To celebrate the winter solstice I will be playing a four hour, four-channel, sound piece in The Arches on the campus of Newcastle University. It will play continuously from 09:00 on Saturday 21st December until 09:00 on Monday 23rd December.
In 1977 John Cage delivered “49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs” as his contribution to “Waltzes by 25 Contemporary Composers”. Cage’s score was a listing of 147 New York City street locations, selected and aggregated by the play of chance into 49 groups of three (reflecting the waltz’s 3/4 time signature). Cage’s view was that what could be seen and heard at these chance locations, the apparently humdrum, the everyday, was as interesting and as worthy of attention, as any formal musical composition.
Taking inspiration from Cage’s methods I applied it to a sonic exploration of place, time, distance and movement on an imaginary island (3 miles by 2 miles) in the foothills of the Cheviots. As a musical motif I took a traditional Northumberland folk tune, the rant, and its 4/4 time signature.
I randomly identified and arranged 16 locations on the island into four sets of four locations – each set of four comprised one rant. Walking on the summer solstice, I recorded my movement between the locations and at each I recorded the sounds of the place for a randomly determined time of up to 4 minutes. A walk and a place make a step; a rant is four steps; steps are of differing distances and durations.
The rants play from the four speakers, in the sequence they were walked; the four rants last for four hours. There are silences.
Each place has its own sounds – sound that occur and recur as I tread the fields, paths and roads of the island – birdsong, sheep, gates; there are machines and dogs – yet few people … Whilst these places are tangible they are both real – there is obvious and real walking occurring – and also unreal – they are defined by their locations on an imagined island.
Dimensions of time play through the work. The 4/4 musical time signature of the rant offers a tempo which can be played into the rhythm of my footfall. But time is not always what it seems … there is time within each rant – time at the places themselves and the time of walking from place to place – but this is time condensed as you hear four steps together from the four speakers – you listen across time within one rant. Over four rants you are listening to the changing time of a day – my walks took12 hours.; you hear early morning, midday and evening. And there is a slower, longer, time – the time of the year – as you listen to this on a winter solstice yet I walked on a summer solstice – you are listening back across time, across seasons.
I am walking in summer and, here and now, in wintertime Newcastle, you are far removed from where I am walking. You are moving through The Arches; I am moving from place to place in the steady criss-crossing of my island as I go from place to place, rant to rant. Individual steps vary from a few hundred yards to a few miles but, taken together, as you move the 10 yards through The Arches, you listening across 24 miles.
Listen … listen to the rants … listen to the memories of your own walks, your own experiences, your own seasons … hear something unique.