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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

16 September 2013

Ships' Opera at the Thames Festival

ONE OF THE measures of a successful artist these days is how good they are at logistics. This reflects a shift in emphasis from making beautiful objects to delivering clever or impressive projects.

Stop squeezing that tube of Payne’s Grey for a moment and wonder how you’d go about assembling a small flotilla of tugboats and lightships, then have them steam all the way from the mouth of the Thames estuary up to the Pool of London. When they arrive, they perform a 40-odd minute musical composition using their horns, bells and hooters.

Just in case a few trogolodytes still don’t notice there’s something unusual going on, you’ve arranged for HMS Belfast to fire blank rounds from its forward gun turret.

This was the spectacle laid on last Saturday as part of the Thames Festival. The performance was titled 1513: A Ships’ Opera and you can read more about it here. I recorded most of the show from the Thames path with a pair of Shure WL-183 mics stuck on my head and the results turned out okay. Here is an an eight-minute section:


I’m not entirely sure if that’s the best eight minutes or not but it is fairly representative. At times there seemed to be a faint similarity to some piece or other by the composer Jonathan Harvey, but mostly it was like a pastiche of the kind of serialist music which has never achieved popularity.

Not everyone’s attention was held for long and the majority of spectators stood still and listened for between five and ten minutes before getting itchy feet and drifting off. Play them something they know!

But others lapped it up. An American next to me cried out in delight This is crazy! while his son attended to his smartphone.

Like anyone frustrated by life, I claim the right to imagine a better alternative if only I ran things. For starters, the ships would have played recognisable tunes but badly in a deliberate way, like how the comedian Les Dawson used to play the piano:


The Ships’ Opera was good fun though. What lingered in the mind was a sense of grandeur from all the loud sounds echolocating the layout of the surrounding city.

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