Musician Rob St John takes us behind the sonic reinterpretation of Newhaven’s concrete landmark
By Sam Bradley, 27 August 2015, The List
Newhaven feels a world away from the bustle of the city. The old harbour is lulled, used only by weekend anglers, and the sky is dispassionate, displaying the kind of weather that goes unnoticed on land but that becomes unpleasant for those at sea. This former fishing port on the North Edinburgh coastline – long since surrounded and absorbed by the sprawl of Leith – consists of down-at-heel tenement buildings and an unused Victorian lighthouse sitting whitewashed and silent by the harbour mouth.
Recently, Newhaven’s skyline has been remoulded. Jutting out of the ground like the prow of a sunken wreck is the landmark tower – a 28 metre-high triangular prism built out of brick and concrete – constructed by the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. The tower is hollow, and inside the gaze of the visitor is immediately drawn upwards to the space evacuated by a large cleft in the wall 20 metres up that channels light and air into the structure. The space inside holds some strange sonic properties – the opening channels the wind and the nearby sounds of the sea inside, creating a kind of resonating chamber. It was this aspect that catalysed the making of Concrete Antenna, a new sound installation from Rob St John, Tommy Perman and Simon Kirby.
The project consists of a sonic installation at the tower itself, as well as an album to be released in 12” vinyl which will be packaged with a series of essays, art prints and tide tables all released through Random Spectacular, an imprint of design collection St Jude’s.
The installation at the tower saw the trio set up a series of motion sensors and speakers, meaning that visitors are detected upon approach to the tower and greeted by assorted processed field recordings and digital sounds. According to Rob St John: ‘the piece in the tower is composed of almost endless configurations of music, field recordings and speech, which are controlled by the weather, the tides and audience movement’; consequently each visit is a unique experience.
St John has worked on similar projects before – in particular, 2013’s Water of Leith, an album and series of art prints and essays inspired by the Water of Leith – and he says that for each member of the trio, the project is a progression from their previous work. He said: ‘Tommy and I share an interest in making work based on Edinburgh’s urban environment, particularly where nature finds gaps and cracks in the fabric of the city. Simon and Tommy have also worked together in FOUND on projects such as Unravel and Cybraphon that used similar ideas of audience and environment interactivity.’
The recorded album, intended as a companion piece to the on-site composition, is a fascinating and occasionally beautiful, set of ambient experimental tracks. Sparse piano, field recordings and archived samples plucked from each artist’s own libraries of found sound combine with warm organic drones and minimal electronica to create a diverse record that complements and reflects the original installation. Occasionally the record takes a disquieting turn – there is something of the black monolith from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey about the landmark tower – and on ‘The Crackling Air’, for instance, strange production techniques produce an unsettling effect, echoing the slightly claustrophobic feeling the visitor receives upon entering the tower.
St John says that the installation is a kind of live performance of the album, with the record intended to complement, not repeat, the original experience. He said: ‘It was a challenge to mix both the installation and the LP: the piece in the tower is composed of almost endless configurations of music, field recordings and speech and is mixed vertically over four speakers.
The LP on the other hand required us to mix two coherent sides of music from this material, which would be listenable, whilst retaining the same spirit as the installation. So the record is a fixed version of some of the elements of the installation, without the endless permutations of environmental chance influencing what you hear. Tommy’s artwork, the essays, and the films we’ve made about the project are all part of situating the record back in the landscape, without necessary giving a ‘correct’ way of interpreting it.’
Concrete Antenna is released on 12” box set and digital download on 14 Sep, via Random Spectacular.