Requiem for 114 Radios

Elinor Cooper previews the centrepiece of the Bristol New Music weekend

Requiem for 114 Radios
Requiem for 114 Radios

It's not often you get a chance to explore the cellars of a concert hall. But last Thursday evening, I turned my back on the sunshine and headed underground.

I was there for the launch of the Bristol New Music weekend, and to get a sneak preview of an installation by artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, Reqiuem for 114 Radios. Commissioned by Colston Hall, the work is situated in the building's cellars – which are rarely open to the public – and 'performed' by 114 analogue radios in various sizes, designs and states of repair.

These radios – the same breed that John Cage wrote his Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 radios for in 1951 – are now an endangered species. They have been red-listed as the digital world consumes their natural habitat. Digital radios are the order of the day, and FM is likely to be switched off in the UK within the next decade – and many will mourn their soon-to-be useless analogue radios.

‘This is a technology that has so much potential: it has within it spaces that are noisy and strange, which you just don’t get that with digital. I’m going to miss it!’ says Pollard. ‘We have wanted to create a piece with radio for such a long time, and that time was running out.’

Heading out of bright sunshine into the dark, slightly dank cellars certainly helped get into a solemn mood more appropriate for a requiem.

This, says Pollard, was the point. ‘The cellars did a lot of the work for us,’ she says. ‘Once we’d seen them we knew we had to make a sound piece. It had to match the space, and there is a sort of crypt-feeling in there, so we knew we wanted quite a droning, cyclical, haunting sound.’

Fourteen different singers are featured in the work, their voices booming or whispering from the radios, sometimes in unison, other times colliding. They sing the Dies Irae funeral chant. ‘The chant has been present in people’s lives since the seventh century,’ says Pollard. ‘Just imagine what it has born witness to, whose funerals it has been played at, where has it been played.’

And, she reminds me, it isn’t just present in religious contexts. ‘It is such a fundamental part of our cultural tapestry. It’s even in the Lion King! The Dies Irae has become a signature for "something bad is about to happen". It represents impending doom in sound.’

If the hint of summer (and nice glass of wine we had all been offered) slightly dampened the sense of impending doom, it was certainly disorientating and a little overwhelming to be so completely surrounded by the often-jarring voices. 

Some of the radios aren't actually tuned to Pollard and Forsythe's broadcasts at all, instead hovering between channels occupying what they call 'auditory limbo'. This was a challenge to get just right, says Pollard. 'It is so fragile! People moving through the room changes the frequencies, making it into this a weird organism that has a mind of its own!' As I wandered round I noticed a burst of Taylor Swift from one of the radios. The man stood next to it jumped and hurried away – worried, perhaps, that someone might tell him off for interfering with the tuning. 

The space, like the sound, is cyclical. The audience walk round the space again and again, drawn in by the temptation of hearing something a little different each time from the radios scattered around the room.

‘It is a theatrical experience’ says Forsyth. ‘It hints at a bigger story but doesn’t necessarily fill in all of the blanks. It sets a scene that allows your imagination to hopefully take you somewhere that we haven’t even imagined.’

Perhaps unintentionally, this work acts as much a requiem for the cellar as it is for the radios. With Colston Hall's refurbishment now fast-approaching, this is the last chance to see the cellars in their original state.

'Soon there will be a combination of studios, education rooms and a venue' Wills told me, 'There won’t be anything like this in there ever again.' 

Bristol New Music runs form the 12-15 May. For more information, click here.



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