Trieste Taumaturgo tech-step

Trieste Taumaturgo tech-step

Trieste Orthodox churchA quiet moment snatched in Trieste, Italy, inside the Serbian Orthodox church at Chiesa Sant’Antonio Taumaturgo. Wandering in from the street, we came across a priest singing prayers alone at the front of the church, shaking his incense burner periodically.

He is shortly joined by a second worshipper, who joins him in what seems like a verse-chorus style recitation and repetition.

It’s a precious recording, which really feels like we’ve intruded onto a deeply-personal moment. In fact, I’ve left in certain imperfections in the recording, shuffles and motions that betray the extent to which I am trying to respect this private moment and capture it without somehow intruding upon it.

For the reimagined version, I wanted to create a full-on musical track using elements from this peaceful recording as base material, having already contributed some more ambient and contemplative reworkings of sacred spaces myself elsewhere in the project.

The challenge was to try to incorporate elements of the recording without just jamming a vocal sample over what could otherwise be a pre-existing track, but for those elements to be deeply and intrinsically interwoven with the music.

You can hear the original piece throughout like this:

  • We start with a vocal loop from the field recording (a short loop that lent itself well to doubling), which feeds back on itself leading into the drums.
  • The growling bass synth in the first section is constructed from a different vocal sample, using it as source material from which to generate a synth instrument.
  • The second section loops a piece of vocal more directly, using it to replace the melodic content that would normally come from a synth.
  • Throughout, you can hear the metallic clatter of the priest’s incense burner, which has been turned into an extra percussion sound.

City version:

Memory version:

Sacred Spaces album – out today

Today we’re proud to release a fantastic, 15-track album of highlights from our Sacred Spaces project – and it’s free (available from our Bandcamp page on a pay-what-you-want basis)!

The album showcases ambient, drone, techno, house and electronica created from source material as diverse as church organs, prayer wheels, bells and choirs.

Please download, share and enjoy the sounds!

Oxford Sounds installation at the Ashmolean Museum

Oxford Sounds installation at the Ashmolean Museum

On Friday night, we presented a bespoke immersive sound installation at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which highlighted the real and reimagined sounds of the city of Oxford.

One side of the installation was used to broadcast ‘real’ field recordings from the city, while the other played recomposed, reimagined sounds made from those recordings.

Visitors could create their own sonic experience by physically moving around within the exhibition space between the ‘city’ and the ‘memory’ sounds.

Here’s a video clip (play with sound on!) and some photos from the event, which was curated by Oxford Contemporary Music.

Listen to the Oxford Sounds installation

Listen to the Oxford Sounds installation

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Tonight we’re excited to present a bespoke sound installation at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – the oldest public museum in the UK.

We’ll be taking over the Chinese paintings gallery (Gallery 11) with an interactive, participatory installation in which visitors can experience the real and imagined sounds of Oxfordshire, and create their own experience by moving around within the space, and within the sounds.

For those of you who aren’t in Oxford, although we can’t recreate the experience of the physical installation, here are the sounds you can hear, presented on this interactive map of our home city – enjoy:

The beauty of four organs

The beauty of four organs

The sounds of church organs were some of the most striking sounds in Sacred Spaces – today we wanted to take the time to highlight just four to you, which have some remarkably beautiful reimagined counterparts.

Working with the Churches Conservation Trust, we drove around to some remote corners of England to access some of their beautifully-maintained churches, and play some organ improvisations as source material for the project.

If you’ve ever wondered where the phrase ‘pulling out all the stops’ comes from, here’s the answer. In a church in Yazor, we pulled out each of the stops one by one, to sample how the organ sound went from a low, quiet pulse to a space-filling roar in just a couple of minutes.

Stanislav Nikolov took this as his raw material to produce a brand new musical composition, as he explains:

“The recording starts with the clatter of movement in the church. Once at the organ we hear, gently, a beautiful and richly textured chord.

“Gradually, we hear all the stops being pulled out as the chord dissolves into booming dissonance. Finally we come back again to that gentle chord, and the clatter.

“I picked this because I loved the narrative and the constituent sonic themes. I knew I wanted to make pad sounds with the gentle chord, a more ominous atmosphere using the dissonance, and percussive texture using the clatter.

