Sound House – experiments from the Society of Stange and Ancient Instruments

Francis Bacon as visionary:

‘We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter sounds and lesser slides of sounds; divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have; with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp. We make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which set to the ear, do further the hearing greatly. We have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice, differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes in strange lines and distances.’ Francis Bacon, New Atlantis [1627 published posthumously]

An experiment of Francis Bacon

The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments’ new project for 2015, Sound House, is inspired by this extract from Francis Bacon’s utopian novel New Atlantis in which he portrays a brave new world where technology is employed for the good of humanity.

Although Francis Bacon, 17th century philosopher, statesman and visionary, is widely regarded as the father of modern science, his investigations into the nature of sound are little known. Our new project, Sound House, explores some of the seemingly magical and musical phenomena that Bacon sought to explain against a backdrop of exquisite 17th century music performed on unusual and historically appropriate instruments. These include the tromba marina, a magnificent buzzing monochord, dulcimers, harps and the little known viola bastarda.

In his seminal work, Sylva Sylvarum (1626), Bacon lists experiments and observations, which range from reflections on the emotional effect of sound to explorations of the physical effects of sympathetic vibration. He expounds theories on consonance and dissonance, amplification, the movement of sound in different media, dynamics, and how sight influences the perception of sound.

Musick in the Practice, hath been well pursued, and in good Variety; but in the Theory, and especially in the yielding of the Causes of the Practick, very weakly; being reduced into certain Mystical subtilties, and not much truth. We shall therefore, after our manner, joyn the Contemplative and Active Part together. Francis Bacon, (Sylva Sylvarum, 1626)

On the 23rd of February, Aldeburgh Music gave us the beautiful Kiln studio, 6 speakers, some nice mics, a projector and screen and left us to it for a week. We moved in with four harps, two dulcimers, a renaissance guitar, a viola bastarda, a violone, nyckelharpa, hurdy gurdy, Hardanger fiddle, a tromba marina and a lot of percussion. We also brought some ‘scientific’ equipment consisting of a 2 metre length of 6 inch down pipe, 6 metres of 2 inch plumbing pipe, a selection of bells and some very large pieces of thick paper.

Set up for the week in the Jerwood Kiln

Our aim for the week was to test some of the experiments and observations that Francis Bacon’s lays out in his Sylva Sylvarum, ’A Natural History in Ten Centuries’, and to use the sounds and ideas that emerged from that process to make new compositions – 21st century translations of Bacon’s ideas. When we perform Sound House, these new pieces will be placed within a musical context that Bacon would have been all too familiar with, so we also spent time rehearsing some rather obscure, but hauntingly beautiful 17th century music. By the end of the week we felt we had gained considerable insight into how sound was perceived in the 17th century and how miraculous effects like echoes and sympathetic vibration must have seemed to people living then.

Take a Trunk, and let one whistle at the one end, and hold your ear at the other and you shall finde the sound strike so sharp, as you can fearce endure it. The cause is, for that sound diffuseth it self in round, and so spendeth itself…And so you may note, that inclosures do not onely preserve sound, but also encrease and sharpen it. 
Francis Bacon, (Sylva Sylvarum, 1626)

Experiments with pipes

There’s a lot you can do with plastic pipes. We used some lengths of 2-inch pipe to test (and prove) Bacon’s theory that a sound sent through a pipe is preserved and in some cases, sounds as if it is amplified. We also used the same apparatus to confirm Bacon’s hunch that sound travels just as well in an upward direction as it does downwards.

It may be doubted, that Sounds do move better downwards, than upwards. Pulpits are placed high above the people: And when the Anciens Generals spake to their Armies, they had ever a Mount of Turff cast up, where upon they stood. But this may be imputed to the stops and obstacles which the voice meeteth with, when one speaketh upon the level. Francis Bacon, (Sylva Sylvarum, 1626)

Some of our experiments led to surprising and delightful sonic experiences. The most moving was the result of a chance encounter between Jean Kelly’s gothic bray harp and the refreshing Aldeburgh wind. We had decided to take the 6-inch downpipe outside as Bacon frequently refers to the effects of the open air on sound. Jean brought her harp so we could try passing some ‘musical’ sounds down the pipe. As she held it up we became aware of an enchanting and ever-changing sound coming from the instrument – the result of the wind blowing through the strings. Sometimes it was a glowing, all-encompassing chord, at other times it sounded as if little tiny pixies were plucking the strings. Jon Nicholls, ever-ready with recording equipment, captured these magical sounds. Jon Banks then held the large ‘trunk’ (Bacon’s word for ‘pipe’) against the soundboard of the harp. The drone created by the pipe provided a perfect harmonic backdrop for the extraordinary sounds emanating from the harp. More recordings were made. Later that day we worked this into a piece for harp and electronics.

The wind playing the harp

There is a common observation, That if a Lute or Vial be laid upon the back with a small straw upon one side of the strings, and another Lute or Vial be laid by it; and in the other Lute or Vial the Unison to that string be strucken, it will make the string move; which will appear both to the Eye, and by the straws falling off. The like will be if the Diapason or Eight to that string be strucken, either in the same Lute or vial, or in others lying by: But in none of these there is any report of Sound that can be discerned, but onely Motion. Francis Bacon, (Sylva Sylvarum, 1626)

Here is Alison McGillivray’s demonstration of this observation. Admittedly she is using one instrument, rather than two, but the principle of sympathetic vibration is the same.

These are just a few examples, drawn from a host of experiments in sound which we carried out on the residency. We also recorded the echoes made when throwing our voices against the side of the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, lulled each other to sleep (almost) with ‘a sweet Voice of one that readeth’, made pieces using ‘quarter-notes’, constructed hearing aids from large pieces of paper and many other things. We played pavans, almans, masque dances, songs and dumps and created five new pieces.

We are hugely grateful to Aldeburgh Music for giving us the space, time and support to research and develop Sound House, and to Arts Council England and the Golsoncott Foundation for funding the project.

Perhaps Francis Bacon should have the last word:

We have labored (as may appear) in this Inquisition of Sounds diligently: both because Sound is one of the most hidden portions of Nature, (as we said in the beginning) and because it is a Vertue which may be called Incorporeal and Immateriate, whereof there be in Nature but few…. For we desire that Men should learn and perceive how severe a thing the true Inquisition of Nature is; and should accustom themselves by the light of particulars, to enlarge their mindes to the amplitude of the World; and not to reduce the World to the narrowness of their Mindes. Francis Bacon, (Sylva Sylvarum, 1626)