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Living Steam

ix 1999

(excerpt 1)
(excerpt 2)

Living Steam: Site Specific Music for Eight Channel Tape and Steam Engines

Living Steam was a site specific installation for the Kew Bridge Steam Museum, commissioned by Sonic Arts Network from composer Nye Parry A kind of concerto for 8 channel tape and live steam engines, the piece has a duration of 20 minutes and ran on the hour every hour for two weeks over Easter 1999. Listeners were free to wander among the engines and come and go as they please, constructing their own individual experience.

[Click image to enlarge]

The piece was composed for an eight channel surround system and was designed either to be played on its own (on weekdays) or as an accompaniment to the live sounds of the working steam pumping engines (at weekends, when the museum is "in steam"). In particular one performance was given in which the live engines were specifically coordinated with the tape. The intention was to include the environmental sounds, which had been the inspiration for the piece, in the musical experience and to encourage an appreciation of the musicality of those sounds, even after the composed music had come to an end. It was therefore considered important to allow visitors to hear the engines on their own as well as in the context of the piece.

Kew Bridge Steam Museum is housed a former pumping station, which supplied Thames water to south west London throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The museum houses many large stationary pumping engines including the Grand Junction 90", the largest working beam engine in the world.

Four engines were recorded as source materials for the piece. Three of these, the Waddon, the Eastern Amos and the Dancer's End engines are housed in the main Steam Hall where the piece was installed. The fourth, the massive Grand Junction engine has its own hall connected to the steam hall by a short corridor. The sounds were processed and composed in the studio and then returned to the the Steam Hall for performance.

On weekdays the installation enhanced the atmosphere of the hall giving a strong impression of the engines in motion. The piece functioned both as illustration and interpretation, realistic recordings gave an idea of the actual engine sounds, while the processed sounds enhanced the perception of the machines as something beyond the merely mechanical. Like great dinosaurs of the industrial age the engines were brought to life by the music.

At weekends the ambiguity arising from the combined live sight/ sound of the real engines and the sounds emanating from loudspeakers concealed in the engine enclosures created a unique symbiosis of sound and space in which the environment was as much a part of the musical experience as the music was a part of the environment. The live sounds also provided an element of variation as no two performances were exactly the same.

During one special performance the three engines used in the piece were successively started up as the piece progressed so that by the end all three were working. The Grand Junction engine next door had been running when people entered the building.

The tape opens with the sound of the Waddon engine starting up This engine has a very characteristic deep growl (bass bins were positioned in the Waddon enclosure to accurately reproduce this sound). During the performance it was arranged that the Waddon itself would be activated toward the end of the piece. The result was a kind of recapitulation of the opening sounds, so most of the audience were unaware that this sound was, on its second occurrence, coming from the engine itself until the tape finally dropped out and the live sound continued. Another moment of strong interaction between the recorded sounds and the live sound came from the Dancer's End engine, which needs to be set to a start up position using a thick iron bar. the sound of this features prominently in the piece and is placed in its untreated form in the loudspeaker associated with that engine (sometimes along with a resonated echo in one of the further roof speakers. During the performance the engine driver was cued to start up the Dancer's End at the first entry of the barring sound (which is introduced by a long stretched out transformation of itself moving freely through the space) resulting in an eerie duet between engine driver and tape.

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People were surprised how little of what they assumed was live actually came from the engines. In particular, the recordings often magnify details of the sound that are normally inaudible. Another common experience reported by listeners was an inability, after the event, to remember the music separately from the overall impression of the space. Other visitors, while obviously displaying a heightened awareness of the aural dimension of the experience, seemed unaware that they were hearing anything other than the sounds of the engines, asking which engine was responsible for the "musical" sounds.

Key to this perception was the speaker placement and the way space was composed into the piece. The loudspeakers were divided into two basic groups of four. The first group was associated with particular engines (one real stereo pair behind the Waddon engine and two mono sources associated with the Dancer's End engine and the Eastern Amos engine, see diagram). These local speakers often carried the untreated sound of the engine they were associated with. At other times the speakers were used for antiphonal effects and various frequency based spatializations e.g. low drones at floor level and more active high pitched material in the roof. At one point a sound is built up by introducing individual frequency bands in different spatial locations. The mixed use of point sources and various stereo axes created a wide variety of spatial possibilities, which were enhanced by the live engines and pipes, letting off little bursts of steam all around the room.

I have referred to Living Steam as site specific music because it deals with musical material in a way that is intrinsically bound up with the performance location. Rather than merely contributing an interesting ambience, the environment influences the perception of the sounds themselves and therefore affects the perception of musical structure. Any re-siting of Living Steam will therefore require to some extent a re-composition and presents new musical challenges. The first such re-siting has taken place during the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in the Victoria Tower. Any suggestions for other possible venues (preferably with industrial / steam connections) are gratefully received.

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