Presentations at Sound+Environment

Last week, I gave a paper at the excellent Sound+Environment conference in Hull. The paper – which was co-authored by Amanda Crawley Jackson – focused on the Foundry project in which 7 composers created works relating to Furnace Park in Sheffield. I later performed my piece – Foundry Flux – in the evening concert. Here is the abstract:

Composing the Plastic City: a reflection on methods, motivations and meanings

In 2015, plastiCities – a network of artists, writers, researchers and academics with an interest in space and spatialities in art – commissioned a series of musical compositions based on a small patch of land on the edge of Sheffield. The patch of land, still home to one of the world’s oldest cementation furnaces, was once situated at the heart of the industrial city centre where it was engaged in the production of blister steel. Following the national decline of this industry, the land lay forgotten and derelict until a recent rediscovery, or re-imagination, of the space produced Furnace Park – a community park that invites reflection upon the changing nature of the city through the act of artistic engagement and activity.

plastiCities launched the commissions as part of their wider artistic agenda: “We believe that voices from the arts have a critical role to play in the ways in which our cities are designed, produced, distributed and lived. We do not treat the city as an object to be represented, but as a more-than representational plastic object, in the sculpting of which we all have a democratic right to intervene.” (plastiCities 2015 p.5). In this context, sound appears to be a perfect medium, particularly when plasticity may be enacted through the combined processes of recording, transforming and composing, as are often found in forms of sound art and electronic music. Despite this, the result of these processes were not intended to embellish the city with yet more public art, and nor were they intended to illuminate ways in which the city’s soundscape might be redressed. Instead, through the process of reflection, creation and engagement, the act of ‘doing’ was intended to encourage individuals to think of the city as artwork in and of itself.

This paper considers the various commissions in light of this project. It starts by elaborating the commission objectives, setting these alongside the aims of plastiCities. It goes on to address the act of composing in this context, paying particular attention to the one of the author’s works Foundry Flux (2015), particularly in terms of the compositional methods and the resulting form of the piece. It finishes by assessing the whole project alongside the stated aims; whilst the process of artistic engagement did (at least in some cases) necessitate (re)engagement with the city, this was often highly personalised and frequently opaque. The aims of the project, however, remain substantive and this paper concludes with a call for a great engagement with the city as a plastic work of art.