The boundaries with which we divide and sub-divide the places in which we live tend to emerge over time, through the confluence of a huge number of factors — from the shape of the land and its transformations by agriculture and industry, to imperial, political, and economic aspirations, bureaucratic oddities, and cartographical errors. As the weight of centuries accumulates, such territorial claims appear more and more contingent and circumstantial, rather than offering up any specific, easily readable meaning. Despite this process, however, we might say that at any one time a place is held together in the collective imagination by a centre of gravity consisting of particular histories, memories, meanings, and practices, as well as specific sights, smells, tastes, and sounds. Trying to locate and map the different centres of gravity that make up Birmingham, Beorma’s city, is the aim of the for-Wards project initiated by composer Bobbie-Jane Gardner.
Gardner chose to structure her map of Birmingham according to the forty electoral wards used to administrate local democracy in the city. For an initial pilot project, just three wards were selected: Sparkbrook, Aston, and South Yardley. Local people were asked to share the sounds they knew from around their area, and to describe in words the character of their neighbourhood and how they felt about it. These sounds and impressions were recorded, forming the starting points for the three new compositions by Gardner, Kirsty Devaney, and Sebastiano Dessanay. These works were then performed in each area’s local library, and also at the central Library of Birmingham.
Surveying the sonic skyline marked out by Devaney’s use of block chords, it was easy to hear echoes of Newtown’s original appearance, dominated by sixteen tower blocks. Dessanay’s piece, on the other hand, gave a strong impression of the diversity of cultures and traditions that make up Small Heath as it free-wheeled between different styles and tempi, offering a sense of celebration and fun in contrast to Devaney’s reflections on a time lost. Gardner wound her instrumental parts tightly round the field recordings she had chosen, building a multi-layered and sometimes cacophonous piece. The five musicians (Anton Butler-Clarke on clarinets, James Douglas on cello, Chris Mapp on bass and samples, Percy Pursglove on trumpet, and David Westcombe on flutes) coped admirably with the challenges of these three different works.
It was clear from the music produced that the entire project was grounded in and borne out of listening, from the seeking of input from the residents of the three localities, through the attention paid to the sounds of each area in the act of field recording, to the way the composers and musicians worked together to realise the final performances. At times, even the music itself seemed to stop and listen: this was most evident in passages with long, held chords or frequent pauses, time and metre straining for an outside cue.
While each piece carried the signature of its composer’s own style, each had a unique porosity that allowed wider perspectives to soak through into the sounds. Maybe this merely makes explicit what is inherent in all kinds of music — no one composes without having listened first. for-Wards’ clear acknowledgement of this fact perhaps points the way to a more open and communal form of experiencing and responding to the sounds and silences that give our lives their unique acoustic character. There are thirty-seven more wards, and infinitely more heres and elsewheres, in which to test this theory; I look forward to hearing the results.
Photo by Candice Smith