Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Sound of Northern Lights

Hi, I'm Ali Orr, Technician for the VERVE (Need Make Use) project at the Pitt Rivers Museum. My main role at the Museum is to design and make new exhibitions as well as assisting and providing technical support for VERVE's outreach and AfterHours programmes. Often this means getting involved with audio-visual side of things...

The museum roof bathed in green and blue 'Northern Lights' © Pitt Rivers Museum 

In November 2014, the Museum was once again a key fixture of Oxford's annual 'Christmas Light Festival'. Our theme, in keeping with the winter season, was everything Arctic. The night was titled 'Northern Lights' to tie into both the famous book by Philip Pullman (which draws on the Museum), and the aurora light phenomena in the skies that occur at high, polar latitudes. We planned a torchlight experience that has proved so popular in the past, with the lights turned low and coloured effects. However, sound would be also be crucial to the overall experience. I am passionate about music from a wide variety of genres including branches of Electronica, Reggae, Hip Hop, Classical, Folk and World music. I have picked up on the latter a great deal since working at the Museum and being exposed to the music of other cultures that I might never have otherwise come across. I also have a bit of experience with sound production as a hobby. With all this in mind, I volunteered to put together a soundscape for the event in my own time.

We already had recordings of museum staff speaking about Arctic items in the collection (part of our standard audioguide). We were thrilled when Philip Pullman, patron of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, agreed to some specially commissioned recordings of him reading favourite exerpts from his book Northern Lights. These included Lyra's first visit to the 'other' Pitt Rivers in the 'other' Oxford, her Arctic journey with the armoured bear Iorek Byrinson, and her encounter with the witch queen. My challenge was to weave these vocal parts together into a single atmospheric piece.

Together with help and inspiration from another volunteer and experienced podcaster Alison Cooper, we found a number of ambient samples to evoke feelings of being at the North Pole such as wind, water and animal sounds. Alison also gave me the idea of layering some samples over the narration to add depth and context to the words. I then decided to hunt down as much music from the Arctic region as I could find, which was a challenge, but it would be a good representation of indigenous peoples such as the Inuit, Evenki, and Sami. A distinctive style of music from northern regions is 'throat singing' - in the Tuvan version from Mongolia it is a type of overtone singing employing harmonies, but among the Inuit, it is more of a duelling duet of sound produced when inhaling and exhaling!

Exploring carved ivory © Pitt Rivers Museum
There are some great websites where we found Creative Commons Licensed sounds (such as Freesound) and we also bought or licensed tracks; a fantastic source for ethnographic field recordings is Smithsonian Folkways, a non-profit record label that promotes cultural diversity through the documentation, preservation and dissemination of sound. 

Once I had all the material, it was just a matter of putting it together using Ableton Live software. This meant several hours of deciding on a running order, adjusting each section to similar levels, adding in a few effects, and just generally playing around with it until it sounded good! Audio equipment and speakers were provided by Oxford firm startech for professional sound delivery.

The event was incredibly popular, and 1200+ visitors entered the museum with a torch in controlled numbers throughout the night. The soundtrack looped about three times, allowing the different visitors to enjoy it. I ended with a 40-minute mix of Electronica drawing on music from all around the world. This also seemed to go down very well - I even saw a few people dancing!

You can check out photos from the event on our Facebook album plus listen to the full Arctic mix (46 minutes) and Ethnic Electronica mix (42 minutes) below. Full tracklists are available on our SoundCloud playlist.

I am proud of the end result, especially as I have never attempted anything like this before and I have since heard some good feedback. Staff and volunteers did a great job to help make the event a success too. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience - I learned a lot and discovered some great new music for my own growing collection. Hopefully, I'll get the chance to do something similar for future events - next I'm putting together a soundtrack of European folk music for our AfterHours: Folklore and Storytelling event on Thursday 4th December - see you there!

Alistair Orr
VERVE Technician