Monday, 12 December 2016

Magic and Mystery from The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments

The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments (image courtesy of the ensemble)
The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments
(image courtesy of the ensemble)
Sound House; The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments; Spitalfields Winter Festival at the Octagon, Queen Mary University of London, Hall;
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Dec 8 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Playing tricks with our ears, Sound House explores the sound-world of Francis Bacon

Sound House came out of a residency by the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments, director Clare Salaman, at Aldeburgh in early 2015 and it had an outing at this year’s Spitalfields Winter Festival when the ensemble (Clare Salaman, Jon Nicholls, Jon Banks, Jean Kelly, Alison McGillivray, with actor Terence Wilton) performed in the Octagon at Queen Mary University of London on Thursday 8 December 2016.

The Octagon, Queen Mary University of London
The Octagon, Queen Mary University of London
In the pre-concert talk Clare Salaman and Jon Nicholls discussed the inspiration for the project, an attempt to recreate Francis Bacon’s explorations and experiments with sound, music and acoustics. Bacon, whose empirical writings earned him the title of ‘father of modern science’, was particularly fascinated by sympathetic resonance and echoes and so the octagonal, three-story former library at Queen Mary was an ideal venue for this exploration of sound and space.

We were introduced to the star instrument: strange though not ancient, a modern copy of a tromba marina, a two-metre-long single-stringed bowed instrument with sympathetic stings all tuned to the same note. It was commonly found in convents, as it was considered more appropriate for a nun to create an earthy sound by bowing a stringed instrument than by blowing on a trumpet. All the strings on Salaman’s tromba marina are tuned to a D, which makes it quite limited in its musical possibilities but – as we were to find out – quite versatile in its range of comic effects.

Salaman also played a nyckelharpa – a keyed fiddle, as seen played by angels on classy Christmas cards. Here, the sympathetic strings give the instrument a mournful sound. Jon Banks played a variety of guitars and Jean Kelly a couple of elegant-looking harps; Alison McGillivray and her viols were at the front of the stage and Jon Nicholls’ Apple MacBook Pro, circa 2010 was at the back. At various points there was whispering, muttering and sighing to accompany the instrumental pieces and at the end they all blew through what looked like plastic plumbing pipes.

There was an array of speakers in each of the eight sections of the Octagon, so tricks were played with our binaural hearing as the electronic music took over from the acoustic instruments and travelled around the room on the PA. The sound world was fascinating, restful, mesmerising.

The historical-scientific context was provided by the actor Terence Wilton, dressed in a 17th-century costume, quoting the words from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum and his description of ‘sound houses’ in his 1627 proto-sci-fi work, The New Atlantis. Wilton provided the links for the eight sections describing different magical qualities he had observed: Echoes, Sympathy, Bells and so on. His explanation of why night-time noise is more disturbing than daytime noise is very pertinent to today’s city dwellers, and his description of loud noises making birds fall from the sky went down well with the audience. He talked of an ear trumpet as an ‘ear-spectacle that helpeth those that are thick of hearing’.

It was fascinating to listen to the words and music and reflect that in some ways the popular understanding of how sound and music work on our ears and minds has not changed hugely since the seventeenth century.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford


Tobias Hume Hark, Hark
Tobias Hume The Lady Arbellaes favoret

Jon Nicholls Round Orbs of Air
William Lawes Ecco
William Lawes Air-Corant

The Society of Strange & Ancient Instruments A Sweet Voice of One that Readeth
Robert Jones Go to bed, Sweet Muse

William Byrd arr. Jon Banks The Bells
Jon Nicholls Broken Air

Thomas Tomkins Pavan
Anon. Alman
Jon Nicholls Concords and Discords of Musick

David Mell John come kiss me now

Anon. Give me your hand
Jon Nicholls Pipe Dreams

William Brade Galliard – Alman – Coranto
Orlando Gibbons In Nomine

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