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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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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.”

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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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Memory version: