I've created this video, myself, from scratch. I recorded all footage on a HD video camera, and edited it in Adobe Premier Pro. The accompanying soundtrack is a soundscape composition I composed solely using sounds recorded on the High Level Bridge - including myself playing fiddle on the bridge. The fiddle music is based on The High Level Bridge Hornpipe, composed by James Hill in 1849 to commemorate the opening of the High Level Bridge.
A bridge is, in itself, a connection. It connects two places. In this case, it connects Newcastle to Gateshead - two places that are separated by a river. A river is also a connection. It connects various streams and tributaries to the sea. It acts as a connection for boats, and in this way the river connects the various places that are situated on its banks. And a river acts as a connection for all kinds of wildlife who make it their home.
The High Level Bridge makes possible other connections. It carries a road, which forms part of a huge network of roads forming connections between places. And it holds a railway line, part of another huge network which connects places together. Two more important connections.
Pigeons. They make their home on the bridge. Carrier pigeons, messenger pigeons. Pigeons carrying messages between two places, connecting those places through their flight path, and through the messages they deliver. Tentative, perhaps. But still a connection.
Padlocks, attached to the sides of the bridge. There's quite a few of them. Nearly all of them feature two sets of initials. They're a way of representing a connection between two people, of making it solid, and permanent. Locking it in place. And it connects these two people to a specific place - it locks them into that location. It makes that place significant for them.
And finally, the graffiti. It was this that got me thinking about connections in the first place. I suppose if graffiti tags are adopted by a group of people, then that tag forms a visual representation of the connection the members of the group have to each other. And it is a way to allow those groups to mark their connection to particular places, and to let others know of this connection (and the same goes for if the tag is adopted by an individual). This wasn't the type of connection I first thought of, though. Since I started this project, I've increasingly been noticing graffiti tags around the city. On my walk from home to uni, there's been a metal storage container sat on the side of the road, providing temporary facilities for workmen working on the roads nearby. About a week after it arrived, it was tagged with the word 'Otras' - a tag that appeared frequently on the High Level Bridge. The tag connected this container, and this street, back to the High Level Bridge. The tag itself connects it, and this connection is strengthened every time I see the tag and am reminded of the bridge. This is just one example - the one that sticks in my memory because I've seen it most often. I've noticed many other instances of tags that I recognise from my photographs of graffiti on the High Level Bridge appearing elsewhere. Connections popping up all over the city. There's more scope in this - it needs taking further. There are more connections to be made here.
A few collages I've put together of the most common graffiti tags on the bridge. Going to try to find out a bit more about who might have made them, or who/what they might refer to. More info soon hopefully...
First, I have sad news to report. When I went back to the bridge on Thursday, the cute pigeon featured in the last post was no longer on his ledge.. and there was a squished pile of feathers in the road :'( RIP cute pigeon!! I found it a comfort that at least, before he died, the pigeon was able to enjoy the delightful experience of being serenaded by my fiddle.. until my Grandad suggested that the pigeon might have made a suicide bid so that he wouldn't have to hear my fiddle playing any more. Now I feel a bit guilty.....
So far this blog has been very quiet.. so here's some noise :-). A quick sketch that highlights some of the characteristic sounds of the bridge - chiefly the busses, trains, and pigeons - and which features me playing the High Level Bridge Hornpipe (not very well - my fingers were freezing after having taken about 300 photos of graffiti, so playing in tune was somewhat difficult...!)
More audio stuff to come soon - I did some improvisation on the bridge on Thursday, so I'll put that up soon. I found improvising on the bridge really interesting, as I felt it was helping me to connect and interact with the sounds and sights around me as I played. I'm going to develop this practice further, and I'd also like to try group improvisation up there - if anybody is interested in joining me, get in touch.
I've just got back from a couple of hours spent on the High Level Bridge with my fiddle, my Zoom Recorder, and my camera. And it turns out that today was all about the visual. A couple of reasons for this...
1. I saw some things that really caught my attention, but that don't make any noise..
2. It was too cold to play my fiddle for long without my fingers going numb
3. It was too windy to make decent recordings on the bridge (I need a better windshield!!)
So what did I find? There were two things that really stood out to me today...
The High Level Bridge is home to many pigeons, and the evidence suggests that they both live and nest there (lots of pigeons, LOTS of droppings, a few broken eggs, and the cute young pigeon to the left.. I don't think he's able to fly yet, as I was able to get very close without him attempting to move..)
