Music Blogs

Is this music, or is it all one big wind up?

  • By AndyVale
  • 18 August 2013

Sort of, yes. There won't be a real debate on this topic, I was just desperate to slip the pun in.

While on holiday in the Lake District, I came across a touring exhibition of sound art. A landscape of instruments and installations all powered by wind in some way. I’m not talking about flutes or panpipes, I’m talking real wind. I’m no expert on this stuff. I knew a guy who did a soundscape radio show when I was at Uni. I tried to be interested, but listening to cars go past for fifteen minutes wasn’t something I could even pretend to enjoy. The Audible Forces exhibition looked like something different. Challenging, but accessible. 

I spend most of my time listening to Rock, Metal, Blues, Hippity-Hop and stuff that can mostly be classed as music rather than just ‘sound’. Part of my job in listening to that stuff is to find ways to present it so that someone who has never heard it may know what they're getting before they press play. So with zero education on the subject of sound art (besides 25 years of having ears) I'm going to give this a go. Time to remove my pop-softened cochlea and dive into the potentially murky pit of sound art installations and see if we can learn anything from it.

It sounds rubbish.

That was unnecessarily blunt, but largely true if listened to out of context. You know how static bleeding through on the radio is mega frustrating, but you’d be okay if that same sound was used in an Aphex Twin or Radiohead track? I suppose it’s somewhat like that. From a distance I found the whirrs, whistles and clicks of the Audible Forces exhibition a bit annoying, and I imagine there may be a sigh of relief from some of the nearby tea ladies when this packs up and moves on. But from afar is not really how you’re supposed to ingest it.

Audible Forces (taster video) from OCM on Vimeo.

You can hear clips above, but when you’re immersed and surrounded by the sweep of sounds then you can gather another level of sense out of it all. If you take a chunk of time with each instrument or installation you can appreciate it on a level greater than via a mere video. There’s an odd connection when you notice a change in the wind and an alteration is made to the sound. Seeing, feeling, experiencing… all of those nice words are integral if you want to ‘get’ it. Here was what was on display:

Phantom Field
By Mark Anderson

A triangular patch of amplified and synthesised fans fills a decent patch of the field. It’s just a buzz from far away, but every nightmare swarmed around me when I stood in the middle of this disconcerting drone. Walking around it is surreal as it feels like someone (probably you) is about to die.

By Mike Blow

This one could be heard from all over the place, and seemed to serve as a backing track for the whole thing. Each of those big silver bowls has a series of beeps playing in it, which seems a bit like cheating at first. As they spin around the sound is altered by the speed of the wind as it rotates the structure. It's quite fun to check out how the tune and its rhythm are modified with the weather.

Birdhouse Flock
By Jany Easterby

This semi-circle of bird houses each has a fan made of feathers shed by migrating geese. Every time the feather turns around it triggers a recording of a birdsong from an endangered or depleting species. Again, the use of recorded sound feels a bit like a cop-out especially as the ‘wind’ element seems somewhat arbitrary. But you could argue that it illustrates how we now need to mechanise what was once natural and make your own interesting observations from that. Standing in the middle of it is surprisingly poignant, like the final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth.

Stress and Stone
By Jany Easterby

Here we had two big poles with one end suspended in the air, but weighed down by large rocks with a long piece of string attached to each one. When the wind blew against it there was a slightly haunting hum to it that was amplified.

But a big ol’ string like that is asking to get plucked. Except you’re not really allowed to. A kid of about 10 was twanging it and a lady politely asked him to stop doing it. She began explaining how the wires were very finely tuned, and precisely as she was saying “it’s very interesting…” the boy walked off with that astounding lack of tact naturally possessed by children. If you ever wanted a microcosm of why it’s sometimes difficult to fund less mainstream pieces of art/music then here you have it.

Aeolian Harp
By Max Eastley

Aeolian basically means "stuff interracting with wind". In terms of pure aural pleasure, this one was an outright winner for me. Having walked through that terrifying field of fans earlier, this was borderline divine. A soothing twang relayed the wind's interaction with this metal contraption. It’s probably the least inspiring to look at, if it was on top of someone’s house you’d just assume they had a buttload of telephones. No idea how it works, but the wind blows against it and somehow it makes an incredibly amiable otherworldly sound.

