Strange noises in a city

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Continuing my explorations of music outdoors for BOOM, I recently went to Manchester International Festival for the first time. I was mainly there to check out Music for a Busy City, a set of site-specific commissions from 6 composers for spaces people pass through every day. Each composer had chosen a location in the city centre and composed a 10 minute piece inspired by that location, which was played back through speakers in the location once an hour.

On first impressions this seemed like a simple and relatively straightforward idea to put festival content into public spaces and surprise people. I only managed to see five of the six, but my favourites were by Anna Meredith, Matthew Herbert and Huang Ruo. Meredith wrote ‘A Chorale for Lifts’, which beautifully accompanied the shopping centre lifts silently moving up and down. It was hard not to imagine they were in a slow dance and that the music was perfectly co-ordinated, even though I knew shoppers were calling the lifts at random. I also liked the occasional punctuation of a distant voice saying ‘doors closing’. It was pleasantly surreal to have walked through the beachwear section of M&S immediately before hearing such great music.


Matthew Herbert wrote ‘the machines our buildings used to hear’ which was located by the escalators in the renovated Great Northern Warehouse (now a cinema and entertainment complex). It was one of the least enticing locations, grey walls with little natural light, but the industrial noises and big beats in his music were well matched to the sight of the metal escalators perpetually rolling in front of us. Especially as the escalators had glass sides so you could see the machines’ industrial innards.


Huang Ruo’s piece was totally different. Written for a part of Manchester Town Hall which is normally closed to the public, it takes listeners on a journey along a corridor which is a triangular loop. Walking along one side of the triangle you hear a cello, and walking along the other side you hear a Sheng (a Chinese wind instrument). As you near the apex of the triangle, the sound of the opposing side is merged in, creating a fusion of East and West and also incorporating the sound of Manchester’s symbolic worker bees. I loved that this piece takes the listener on a journey literally and figuratively and that their experience of it is self-determined: would you start on the Eastern or Western side? Would you try and complete a full circuit in the 6 minutes, or linger but only hear one side? The speakers were so well concealed in the beautiful, neo-gothic interior that it took me some time to work out where the sound was coming from. It was a reverberant space that really enhanced the sound of the cello and the bees.


Public spaces have their challenges: one location was next to a busking spot, but fortunately the buskers had been primed to stop playing whenever the music started. In Manchester Town Hall their events team were de-rigging a conference and the sound of rattling metal trolleys being wheeled across tiles meant I completely missed the final 30 seconds. But you could argue this is all part of the fun! And there was nothing to stop me going back an hour later to hear a different version with other sounds of the city.

In the course of exploring the pieces I got chatting to local people and tourists, some of whom had stumbled across them and some who had set out to see them. It really brought people together as we stood waiting around the green spot marking each location wondering what was about to happen. There were a handful who stopped for a look and then wandered off, but I was impressed that at least 3 people were there to listen to each one in the middle of a Thursday afternoon.

I would imagine MIF spent quite a bit on the six commission fees, musician fees and recording costs for the non-electronic pieces, the hire of six sets of speakers for two weeks, and the branded banners and floor stickers. But it would definitely be feasible to do something like this on a smaller scale.

So that’s one way to put music into the city, but I’ve also been doing a bit of research and reading about when you make music out of the sounds of the city. More on that soon.

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