of the ditch that ran the length of the wall as part of the town defences. The parapet wall on the tower is pretty much all intact, complete with 13th century carved heads on the inside keeping guard. The whole of the West Walls is Grade I listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

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Another of the carved heads on the top of Heber Tower

15. St Andrew’s Parish Church

The churchyard at St Andrews, sitting amongst the hustle and bustle of a busy city, is a surprisingly calm and quiet space. The church was here long before the wall. the records show how graves had to me moved to allow the wall to run within its grounds. There is another large intact section of wall within the grounds – the shops along one side of Gallowgate were built on top of the wall – the present Gallowgate being much higher than it originally was – remember this would have been a ditch too. In the corner would have stood Andrew Tower.

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A drawing C1825 showing Andrew Tower with the parish church tower behind. In the distance is the imposing Newgate

The church dates from the 12th century although much of the existing church dates from much later and includes a Lady Chapel by John Dobson. outside the porch is the grave of composer Charles Alison, who died after being caught in an unexpected blizzard in May.

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St Andrew’s Church Tower is no strong enough to cope with swinging bells any more. Instead the bells hang vertically with electronic actuators powering the hammers

The Whistle here is situated on the top of the tower. Much of the tower survives from the 12th century, notably the stone spiral staircase up to the top bell chamber. The tower can no longer take the weight of swinging bells, so these are now static and rung by means of actuators on the hammers and controlled by a timer in the church.

16. High Friars, Intu Eldon Square Shopping Centre

From St Andrews the wall crossed Newgate with a major gateway in the wall. Newgate was the largest structure in the wall and enlarged with a fortified barbican in the 1390. From there the line of the wall passes beneath what is now part of Eldon Square shopping centre. The original Eldon Square was an elegant formal square designed by John Dobson. This was controversially demolished in the 1970s to make way for the current shopping centre. The outside wall along the south side of Blackett Street follows the line of the town wall. Although there is no trace of the actual wall, its heritage lives on in the names of the quarters within the centre. The High Friars Mall follows the line of Friars Chare that ran through the nunnery gardens there. The opening space for the escalators beneath Eldon Leisure sits exactly on the site of Bertram Momboucher Tower and its square atrium space echoes the ghost of a tower. The original tower takes its name from Bertram Mombowcher – one of the high sheriffs of Northumbria during the reign of Edward III. This part of the town became the poorest area by the mid-19th century so atypical slum clearing fashion it was torn up and rebuilt as Blackett Street. The stones from the wall were reputedly reused to line the new sewers.

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The current site of Bertram Momboucher Tower inside the shopping centre

The whistle inside the shopping centre is the closest to the public and as it’s in a relatively enclosed space has had to be specially engineered to be significantly quieter so as not to deafen shoppers. It’s still very loud though!

17. Monument entrance, Intu Eldon Square

the last whistle in the piece sits overlooking the statue of Earl Grey. The outside edge of the shopping centre sits directly over the site of Ficket Tower. The entrance to the centre follows the line of Friars Chare and the wall would have run alongside it next to the current Blackett Street. You can see the site of Ficket Tower in the distinctively rounded northern flank of the entrance. The whistle here is on the roof.

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The rounded end to the north face of the shopping centre echoes that of the Town Wall towers and Ficket Tower that once stood on the same spot 

From here the line of the wall runs along Blackett street, across Pilgrim Street on Pilgrim Gate and back to Carliol Tower. Pilgrim Gate was demolished in 1802 when the gate became too narrow for the wagons of the day. When it was demolished the builders discovered a 24 lb cannon ball in the walls – a remnant from the siege of 1644.

All in the piece runs around 2.2 miles (3.5 km) of the town wall. Of the sites there are three Grade II or II* listed, five Grade I listed, two scheduled ancient monuments, and part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is by far the most complicated piece I’ve done in terms of securing permissions – with over 20 landlords, tenants and licensing bodies to appease. The install documents alone run to nearly 200 pages.

But the complexity of the various locations and their individual connections with the history of the Town Wall, for me, adds so much more depth to the overall piece and cements the piece with the place in a way that simply wouldn’t work anywhere else.

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Great Expectations

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Last Friday we stood in the entrance of Newcastle’s majestic Central Station. Waiting. Looking up at the clock and list of departures. Watching the seconds tick by. Fairly normal activity for a station and we certainly didn’t seem out of place (apart from the observing TV camera crews). We we waiting for a sign. A signal. The starting gun. Only it definitely wasn’t a gun. This was a family friendly cultural event.

As the seconds ticked down – 40… 45 .. the anticipation grew. It was quite literally any second now. Then at 10 seconds to the hour the first pip sounded. A loud and confident sound from over in the concourse. Swiftly followed – within the same click of the seconds – by another, fractionally lower pitched peep. Then a third, more distant outside, across the road.

The next few seconds seemed to last minutes. The most pregnant of pauses. Then as the seconds, minutes and hours flicked over to 13:00:00 it arrived. The unmistakable blast of steam engine whistles. A dissonant chord, a cacophony of tone that filled the voids of the vast Station building, its great curving roof, its cavernous imposing portico, and bursting out the doors into the city beyond.

Elsewhere, another dozen whistles were bursting from rooftops – their ringing bouncing off the walls and windows of the city.

This is Whistle. This is the start of the Great Exhibition of the North.

The Great Exhibition of the North is an 80 day event spread over 50 venues across Newcastle and Gateshead, showcasing the best in art, design and innovation from the wider North of England. over recent years there’s been an increasing awareness of the ‘Londoncentricity’ that’s pervaded arts, culture, economy, media, politics. pretty much everything. The concept of the Northern Powerhouse was a way to devolve some decision making and profile to places north of London. The idea of a Great Exhibition of the North was launched by the government back in 2016 with northern towns and cities invited to tender as host for the event. In the end it went to a joint offer from Newcastle and Gateshead. There’s a lot of politics involved in the concept, decisions and role of the event, which apart from occasionally being a bit murky and occasionally insulting, is mostly unfortunate as at the core is actually quite a good thing and better off if you ignore the politics.

The nub of the idea stems from the Great Exhibition of 1851. This extravaganza, held in a vast contemporary glass and iron construction (later to become the Crystal Palace) was advertised as ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ – although in reality it was to promote the industrial superiority of Victorian Britain. Businesses from across the world showcased exotic materials or used specially commissioned artworks to promote their place in a fast moving technological time. Over six million people visited the exhibition in London and the profits generated from ticket sales went to establish the Kensington Museums (the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and the V&A).

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‘Opening Day of the Great Exhibition – 1st May 1851’ by David Roberts RA. image © The Royal Collection Trust

Great concept to recreate. Somewhere to show off all that the North of England contributes to the world. I envisioned all the major industries and hundreds of smaller and newer businesses showing the cutting edge of technology and innovation within the context of the historical powerhouse of invention and industry that is the North of England. We were promised water fountains the height of the Tyne Bridge, George Stephenson’s Rocket back in the North East, John Lennon’s last piano and the largest free event in the UK the summer.

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Having lived north of Preston for most of my life, I’m passionate about the area and the influence it has on my work, so naturally I wanted in.

I wanted to do something that looks at the industrial heritage of the North, celebrates Newcastle as a place and utilises current technology to link that ongoing narrative. despite it being in an urban environment I also wanted to say something about the landscape. It’s the landscape of the North of England that gives it identity and character and the reason it was the birthplace for so much technology and industry.

A few years ago I had done a pilot piece for a large-scale landscape installation using steam engine whistles in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. We’d done fair bit of research and development on that project to get to a point where it was possible and viable, but for a number of reasons had never been fully realised. The role of the North East as the birthplace of railways made it seem appropriate to revisit this piece.

There was a an open call for projects last year – something I don’t usually respond to – but I was taken by the whole idea of an exhibition for the North and it’s potential to realise ambitious projects so I put something in. The idea was for a mass of steam engine whistles to reverberate across Newcastle and the river once a day. The sounds echoing off the buildings and the river valley. Marking time and place – both the 1 o’clock in Newcastle, but also where we are in the 21st century in a digital world, with a reminder of how we got here. A fusion of past, preset and future in the spirit of that first Great Exhibition in 1851.

And so, standing in that 1850’s John Dobson designed train shed of glass and iron to hear those whistles from the age of steam ring out with split-second accuracy to open a new Great Exhibition, that spirit rose again.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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It feels like ages since I last posted something here. Actually it was ages. It’s been an eventful summer – lots of new work getting made and going up all over the place, amazing weather to distract me, and … oh, I moved house.

Moving house is a stressful thing at best of times – when you’re self-employed and you have to move house in the middle of lots of work it seems doubly so.

empty house

My six years on a mountain was an amazing adventure. Stainmore is not exactly known for its sunshine and warm weather. In fact quite the opposite.

Four out of the last five winters have been especially hard up there. At around 1,500ft above sea level snow was pretty much a given. Most years I’d find myself snowed-in for a total of five weeks – that’s 10% of the year when you couldn’t get within a mile of the house by car. Yet, somehow I felt endeared to that bleakness and solitude. No double-glazing, no central heating and a coal-fired cooker. It was never going to be easy. But the clouds and the wind and the curlews and seeing hares on the track most days and listening to the owls at night… it was a truly special place.

view from window on stainmore

I haven’t moved far. Just over the hill. And a little lower down. I now have double glazing, central heating, hot water on demand. All the little things I didn’t know I was missing. And I still have a view to look out over while I drink my tea. (new house, new view, new header images at the top of this blog)

view with tea

But it’s a very different view. Obviously it’s not as high up as the one on Stainmore. It’s still got those wild North Pennine fells though at the moment – probably because it’s still summer, they don’t do very much yet. The biggest difference is trees.

I had trees on Stainmore. The owls used to sit in them at night and call to each other. They also protected the house from the worst of the northerly winds. But there weren’t very many of them, and there weren’t many to be seen in the view either.

Here in Teesdale, there’s a lot more of them – little copses and big woodlands. Mostly deciduous too – I’m hoping for an autumn like last year. That would be amazing. And they don’t just make the landscape look different – it sounds different too.

Stainmore was all curlew and lapwing – alien sounds in the bird world. Here, there’s still the odd curlew cry, but there’s much much more variety of birdsong. Yes, birdsong. That’s what was missing before. Tweets and trills and swoops and chirps. So many different sounds and it’s always there. The trees seem to act as some kind of filter removing much of the background noise, but somehow the birdsong still cuts through.

The other week was haymaking in the dale. The current rules on farming in this Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) mean that many farmers have very short windows to harvest hay and silage and it seemed like the entire valley got harvested in a matter of days. One of the local contractors was using some beautiful old machinery to make square hay bales. There was a wonderful rhythmic pattern circulating around the fields as the machine scooped up the hay, compacted it, tied it into bales then stored then gathered them up to be deposited in convenient piles to dry in the sun.

bales in the fields

Of course I never went out with any sound recording stuff to capture all this while it’s still new and exciting to me, so for now they’ll just have to be memories.

The other sound that somehow manages to carry on still evenings is from the water cascading down the falls a couple of fields away.

close up of waterfall

..but that’s for another story.

 

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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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