The Keeling Curve: The Liberties of Ripon
Blue Sky Idea
Why we have chosen Ripon Workhouse
As a duo we have always been interested in finding different ways of making our music socially conscious. Music often relies on lyrics or text to give it direct meaning, but we believe that instrumental music can be just as effective at expressing specific ideas.
We chose Ripon Workhouse because we recognise the histories of the working classes, which are so often neglected, as crucial to understanding a time and place. Having both moved to the North of England from the South, we know from experience that the stories of Northern working people are often overlooked in narratives that focus primarily on the people in the South who benefited from the Northern toil. We were particularly struck by the ‘locked-door’ and secretive nature of the workhouse, and this seemed to us to express the ongoing desire to keep so-called ‘unfortunates’ out of sight and out of mind. This contemporaneous (though arguably ongoing) squeamishness around the treatment of society’s most vulnerable is evidently the reason that they are replaced in so many histories by tales of wars, parliaments, royalty and rebellion.
As musicians, the desire to rediscover the history of ‘everyday’ people struck us as reminiscent of the English folk music revival of the last century. One thing we found particularly interesting about this movement is its focus on agricultural or rural musics rather than industrial worksong. We felt this effort to depict our past as primarily rural idyll mirrored the sweeping-under-the-carpet of institutions such as workhouses and asylums, both at the time and in histories. It therefore seemed that there would be no better way to respond to the Ripon Workhouse’s history than through Lancashire and Yorkshire industrial work songs of the 19th century. Through this vehicle we could explore the history of the Workhouse in a language which its residents would have understood.
The self-sufficient and ‘locked-door’ nature of Ripon Workhouse means that the only witness to what really happened there was the building itself. It is a witness that still stands and brings to mind the cliché ‘if only these walls could talk’. This reminded us of Alvin Lucier’s work ‘I am Sitting in A Room’. In this piece Lucier records himself speaking a simple sentence into a room. He then plays the recording of his voice back into the room and records that. This recording is then played into the room and the process is then repeated over and over again. Eventually the natural frequencies and characteristics of the room are emphasized and his voice is distorted to such an extent that the words cannot be heard and instead the walls begin to ‘sing’. We would like to use a similar technique to create a recorded piece of music in Ripon Workhouse.
Our proposal is to reimagine short melodies taken from industrial work songs from 19th century Yorkshire and Lancashire on the violin. Each melody would be played and recorded in a different room of the workhouse. These recordings will then be played back into the rooms and re-recorded over and over again until the ethereal sonic qualities of the space have overwhelmed the melodies. Through this technique we could create music from nothing but the unique acoustic characteristics of the workhouse and finally let the walls speak.
The finished product very effectively depicts the way an unchanging subject is morphed by the passage of time and therefore seems a powerful way to respond to a building that has weathered centuries. The slow, methodical, and meditative way of working in the space would give way to many opportunities for reflection on the suffering which the building has witnessed.
In the attached audio clip we have experimented with an abbreviated version of this process within our own living room and bathroom. No electronic effects were used and all sounds occurred organically from the process. We have layered two melodies; a sombre ballad and a more lively dance. The ballad starts with the natural sound and gradually becomes transfigured into the sound of the room while the dance goes through the opposite process so the melody emerges from the layers of overtones.
If we had the opportunity to do this in the Workhouse we would create a longer work which could incorporate multiple melodies performed in different rooms to capture the various resonances the building can produce. We also envisage performing this as a live event. Watching the slow process happen in real time would be a powerful memorial to the lives lost within the four walls.
The Keeling Curve is an electronic music duo comprising composer Will Frampton and violinist Rhiannon Bedford. Will is currently completing PhD research in composition at the University of Manchester and has been commissioned by and worked with ensembles such as Psappha Ensemble, The Ligeti Quartet and the Orchestra of Opera North. Rhiannon works as a freelance violinist and teacher. She is a member of the Eskandari String Quartet who regularly perform and commission works from local composers.
We came together as a duo to explore our interests in combining acoustic performance and electronic music. Our music uses a broad range of styles and techniques; some of our work comes from improvising together either freely or with a set of constraints or rules, while other pieces are highly structured and composed. Our debut E.P., Turpentine Tree, is a dark meditation on the history and impacts of climate breakdown with each track named after a key location to science or environmentalism.
When recording we use tools such as tape manipulation, looping, and modular synthesis. An important part of our aesthetic is the use of environmental sound recordings such as birds, cars, footsteps and the weather. In April 2020 we were chosen to contribute a piece to Sound and Music’s ‘Interpreting Isolation’ project. The resulting work, ‘Mersey Beat’, uses sounds, sent to us from around the UK, of people’s ‘daily exercise’ during the Covid-19 lockdown. ‘Mersey Beat’ is featured on our second E.P., Riverbound, released in July 2020.