The tall figures standing solemnly in the centre of this church are not a group of black-robed prelates: they are the mounted playback speakers for Matt Stokes’ new eight-channel forty-six minute sonic work Gogmagog, commissioned as part of ‘Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience’ (see Corridor8’s reviews of other exhibitions in this series).
Part sound installation, part community engagement project, the composition was developed in collaboration with local choirs, instrumentalists, sound engineers, bell-ringing experts and archivists. Mixed with voices that sing a social history of East Sunderland, it reinterprets an epic three-hour ‘peal’ from the 18th Century that was once performed on the church’s own bells.
Stokes, a past winner of the Beck’s Futures prize, often works by immersing himself in music-based sub-communities, researching what their highly particular passions reveal about shared values and belonging, and transforming the results into unusual films or collaborative events. Homage is combined with a gentle conceptual stretching.
Amid this summer’s ‘Tall Ships’ hoopla and the annual air show, Holy Trinity has sat quietly above the docklands as a reminder of a bigger history of ‘Old Town’ Sunderland. Now an empty listed building and scheduled for Lottery-funded structural rescue, the church has not only been a place of worship but at times has served as a library, council chamber, tax office and fire station.
The original ‘Bob Triples’ peal for eight bells from which Gogmagog was developed, described as a ‘feat of endurance and concentration’, was composed by change-ringing pioneer Benjamin Annable in the mid 1700s. Its structure is known from his surviving score, a codified notation of elaborate mathematical sequences that could easily evoke some computerised digital artwork from today.
The key creative collaborators with Stokes were composer/arrangers Marty Longstaff and Jordan Miller, but the credits include an array of musicians and groups including several choirs, players of a kazoos and a hurdy-gurdy, orchestral instrumentalists and expert handbell ringers. Sections of the piece treat different periods of the history of the place and its people, whose descendants are among the players. Pride and a sense of energised solidarity beamed from their faces on the opening night.
To experience the work, promenading in a safety helmet around the scaffolded nave, is atmospheric to say the least, and best done with ample time. Sensitive aural textures fold and unfold, anchored by the unifying bells – whose chime tones and intervals are mimicked in the vocals. The effect is haunting, moving and appropriate.
If we doubt the ability of local communities to recognise their ‘ordinary’ heritage and articulate it imaginatively in present-day cultural contexts, this project should be a source of hope. It shows also what a crucial role can be played by contemporary artists, seeing how parallel stories layer through each other, and nudging everyone a little beyond their normal comfort zones to produce something of new value. And although its form may change down the ages, the power of music to help bind this together remains a constant wonder.
Gogmagog – The Voices of the Bells is on until 23 September; Saturdays & Sundays, noon – 4pm. Free admission.
To learn more about the Holy Trinity Church visit their website.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.