Improv House: A short SoundArt Film

Note:  Updated version of article. Please watch using headphones or decent speakers.

A street barely illuminated. Slow rumble of traffic in the near distance- cars, bodies, leisure, decadence. A residential fortress menacing above. Escape inside. The floorboards creek. A heavy lift door screeches. Cymbals crash. Murmurs, whispers, then silence. Click record, Edirol R9. Concentration and display. Directionals on the staircase, contacts inside a kickdrum. The Leica lens floats, and pulls to halt. Some figures stomp about ethereally.  Zoom in, focus and pan. Feedback from the strings, movement disorientated now. The plaster crumbling in my hands. Cobwebs on my face. Faintly audible, out of focus, in darkness now, cease recording. Improv House.

Hotspur House, on Gloucester Street in Manchester City Centre, is nestled among a number of distinct districts of the town that prides itself on its urban regenerative success story. It was originally a 19th century cotton mill named Medlock Mill as the river situated around it is the River Medock, it was later taken over by the Percy Brother’s and ran as a printer press for a significant period, exact dates are difficult to come by. As one moves South on Gloucester Street industrial built heritage is finally consumed by its own vainglory, housing Manchester’s great and good in remodelled elegant, sparsely adorned apartments. The strip that runs parallel to this street, Oxford Street, the city’s university district has been given the apt moniker of ‘Kebabylon’ by the writer Dale Lately- an area as much concerned with hedonistic bargain booze student nights and fast food joints staffed by weary migrants as it is with the corporativisation of education and the downsizing of critical thought. The recently opened ‘Home’, Manchester’s new cultural arena on First Street directly behind Hotspur, is the central vein where the cultural capitalist class can mainline the ‘experimental arts’ and overdose on hip institutional collaborative interactive cutting edge conceptualism. For the non-Derrida readers a stiff stroll to the west at Castlefields reveals a world of Revolution Bars, Comedy Clubs, vomit and a garish eye-line of relit Cottonopolis, with the possibility of some low-light cruising on the canal walk sunk below. If that’s not your style it’s only a ten minute walk to Canal Street and Manchester’s own Gay Disneyland. Say what you like about Manchester, but you have to admire its seamless infusion of pretension and grubbiness.

Hotspur House is a retreat from the 21st century gentrified city. It’s currently home to a number of artist studios, small print companies and a radical newspaper. In a small room on the third floor, improv music performances are regularly promoted by Tubers Music Collective, with local, national and international musicians very much operating on the fringes of alternative music performance generating discordant sound in a building that reverberates with a range of acoustic differentiations.  The decaying materiality of the building, its archaic features and fittings, the sudden shifts of sensory stimulus encountered in the movement from space to space, coupled with the strange sonic disturbances emanating from a cramped space on the third floor create a striking and somewhat unsettling experience of a place trapped in time, and desperately attempting to the escape Manchester’s future.

Improv House is a journey of image, a sound travel and a physical/material movement through this charismatic building. The shifts in movement of camera- from static shot to hand-held movement of the body to slow pans and zooms- are all responses to the twisting and coiling materials of the building as they are to shifts and differentiations in the improvisations of the musicians. We encounter service lifts that rumble and grind aggressively, a shock of slowly flickering fluorescent lights, pipes that intertwine and weave intricate patterns, sax and cello roar and scream, the heavy thud of workman’s boots on a circuit of wooden staircases. All around in Improv House there is the sense of life and the absence of the life, the presence of a material life of the building, and the absence of the human from the camera’s eye, but picked up by the microphone’s ear. This short, abstract film becomes a means by which to engage the sensory, uncoded and ethereal qualities of Hotspur House as space and structure. It is a movement through a different social, material and architectural age that leads back ultimately to the coded and gentrified city.

P B 

hotsupr mic

Improv Sound Process

Improv House, a film by Patrick Baxter, explores the space and identity of Hotspur Press. Originally a cotton mill, turned printing press, Hostpur Press is hidden in Manchester’s backstreets not far from the city’s new ‘cultural centre’, Home.

The film explores a dilapidated building home to craftsmen, makers, artists, musicians and of particular interest; the improvisation collective, Tubers Music. Obvious from the films conception, it was as equally important to explore the sonic character and identity of the building, as much its visual presentation. To capture this in detail beyond the limited quality of the camera’s internal microphone, I used several studio omni-directional microphones placed throughout the mill. This allowed me to capture sound from all directions including the reflections off various surfaces; in essence, the building was used as a huge natural reverb chamber.

Recordings of the live Tubers musical performance were played back through a large PA system at high volume into the building’s stairwell. Once a particular playback volume was reached, the walls, ceilings and cavities of the mill seemed to almost ‘sing’ back with the building’s unique acoustic and resonant properties. These natural reflections of sound were then re-captured and recorded by the various microphones. These were placed in lift shafts, stairwells, basements, and behind the remains of a discarded piano. Each individual space, with its own unique reverb qualities, could then be sonically imprinted on the recorded sound. This technique is commonly known as ‘re-amping’ or ‘worldizing’, a term coined by seminal sound designer Walter Murch, when signals are played back through a new medium/space and then re-recorded with the newly added sonic colouration and reverb.

Capturing the mill’s reverberation at several locations simultaneously allowed me to switch between audio perspectives in the mix process or combine several at once. This was used to reinforce or counteract the visual content and cues of the finished film edit. The unexpected advantage of using this technique was that we also captured the presence of others users within the premises as they went about their daily business. The recordings captured movement, snatches of conversations, and the intrigue and surprise of some inhabitants as they come across one of the rogue microphones dotted around the building. The recognition of a microphone interestingly provoked spontaneous vocal performances from some, and glimpses of these improvised singing voices were captured and included in the soundtrack, as part of the buildings specific and unique sonic identity.

This is the first time I have used this technique in such a vast and interesting space and I am pleased with the results. The depth given by the worlidizing creates a much more immersive experience of the space, which would be difficult to capture through visual imagery alone.

Simon Connor

 

A Film by Paddy  Baxter.

Sound Design by Simon Connor. 

Shot in SD at Hotspur House, Manchester. 

Read Dale Lately’s excellent article here:

http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/kebabylon-and-the-urban-night/ 

For more of Simon Connor’s work see: https://simonconnor.wordpress.com/

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