Soundscapes of Town and Gown

One of things I wanted to explore in this piece is the relationship between Trinity College and the rest of the city, both from a sociohistorical perspective, and in terms of the sonic attributes of these two, quite different spaces. During its long history Trinity’s relationship with Dublin, and indeed with the rest of the country, has often been difficult, complex, and even out rightly combative at times. While questions of religion and national identity were a significant factor, tensions between liberal and conservative voices, both from within and without, have also played their part in this complex relationship between “town and gown”. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that the walls that surround Trinity were sometimes perceived as a barrier meant to keep people out! In Mary Muldowney’s fascinating book “Trinity and its Neighbours. An Oral History, many local residents employed by Trinity during the second half of the 20th century mention this perceived separateness of the university from the city (for many, their job interview was the first time they had been inside the college walls). As John McGahern puts it, “when I was young in this small country Trinity College was so far removed from our lives and expectations that it seems a complete elsewhere”.

While problems certainly remain, these days the Trinity campus is much more of a public space, and indeed is viewed by many as an oasis of calm and relative quiet in the midst of the bustling traffic and noise of Dublin city center. On a purely sensory level, the walls which surround the college could now perhaps therefore be viewed as more of a protective shell that provides some welcome respite from the incessant roar of city. From my own perspective, I have always been struck by a powerful, liminal transition from one distinct space into another whenever I pass through the narrow passageway of the front gate. This distinct sense of two different sonic spaces, and the specific sounds that reach and stretch across this notional and physical barrier, is the primary inspiration for this new composition of spatial music.

It is a fact that any outdoor performance in a city center will have to contend with the general ambiance of the city, police sirens and all! So, borrowing an (oblique) strategy from Brian Eno I decided to turn this unavoidable intrusion into a specific feature of the first movement of the piece, and deliberately project these outside city sounds inside, using multiple loudspeakers placed around the audience. This soundscape composition is constructed from field recordings made in, around and outside the boundaries of the university grounds. In this way sounds such as the traffic and roadworks on College Green, and the trains which bisect the north-eastern corner of the campus will be projected inside Front Square and manipulated and transformed into music. For the more technical among you, these field recordings were made using an interesting technique suggested by Augustine Leudar, based around multiple stereo recorders positioned to match the eventual placement of the reproducing loudspeakers.

Field Recording from in front of the Campanile, December, 2015


But what about the other direction? What kind of sounds does Trinity produce which might instead project outward? Well, a 30+ orchestra of brass, wind, percussion and electric guitars will be part of that, but the buildings too make their own sounds. Most obviously, the bells of the Campanile, which are sounded at different times during the year, and for different functions. The Campanile actually houses three bells in total; including the Commons bell which softly rings at noon, and an even softer, and little known bell which is used to mark the death of significant figures within the university. However, the largest and loudest of these three bells, and the one which will play the biggest part in this piece, is the commencements bell; rung on numerous occasions each year to summon graduating students to the commencements ceremony. There’s a beautiful, albeit somewhat mournful tone to this bell, and I decided pretty quickly that this would inform the harmonic language and writing for the entire piece.

This particular topic will be looked at in more detail in the next post.