Neil Mudd chats to field recordist Jez riley French about capturing the ‘music’ of the Humber Bridge for ‘Height of the Reeds’, his Hull UK City of Culture 2017 collaboration with Opera North
‘Noises must become music,’ wrote Robert Bresson in Notes on Cinematography, with a characteristic exactness that might just as readily be used to describe the work of artist Jez riley French – a pioneer in field recording and creative sound.
Presented with a tape recorder at a young age by his mother, French has spent his life listening to noise in all its myriad forms, either with his ears or through the high-specification microphones he designs himself. Alongside Chris Watson, French is an important figure in British field recording. He lectures and runs workshops about it around the world. He has curated numerous performances, installations and exhibitions, with works and performances for Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, The Whitworth and others. He runs the label engraved glass, a music imprint through which he releases limited editions of his own composition work and those of like-minded spirits; he publishes an e-zine verdure engraved to showcase other artists’ work; and he creates photographic scores for an occasional series of collaborations with his daughter, the artist, Phoebe riley Law.
But it is his field recordings – particularly of the resonance of surfaces and structures, as characterized by his recent aural explorations – that has made French the go-to guy if you want to know what a glacier being heated by the sea sounds like. ‘I record moments – that’s what I always say. It’s very rare that I press record. It’s like a compositional thing. It’s almost like choosing the right note in a composition. I just feel that that’s the right time to press record.’
For the past few months, French has been assiduously capturing the ‘music’ of the Humber Bridge for Height of the Reeds, an ambitious major new installation by Opera North for Hull UK City of Culture 2017, which runs throughout April at the iconic East Yorkshire landmark. Despite his international profile French is a confessed ‘home bird,’ remaining loyal to his East Coast roots. He lives close by the Humber Bridge, making him a natural fit for the project. ‘If I’m known for anything, I do work a lot with buildings and structures vibrating and resonating,’ he says. ‘There are not that many people in the phonebook who do that,’ he adds, with a touch of self-deprecation.
Height of the Reeds includes a musical score composed and performed by jazz trumpet player Arve Henriksen, electronic musician Jan Bang and guitarist Eivind Aarset, with the Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North. Billed as ‘an adventure in sound’, the audio piece layers together the musicians’ playing with choral and orchestral elements, poetry and spoken word, personal testimonies and archival samples; French’s field recordings add contextual auditory brushstrokes. Height of the Reeds is specifically sound-engineered to be heard through headphones during a walk across the Humber Bridge itself, the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world traversable on foot.
‘There are certain aspects to it that are still being ironed out, but the basic thing is that it’s a headphone piece – you walk along the bridge with headphones on and there are sensors along the way which trigger certain sounds, certain sections of the work,’ says French. ‘Depending on how fast you walk, and how long you want to stay stood watching a certain spot, then the piece will change.’ On the return journey across the bridge, visitors will experience a continuous composition of the field recordings French produced for the project, including some of the hidden sounds of the bridge and its surrounding habitat. ‘There’s a recording of some water beetles from one of the ponds from the reed beds,’ says French, ‘the sound of the curved railings resonating & being played, tuned as they appear to be.’
This is the first time the musicians and French have collaborated together, though they have been aware of one another’s work for many years. ‘It’s been very open. They didn’t dictate,’ French says. ‘They knew I kind of know what I’m doing when it comes to field recording and structures, so they just let me get on with it. I delivered to them recordings that I thought were the most interesting from the bridge and its locale. It’s been an organic kind of process really. It’s developed quite naturally. Everyone has a really strong respect for each other’s practice, so it’s been really positive.’
French likes to work intuitively and spontaneously, preferring to use a relatively small and portable set up. For the Humber Bridge commission he mainly recorded using his own contact microphones, some geophones for low frequency infrasonic noise, a more conventional Sanken stereo microphone and small DPA omni microphones which he describes as among his favourites. ’I was interested in doing some ambisonic (full sphere) recording on the bridge and surroundings, but because of the nature of the piece being a headphone piece, there wasn’t much point in doing that.’ A hydrophone (for capturing soundwaves underwater) yielded some startling results: ‘There’s a recording of a piece of the Humber Bridge dissolving,’ he laughs. ‘I didn’t remove it, so there was a big gap in the bridge. It was a piece that had fallen off some years ago and was in one of the yards.’
For someone who describes himself, in interviews, as a private person who happens to do a lot of very public things, the next few months look set to raise French’s visibility around his native Hull. As Height of the Reeds approaches its conclusion towards the end of April, French will unveil a newly created installation as part of the John Grant curated North Atlantic Flux festival. Utilising sounds he recorded in Iceland on a recent working visit, French advises visitors to his website to ‘expect to hear the sound of the world turning.’
Height of the Reeds – A Sound Journey for the Humber Bridge by Opera North runs 1 – 30 April 2017 as part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017. At time of writing, all tickets for this event have sold out.
John Grant’s North Atlantic Flux Festival runs from Friday 28th April to Monday 1st May 2017. For more information and tickets click here.