This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) in September 2016.
Imagine if the walls had ears. Imagine if the walls could sing. A new construction on Edinburgh’s skyline explores those ideas, and much besides.
Housed within the new landmark tower at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, Concrete Antenna is an interactive sound installation from local art / pop conceptualists Simon Kirby and Tommy Perman and alt-folk topographer Rob St John.
Their previous collaborative work includes an emotional robot band (Perman and Kirby’s #Unravel, with FOUND and Aidan Moffat), and a sonic cartography of Edinburgh’s waterways (St John and Perman’s Water of Life), and Concrete Antenna shares characteristics with both.
Its site-specific, interactive, variable sound art draws from, and responds to, landscape, nature and the elements, thanks to a cache of local field recordings and samples, played out through four vertical speakers – from church bells to foghorns; from voices to fork-lift trucks.
Rising 28 metres into the Newhaven sky, the structure features a large rectangular opening that funnels sound – and weather, of course – down to the ground, and out the open doorway. It’s industrial and organic, solid and abstract, receptive and transmissive. The tower serves as landscape, monument, canvas, environment, instrument, muse and lead character. It’s even getting its own album.
Kirby laughs. “I’m glad you said that. I do think the tower has got this personality – it has this weight to it, by being so dramatic, standing up there in the skyline. It’s like part of the team,” he says. “When we were working on the installation, sometimes we thought of it as a periscope, projecting outwards, and other times we thought of it as an antenna, picking up sound. It feels like a place where sound comes together, along with memories and associations of the area. And that’s what we wanted to capture with this – we wanted to bring together sound and memory and place.”
St John agrees that the tower exerted a certain creative control over their work. “When I first saw the plans, what stuck out to me was that it was a receiver, it was in the landscape, it didn’t seem to have a purpose – buildings like that just don’t get built,” he says. “But it was quite uncanny – it was like we knew what we needed to do with the installation, without any prompting from The Sculpture Workshop – the space itself, the architecture, kind of told us what to do.”
For all of its physical signposts and industrial sound references – bygone blacksmiths, gas works, construction sites, railways – Concrete Antenna is equally concerned with space and imagination. It’s in the installation’s gorgeous minimalist compositions, and it’s at the very heart of the way that Perman, Kirby and St John conceived the installation: they created it almost entirely from memory.
“When we first visited the tower last year, it wasn’t finished, and we were only there for five minutes,” Perman recalls. “I think it was another six months before we got back in again. So a lot of the installation was written from our memory, or imagination, of the space.”
Much is left to our imagination within the tower, too: its structure raises questions about what is there and what is not (and what has gone before). In an accompanying essay, Perman notes: “At first glance it has no obvious purpose – you can walk inside but cannot climb up to see what must be an incredible view of Edinburgh from the top.”
For Kirby, this is key to the building’s strange allure. “When you walk in, you can’t help but look up,” he says. “It’s like a magnet. It pulls your head up, and you see that space above. We haven’t been up there, so I’ve no idea what the view is, and in a way that’s nice. It leaves the space for the imagination.”
It’s a welcoming space, too – uncanny, but never alienating. “The installation’s interactive,” Kirby explains. “It detects people approaching – as you approach the doorway you’ll hear a voice – and the idea is that it pulls you in. As you cross the threshold, music starts up very high in the tower, and a sound-scape kind of falls down on you. So it’s got – I hope – this sense of being there for people to discover, by walking in, rather than it just sitting there, doing its thing, not caring about people.”
The tower’s apparent compassion has paid off. Perman, Kirby and St John became so fond of its physical and psychic charms that they decided to immortalise the structure on celluloid. “There was no intention for an album, but when I was mixing the sound for the installation, I got to know the music we’d composed really intimately,” Perman recalls. “I just thought, ‘I love this. It should live on beyond the installation.’”
Kirby nods. “We had to release this as a record, because we fell in love with the project, and with the site. But we thought we’d at least have to doff our caps to a thread that runs through all our work – the idea of not having a definitive version of recorded music,” he says. “So we put a tide table into the package. One side is labelled ‘Tide Out’ and the other side is labelled ‘Tide In’, and the instruction is to look at the tide table and then play the relevant side. By doing so, we’re taking a little bit of control away from you, and also it means you’ll be playing a particular side while the tower installation’s playing the same version. So what you’re doing in your living room is tying you to this tower out in Newhaven; connecting you with anyone that might be in there at that time.”
St John revelled in giving the building, and local environment, creative jurisdiction. “You’re taking composition away from yourself in the best possible way,” he says. “The only non field recording or archive sound is the piano. Everything else is sampled or sourced from sounds in the local area,” he says. “It takes a long time, but you find that from across all these disparate sources – foghorns and ships whistles and YouTube clips and steam engines – you start finding chords and resonances. Everything becomes in tune.”
It’s a beautiful tune at that, from an unlikely star – a brown clay brick and concrete tower, brightening our northern sky.
Concrete Antenna runs Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm, at the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. A 12” LP box set with art prints, essays and tide tables is available via Random Spectacular.
Rob St John and Tommy Perman on Water of Life (The Herald, November 2013)