Inside Southwark Cathedral

Inside Southwark Cathedral

Today we’re inside one of London’s grandest spiritual spaces, Southwark Cathedral, to hear some of its impressive, cavernous musical sounds.

The first field recording is from a musical performance taking place in the middle of the day in the cathedral, in front of an audience of schoolchildren out on a school trip. At the end of the performance, applause and some words from the priest.

We’ve reimagined this one by taking some of the musical elements, slowing them dramatically and applying various effects to create a bed of ambient drones, over which we slowly reintroduce pulses, fragments and snippets of the original musical piece as we go along, building through a gradual crescendo.

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The second field recording by Maria Papadomanolaki takes in the cathedral’s impressive organ during a rehearsal, and has been tackled by two artists.

First of all, Peter Nagle writes: “I like to work with locally sourced ingredients, so a recording made in Southwark, an area I’ve spent a lot of time in over the years, appealed.

“Everything in this piece is derived from that recording, using a combination of cutting and splicing, stretching and filtering, and collage.

“There’s something about sitting in a church or cathedral, hearing an organ being played that’s not for you, just something you’re eavesdropping on.

“It makes me think of the comfort of quiet prayer, a comfort that’s not altogether negated by my firm conviction that there is nothing and nobody hearing it, and that these quiet pleas are evaporating into void.”

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Aengus Friel constructs this story around his reimagined version of the sound: “This piece I’ve created is influenced by a postcard given to me by my mother around Christmas time. It was a postcard she got as a child from an old woman who lived down past the glen within the parish we grew up in.

“The postcard is from 1939 which contained a brief short English folklore tale about ‘The Legend of the Lincoln Imp’.

“The words transcribed from the postcard say “The Legend runs that one day the devil was in for a frolic, and let out all his young demons. One jumped into the sea without getting wet. Another into a furnace and was in his element, one rode on a rainbow. Another played with fork lighting. Another went up in the breeze and was carried to the old Lindum.

“The Imp said “Take me into the Church and I will knock over his Lordship and blow up the Dean, Organist, and singers, and knock out the windows and put out the lights.” The angel angrily cried “Stop! You shall not”.

“The Demon, with derision replied “Such as you are better outside. You shall wait here for me till I have finished my fun.”

“He jumped about the transept, climbed on an altar, and amidst his devilment, some angels appeared whom he mocked with derisive laughter, when one of the little angels said in dignified toned “Wicked Imp, be turned into stoned.”

“I chose the recording because of the texture of the warm sound of the organ, and the background sound of the people, as they walk, scuffle about. I knew I could get some interesting results whenever I re-sample the sound and begin to experiment by looping certain elements within the original audio by reimagining and trying to implement the story behind “The legend of the Lincoln Imp”.

“I wanted to make something experimental and along a dark ambient path. My idea for this piece was have a possessed haunting sound compared to the original audio, the idea being that the church has been possessed by the devilish imp.

“I began sampling the original audio using Ableton, completely perverting it from its original form. Used a lot of effects processing such as reverb and distortion, and feeding the results of the re-sampled audio using pitch shifting granular reverse echo’s and using filters to add more depth and colour to the finished sound. The finished piece has three sections to signify Peace, Chaos and Reconciliation.”

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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!

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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The sacred sounds of Montreal, Canada

The sacred sounds of Montreal, Canada

Our Canadian contributors were busy during our Sacred Spaces callout, with a diverse range of sounds coming in from the creative city of Montreal, and an equally diverse range of reinterpretations.

Eric Boivin sent us several recordings from the churches of Montreal, the first of which comes from the Notre Dame Basilica, here reimagined by Mark Taylor in a piece called “Do Campanologists Dream of Electric Bells?”.

Mark tells us that the piece was created using Reaktor 5 and Kontakt 5 and hosted in Sonar X1, and says:

“All parts in this one, (except the electric piano solo), were created directly from fragments of the original field recording.