“In the end, I made an electro track using these elements and an additional drum kit, as well as bass, and sub bass instruments. I also made a second bass instrument and a bleepy pitch-bent instrument from the recording using some extreme EQing.”

City version:

Memory version:

Next, in Fisherton, Nick St. George recorded the quiet sounds of harmonium playing, which Warren Daly transformed into something quite lovely:

“Recently I’ve been experimenting with the sound of airflow through different mediums, so I was instantly attracted to a recording that features a harmonium. I think the recording resembles a performance piece, it’s a treasure trove of sounds.

“I began my composition with dissonance, a call before the response. Finally a mesmerizing repetition is the acknowledgement.

“A conversation reflecting on the juxtaposition of the relaxed ambience and the surrounding commotion.”

City version:

Memory version:

Our next stop is Holy Cross in Burley – when we entered the church and saw the organ we were about to play, it was a breathtaking moment.

It’s a huge, 20-foot high, perfectly-preserved organ in a very large and beautifully-kept church – just playing it was quite a moving experience.

Andy Billington has experience of visiting this very location, which he brought to bear on the reimagined version:

“I was drawn to this recording having visited this Church as a child many years ago. I liked the fact that the field recording tells a micro journey as you listen to footsteps across the Church floor, then the playing of the organ and finally the retreat.

“I thought about everything that the Church had seen. Could the architecture soak up elements from the Services and all of emotions it had seen played out over the years?

“I then thought of what all of these would sound like layered over each other (like some of the video clips on You Tube of every episode of Friends played on top of each other).

“The field recording was loaded into a failing Mid 90’s sampler (name unknown). Random parts were then recorded and a pattern created from the parts spread across the various trigger pads and re played.

“This was then re recorded into an Teenage Engineering OP1 and further slowed and pitched down. Finally it was re-recorded into Logic 8 and re ordered.”

City version:

Memory version:

Our final stop is St. Cuthbert’s Church in Herefordshire, a remote church we visited in the dead of night after a long drive, only to find a beautiful space with an impressive organ waiting for us – well worth the trip.

Our organ improvisation was chosen by Nick St. George as the basis for his narrative piece “Sir Galahad and the Fiend”:

“I chose the organ playing from St Cuthbert’s Church in Herefordshire as I felt the slabs of sound would be good raw material for manipulation.

“I then delved a bit into the history of the church which it turns out contains a stained glass window featuring two of the Knights of the Round Table; one of whom is Sir Galahad.

“Thanks to the Gutenberg Project, I found a 1918 Longman’s school edition of the tales of King Arthur online, which included this tale of Galahad and the Fiend – a suitable story for this project with its comment on who may or may not merit being called a true Christian… Having been involved in gathering the field recordings for Sacred Spaces, I supplemented the basic track with some bell ringing and further organ playing that was recorded in two of Bristol’s redundant churches, but was surplus to Cities and Memory’s requirements.

“All the audio in this piece is, if you like, “organic” (sorry about the pun): organs, bells, Chinese Baoding balls, human voice. Treated, yes, but there are no sounds of purely digital origin present.”

City version:

Memory version:

Elgar’s organ

Elgar’s organ

Let’s take a trip to a 12th-century church, standing alone in a field in England, and containing an organ once played by the composer Edward Elgar.

This was a sound recorded in partnership with the Churches Conservation Trust, who asked me to take some recordings of their restored and carefully-maintained churches in remote corners of England, some of which only get a handful of visitors per week these days.

The church at Pendock is a particularly interesting one – once it was at the centre of a thriving medieval village.

Now there are just earthworks in the field next to it marking where the village stood, and the 12th century church stands in glorious isolation in the middle of a field.

To gain access, I had to walk in pitch black across the fields to a country house, where the key hangs on a hook outside a door.

And what you get inside is a lovely old Georgian organ once played by Edward Elgar – though sadly in this recording it’s being sampled by my inexpert hand, but you can hear the beautiful tones of the organ.

Not only does the now stand alone, but the M50 motorway now flows close beneath it, sonically intruding into the space in a way that of course would never have happened before – you can hear this clearly in the recording.

This points towards the changing nature of soundscapes – even inside a stone-walled church. man-made sounds can intrude and overwhelm sacred spaces. Let’s listen to, and protect our sounds.

