The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments, Jon Nicholls
The Octagon, Queen Mary University of London. 8 December 2016
Music by Jon Nicholls, Tobias Hume, William Lawes, William Byrd, Thomas Tomkins, Orlando Gibbons.
For many years now, Spitalfields Music has been spreading its wings way beyond its original home in Spitalfields, both for its major programme of community work and for venues for its musical and other performances. It is now a major arts and community organisation covering the whole of the East End of London. Among the venues for this year’s winter festival (which included a hidden Masonic Temple) was The Octagon, built in 1887 as part of the grand premises of the People’s Palace, described in The Times on its opening as a “happy experiment in practical Socialism”. It is now the home of Queen Mary University of London. The architect, ER Robson (best known for his influential school designs), used the British Museum Reading Room for inspiration in designing the octagonal library.
More ‘happy experiments’ were in evidence in the programme ‘Sound House’ given by The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments (SSAI). It was based on the 17th century scientific writings and acoustic experiments of Francis Bacon, as described in his posthumously published Sylva Sylcarum and New Atlantis. In the latter vision of a new society, Bacon promoted the idea of Sound Houses where his acoustic experiments could be continued and better appreciated by the populace. Bacon’s musical ideas might seem commonplace today, not least through the medium of electronics and manipulated sound, and his experimental approach to sound is a key feature of many musicians today.
Composer and sound-designer Jon Nicholls developed this programme with the SSAI through a week-long residency in Aldeburgh where several of Bacon’s experiments were re-created using the SSAI’s usual eclectic mix of instruments, including a Swedish nyckelharpa (with roots in the medieval keyed fiddle), an English bass viol and ‘viola bastarda’, a Greek version of hammered dulcima, a selection of harps, a laptop computer, a selection of plastic plumbing pipes, and their new toy, the curious looking (and sounding) tromba marina. Several of the instruments included the added resonance of sympatheitic strings, one of the aspects of sound that fascinated Bacon. Their Aldeburgh improvisations developed into a programme exploring different aspects of Bacon’s acoustic interest, combining new compositions by Jon Nicholls with pieces from the English Renaissance era of Bacon. There were probably several moments of improvisation as well, although it was difficult to identify them amongst the programmed and pre-composed works.
To this musical mix was added Francis Bacon himself, in the guise of actor Terence Wilton (complete with Bacon’s hat, as pictured) who introduced quotes from Bacon over and between the music. Regardless of the scientific or historical interest, this was a fascinating experience of the wonderful world of sound. At times it was difficult to work out whether some of the sounds were coming from the live players’ creative use of their own instruments, or from the Scottish-inspired little box of tricks centre-stage. Both used amplification through speakers spaced around The Octagon. Over the course of the evening, the players introduced their ‘strange and ancient’ instruments, all coming in the former category, and some in the latter.
Jon Nicholls’ four compositions were given Bacon titles, each describing the experimental basis for the composition. Round Orbs of Air had the instruments playing against their own live electronic echos in a broad arch structure. Broken Air tested Bacon’s theory that air is ‘broken’ by loud sounds, in this case using bells both recorded and, briefly, live as an accompaniment to various interventions and a brief melody from the nyckelharpa. Concords and Discords of Musick was described as a series of ‘mini speed-dates’ between different instruments, reflecting Bacon’s notion of the harmonic compatibility of combinations of instruments. The final Pipe Dreams was the result of what seems to have been a fun time spent on the Aldeburgh reed beds playing around with plastic drain pipes. The evocative recorded and live sounds created a atmospheric sound world, concluding by a blast from all the players on previously hidden pipes (pictured below).
The tromba marina was one of the most interesting of the strange and ancient instruments used. Often found in musical instruments around Europe, these odd looking devises have a great deal more musical capabilities that might appear from first sight. Around two metres tall, it appears to have only one string. But, in this modern recreation (pictured), hidden away behind the little fretted door just below the neck of the instrument is an array of 42 sympathetic strings, all tuned to the same D as the visible string on the front of the instrument. The single string is bowed close to the sound hole (here with added microphone pick-up), and the notes are produced by gently touching the string, producing harmonics in the same manner to when a violin string is lightly touched. Like the bray harp that we heard (and the hurdy-gurdy often used in SSAL events, but not this one) it can produce a loud buzzing and percussive sound, here because of the construction of the bridge which, like the hurdy-gurdy’s trompette stop, is allowed to rattle against the body of the instrument. One of its original uses was apparently as a gentile way that nuns could produce the sound of a trumpet without actually having to blow anything. One of the problems of the tromba marina is that any photograph of it is inevitably so long that trying to balance a paragraph of written text against is well nigh impossible without having to add several lines of completely pointless text, just to get to the bottom of the photograph which, if it was made any smaller, would make the detail of the instrument impossible to see. Even after all that, I still seem to have a few lines still to fill, although I think this is probably enough.
On this occasion, the members of the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments were Clare Salaman, director, nyckelharpa and tromba marina, Jon Nicholls, composer and electronics, Jon Banks, santouri, harp, and Renaissance guitar, Jean Kelly, bray harp and triple harp, Alison McGillivray, bass viol and viola bastarda, and Terence Wilton actor.