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PREVIEW: The Chimes Hour
Laurie Tuffrey , October 31st, 2014 17:26

Peter Meanwell tells us about Aldeburgh Music's event tomorrow night, an exploration of Suffolk myth through close recordings and new compositions

Tomorrow evening, Aldeburgh Music will be playing host to The Chimes Hour, a one-off event which will explore the elusive sonic environment in and around the Hoffmann Building, part of Snape Maltings, the former industrial complex converted by Benjamin Britten. It will bring together close recordings made of the building, both inside and out, by field recordist Lee Patterson (listen to his samples of a lift and a photocopier below) which will form the basis for compositions by Jennifer Walshe, and will also feature violinist Angharad Davies, cellist Lucy Railton and the Aldeburgh Young Musicians. They'll be playing in different rooms of the building so their performances mesh into one another, the idea being to touch on sounds that had remained unheard, inspired by "the Suffolk folk belief that children born at the hours when church bells tolled had the ability to discern 'happenings hidden from the sight of lesser mortals'". To tell us more about the project, we asked Peter Meanwell, one of the event's organisers, to tell us more:

Could you tell us about the background to the piece and how it's coming together?

Peter Meanwell: The piece is part of Aldeburgh Music's Faster Than Sound series that pokes around the corners of new composition, improv and electronic music, and has come up with some pretty exciting combinations of people in the past. I was keen to bring together Irish composer Jennifer Walshe and improviser and field recordist Lee Patterson. Jennifer's practice involves everything from creating fictional personas and wild stories drawn from Google autocomplete to really virtuosic vocal improvisation, and Lee has developed these really close recording methods, where he draws hidden sounds out of blades of grass, tiny bugs on water, as well as internal heating ducts and photocopiers. Both of them, in different ways, deal with these spaces in-between fact and fiction, hidden stories, ambiguity, and when we all visited Suffolk to spend a couple of days in the area, it became evident that the surrounding landscape was also full of these kinks, old tales, tiny sounds, myths and that was the starting point.

There's also the building that we're working in - the Hoffmann Building - which is a beautifully designed collection of concert hall and studios in an old malthouse. When we visited the first time we figured out that all the spaces are interlinked, meaning that you can pass sound from one space to the other, and we started to think about how we could compose a piece not just for one set of performers in front of an audience in one space, but a performance that incorporates all these different rooms and corridors, and that then puts the audience in the centre, moving between the spaces. Once you start to open up the space in this way, then you can create ambiguities and tensions in the listening experience, perhaps not everyone will hear the same thing, hidden sounds can appear, you can play with people overhearing, sounds, motifs reappearing in different spaces.

Then we also have the opportunity to work with the Aldeburgh Young Musicians, who are a crack team of virtuosic young musicians, and we'll be working with a bunch of string players, some woodwind players and some of the composers on the course to develop material throughout a week's residency, which started this week.

You mention some pretty diverse inspirations for the piece: Anglo Saxon myth, a folklorist and historian local to the area and a breed of horse. How do you think these will make their way into the final piece?

PM: As we've spent time thinking about the piece, we also visited the local area to try and root it, not necessarily in a single story but to try and get a sense of the area. One of our touchstones was a book called Horsepower And Magic by George Ewart Evans, who was an oral historian working in Suffolk, recording stories from rural workers at the time that farming became industrialised. There's a specific breed of horse called the Suffolk Punch which is a beautiful, majestic work horse, and used to plough the fields here, and so there are all these stories from the men who used to handle the horses, how they would use special scents to calm them, say certain things to control them - it creates this mythic narrative around these animals that are very local and tied to the land. We've spent a bit of time at the Suffolk Punch Trust to see the animals, but we'd also like to have one involved in the piece. Part of the week's residency is working that bit out - they're big animals, terrifying if they get upset, so perhaps we'll go and film them and record them and bring into the fabric of the work.

Essentially though we're creating this modular composition that takes its title from an old Suffolk myth that babies born between certain hours ("the chimes hours") have special powers - that they can discern things that normal people can't - and this really ties in to what musically Jennifer and Lee are up to - not to attribute them with special powers, but they let us hear things in different ways, either through these close recording techniques that Lee uses, drawing sounds from things we'd never think had anything going on there, or through the extended techniques Jennifer uses in her writing, altering how we hear certain instruments or the voice. If we then rearrange the whole listening experience, so that the audience is in small groups moving through a space, and certain things are overheard in multiple places, and the music is not the same for each group, then you start to weave the idea of myth and ambiguity and secret sounds into the fabric of the piece. Hopefully this also enables people to listen in a more active way, to focus on the sounds around them with fresh ears, because they are actively moving through a space and encountering new things.

You're using close recordings of both the building - we've already heard a lift and a photocopier - and the surrounding nature: do you know how these will form part of the work or how the other musicians will interact with them?

PM: Part of this week's residency is taking these recordings and working these into a musical composition. Some of this will be about Jennifer taking the recordings and using them as the basis for graphic scores or working with text pieces and notation to be played by the musicians. In other parts of the room Lee will be composing sound pieces using parts of the recordings, in others the musicians will have the recordings on headphones and will be reacting to the sounds, and re-interpreting them through their instruments.

We're also really lucky to have improvisers Angharad Davies and Lucy Railton along for the week, they're both part of the improv and new music scene, and they'll form part of an improvising quartet that occupies the biggest space, working with feeds from all the other rooms, as well as the source material Lee's recorded.

The Chimes Hour begins at 7 pm in the Hoffmann Building, Snape Maltings in Suffolk; for full details and tickets, head here

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