This sound was reimagined into a beautiful 14-minute ambient epic by Rob Knight:

“It’s the first piece I have worked on in Ableton/Push and that brought a complete different way of track creation for me. I loved the original recording – the organ reminding of a great big organic synth and though the original is unrecognisable at times due to it being truncated/cut up/effected/reimagined the original recording creeps through and it is the very essence of the whole piece.”

City version:

Memory version:

Here are some images from our trip to Pendock’s church:

Campana della sera in Villa del Conte, Italy

Campana della sera in Villa del Conte, Italy

Villa del Conte churchToday we’re heading to the small town of Villa del Conte in northern Italy – a place with special significance for me as I’ve spent a lot of time there over the last few years.

We’re visiting to hear the ‘campana della sera’, which rings in the town every day at 9pm.

The church bells in Villa del Conte ring for a sustained period three times per day – once in the morning to wake the town, once at lunchtime and once, as here, at 9pm to tell the town it’s time to retire for the night.

It’s a long-standing tradition, and until fairly recently the bells were rung manually after the 9pm hour bells, with a volunteer (actually my partner’s grandfather!) cycling to the church three times a day to ring out the messages to the town.

Church bells are the voice of towns across the Catholic world, summoning people to mass, announcing weddings and funerals, and acting not just as a timepiece, but as a kind of auxiliary heartbeat for everyone in the town, marking out the stages of every single day, and marking out the important moments in the town’s life.

The remarkable thing is the ‘fingerprint’ of these bells – someone from this town can instantly identify this bell over any other in the world. To someone from the next town across, the sound of this bell means little – to those in Villa del Conte, it’s an instant part of their lives.

I’ve seen first-hand the instant reaction you get from playing this bell sound to someone from the town, and how that differs from them hearing any other bell sound – it’s really like the voice of another member of the family.

The reimagined version I created the next night, at the same time, so I could hear both the recording, and the original sound coming in through the open window as I worked on it.

For this version, I wanted to respect the sound of the bells, having established their importance, so I’ve woven some dreamlike synth textures around the outside edges of the sound, into which, over time, the original bell sounds submerge themselves.

This symbolises the function of the campana della sera as marking the end of the day – by the end of the piece, we’re sinking into sleep and into dreams ourselves.

City version:

Memory version: 

The sacred sounds of Oxford

The sacred sounds of Oxford

Where better to start on our global tour of the world’s sacred spaces than right here in Oxford, the home of Cities and Memory?

We’ve captured some lovely field recordings of sacred sounds here in our home city, and five pieces made it into the project – so let’s take a listen.

1. New College, Oxford – evening choir practice

We captured an Oxford University college choir practising for an upcoming concert one evening, in the beautiful surroundings of New College’s ornate chapel, and passed the recording onto Leonardo Rosado, who created this extraordinary piece.

He writes: “The title “of nothingness” represents the feeling of abandonment and hope. It is supposed to contrast the source material, full of spirituality and the existentialism that lays the foundation for atheism.

“Quoting Wikipedia “Sartre, and even more so, Jaques Lacan, use this conception of nothing as the foundation of their atheist philosophy. Equating nothingness with being leads to creation from nothing and hence God is no longer needed for there to be existence.””

City version:

Memory version:

2. Magdalen College, Oxford – May Morning celebration

May Morning is one of the most important traditions in Oxford – half the city turns up at sunrise to hear the choir of Magdalen College welcome May Morning by singing from the top of the college’s bell tower.

Jase Warner reimagined this sound with his piece “A Morning In May”:

“I set out to create something that complimented the structure of a choir, by way of combining various parts of the original recording to make a complete sound; hopefully this approach comes across in the finished piece.

“The organic nature of recycling an original field recording and reforming it to make something new has a certain appeal.”

City version:

Memory version:

3. Remembrance Day service

This year, we captured part of the Remembrance Sunday service in Oxford city centre in November – as well as bugles playing “The Last Post” and other music, you can hear references to the Paris attacks and other news events that root this recording firmly in the present.

Ronan Glish reimagines Remembrance Day beautifully: “Given the task to reimagine the readings from this remembrance day service posed a peculiar challenge of keeping the sombre tone of the Paris attack (mentioned in the recording), whilst also celebrating the hard work of all those serving in the armed forces (as also mentioned in recording).

