Chambers Sounding a house
Our homes are places of private dwelling, designed and modified to best fit our lifestyles and tastes, with decoration and adornment all deeply personal and unique. The house comprises multiple connected living spaces, each with its own blueprint and musical qualities. It can be viewed as a complex instrument that resounds with the noises of everyday life, its location, the weather it shelters us from and as a collection of resonating chambers, each tuned according to its size, shape and material.

These qualities are explored in the first piece of this series 173 Middle Street, a recorded musical work that is a portrait of a home. The music is composed using the resonant frequencies of rooms and performed throughout the house by a small classical ensemble of flute, cor anglais and cello.
I have attempted to illuminate the house with sound and explore the acoustic effect of its different spaces as the ensemble is placed within it. 173 Middle Street is an exploration of ‘aural architecture’; defined simply as the ‘phenomenology of aural space’.

As listeners, we cannot separate a sound event from the acoustics of the space in which we hear it and each is rich with social, cultural and personal reference. Aural architecture assists vision helping us to navigate a space and affects our aesthetic sense of place. In our everyday lives we are all aural architects in simple decision making such as choosing a table at a restaurant or more broadly when we consider our ideal place to live and how we might arrange furnishings in that home. The aural embellishments that we position in our homes such as water fountains, bird cages or chiming clocks are the sonic equivalents of decorative ornaments, candles and lamps (Blesser & Salter, 2007). They give a house personality and in the home contribute to its aesthetic as a symbol of oneself.

173 Middle Street is a four storey Georgian townhouse in Deal, Kent and has been recently restored, with walls and ceilings stripped back to their original plaster and wooden panelling. With the exception of a modern fitted kitchen, bathrooms and appliances, the house is much the same acoustically now as when it built in the 18th Century.

The current owners have researched previous occupants of the house dating back to 1794. They worked as a carpenter and glazier, a grocer and tea dealer, hatter, auctioneer and lifeboat coxswain. There are tales of smugglers tunnels running beneath neighbouring properties and a ghost sighting or two on the first floor landing. The previous owner was a hoarder of fishing tackle and archeological finds with rooms were piled high with his collections. Today, the interior is stylish and minimal: bare original wood and aged plaster is paired with boldly patterned furniture and colourful antique trinkets.

With the microphone stationary in the entrance hallway, I present the ensemble playing in each room of the house in turn: first the hallway, then the ground floor study to our left, the living room at the back of the house, back towards the door and up the stairs to the landing, first floor work room, up again to the bedroom and bathroom at the very of the building. Although the microphone cannot convey height, we perceive this in the gradual decline of volume.

Beginning at 2’ the ensemble is heard playing in the ground floor living room, down the hallway and around the corner from the microphone position. As the flautist moves though the room we hear her flutter-tongued notes flitting around the stereo image as they reflect from multiple surfaces. By 5’ we hear the ensemble playing the front room on the first floor, and the pauses between chords are punctuated by exterior sounds as a family walking past comments on the house and a car drives by.

At 7’48” the click of a computer mouse close by has the effect of refreshing the aural perspective, the ensemble are far away. It is the first of many ‘aural embellishments’ that serve as traces of modern life to be heard. The ensemble swells in volume from inside the bathroom on the second floor, by opening and closing the door. Jane Dickins returns home at 10’20”, we hear the key turn in the lock, the zip of her coat and the rustling of plastic bags she walks down the stairs to the basement level.

At this point, the microphone is moved to the kitchen in the basement and picks up the wind rushing violently through the back door. In the final section of the piece, the ensemble are scattered: cello in the kitchen, flute in the dining room adjacent and cor anglais heard through the floorboards playing from the living room above. The kitchen tap becomes a fourth member of the ensemble, with greater proximity to the microphone it ‘masks’ the instrumentalists.