Howling Wire
By Dan Fox

This giant contraption of drums and strings attached to a 40 foot pole stood proudly in the centre of the field. It is made entirely from recycled military and orchestral hardware. The strings could be strummed gently and the sound was recorded up at the top of the pole where there was more wind… I think. I grabbed a nearby child (after seeking parental permission) a made a quick vine to demonstrate how it's played. You can't hear it too well in this, but it sounded a tad Doctor Who.

Sonic Reed Beds
By Kathy Hinde

Inspired by the movement of reeds in the wind, these are long steel rods with stones and metal domes attached. They sound nice, but they’re basically glorified wind chimes. From an aural perspective I found it a lot less interesting than the others, there's not much to discover once you’ve had a quick strum. Something to get hands-on with is a plus though.

Pigeon Whistles
by Nathaniel Mann with Peter Petravicius

Pigeon whistles are lightweight whistles that are carried on the tails of pigeons. They have been used for centuries in Indonesia and China to create a subtle tune soundtracking their flight as they are released from their cage. A considerable crowd gathered to watch artist Nathaniel Mann and pigeon fancier Peter Petravicius explain some of the history behind these little gadgets. We even got a song, bonus.


 _______ _________ _______  _______  _______  _       
(  ____ )\__   __/(  ____ \(  ____ \(  ___  )( (    /|
| (    )|   ) (   | (    \/| (    \/| (   ) ||  \  ( |
| (____)|   | |   | |      | (__    | |   | ||   \ | |
|  _____)   | |   | | ____ |  __)   | |   | || (\ \) |
| (         | |   | | \_  )| (      | |   | || | \   |
| )      ___) (___| (___) || (____/\| (___) || )  \  |
|/       \_______/(_______)(_______/(_______)|/    )_)


I would’ve liked to hear more of the Pigeon Whistles, but the aforementioned crowd were all nattering to themselves shortly after it started. Sure, they were watching the pigeons but you could barely hear them. This display happens once or twice a day and we’d all stood around having the whole thing explained to us, so why create a noise to drown it out? It’s like people who go to gigs and spend the whole time chatting, why?

This got me wondering about the relationship of art, sound and music with the wider public. As a free installation at a popular park in a well-frequented part of the country, the majority of visitors would not be beard stroking sound-art enthusiasts. At best, you may get a couple of people who were keen on culture and are willing to give it all a fair go despite not having the deepest knowledge of the subject.

But what about those who just happen to be passing? You can’t blame them for their reaction (or lack of) to a piece. Certainly there’s no excuse for them to be rude to an artist, singer or performer. However if they don’t want to stand around, they don’t have to. There is no responsibility on the part of the audience to be moved, enticed or even remotely interested in whatever is going on. Is silently watching pigeons the point where we are asked too much by art or music?

Perhaps it shows that if we can’t be quiet and concentrate for two minutes then maybe we aren’t asked enough by music on a regular basis. Whose fault is that? Obama’s. No, it’s nobody’s really.

If people aren’t interested and don’t want to be then that’s just how it goes regardless of the artist. The live performance space can be difficult when it’s made up of people who all want something different from the show. You could easily cite the ongoing battle between iPhone videographers and people wanting to dance like sin as a music-based parallel of separate groups both wanting to enjoy a gig but in potentially conflicting ways.

The important thing is that people were present and they were engaging with the spectacle in some way. That's such a cop-out but I think it's the message here. Anyway, I'm off to Reading Festival this weekend and will be able to offer far more well-informed insight on the goings on there. See you on the other side!

Andy is a Supajam writer who has been a small-fry at numerous Commerical, BBC and Student radio stations over the last 6 years. He is also a music promoter in the South-East of the UK. He has a website where he interviews musicians with only one question, and he is currently typing in third-person. You can tweet abuse at him if you fancy letting off some steam.