“I tried to give this feel by creating a choral wailing timbre, harking back to a lament often found in early english church music, whilst staying mainly in functional modern day harmony.

“The piece was created using a mixture of a Korg Minilogue for the brass sound that quotes fragments of the reveille, and a sub to add a bit of rumble. The rest of the sounds were made from sections of the original recording, in my typical style of resampling, bouncing, and repeat (Until the sound is no longer recognisable).

“The main wailing synths were created using snippets of the bagpipes found within the recording, using a mixture of Echoboy and many other outstanding Soundtoy plugins (possibly my favourite creative effects) to drag the sound from its original timbre, embracing all glitches, faults and artefacts that come with this production style.

“Mixed using Steven slate plugins, on Ableton, on a pair of HD650’s as my monitors got banned at university.
This piece was a joy to imagine and work on, really pushing my creative boundaries, and forcing me to sit down a create a good length piece of music.”

City version:

Memory version:

4. St. Thomas’ Church

I pass St. Thomas’ Church most days, and sometimes at night you can hear the joyous pealing of its bells before a service – so one evening I stopped to record them. Interestingly, this recording is from my mobile phone, with just a bit of cleaning up afterwards – after all, the best recorder is the one you happen to have with you!

Museleon took on this recording, and wrote this about their approach: “The only information I had about St. Thomas’s, was its close association with the early days of the Oxford Movement, which I began to research in more detail.

“I also have a great love of poetry and it has often been the subject of my music. This led me to the devotional poetry of Christina Rossetti, who was a follower of the Tractarians or High Church Movement.

“I chose A Better Resurrection (1862), as it expresses the process of transformation from isolation and emptiness towards spiritualism and renewal of hope due to her faith. To me, church bells seem to reflect and be a sonic representation of this journey.

“I knew that I only wanted to use the bells themselves and a voice, no other instruments, as I wished to marry the tone and rhythm of the poem to the field recording.

“I took phrases from the poem and rearranged them in a way that they expressed the journey from isolation to hope, repeating phrases, similar to repeated bell changes. The final section has some reference to call and response, as in a church service.

“With experimentation and processing of samples, the underlying bell sounds morphed into a slow ‘hymn like’ tune, a bit like a small church organ but not losing the essence of the bells.

“The final section of redemption is reflected in the use of the original pealing bells, overlaying one sample from the beginning and one from the end, referencing the joy of rebirth, as with the spring buds after winter frosts.”

City version:

Memory version:

5. Nuneham Courtenay – All Saints’ Church

All Saints Church, Nuneham Courtenay

A little outside Oxford, the village of Nuneham Courtenay features All Saints Church, preserved by the Churches Conservation Trust.

Inside is an ancient and somewhat battered harmonium, on which most of the keys and one of the pedals no longer function.

Despite this, we were able to coax some droning chords out of it, and the nature of the broken instrument makes the tones really interesting. Listen out as well for the dramatic closing of the heavy church door.

Marshall McGee reimagined this sound, and he writes: “I chose this recording because I felt it had a really interesting combination of tones and reverb. I just loved all the chords and sounds someone was banging out of this instrument!

“I decided to reimagine it in a darker, more percussive way by taking bits of the sound and attaching them to midi notes and playing out beats.”

City version:

Memory version:

Sacred Spaces and the Churches Conservation Trust

Sacred Spaces and the Churches Conservation Trust

A special thank you goes out from us today to UK charity the Churches Conservation Trust, who gave us exclusive access to some of their beautiful, historic churches around the country, allowing us to play their organs and ring their bells as Sacred Spaces sound sources.

The charity restores and maintains more than 300 churches around England, often in stunning, remote locations – you can see some of the photographs we took while recording for Sacred Spaces below.

Here’s a playlist of some stunning recordings of church organs (including one once played by Edward Elgar!) and our first attempts at bell-ringing. Find out more about the CCT and their work here.

Sounds from English churches:


Photos from CCT churches

Listen to Sacred Spaces radio interviews

Listen to Sacred Spaces radio interviews

Since the Sacred Spaces launch yesterday, we’ve done a number of interviews across the BBC – including BBC World Service and the flagship morning news show, the Today Programme.

We talk about the importance of sound in our day-to-day and spiritual lives, and how the sounds of sacred spaces must be preserved, just as the spaces themselves are.

Listen in full in to a selection in the playlist below: