Susan Stenger – Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland

Sounds Strata - installation

Sound artist Susan Stenger’s 2015 Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland is a land music piece inspired by a 12.5 m long geological cross-section from Tyne to Tweed. Drawn in 1838 by local mining engineer Nicholas Wood, the coloured geological strata inspired Stenger to compose a sound piece presented in three main forms: a CD and book; multi-channelled sound installation; and live concerts.

davDetail of Stenger’s score and notes for the section from Craster to Dunstanburgh.

Central to the composition is layering of the music with long, deep drones representing the bedrock, changing pitch and timbres reflecting the changing sub-strata along the coastline as we pass from coal measures in the south, through the basalt headland of Dunstanburgh and north to the Old Red Sandstone. A geological fault is sounded by a sudden pouring of coal and a timp roll. Sense of place is anchored by site-specific folk tunes layered above underland drones: an early tune is The Keel Row about boatmen on the Tyne; we hear the Blackleg Miner (a brutal song about scabs); border pipes appear as we approach the Tweed. Elsewhere we have dancers beating the surface of the earth, for example folk dancers recorded at the Cumberland Arms in Newcastle.
Sound Strata - watch towerDetail of Wood’s geological section at the Lookout Tower installation at Holy Island (2015)

At the Holy Island concert (September 2015), Stenger spoke of linking music and geology through layers of history, culture and memory. Holy Island was chosen as a site of pilgrimage and meditation, providing a sense of crossing over, both in the literal sense of crossing the water at low tide but also in crossing over to death and a spiritual renewal. Folk musicians were united from Northumberland and the USA (Stenger is American), and Stenger spoke of migration of people and music adding additional strata to her work.

Sound Strata - EnsembleHoly Island concert: Susan Stenger on the right

One strength of Stenger’s composition is grounding traditional folk music in a modern drone music context. Indeed, the deep vocal chants accompanying the basalt coastline are by Attila Csihar, a collaborator with drone metal pioneers SunnO))) – so here we have a musicological cross-over from traditional folk to contemporary minimalism. Drone in land music sounds deep time. West across the Pennines, in the Scottish borders, Richard Skelton’s land music explores landscape and history through drone, for example his recent Last Glacial Maximum album. In Robert Macfarlane’s essay Bedrocked, included in the Sound Strata book, he writes that “Encountering Stenger’s drones for the first time is a challenge” but the drones are essential for sounding deep time. Macfarlane observes that “…sound is layered to the extent that it acquires its own sedimentary geology: rock music of a new kind”. And to my ears it is lovely to hear folk revitalised from traditional cliché.

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