Monday 7 December 2015

From the archives: Bill Fontana's 'River Sounding'

I was checking through some ancient work and found this about River Sounding, which was a joint venture between The Somerset House Trust and Sound and Music (SAM). The remit of both are very different; the Trust is keen to “open up its spaces to the public by presenting and commissioning work that places the building firmly at the centre of their activity”. SAM’s mission is to “present leading sound based art work to the widest possible audience”. Both were drawn to working with internationally renowned sound artist Bill Fontana, not least because of his previous work in key industrial and nautical locations in London, most notably at Tate Modern and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. 

This installation almost defies description. You are immediately hit by water imagery – whether you use the Fountain Court entrance with its imposing personification of Thames as river god. Or from the old river entrance on Embankment. Whichever entrance is used, the weather, atmospheric conditions, events in the courtyard, or traffic on the Embankment makes each visit unique. Already a wellspring of directional choice is offered to the visitor who can trickle slowly or rush around the installation in whatever direction they like.

From Embankment, you are transported back to pre 1864 when Somerset House was a riverside palace – with recorded lapping and clanging sounds. The riverbed beneath reminds you of the physical reality of where the palace used to be so the sounds are absolutely sinking into their environment.

From Fountain Court, heading down to the left hand corner entrance you descend steep stone steps into a melodious orchestra of hypnotic sounds, which alternately bespeak an urgency and release in the ebb and flow of roaring, gurgling, ticking and clanging. Sound compositions in the usually inaccessible subterranean passageways draw you further into the world of the river. As Fontana says, “a choreographed mix of sound elements […] recorded from various locations, from the Thames Estuary to Teddington Lock […] flowing and mixing in the lightwells, mixing with the white noise of the fountains” in the courtyard above.

As you head further down into the building, sounds from dark intimate recesses become apparent – former coal holes are filled with recorded sound and images, none labelled so you are free to simply enjoy the sensations. Each one has a different personality. For example, the first recess which has the horizontal and vertical roaring of lock water I found to be a dark, disturbing, claustrophobic almost alien experience. The perpetual dance of the two images leaves you disorientated and it’s a relief to return to the gentleness of the sounds in the passageway.

Contrastingly, another recess offers the windy plainchant of harmonic oscillations in the cables of the Millennium Bridge. The distant tolling bell of the buoy reinforces the religious nature of these sonic chorals. Another recess and another shift in mood –repetitive mechanical rhythms of historic steam engines are complemented with high definition videos of these powerful engines. Whilst the ears and eyes are thrilling with these immersions, further sensations are awaiting in the Deadhouse, an underground passage way which links the two wings of the court yard.

This passageway takes its name from the remains of various 17th century Catholic inhabitants of Somerset House. However for the purposes of this installation this space is immediately reminiscent of the bowels of a ship – alive with deep reverberations from the subwoofers, low lighting, industrial piping and dripping water. Two further contrasting video installations of bridges are in there. One is a fixed view of Tower Bridge’s Victorian paintwork and the other is modernist bridge cabling. These provide visual stimulus and an opportunity to immerse yourself in the thick atmosphere. Given the nautical theme, the crude macabre drawing of the skull and crossbones on a grave in the murky gloom seems highly appropriate.

Such an unsatisfactory description highlights the impossibility of describing sound with words. Even a recording wouldn’t help that much because the symbiotic relationship between the sound and space cannot be divorced. It is noticeable that the same sound takes on different effects, for example, on leaving different recesses the sound outside can offer relief, be intrusive, or provide musical counterpoint. The collaborative efforts between the artist, the Trust and SAM have ensured a complete understanding of the river and its relationship to the building. If any of these components, that is to say the sound (river) or space (building) were missing, the installation would be meaningless.

It has been said that we are predisposed to see what we expect to see and given that my artistic interest in water has primarily been its use in renaissance gardens, I immediately drew on this knowledge and looked for parallels within this installation. Italian mannerist designers such as Bernado Buontalenti were attempting to capture the ideas of the age for their princely patrons in massively complicated water allegories. And I sense that Fontana’s modern sound art event echoes this sentiment for a number of reasons:
  • Architects/designers have taken advantage of the natural relationship between sound and space, whether a Greek amphitheatre or gothic cathedral. Therefore the sounds of intricate water features in chambers under the Medici villa at Pratolino for example would have had similar effects on the senses as the sound/video installations in the coalholes and passageways of Somerset House
  • Water and industry has had a long history, from the inventions of Archimedes, pneumatics of Alexandrian Heron, to the early modern water mills and all the way through to the steam engines of Victorian Britain. Water was used to power musical, moving automaton in many renaissance villas, some of which demonstrated various industrial processes
  • Water and its universal place in the multi stranded history of art, music, theatre and literature is assured – even today for instance BBC4 are in the middle a series called ‘Sea Fever – The Story Of Britain And The Sea’. For example water in the renaissance was used to create narratives, illustrating stories from myth and poetry as well as demonstrating the ideas of the natural philosophers – or proto-scientists
Technological developments of the early twentieth century enabled artists/composers to move away from imitating nature within the classical music context and take their recording equipment into the field. The experimental desire to take these sounds from nature and present them as an installation in situ rather than in the gallery or concert hall has fascinated sound artists. As one said, “sound is experience, so there is no point in trying to make it into an object… I’m trying to create situations where people come to it as experience and value that.” For me then, the technology and ideas within this exhibition is not entirely original however using recordings and images of various aspects of the river to evoke memories in a place which has known and been connected with nautical trade and industry for many years is an exciting concept.
The organisers have published a book which does its best to explain who the artist is and his rationale, gives a brief history, illustrates the videos and describes the sound. It feels rather like an expensive glossy guidebook rather than an academic treatise on the nature of sound art. The most helpful chapter is on ‘Capturing the River’ where the author goes off on a cold November day with Fontana to record sounds. Its purchase isn’t entirely necessary as a free leaflet offering a couple of explanatory paragraphs is available. Included on this leaflet is a list of events inspired by the installation which included films, talks and poetry readings and ensures that this event was more than just Fontana’s show. It is a good example of how sound art can collaborate without yielding a cacophony.
Bill Fontana River Sounding: A Journey through the hidden sound worlds of the River Thames at Somerset House. 15-31 May 2010

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