“Various snippets of the Quebec recording, (not just the bells, but other incidental noises as well) were loaded up into five granular samplers for extensive editing. The electric piano solo was performed using the Scarbee Mark 1 virtual instrument.”

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Our second Montreal recording is by M Qaro, and is from Paperman and Sons Jewish Funeral Home.

Angel Muniz tackled this recording, writing:

“I chose this recording, because it reminded me of listening to my father sing in church when I was a child. It brought back some fond memories.

“Also, I just liked the idea of working with vocals and really looked forward to making something totally different out of the source sound.

“Right away I knew I wanted to create something using only the recording as the source. I started using some granular synthesis techniques but I wasn’t satisfied with the results.

“So, I ended up taking a more simple approach by sampling a few small sections of the source sound and making rhythmic patterns with the voice.

“After a lot of experimenting, the result was a killer sub bass (created using a snippet of singing, which was pitched down, distorted, and EQ’d/Limited) accompanied by some odd panned vocal percussive bits(source sound pitched up and time stretched with tremolo and panning modulation).

“I also tried making a decent kick out of the source sound, turned out not too shabby. My DAW of choice was Reaper and I relied mostly on stock plugins and freeware. Again, no other sounds were used besides the source recording.”

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Eric Boivin’s second recording is bells ringing out the hour through waves of birdsong outside Montreal’s Christ Church Cathedral, which has been reimagined by Sofia Botero.

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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.”

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

East meets West in Istanbul’s sounds

East meets West in Istanbul’s sounds

Come with us to Istanbul in Turkey – the city where eastern and western cultures come together, something very evident in the soundscapes of its sacred spaces, as you can hear today.

First of all, we visit one of the world’s most famous sacred spaces, the Hagia Sophia, with this recording from Kamen Nedev, who writes:

“This is a “sacred space” only up to a point – the Hagia Sophia was desacralised a long time ago, and is nowadays a museum.

“This is a sound ambience recording done right under the dome of the basilica – so, no chants, no calls to prayer, just the sound environment of about a hundred tourists scrolling under the dome and gazing upwards.”

James Kent took this approach to reimagining the Hagia Sophia:

“The original recording of Interior of Hagia Sophia interested me because of the attached memories and the attachment of visitors looking on and wondering about the history, people, noises that were present in its original use.

“I chose to immerse and dissolve the piece as a way to illustrate the changing and re-planting of memories. With the sound of original recording being reimagined by being immersed and then dissolved in the Dee Estuary the piece creeks and splutters as the small speaker becomes engulfed with salty water.

“Unfiltered and unedited this original recording re-positions the notion of a sacred memory and remembering past events. Such as with the Interior of the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul the recording offers an alternative use of the echoes that previously existed from this sacred place.”

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Kamen Nedev also recorded something for us from the Firuz Aga Mosque in Istanbul: “This is a call to prayer ‘proper’, recorded on the same date as the previous recording.

“The Firuz Aga Mosque is located in the same area as Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The call attracted me due to its sense of melody and its length (just over nine minutes).”

Philippe Neau reimagined this sounds, simply writing that he wanted “to work with a voice over the sounds and noises. I wanted to play with the opposition of the melody of the voices and noises from the city, the world. I used this recording, and field recordings from my place and I reworked everything with various software.”

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Kostas Loukovikas provided us with this recording from the Church of St. Anthony of Padua in the city, which Paul Verschooten tackled, writing:

“I wanted to keep it short and sweet for this one, and drew inspiration from the album I currently have in production.

“The result is a two minute track with live trip hop drums and a lot of tape trickery, experimental but fun to listen to.”

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The sacred sounds of Myanmar

The sacred sounds of Myanmar

As part of Sacred Spaces, Stephane Marin sent us a series of beautiful binaural recordings from his travels in Myanmar, which unsurprisingly proved popular among artists keen to explore their sonic potential. Let’s listen to four pieces from the country.

