The artist Matt Stokes brings together the lead singers of six grindcore bands: Anders Bakke (She Said Destroy, Norway), Chris Butterworth (Kastrated, UK), Dente (Rompeprop, Netherlands), Alex Hughes (Hatred Surge, USA), Alex Jockel (Krupskaya, UK), Der Kurt (Paroxysm, Germany).
Together with the artist and musician Tim Kerr we create a short piece. The resulting installation is shown on six screens arranged in a hexagon. The viewer/listener is enveloped, not just in the massive sound but in the visual presence of the singers.
We work in a small skuzzy studio in the Funkhaus, the former German Democratic Republic radio studio in Berlin. The building is so large that scooters are provided.
The singers are, as far as I can judge, gentle and delightful. They all have day jobs, as grindcore doesn’t seem to pay. Chris works at the HSBC, Anders in a cocktail bar, Dente is a carpenter, Kurt organizes activities for disabled people. But put them behind a mike......
Watch the film below but bear in mind that the actual installation is massive and immersive......
Foghorn Requiem is a (slightly premature) requiem for the foghorn, and for a culture that is dying if not quite dead yet: lighthouses, sailing boats, charts, sextants, the shipping forecast, morse code, semaphore....... and, by implication, because of where we are, the shipbuilding industry on the Tyne, and, because of the presence of the brass bands, the coal-mining industry.
And it’s about the way the landscape shapes sound - how a sound picks up the imprint of the landscape, how (better metaphor?) a sound is refracted through the landscape. Nowadays most outdoor events are heavily amplified, cleverly using delay lines so that this distinction – between the sound as it sets out and the sound as it arrives in your ear – is nullified. But in Foghorn Requiem it’s crucial.
At the heart of the piece, there’s a nice aural contradiction: the sound of the foghorn heard from far away is gentle, mournful, ghost-like, nostalgic; from close to, it’s monstrous, visceral, exciting, terrifying. The music attempts to encapsulate these two extremes.
The ship’s horns, and at times the brass bands imitate and extend the gentle version of the foghorn sound. It’s a sound that, for me, is simultaneously comforting and unsettling, queasy, a feeling brilliantly described in Langston Hughes’ poem Sea Calm:
How strangely still
The water is today.
It is not good
To be so still that way.
On the other hand, the immediate sound of the foghorn and the presence of the lighthouse conjure up images of storms and shipwrecks. It’s all very well being nostalgic for a bygone maritime age, but it was an age in which life at sea was extremely tough, extremely brutal and extremely dangerous.
The entire harmonic world of the piece is influenced by the sound of the foghorn, both close and distant. The music is mostly in an Arabic-sounding scale that combines whole tones with elements of flamenco. The ships’ horns are tuned to this scale so that the brass bands and the ships’ horns can speak in the same language - a conversation between land and sea.
Is Foghorn Requiem a genuine musical requiem, like Mozart’s Requiem? No, but it does occasionally refer the structure of a real requiem. There is a section like a Dies Irae, and a section like a Lachrymosa.
Each section of the piece is subtitled with a series of regions from the shipping forecast. It’s pretty random, but the association of music and place is beginning to seem almost deliberate......
The ships assemble, sounding their horns in a pattern that builds up as they get closer to each other.
Humber, Thames, Dover
The bands appear from far away. The music is solemn and euphonious. It introduces a version of the sea shanty Go Down You Blood Red Roses. The song has a (totally spurious) connection with Tyneside in my head, as I first heard it sung by Sting.
Wight, Portland, Plymouth
The beginnings of the land-sea conversation. A call from the lighthouse on soprano cornet. The band and the ships exchange rich chords. The ships reply to the cornet call.
Biscay, Trafalgar, Finisterre, Sole
Queasiness, unease. The ships’ horns like a distant foghorn, giving a gentle warning. The bands gradually react. Then on alert. Increasing tension. Foul weather. Wind east veering north-east, let’s say, 7 or 8. Occasional rain, fog patches. Visibility poor.
Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon
Brutal. The chords of section 2, but now fierce and unrelenting, in a cyclic pattern. The fury of the sky and the sea. This is the Dies Irae of the requiem.
5 Ma Nighean Donn As Bòidche
Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey
Calm after the storm. The ships’ horns introduce the melody of the Gaelic song Ma Nighean Donn As Bòidche. In the original song (the title translates as My Beautiful Brown-haired Maiden), the singer tells of his hardships at sea; by the time he returns home, the love of his love has gone off with another man. The tune is taken up by the brass bands in a simple hymn-like arrangement.