The sound of the pigeons is fairly pervasive whilst your on the bridge - both cooing, and the sounds of their wings flapping as they fly about. It was interesting to walk over the bridge listening to how the sound changed as the acoustic changed - on a less windy day, I'll hopefully get a good recording of this. The pigeons provide a way of thinking about the bridge that I hadn't thought of before - as home. I've previously thought of it was a place of transition; for us it's a way of getting from one side to the other, not somewhere to linger, not a place of permanence. But for the pigeons it's much different.
I was struck today by the amount of graffiti on the bridge - I'd not really noticed this before. You can see it on nearly every pillar as you walk along it. I walked from the Gateshead side of the bridge back to the Newcastle side, on the left hand path, taking a photo of every piece of graffiti I encountered. It took a long time - there's an awful lot of it! I need to go back and do the right hand path, but this can wait for another day, as I got very cold!! What was interesting was that I encountered the same pieces of graffiti over and over - it looks like four or five different people (or sets of people.. or gangs..?) that have been spraying their symbols over and over again. I got talking to somebody on the bridge, who described it as 'dogs marking their territory'. But why on the High Level Bridge? Is this seen by the people doing the graffiti as their territory? Or contested territory? Does it hold any personal significance for them? Or is it simply a convenient place to do it, as there are so many pillars, and so much surface area, available to work with?
If anybody reading this knows anything about this , or has any opinions, please do get in touch - you can comment on this blog post, or there's a contact form on this website. I'd be really interested to find out more about why this type of graffiti happens in this particular place. I'm also really keen to compose something based on this graffiti. Not sure yet what form this should take, I'm thinking maybe some sort of collage work would be appropriate. I'm going to start by editing and playing with the photos I took, and see what inspiration comes out of that. Any ideas or suggestions would be most welcome!
That's all for now - I'll be posting photos, and maybe some audio recordings, over the next couple of days.
My last post was entitled ‘The project starts’. That isn’t entirely true. The project actually started about a month ago. But this represents the start of an intensive month in which I’ll be focussing almost exclusively on this project. Every day, as far as possible, I’ll be going to the High Level Bridge in Newcastle to explore various ways in which it can be used as a starting point to create sound art. I’ll be playing my fiddle up there; making field recordings of the soundscape; using contact mics to explore the sounds of the bridge; and exploring through sound various ideas about what the bridge might be, and what it might mean – it is a structure, it is a place of transition, it is an icon, it is a place to pause and watch (and listen) – and it’s a whole load of other things, that I haven’t thought about yet.
There’s a number of reasons why the High Level Bridge is the site of chosen for this project. The High Level Bridge is my favourite of the Newcastle bridges. I like I how it looks. I like the frailty of it. It has an air of mystery about it, because you’re not allowed to drive over it. It makes it seem like something special. It’s a pathway over the river that I’ve often used – and importantly for me, it’s a bridge I’ve crossed almost exclusively for musical reasons. The other side holds the Sage Gateshead, a large music venue in which I spent a lot of time during my Undergraduate Studies, and also Swinburne Street, the rehearsal venue for my ceilidh band. So for me, the bridge is a pathway to music, and is heavily associated with sound.
I also have a few important memories of the High Level Bridge. Shortly after arriving in Newcastle to study, I had to travel to the Sage Gateshead for a fiddle lesson. I planned to cross the river using the Swing Bridge, but got lost on the way, and ended up (by accident!!) on the High Level Bridge. I remember being in a complete panic because I didn’t know where I was, and I had no idea how to get to the Sage from there. I did eventually find my way, but turned up to my lesson half an hour late, and very upset! Therefore my first experience of the High Level Bridge was quite traumatic.
The next experience that stands out was cycling over the High Level Bridge, a couple of years later. It’s probably my favourite place in Newcastle to cycle. I think it’s a combination of the view, and the feeling of being so high up, and the architecture – there’s just something about it that I love.
The third experience was last year, when Newcastle experienced a few hours of very extreme, torrential rain – I’d never seen anything like it in my life. When the downpour started, I was on my way to Swinburne Street for a practice with my ceilidh band, and was a couple of minutes walk away from the High Level Bridge. I crossed the bridge in the middle of the storm, and it was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. The rain was so heavy that I was soaked through to the skin in seconds (as was my fiddle – oops!!), and the sound of the thunder was so loud that it made me scream in fright. The middle of a bridge, over a river, is quite a scary place to be in the middle of such a storm! It’s an experience I won’t forget in a hurry (I wish I’d been able to record it!! Although it would’ve required a hydrophone!).
The High Level Bridge therefore holds a good deal of personal significance for me – far more so than any of the other bridges, which I don’t think I’d be able to tell you a single interesting story about! And that’s partly why I want to work there.
