Sonic installations are something that I hadn’t experienced before this year’s IF: Milton Keynes International Festival so I thought I’d try and experience as much as possible. We were very lucky this year to have sound artists Kaffe Matthews and Ray Lee involved.
I started off my sonic experience by attending a concert by Kaffe Matthews and Ray Lee, entirely improvised and performed in the incredible Architect’s of Ar: Pentalum that was placed in Middleton Hall in the centre:mk. Pentalum is a luminarium, an inflated structure made up of tunnels leading into different rooms in different colours. The ceilings are domes in geometric patterns which then run down the walls and along the floor to the centre points of each ‘room’, with pods nestled throughout the structure. People were encouraged to find a pod and settle down. With Ray Lee on theremin being digitally mixed by Kaffe Matthews, the sound was ethereal and very atmospheric. A group of the audience decided to settled in the room where they were performing whilst others wandered around or settled in different sections. It was very peaceful and I really enjoyed the concert and the whole atmosphere.
I then wandered over to The Hub in Milton Keynes, a square of restaurants with apartments built above. It makes for an enclosed area with a large open central square. In this were placed eight tripods with rotating speakers attached to the top, towering over the audience. This was Ray Lee’s Chorus. Over the course of an hour each of the rotating arms began to move, emitting a pulse of sound. As each of the tripods began to move the sound increased and built, reverberating through the area before starting over, once again building to a crescendo before dying back to nothing. It was fascinating to walk amongst the tripods as the sound changed as you wandered around different parts. It was interesting to watch other people’s reactions, those who had just stumbled across the installation and stood mesmerised before continuing on their way, and those who had purposefully come to see the installation trying to work out whether they were enjoying it or not. Whilst I wouldn’t say that I found it exciting, I certainly found it interesting and I’ve certainly never encountered anything like it before.
Kaffe Matthews’ installation by contrast I absolutely fell in love with. This was a commission by the Canal & River Trust and IF: 2014 specifically for the festival. Kaffe collected sounds during a walk along the Grand Union Canal that links London with Milton Keynes. Using these sounds and a choir created specifically for the project she recorded a composition to be played through sonic beds. These were three beds, surrounded by speakers in the sides and suspended above, with vibrations played through the base, set in an empty shop which they had darkened to make for a more intense atmosphere, surrounded by the sound. It was a fully immersive experience. I could have spent hours there and I went back several times to try the different beds as in each one you picked up different sounds in the track, whether it was the chugging of a canal boat as it passed or the birds singing at a distance. Every time was a different experience. I would encourage anyone who comes across Kaffe’s work to try it. It was incredible.
The last piece I want to talk about was a performance by Melanie Pappenheim, a solo voice-theatre performance. Although only about 20/30 minutes in duration I was enraptured. Melanie lay in the middle of an exhibition titled Cadences in MK Gallery. She began singing whilst laying on the floor, at different moments in the three songs she performed rising and turning or falling… For that was the theme… falling, destruction, gravity. Dressed simply in a white dress with loose hair and piano hammers attached from wires on the back scraping the floor as they tangled, the whole performance was beautifully simple but very emotive. I hadn’t been sure about going to see it initially but I am so glad that I did. I feel I would really have missed out had I not gone.
The events that I saw really inspired me and challenged my perceptions of how we use sound in art, differing drastically from the musicals and concerts I’ve seen in the past. It also challenged my views on how to engage people with sound installations with the Lock Shift Songs definitely having the most impact on my experience.