6 Saltwater Lament
Fair Isle, Faroes, South Iceland
An epic, exhilarating, choppy, difficult voyage. The music is based on two Estonian folk songs:
Water has taken my brother from me
Water took him away
Wind blew him away
The high coast has lost him.
The sea has fed us
The sea has watered us
The sea has taken many men from us.
The possibility – in fact the likelihood of disater. The voyage ends at the bottom of the ocean. A curiously transcendent ending inspired by the writing of William Beebe, who in 1934 went deep under the ocean in a bathysphere: ‘The blueness of the blue went through my eyes into my very being.’ Flugelhorn solo.
7 Aftermath: Aus Einem Seemannsgrab Da Bluhen Keine Rosen
Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire
A simple setting of the German folksong, introduced by the ship’s horns and the flugelhorn. This is the Lachrimosa of the requiem.
On a sailor’s grave no roses bloom
On a sailor’s grave no flowers bloom
The only tributes are the white seagulls
And a tear which the little mermaid cries.
A reprise of Ma Nighean Donn As Bòidche leads us into:
Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne
A raucous, kick-out-the-jams celebratory romp. The sounds of a shipyard. Another brief outing for Go Down You Blood Red Roses, and a couple of Gaelic-sounding tunes which are utterly inauthentic.
Dogger, Fisher, German Bight
A coda. Reprise of section 2. The cornets all play the call, independently, creating a melancholy miasma of sound. A valedictory exchange of chords. The foghorn has the last word.
The ships disperse, sounding their horns.
In our search for the ships’ horns, we went on a delightful visit to Malmö in Sweden, the home of Kockums, who make marine technology. It was like – excuse the cheesy Swedish simile - being in an Ikea devoted to ships’ horns, shelf after shelf after shelf of them. Marek the engineer showed us to an anechoic chamber where he was testing a carillon of horns, commissioned by a cruise line company, which he had specially tuned to play the theme tune from the American TV series Love Boat. The tune sounded pretty horrible, partly because it’s not a great tune, and partly because we were hearing the raw sound with no echo. Curiously, considering the sophistication of the sequencing software, Marek triggered the sequence by thrusting a bare wire into a socket which he couldn’t at first find.
He had tuned the horns by inserting washers to make them longer, thereby lowering the pitch. This had clearly been very laborious; he seemed understandably proud of what he’d done but slightly knackered by it. We have instead tuned the horns by inserting a sliding mechanism, almost like a trombone, so there can be more flexibility in the tuning.
Why brass bands? It’s a question which hardly needs answering. What a brilliant and curious organism a brass band is. The instruments have a very similar sound to each other. There are the cornets, similar to trumpets but with a gentler sound; there are tubas in many forms – flugelhorn, tenor horns (also, weirdly enough, called alto horns), baritone horns, euphoniums, E flat basses, B flat basses; and there are trombones. The overall sound is complex and rich, much richer than the brass section of an orchestra. And it’s surprisingly versatile. It can be fierce, or gentle, or flirty, or exhuberant, or melancholic, or celebratory...... Composing for brass band is a joy – the players are so skilled, and so used to playing new music.
Looking for bands, we visited the North of England Regional Brass Band Championships in a sports hall in Darlington. It’s an amazing event. The bands are divided into several leagues, as in football. We listened to the, as it were, Premiership bands, ten of them, playing the same eye-wateringly difficult piece, designed to show off strengths and expose weaknesses. The judge was in the centre of the auditorium, curtained off like a patient in a hospital He emerged after what must have been a head-scrunching three hours to give the prizes. It was very striking how blasé he has about the standard of the playing, which to our ears was verging on the miraculous.
Amazingly, the brass bands have survived the closures of the collieries which nurtured them. By intelligent adaptation - taking in women, becoming involved in the wider community, finding sponsorship elsewhere - they have found a way through a cataclysmic period (thank you Maggie). The NASUWT Riverside Band, for example, was originally The Pelton Fell Colliery Band. When the colliery closed, that might have been that, but they found sponsorship from Newcastle Breweries, then Durham County Cricket Club, then NASUWT, National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. (Surely they should change the name? Even the acronym doesn’t exactly slip off the tongue.) And now the band is thriving. Wonderful.