Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland
Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland is a seven-channel sound installation based on a cross-section diagram of coastal geological formations from the River Tyne to the Scottish border, drawn by local mining engineer Nicholas Wood in 1838. It was originally commissioned by AV Festival in 2014, and toured across Northumberland during 2015.
Using the diagram as a graphic score, artist Susan Stenger transformed the geologic into the sonic in a 59-minute work that travels from the coal seams of Tyneside to the porphyritic rocks north of the Tweed, layering instrumental sounds, melodic patterns and signature rhythms extracted from traditional Northumbrian music and dance.
Responding to history, culture and place names as well as the drawing’s structures, she superimposes traces of fiddle and Northumbrian pipe tunes with deep shifting seams of brass band harmonies, voice, Border and Highland pipes to create a unique portrait of place.
This surface detail reveals a cultural and social history as rich and complex as the sonic substrate beneath and often responds to particular geographical landmarks on the diagram. Familiar Tyneside melodies The Waters of Tyne and The Keel Row well up at the start. The coal measures give rise to powerful songs that refer to historic mining disasters (Gresford, The Miners' Hymn) and battles with scab labour (as in Blackleg Miner). As the work approaches its conclusion at the Scottish border, solo Highland pipe tunes such as The Finger Lock and The MacFarlanes' Gathering prevail.
The composition re-works and interweaves elements extracted from performances by local players, including Stewart Hardy (fiddle), Andy May (Northumbrian and Border pipes), David Clement and William Wotherspoon (solo Highland pipes), and members of the City of Newcastle Pipe Band and the Newcastle Kingsmen Sword Dancers. These are heard alongside fragments from historical recordings by such key folk music figures as Alistair Anderson, Tommy Edmondson, Colin Ross and Billy Ballantine.
In addition to the spatial sound installation, the exhibition featured a 12.5-metre-long geological strata diagram by Nicholas Wood presented in a vitrine that replicated the contours of a section of the Northumberland coastline. Originally made to accompany Wood’s 1831 essay On the Geology of a Part of Northumberland and Cumberland, published in the first volume of transactions of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, its aim was to identify the coal measures along the Northumberland coast for the growing local mining industry.
The starting point for this touring exhibition was to place Sound Strata in the actual coastal landscape walked and studied by Wood. Venues were selected in locations marked on the diagram, thereby adding more layers of meaning and experience to the work. The tour began at The Gymnasium Gallery on the coastal ramparts in the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, followed by the historic colliery site of Woodhorn Museum in Ashington, and ended on Holy Island, exhibited in an old coastguard Lookout Tower, sited against a panorama of the Northumberland coastline.
Susan Stenger, Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland, The Gymnasium Gallery, 2015. Photo Colin Davison, courtesy of AV Festival