The National Trust
This summer saw the start of my soundscape collaboration with the National Trust. For those of you not familiar with the National Trust, I shall first talk a bit about them.
In 1895, the National Trust was founded with the aim of saving the UK’s heritage and open spaces. With an income of £436 million in 2012, the charity now has 4 million members and 52 000 people volunteer their time to work with them. Every year, more than 12 million people visit their pay for entry properties while an estimated 50 million people visit their open-air properties. Over 300 properties are open to the public and looked after by the Trust. As well as this, the National Trust protects forests, beaches, farmland, archaeological remains, nature reserves, castles and even entire villages and islands.
So, as you can imagine, I was delighted to be able to work with such a wonderful organisation that does so much good in protecting the UK’s heritage.
Over the past few years, the National Trust has been actively changing the way it interacts with the public. Rather than opening up stuffy museums that don’t capture the public’s imagination, they are focusing on creating interesting, interactive experiences that will make people want to come back. Rather than a ‘look but don’t touch’ attitude, the National Trust is now inviting people to interact with their properties and are finding innovative ways to attract new members and the public in general.
Leith Hill Place
This relatively new direction for the National Trust is what prompted me approach them with my soundscape ideas. My soundscape work in bringing spaces to life using audio and interactivity seemed to fit their bill exactly. After my first contact with them, Gabrielle Gale got in touch. She was to open a property to the public, namely Leith Hill Place in Surrey, which had been closed since the 1960’s. LHP was to be given a trial season with a very limited budget and Gabrielle was given the task of making it work.
Being the childhood home of composer Ralph Vaughn Williams (RVW), Gabrielle wanted to create a soundscape tour that reflected his life. The soundscape tour was to be spread across four rooms in the attic, where RVW stayed as a child, and a First World War experience was to be included as part of the tour, as he volunteered to fight.
Among other volunteers, Gabrielle managed to secure the help of local talent in Virginia Mckenna, Brian Kay, Lindy Alexander and Brough Scott MBE to contribute dramatic readings of her script. To keep costs down and to contribute to the uniqueness of the soundscape we recorded the performances in one of the rooms at Leith Hill Place, with extra microphones capturing the ambience of the room. Working with such high profile talent was a fantastic experience; it was very interesting to see how they all worked.
The first soundscape section was to be played in room one of the attic. Here, Virginia Mckenna played the part of RVW’s childhood nanny and told the story of his pre-school years at Leith Hill Place.
In room two, the nanny continues her story of his time at school.
In room three, Brain Kay plays the role of RVW and Brough Scott, the role of his cousin Ralph Wedgwood. In this room, Wedgwood talks about their time studying at university and this is followed by readings of letters written in the lead up to and during the First World War. The Music of RVW contributes to the soundscape here.
Separating rooms three and four is a corridor and it is here that Gabrielle wanted to include a First World War soundscape experience.
In room four, the finale of the tour, various letters written by RVW are read out alongside letters from his mother and second wife, played by Lindy Alexander, again, accompanied by RVW’s music.
The technical side of the soundscape
The audio files are all stored within a bespoke computer application created by myself. The playing of the files is triggered by the tour guide pressing buttons on an iPod Touch app. The app transmits the button triggers via Wi-Fi to the host computer which then routes the corresponding audio files to the corresponding speakers. Each room contains one speaker and the corridor contains six speakers and a subwoofer to create a surround sound experience of the First World War.
The first three rooms are triggered by the guide. The First World War corridor is triggered automatically after the main room three audio along with some dramatic music that is also played in room three. Once the bulk of the tour is hallway along the corridor, the guide then activates room four. This action starts a fade-out of the war section and is accompanied by a fade-in of emotive music from room four. This cross-fade creates much dramatic tension and also serves to beckon the tour on into the final room.
The soundscape project has been a wonderful success which has provided various challenges and has allowed me to work with some very interesting people. Budget was our first challenge; how could we create something immersive and impressive with just a fraction of the budget usually afforded to such ambitious projects? And being a listed building, installation was tricky at times but we explored possibilities and settled upon solutions. The other main challenge presented to us was how the Wi-Fi reacted to the building, which is full of (Wi-Fi unfriendly) hefty structural intricacies. Where there is a will there is a way though and after trying various different set-ups and dealing with a faulty router the problems were overcome.
Feedback from the public has been fantastic, with people coming from miles around to experience the tour on recommendation of friends and family. The wonderful performances given by all on the voice recordings combined with Vaughn Williams’ emotive music and Gabrielle’s script has created a very emotive experience. Combined with the right expertise, abilities and ideas from myself we have created a fantastic attraction that is actively contributing to the success of a property opened up on a trial basis. It is wonderful to know that my work is making such an active contribution to the success of Leith Hill Place and I look forward to contributing my work towards many such successes in the future.