A plain song for complicated times

A plain song for complicated times

A beautiful sound for you today – plainsong chanting accompanied by organ in the cavernous surroundings of Ampleforth Abbey. Tariq Emam’s recording takes in an entire plainsong piece, with a prayer reading to close the field recording.

The reimagined version focuses on the dreamlike quality of the male voices drifting around inside that grand space, beginning with a vocal and organ loop that buries itself beneath a set of pulses and waves created from the vocal sounds.

Once buried beneath pure tones created from the voices, first of all an arpeggiated, spacey synth loop moves it to give the piece a celestial feel, before a string section adds some grandeur to the final minutes.

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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.

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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!

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.”

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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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Cities and Memory installation at the Ashmolean Museum

Cities and Memory installation at the Ashmolean Museum

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

We’re delighted to announce that this Friday (3 March), there will be a Cities and Memory installation at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford – the oldest public museum in Britain.

We’ll be taking over the Chinese paintings gallery at the museum with a bespoke, immersive installation called Cities and Memory: Oxford Sounds.

This is a unique audio installation unique that uses the sounds of Oxford to present two sides of sonic memory – the documentary field recordings of the iconic sounds of our city, and second the reimagining, or ‘memory’ version of the sounds.

The installation features some of Oxford’s most iconic sounds, from the reading room at the world-famous Radcliffe Camera to the annual May Morning celebration via fairgrounds, birdsong, church bells and choir practices.

There will be two sets of speakers at different ends of the installation space, with sufficient space between them to allow audience members to move around and create their own mix and experience of the sounds through their physical location in the space.

The listener can choose – by his or her own physical proximity – to experience freely the two sound worlds, changing the way the installation is experienced simply by moving around the room.

The installation is part of the Museum’s Supersonic Live Friday event, curated by Oxford Contemporary Music – tickets are available here.

The Chinese paintings gallery.

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: