FEATURE: Chris Littlewood – My Inspiration | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Lecturer, DJ, sound engineer and music producer Chris Littlewood draws on his wealth of experience in sound design, recording and live music to bring new show Urban Responses to St John The Baptist Church, Newcastle on Friday 25th and Saturday 26th January. With the special one-off even using church bells alongside other instruments and microphones to create a unique sound in a unique space, and interpreting the sounds of the city below in a special way. Here, Chris talks inspiration…

I’m particularly interested in the hidden sounds that aren’t really audible to us most of the time, things like the organic resonances created in materials from various subtle movements to more man-made electromagnetic and radio interference signals that surround us all the time, that we don’t really notice apart from maybe that clicking we sometimes hear when your phone is near a speaker getting a text! Discovering and experimenting with technology that allows the capture of these sounds is a real focus for the projects I’m involved in. So a large inspiration for this project and most of my work comes from the technology I’ve been using, in many ways.

I came across an sound artist called Cathy van Eck a couple of years ago doing a talk on her sound projects and installations. A lot of her work is based around different forms of feedback, and for some of these projects she was using contact microphones to help capture object resonances. This really caught my attention and I started looking a bit more into these, what they were and how I might be able to use them myself in creative ways. I’d come across them through more traditional recording techniques in the studio, but mainly looked at them as lo-fi pickups for acoustic guitars, and always opted for using normal mics in those situations, so overlooked them to be honest.

Contact mics create a signal from an object vibrating, rather than the air vibrating and I find this makes the sound feel a lot more instant and almost inside your head which is what really started to inspire where I wanted to investigate sound more, in an attempt to create  a sort of hyperrealism from capturing familiar sounds in this way.

I’ve always had a DIY attitude, and wanting to experiment with using these mics in ice and other places where they might get hit, I didn’t really want to be spending a lot on them, so I’ve been making them myself since then. I love dealing with a tech challenge and I’m most comfortable approaching these using hardware solutions rather than computers. This approach can create some different restrictions, but more often it helps to develop the work. This is an important part of what I do and really helps to mould the ideas and concepts – it feels like a nice synergy.

With this particular installation, the idea of capturing the natural resonance of such tonally amazing musical instruments was something that really grabbed me, and feeling happy with the results I was getting with my contact mics, I thought this might provide a great opportunity for a live installation. I was lucky enough to get access to the bell tower at St John the Baptist Church in the city centre, so I could do some experiments and try to record some sounds. The bells all have their own tone and character and all have their own individual history, some as old as 300 years, and some possibly older. Giving people the chance to listen to their combined history, permanently resonating through them is a huge inspiration in creating this work.

Another massive influence is a book by Georges Perec, called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. It documents the everyday activities, as witnessed by the author, over a few days in a square in Paris. This created a really vivid picture for me of what that place was like over that period in time and this has really inspired me to look at documenting a place’s soundscape in a way that can hopefully create an equally vivid picture for people listening. I think this is something a lot of field recordists are trying to do through their work and I thought working along these lines could provide some interesting results and work well for this installation. At this very low level of sound pickup the bells are able to capture and translate sounds heard in the city adding their own character. So the final aspect of the installation comes from the city itself, the way it moves and the way people move it, constantly in flux. Every place is unique, each providing different points of aural interest, so being able to debut a work that captures the sonic essence of the city centre of my home town is particularly inspirational.

Urban Responses is at St John The Baptist Church, Newcastle on Friday 25th and Saturday 26th January.

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