AYM & Faster than Sound: The Chimes Hour


From Monday 27 October Aldeburgh Young Musicians (AYM) and Faster than Sound will be bringing their creative and collaborative forces together to develop ‘The Chimes Hour’ – a modular composition for the Hoffmann Building ‘linking multiple spaces in an interlocking sonic ecosystem’.

This collaboration between AYM and Faster than Sound is the first of its kind and in the case of ‘The Chimes Hour’ AYM will be working alongside producer Peter Meanwell, composer Jenny Walshe, sound artist Lee Patterson, Improvisers and musicians Angharad Davies and Lucy Railton.

The piece draws inspiration from the hidden secrets held within the architecture and its surrounding environment. The aim of the collaboration is to create a series of musical scenes, some composed some improvised, through which small groups of audience members are led, in turn disrupting the standard concert narrative as they overhear fragments of sound through open doors, encounter silent quartets, and sing from one room to another.

Some background

For me what makes ‘The Chimes Hour’ so fascinating as a piece- both conceptually and artistically- is the inspiration it also draws from local myth, folklore and oral-history.  Largely influenced by the writings of George Ewart Evans, The Chimes Hour explores ‘unheard sounds coexisting with the heard, audience coexisting with performers, and fact coexisting with myth’ – in so many ways this exploration reflects a very particular way of life, and the revolutionary way in which it was recorded, somewhere not so far away from where I sit writing this…

Nestled amongst the sandlings and low-lying heathland of East Suffolk, only a couple of miles away from Snape Maltings rests the village of Blaxhall. The village has an extraordinary history yet nothing remarkable really ever happened there; No ancient battles were fought on its soil, Royalty have never bothered to build a sprawling country house across its beautiful landscape, and it certainly has never been a hive of industry or loaned its name to a world changing innovation.

Blaxhall’s history is extraordinary for the way in which it’s own narrative has been recorded. It’s with gratitude to figures such as Peter Kennedy, George Ewart Evans, Alan Lomax and Keith Summers who were working in Blaxhall in the mid 20th century that we have such an in-depth insight into the usually neglected oral and folk history of a community. These ethnographers, musicologists, historians and folk-lorists discovered the community in Blaxhall at a time when the rest of England was going through a transitory period of post-war economic and cultural change. Due to its location, Blaxhall like so many other East Anglian communities wasn’t so affected by this shift which was carving such dramatic changes across the rest of the country. It was as though the village had been captured in a snow-globe; outside observers could look in to see a fascinating, charming, but deeply cultural community with a vernacular, lore and identity seemingly unchanged from a century before.

Singers at the Ship Inn, Blaxhall, 1953. Copyright Estate of Alan Lomax.

Pioneering American ethnomusicologist, field collector and archivist Alan Lomax came to Blaxhall in October 1953 to document what had then become the imitable ‘Ship Inn’ – a public house perched alongside a narrow, sandy lane in Blaxhall which had become well known for its song, dance, music and stories. Lomax alongside Peter Kennedy who was then working for the BBC brought their reel-to-reel tape recorder to the Ship Inn and made numerous recordings of the songs, stories and music which was shared quite willingly by the locals. Having been geographically, economically and culturally isolated as late as the early 50’s, most of the locals recorded at the Ship Inn were born before the turn of the 20th century – they had lived in period of time where work, culture and entertainment had barely changed for a few hundred years – the culture, accent, dialect and vernacular that had developed in this small pocket of East Suffolk was captured unbowdlerised (mostly) on quarter inch magnetic tape for future generations to reminisce upon.

Kennedy came back without Lomax a couple of years later to film a night at the Ship Inn – a digitised copy can be watched online at the East Anglian FIlm Archive.

Further background and George Ewart Evans

In 1947, a few years before Lomax and Kennedy first drove the sandy lanes to Blaxhall, with tape recorder rattling around on the back seat of their car, George Ewart Evans, an ex-School master from Sawston Village College near Cambridge had moved to the school house in Blaxhall where his wife had taken up post as headmistress. Unusually for the time, Ewart Evans was a ‘stay at home husband’, concentrating his efforts on writing. However It wasn’t long before he became fascinated by the rich local culture that he had discovered on his new doorstep – in many ways he ‘went native’ and became friends and acquaintances with many of the locals who later went on to become part of his writing and recording. He knew that he was living at a time of huge change – a cultural, social and historic paradigm shift which needed to be recorded.

George Ewart Evans

George Ewart Evans

In the period leading up to 1956, Ewart Evans began collecting, compiling and writing about the stories, customs, folklore and ways of life which had been so essential to the residents of Blaxhall’s being.

For the past eight years I have been living in the above village which is in a remote part of Suffolk; and I have been struck by the number of interesting survivals here…

….The old people, who have such a knowledge of the village community which is quickly passing, are dying out; and with their going much of real value is being lost.

Ewart Evans had been loaned a tape recorder by a friend David Thompson who was a producer at BBC ‘Third Programme’ (now BBC radio 3) with which he made recordings of Blaxhall residents. Thompson went on to create a series for BBC Third Programme with the recordings that Ewart Evans had made. Eventually in 1956 Ewart Evans decided to turn these recordings and transcriptions that he had made in to the book ‘Ask The Fellows who Cut the Hay’. Although initially rejected by Faber & Faber as “revoltingly pompous and pedantic”, Ewart Evans finally managed to get his book published, which in turn led to a successful career and a reputation to this day as a pioneer of Oral History. Faber went on to publish 9 more books written by George Ewart Evans.

Part of the George Ewart Evans collection has been made available online as part of the British Library Sounds archive. You can access it here where you will find many of the recordings made in Blaxhall.

The Chimes Hours

Although labelled revoltingly pompous and pedantic, ‘Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay’ is still in print today and remains as influential and inspiring as ever. Amongst those who have an interest in Oral History and Folklore the book is a fascinating read which lends us an insight in to beliefs (or myths) which even if they had come from the playground, as Ewart Evans suggests, can resonate with us still.

The little customs and beliefs commonly cherished among children often give clues to interesting survivals. A boy in this village once told the school mistress very proudly that he had been born during the ‘Chinese Hours’. This statement was taken down for what is was worth, and a certain amount of research was done in an attempt to discover the boy’s meaning. Nothing could be found. Then it was decided to take a leaf from the book of a village lady, the first article in whose creed is: ‘if you wait long enough in a village, you’ll know everything.’ And true enough, the explanation of the boy’s boast soon turned up. His mother had meant to tell him that his Birth had fallen during the ‘Chimes Hours’: accordingly he was gifted with second sight, and could discern happenings hidden from the sight of lesser mortals. The belief dates from pre-Reformation days; but the exact times denoted by the Chimes Hours appear to be in dispute. Some say that they were the hours of 8 p.m., midnight and 4 a.m., others think differently. Perhaps some light may be thrown on the question by the following quotations: both taken from ‘The Church Bells of England’, by H. B. Walters: ‘The ringing for the canonical hours let the world know the time by day and night: and in those large churches were such a custom was followed, the several bells-as well as the ways in which they were rung for that purpose- told the precise service which was then about to be chanted.’ ‘At the Reformation, ringing at the canonical hours was dropped, except for Mattins and Evensong. We may perhaps, however, Medicean a trace of it in the custom of playing chimes at the hours of 3, 6, 9, and 12.’

Ask The Fellows so Cut the Hay, George Ewart Evans. Faber and Faber, 1956. Pg. 216-7.

The Chimes Hour is on Saturday 1 November, 7pm in the Hoffmann Building, Snape.
Read more about the event and book tickets at our listings pages