It’s also partly because of music. One of the things I really want to explore in this project is the relationship between tunes named after places, and the places themselves. ‘The High Level Bridge Hornpipe’, attributed to James Hill, was one of the first hornpipes I learnt upon coming to Newcastle, and is one of my favourites. If I’m going to spend the next month working fairly extensively with one tune, it might as well be one I like!
Before settling on the High Level Bridge, I experimented with working in 3 different places in Newcastle – The High Level Bridge, the Dog Leap Stairs, and the Quayside. I felt that the High Level Bridge worked best, both sonically and practically. The Quayside is much too big an area to work with on a project that has fairly limited scope – I don’t feel that I could do it justice, or that I’d be able to produce a coherent portfolio of work. The Dog Leap Stairs are tricky to navigate – especially whilst playing a fiddle!! – and the main sound I got out of them was the sound of my footsteps going up and down, which I think I’d quickly loose interest in! The High Level Bridge seemed like a very practical place to work – there is an area off to the side which is easily accessible, but off the main walkway so that equipment can be set up, and it’s a place that I can work in which I will encounter, and most likely interact with, other people, but I won’t be getting in their way and inconveniencing them. And it affords many possibilities in terms of working with it – as you’ll hopefully see over the next month.
But of course, this isn’t the beginning. This project could have any number of beginnings. So I’ll choose one – my first soundscape composition – Dreams of Morpeth.
This seems like a good starting point because it represents a number of firsts: the first time I had made field recordings; the first time I’d attempted soundscape composition; the first instance of the use of folk music in my electroacoustic work. At the time, I was thrilled with it – and could see no ethical problems with it. However, in an essay I submitted a few days ago, I was forced to admit that the way that I approached that composition, and the final outcome, is now ‘not compatible with my current thinking about soundscape composition as an ecologically ethical practice’.
So what’s wrong with it? I think my main problem is the way that I attempted to eradicate the sounds of humans from the environment. My attempt was only partial – the sounds of humanity remain in the form of other sounds caused by us – primarily traffic, in this composition; and in the form of music, a distinctly human form of sound organisation. However, there are no human voices, or footsteps, or other sounds directly indicative of human presence – and this wasn’t because these weren’t present in the recording. I spent a lot of time and effort editing and filtering recordings to attempt to rid them of traces of human presence.
It turns out that I wasn’t entirely successful at this. At the first public performance of the work, in which I used better quality speakers than those I had previously listened to the work on, I discovered that human voices were just about audible in one part of the track, mixed in with the sounds of water. Clearly I had attempted to filter them out, and thought I’d managed it. It’s surprisingly difficult to get rid of, though, and almost impossible to eradicate entirely – what I had done was to mask the sound of humanity. And I think this demonstrates exactly what my problem with this work is – and with a lot of soundscape work which attempts to rid itself of human presence. Our presence is so pervasive that we can’t ignore it – not just because it’s ecologically unethical, but also because we physically can’t. Our presence is so pervasive that it won’t just go away. And no matter how much time and effort we might put in to trying to pretend that we’re not there, it won’t work. Traces of us will still remain – and it doesn’t take much to break the illusion.
And really that’s what Dreams of Morpeth is, in some ways – an illusion. A dream. And there’s nothing wrong with dreams. But I think this one might have benefitted from a little more realism – from an acknowledgement of our presence, and more than that, an engagement with our presence. If I was to re-do this work now (and maybe I will) I think the work would be radically different. My whole approach would be different. I’d want to engage much more with the people of Morpeth, and the way that they engage with the environment. Dreams of Morpeth is probably quite exclusive (as opposed to inclusive) in that it very much reflects my perception of the place, and attempts to deny not only the perceptions of others, but that others exist to have perceptions. And I’m not sure this is quite right.
This leaves me quite confused – because as a piece of sound art, I still like Dreams of Morpeth. I enjoy listening to it, and I think it works sonically. However, I also have many problems with it. So maybe the way around this is to think of it slightly differently. It’s not a finished piece, as I once thought it was. It’s part of a process – a process that is my personal development. And the process will continue.
This project was inspired by the 'Environmental Sound Art' module I studied as part of my Masters Degree, under the guidance of Dr. Bennett Hogg. The project explores various different ways in which the High Level Bridge in Newcastle Upon Tyne can be used as a starting point for the creation of Sound Art and music. This blog functions to both document my progress, and is a space in which I'll explore my thoughts about the project. Responses, comments and ideas for how to develop the project are welcome and appreciated.