Friday, November 01, 2013

Inside the circle of fire

Three months ago I wrote about experiencing Chris Watson's tranquil Lindisfarne soundscape installation at Durham cathedral.  Earlier this week I was in Sheffield, 'inside the circle of fire', surrounded by a 20-speaker ambisonic system, listening to Watson's soundmap of the city.  Projected around me on the walls of the Millenium Gallery were a sequence of black and white images: remnants of industry and old machines, woods in low sunlight, moorland and river banks.  Listening over the course of half an hour, impressions of nature and urban space began to blend together: bird song starts to sound insistent like machinery and the rumble of the streets feels like the premonition of a storm.  Water is a constant presence and in the video clip above, Watson talks about how he thought abou the work in terms of Sheffield's network of rivers.  In another interview for The Guardian, he reflects on the relative silence of the modern city: "There's still this huge, vast, steelworks called Forgemasters who allowed me in, and what's interesting in there, in a perverse way, is how quiet it is now because it's very much an automated process. This history in Sheffield of people hearing these vast, steam-driven hammers, hammering out steel echoing down the Don Valley, that's certainly gone now. The steel mills are still active, to some extent, but they are now much quieter."

In the second of his Reith lectures last week, Grayson Perry suggested that one of the reasons Christian Marclay's The Clock has received such universal acclaim is that gallery goers have been able to view it on comfy seats.  As you can see from the phone photo I took, Inside the Circle of Fire has a little circle of sofas and cushions in which you sit in slightly uncomfortable intimacy with people, not talking.  In this setting it was odd to listen to the extraordinary communal singing recorded at Sheffield United: a rousing rendition of their anthem 'The Greasy Chip Butty Song' ("You fill up my senses / like a gallon of Magnet...")  These euphoric crowd sounds gave way to the twenty-first century version of Pierre Shaeffer's √Čtude aux chemins de fer: bland recorded announcements playing over the constant motion of passengers at Sheffield station.  A low sound that I couldn't make out then began to vibrate my seat whilst I tried to identify the source of some gentle music audible in the distance.  Both eventually faded to leave the song of a solitary bird, which was in turn overtaken by the sounds of wind, rain and thunder.  Sadly I had to leave at this point, but I see from The Guardian that 'the journey ends in a huge, echoing storm drain below the city's railway station' which I must have been sitting above, waiting for the train to take me back to London.

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