Curating Sound Performance – Nottingham Park Tunnel, Thursday December 12
Completed in May 1855, under the supervision of architect Thomas Chambers Hine, the Park Tunnel instantly became something of a white elephant. Although it had been planned as a main carriageway from Derby Road into the Park Estate, more convenient routes had already been constructed, and the expected traffic never materialised. Even to this day, it remains an obscurity, its street-side entrance obscured by apartment blocks and a car park.
However, as Nottingham Contemporary successfully demonstrated on a cold, drizzly December evening, this vast sandstone hollow has much to offer as a unique performance space. Illuminated after dark, for those few pedestrians who know of its existence, and with a naturally resonant acoustic, the tunnel turns out to be tailor-made for live music.
Around a hundred gathered for the free show. Folding chairs were provided, and a mulled wine and mince pie stall did brisk business. A health and safety announcement was made, but the designated fire exits couldn’t have been more self-evident. Hello, it’s a tunnel.
The bill began with Plain, shift, plane: the first of three improvised pieces, all conceived as specific responses to the tunnel space. Described as presenting “constellations of selected sets of pitch clusters”, it took the form of a dialogue between Rebecca Lee’s flute and Jack Harris’s sine tones, with the tunnel itself cast as the mediating third party.
Lee sounded each call, with a series of long, sustained flute tones; Harris would then provide a response, mirroring the natural sine waves of the flute with an electronic counterpart. Sometimes the tones were equally pitched, fusing into one as the instruments changed over, leaving Lee to complete each cycle. At other times, Lee would go much higher or much lower, extending the sonic range.
Stripped of melody and rhythm, the tones swayed in the air, shimmering and reverberating against the sandstone, and cutting themselves loose from any discernible sense of place. During certain passages, the sound felt all-enveloping, as if beamed from inside the listener’s head. At quieter moments, the steady, distant rumble of Derby Road traffic blended subtly into the mix.
A lone pedestrian stepped softly through the tunnel, past the performers and up to the street. Instead of breaking the spell, his footsteps somehow augmented the experience, nudging us into a fuller appreciation of the space.
“Before I begin, I just want to…”
Hunched over his smartphone, a loudspeaker strapped to his back, Phillip Henderson wandered off from us, inaudibly muttering his way up the tunnel’s incline. At the top, he turned around – “Sorry, sorry” – and commenced his return journey. Was this bumbling ineptitude, or an integral part of Maximal Cluster, his ten-minute performance piece? Almost certainly, it was the latter.
As Henderson paced the full length of the crypt-like space – down and up, then down again and up again, briefly conversing with the clipboard-and-programmes attendant at the bottom, but mostly resembling a pre-occupied academic checking his emails – the “Ion Block Rocker Bluetooth” on his back amplified the sounds generated by his constant smartphone key-taps.
These sounds – booming sub-bass rumbles for the most part, topped with high-pitched shrieks – filled the tunnel from top to bottom, no matter where Henderson happened to be at the time. As he stepped directly past you, they would briefly come into sharper focus, before dissolving back into infinite loops of echo. It was all too much for the pigeons at the top end, who surrendered their perches en masse.
Back in the centre, the performer casually scraped his shoe across the gravel a few times, signalling the end of the recital. His demeanour was deceptive. This had been a carefully researched exploration of the site’s sonic capabilities, where the tunnel became “not just an arena for sound art, but the instrument that we all get into”, and the performance became “a perfect opportunity to bring out the infinite maximal colours from inside the earth”.
No stranger to the process of exploring “the extreme acoustics of very resonant spaces”, John Butcher presented a two-part improvisation for tenor and soprano saxophone, intended to generate “an encounter between a musician and a place that gives a fighting chance to drawing something new from both of them”.
Arguably the most challenging, but ultimately the most rewarding performance of the night, The Geometry of Sentiment stalked the outer reaches of free jazz improv, as Butcher conjured a constantly shape-shifting, endlessly unpredictable riot of sound from his instruments, with a bracing disregard for conventional modes of playing.
Primitive and evolved in equal measure, Butcher’s playing pitched the unfettered explorations of a child against the studied technique of a pro, with startling results: sucking, wheezing, rasping, yelping and bellowing, sometimes tapping his reed against his tongue, sometimes bursting into glorious melodic flurries that could have been sourced from Gershwin, before instantly subverting them, like a crazed scratch DJ.
As if in solidarity with the pigeons, one listener made a mid-set exit. Turning towards the departing figure, Butcher’s sax fell into puttering, satirical step with the footfalls. The audience giggled, gently. Their concluding applause was hearty, warm and sustained.
Fifteen minutes later, reaching for my keys on a quiet road, I became newly fascinated by their jangle. Pausing at the front door, I jiggled them in my palm, savouring the rhythms they created. Evidently, the spell had yet to be fully broken. Perhaps other artists will soon find equally innovative ways of tapping into the Park Tunnel’s power, and expanding a few more perceptions in the process.