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Mark Fell seeks sounds of the North for Protomusic#1

The Sheffield musician aims to fill Gateshead’s Sage with an orchestra of found noises

Mark Fell has launched a new project for Sage Gateshead based on the “real world sounds of the North”, with a call for audio contributors to get involved. Called Protomusic#1, it forms part of the Great Exhibition Of The North, a summer-long celebration of the culture and history of the region. The invitation is extended on his website: “We made an app to help people do this,” it explains. “Please record some sound, up to one minute, from your environment – factories, cars, boats, animals, streets, etc etc... anything that catches your attention.”

Fell takes up the story, adding via email: “I guess for me I’m most intrigued by the industrial centres in terms of where sounds might come from. Growing up on the outskirts of Sheffield the heavy factories were a few kilometres from my childhood home, and I remember staying up all night listening to the sounds in the distance… my mum as a young woman had her first job in a weaving factory, so I grew up hearing stories about the sounds in the factory. So I guess that’s my personal focus. But it’s really amazing to hear how people have responded to this so far.”

He has already received more than a hundred responses, ranging from “weird environmental drones” to “recordings of buses with lots of interacting voices”.

The intention is to take all of these recordings and work them into an orchestral project for the concert hall, “activating Sage Gateshead’s interior spaces” with an instrumental score based on the sounds. Fell has enlisted technology to help fulfil this formidable task. “The basic process is we select the sounds and look at how to rebuild the sound from instrumental layers,” he explains. “Ircam (who are supporting the project) have given us access to their software libraries including Orchids… this does an analysis of the sound and then suggests various scores that can be played. there are also similar processes in Max/MSP to track partials etc.”

There's inevitably a certain amount of invention involved. “We are also using our ears and doing things manually,” adds Fell, “for example, the drone of a bus made out of lots of tubas.”

The ambition of the piece extends to its title. Protomusic, Fell explains in his project’s proposal, “refers to hypothetical sonic practices that predate the emergence of language and music in the development of human culture… I am taking this as my starting point: how the sonic, rather than visual, is at the heart of who we are; how sound underpins our relationship to the environment and one another.”

There’s a more basic aim of the project, concludes Fell: “To get people to listen to their environments.”

Protomusic#1 will be aired from 22 June–9 September at Sage Gateshead. You can find more information, also about how to get involved, at Fell's website.