Two Gongs at Kuthodaw Paya

Kuthodaw Paya is one of the unmissable Mandalay temples, and is also home to the world’s largest book, consisting of 729 steles erected within 729 small pagodas that house them.

At the heart of the maze, a gong concert is waiting for us…

Alex Hehir took on this sound, and writes: “This binaural recording really captured the place for me and I have focused much of the piece around the gong sounds.

“The piece starts and ends with the original field recording of the gong strikes and slowly morphs into my reimagined version of them. I played around with many different pitches and I wanted to create a mediative feeling of falling slowly down into a hazy abyss!

“Even though sounding very repetitive, many of the sounds evolve over the course of the piece.The main tools used were Izotope’s Iris and a Vermona drum machine.”

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Boat trip, Sadan Cave

Stephane tells us: “A few kilometres from Hpa-An, in the Sadan Cave, at the end of a long dark tunnel which is crossed barefoot, opens a gaping hole on a natural paradise… except that here, as often in Burma (as everywhere…), mobile phones act as teens’ musical companions who haunt caves like very noisy ghosts!”

Anthony Lyons‘ piece “Sacred Signals” reflects on this: “Can we ever escape the signals and sounds of ourselves and our electronic devices?

“Listening to the source recording from the Sadan Caves in Myanmar, I was struck by how prominent the interference seemed to be from people and their mobile devices in this special place – intruding on the natural sound ecology of water and insects in the cave.

“Sacred Signals manipulates, reconfigures and reclaims small parts of these signals, blending them with the natural sounds of the cave to forge new patterns, beats and dense textures – a kind of magnified electronic forest-cave results! Some bell sounds are incorporated from Two Gongs, also from Myanmar and recorded by Stephane Marin.”

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Sule Pagoda

Of this recording, Stephane notes: “After some thousands steps in the shadow of the mild protection of a roof sheet with a red hot sun, we will end up taking this sound bath in the middle of the wind that tickles our ears (and our microphones!), as well as hundreds of tinkling bells of the Shwe Intein Paya’s Hti.”

Stephanie Merchak was the artist who worked on this recording, and she writes:

“I wanted to reimagine the field recording of Sule pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar by making it a call for meditation, giving it this otherworldly mood that would transmit the spiritual dimension of the place.

“I worked in Ableton Live. I cut the recording, separating the background ambience from the woman voice reading the prayers. I then used the background ambience as some sort of evolving drone, processing it through effects (Resonators, reverb and delay). The voice is also processed using effects.

“Those are, in no particular order: reverb, convolution reverb, ping pong delay, resonators, eq and compression I also used my Korg Volca Keys analog synth going through a Zoom MS-70CDR effects pedal to record a pad as well as a few synth notes that I added here and there to fill the space between the different voice sections.”

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Bagan Temple

Finally, we come to Bagan Temple, a soundscape of birdsong and prayers being read aloud – a recording reimagined by Sian Gledhill:

“Language is an endless resource; a simple, yet loaded medium, with which we all have an everyday relationship. I am interested in the way we use speech to communicate; the distinctions between the read and the spoken, the formal and informal, the rehearsed and the spontaneous, often focusing on the spaces created within speech.

“News and radio guide my endeavours. Uniquely engaging with source material from recorded broadcasts from Radio 4 or anonymous found material, much of my artwork manifests as playful re-editings and interactions, staging a re-encountering of the familiar.

“What interests me most is this “non” speech; the trained breaths of a good newsreader or the “umms” and “errs” that frequent interviews and conversations. My work is closely connected with place and history, responding to a given location, forgotten landmarks and social histories.

“There is a brilliant moment when the voice slips into a melodic chant similar to the way a reel of film engages and spins on a spool. There is something akin to an out of body experience as the rhythmic chant begins and the breath and voice become in tune with each other.

“Pendulum-like, the voice swings back and forth like a metronome to its own rhythm. I am interested in the repetitive nature of the voice and wanted to try and replicate the sound of chanting using the spoken word.”

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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.””

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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: