Noises, sounds and sweet airs9:51, 19th February 2016
It’s a cold, grey Saturday in February, and I’ve driven out to Snape Maltings in Suffolk to witness a rather unusual performance. Aldeburgh Music has for many years offered residencies during which musicians can try out new ideas, polish concert programmes or simply derive inspiration from an environment far from the hustle and bustle of everyday life; artists then present the fruits of their labours in an open session performance at the end of their stay.
When the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments (SSAI) appeared in the performance space, they had with them the usual dazzling array of instruments for which their performances are known. Director Clare Salaman brought her nyckleharpa (a traditional Swedish keyed fiddle), hurdy-gurdy, Hardanger fiddle, and tromba marina (a tall, monochord instrument played by creating harmonics without stopping the string); Jon Banks played dulcimers (hammered and plucked), gothic harp and percussion; Jean Kelly was on gothic bray harp and Renaissance triple harp; and Alison McGillivray provided the bass with her violone and viola bastarda. So far so good: anyone who has experienced an SSAI performance can testify as to the impressive visual and aural spectacle that they produce, and their vibrant, carefree virtuosity was as enthralling as ever.
However, also present were some unexpected items: microphones, speakers and pieces of plastic piping of varying diameter. In the middle sat sound designer and composer Jon Nicholls, hands gliding over his laptop and mixing desk – and to understand why, we need a short history lesson.
Francis Bacon (1561–1626) was one of the most original minds of his age and a true polymath, his knowledge spanning the fields of politics, philosophy, science, law and rhetoric. He served as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor under James I, and had a lasting effect on generations of thinkers after him through his extensive writings. Bacon devoted much thought to the precepts of English law, and expounded at great length on theology and moral philosophy, but it is for his scientific works that he is best remembered.
Bacon is regarded as the father of empiricism (the theory that knowledge comes primarily from sensory experience, not from a priori reasoning), and as such advocated an investigative method in the sciences based on inductive reasoning – i.e. the process of looking for evidence to support a premise. Bacon’s hope was to reform all processes whereby knowledge is gained in order to re-establish Man’s dominion over the natural world, and thereby restore him to a pre-Fall state of grace.
The work of Bacon’s that concerns us here is New Atlantis, a short utopian novel left incomplete at his death. It draws on numerous aspects of his other work, and tells the story of Bensalem, an island discovered by the crew of a ship lost in the Pacific Ocean. The narrator is welcomed ashore and introduced to the inhabitants and customs of the island, at the heart of which is a state-sponsored scientific institution, Salomon’s House. Towards the end of the novel, the narrator meets one of the elders of the community, who reveals to him the secrets of Salomon’s House; these consist in highly organised structures for the gathering and analysis of knowledge regarding the natural world. On the subject of sound and hearing, the following extraordinary passage occurs:
We have also Sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all Sounds and their Generation. We have Harmonies which you have not, of Quarter-sounds and lesser Slides of Sounds; divers Instruments of Musick likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, with Bells and Rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small Sounds as great and deep, likewise great Sounds extenuate and sharp. We make divers tremblings and warblings of Sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate Sounds and Letters, and the Voices and Notes of Beasts and Birds. We have certain helps, which set to the Ear do further the hearing greatly. We also have divers strange and artificial Echo’s reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller, and some deeper, yea, some rendering the voice differing in the Letters or articulate Sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey Sounds in Trunks and Pipes in strange lines and distances.
While, understandably, short on details, this passage is often considered prescient of the sonic capabilities afforded by digital and electronic technology; indeed, some have gone so far as to claim that Francis Bacon ‘invented’ such diverse objects as microphones, hearing aids, telephones and even the recording studio.
One figure who drew particular inspiration from Bacon was Daphne Oram (1925–2003), one of the pioneers of British experimental electronic music; a founding director of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, she single- handedly developed one of the earliest forms of electronic sound synthesis and used it in soundtracks for film, theatre, radio and television, and also in standalone compositions. Oram kept a copy of Bacon’s words on display wherever she worked and continually referred to them in her work, her ultimate goal being complete and nuanced control over every aspect of sound production.
However, the aim of the SSAI is different from these and other modern interpretations: in their new ‘Sound House’ project, they have sought to understand Bacon’s words in the context of his time, using instruments and techniques that would have been familiar to him in order to replicate the effects and phenomena that he describes.
For, clearly, Bacon was not looking into the future with a prophet’s eye, but rather in a spirit of optimism for the future of mankind; nor was he inventing these ideas, many of which are based on practical experiments in acoustics that he outlined in his work on natural history, Sylva sylvarum. (He was aware, for example, that timbre is distinct from pitch and that sound is a vibration of the air.) By emphasising the particular characteristics of their instruments, the SSAI’s aim was to explore and recreate some of the effects that Bacon and his contemporaries would have found so entrancing, while also using electronic manipulation to summon up sounds new and enchanting to 21st-century ears.
The music was a mixture of Elizabethan and Jacobean tunes and improvisations on grounds, which were linked by newly composed soundscapes by Nicholls; in the words of the SSAI, ‘the resulting magical aural effects and illusions will bring back the wonder generated in the 16th and 17th centuries by an echo or sympathetic vibration’.
This latter phenomenon was demonstrated by those instruments used by the SSAI that employ what are known as ‘sympathetic’ strings; that is, auxiliary, tuned strings that are not actually plucked, bowed or struck by the player, but which resonate when the note to which they are tuned is sounded by one of the main strings. These serve to give the sound an unearthly ‘halo’; instruments of this type on display in ‘Sound House’ included the Hardanger fiddle, nyckleharpa, viola bastarda and tromba marina. ‘It’s a way of creating extra resonance for an instrument,’ explains Salaman. ‘In fact, it’s almost like having your own personal acoustic that you can carry around with you!’
The members of the SSAI also replicated some of Bacon’s experiments in the studio. For example, Bacon’s final remark in the passage from New Atlantis could well have been derived from this observation in Sylva sylvarum: ‘Take a Trunk [pipe], and let one whistle at the one end, and hold your ear at the other and you shall finde the sound strike so sharp, as you can fearce endure it … And so you may note, that inclosures do not onely preserve sound, but also encrease and sharpen it.’ This they duly demonstrated, joining some of the lengths of piping with bends and angles and producing exactly the effect Bacon describes – namely, that a moderate sound played into the piping becomes intolerably loud at the other end.
Nicholls then played recordings of the bray harp in the Suffolk breeze, sounds which varied from a blaze of sound to ghostly tinkling, depending on the strength and direction of the wind; the piping came into play again here, as when held against the harp soundboard it created a low pulsing drone. This was then worked into one of Nicholls’ electronic compositions, with Kelly adding live harp into the mix.
Catching up with Salaman a few months after my trip to Snape, she spoke enthuastically about how the project had developed in the meantime.
‘Aldeburgh was great because it allowed us to show what we’d worked on in the week without having to think too much about tying it all together; so the main thing we’ve worked on is increasing the clarity of the experience for the audience. What we have now is a through-composed, complete piece of art – the whole thing will to flow seamlessly from one piece to another without a break. We’ll also perform in the round, so the audience will be practically amongst us and be more included. In fact, when we perform “Sound House” in York later this year, we’re going to have a 30-minute sound installation for the audience to wander through, which will lead straight into the performance.’
The group have re-thought their approach to Bacon’s original text, too. ‘Our performances will have six or seven sections, now based more closely on the experiments in Sylva sylvarum – although New Atlantis remains the inspiration – and the 17th-century music will be woven together by new compositions which Jon is writing. The “old” music has been chosen for its allusions to ideas in the Bacon, while Jon’s pieces are more directly inspired by Bacon – for example, we’re playing an echo piece by William Lawes, which Jon will then sweep up and work into his music.’
One exciting project in the pipeline is a large-scale educational collaboration with schools in Cambridge and Oxford; the former is a link-up with Cambridge Early Music and Cambridgeshire Music Hub; while in Oxford the SSAI have joined up with the Bate Collection and the Museum of the History of Science. ‘Schoolchildren will be able to wander around the museum to learn about the science while the music is going on, and then we hope to give a couple of performances of the full programme in the Oxford Early Music Festival.’
If I’m honest, I came away from Snape Maltings that February afternoon with my head in a daze from what I’d seen and heard. What the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments have concocted in ‘Sound House’ is a wondrous journey through a realm of unimaginable sonic possibilities; travel with them, and I guarantee that you will never think of sound in the same way again.
‘Sound House’ was premiered at the Illuminating York Festival on 30 October 2015; the project is supported by Arts Council England and by the Golsoncott Foundation. www.strangeandancientinstruments.com