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The New Atlantis

April 24, 2010

I went along to a performance at the Handel House Museum in Mayfair last week.  I’d heard about it on the Sound and Music website, which described it like so:

“Responding to Francis Bacon’s utopian novel published in 1623, tonight’s performance focuses on a specific extract where Bacon describes the Bensalem ‘sound-houses’, which bares a startling resemblance to how we produce, realise and listen to music today. Handel House will in turn become a sound-house with each room becoming an individual performance space to be experienced in a promenade-like fashion. Expect a mix of period repertoire and contemporary electro-acoustic works……….”

The ‘utopian novel’ that is referred to is a famous work by Francis Bacon called The New Atlantis.  In audio circles, it is particularly well-known for supposedly being prophetic of modern day recording studios.  For those who don’t know of this story there is, as always, a good explanation on Wikipedia but, in a nutshell, the book is about an imaginary island called Bensalem which is accidentally discovered by European survivors of a shipwreck.  Through a series of discourses with the natives, these Europeans learn more and more about the islanders’ highly civilized society, at the heart of which is ‘Saloman’s House’ – a kind of centre of excellence for the research of arts and sciences. Amongst the many different faculties of this institution is the ‘sound-houses’:

“We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation. We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep; likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly. We have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it: and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller, and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.”

(“The New Atlantis” – Francis Bacon, 1623)

The phrases ‘sound-house’ and ‘New Atlantis’ must have been appropriated by all kinds of different recording studios around the world (particularly ever since Daphne Oram raised awareness of this passage by infamously putting it on display at that renowned centre of audio experimentation, The BBC Radiophonic Workshop).

However, through this appropriation and because the passage is nearly always quoted out of context, I think that it is easy to forget that Bacon’s ‘sound-houses’ are intended to serve an educational purpose in Bensalem:  Sound (including music) is studied in the pursuit of scientific and cultural advancement rather than simply enjoyed as art for art’s sake.  The Radiophonic Workshop was a pretty unique kind of establishment which does perhaps fulfill this brief, unlike the majority of recording studios which, I would argue, exist more for reasons of commerce than of social enlightenment.

Rather, I see this passage as more directly prophetic of modern day science institutes which carry out research into audio and acoustics – such as IRCAM in Paris or The National Physical Laboratory here in the UK.  I’ve recently discovered that The National Physical Laboratory is opening it’s doors to the public one evening next month for the first time in twenty years, so hopefully I’ll be able to tell you all about that at a later date……

Back to the point!  With all this in mind, the link between Bacon’s ‘New Atlantis’ and the entertainment at The Handel House Museum seemed a little tenuous at best.  That didn’t stop it from being an enjoyable combination of different musical performances though;  I was just disappointed in it as a re-imagining of Bacon’s vision.

The main event seemed to be the performance of a piece written by the museum’s composer-in-residence, Duncan MacLeod, which was a pleasantly hypnotic mix of echoed harpsichord and exotic bird and animal noises bounced around several speakers in the room. This was clearly a reference to the aforementioned passage from ‘New Atlantis’, i.e. “the voices and notes of beasts and birds” and “strange and artificial echoes”.

Less successful in it’s execution was a piece by a rock band playing upstairs who, according to the programme, seemed to be attempting to engage in some bizarre séance with Handel and Jimi Hendrix, who happened to live in the attic of the house for a year in 1968!  The band, otherwise known as squib-box, state in the event programme that:

“We are interested in taking this particular house as a starting point and contemplating the sounds that inhabit it’s walls.  We are concerned not with environmental sounds, but with the transcendental sounds heard in the minds of people who lived here in the past.  We believe these sounds reside outside chronological time in an incorporeal state within the house and our aim is to expose them through ritualistic performance.  We will summon them by dressing and behaving in a manner familiar to them.

…….Bacon’s reference to Solomon inspired us to start our investigation with Handel’s Solomon Oratorio, which was composed in this house…..We will use Solomon as a structure for musical situations in which we will allow ourselves to be influenced and possessed by the ‘sounds within the house.'”

I’d love to know how they came up with that one (…must have been a good night?!!).  As ideas for gigs go, I’d say that’s pretty ‘out there’ by anyone’s standards.  Anyway, here’s a short recording I made on my iPhone while walking between rooms.  Be warned, after an intro like that, you’re bound to be disappointed!

Walking into the séance……..

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From → History, Music

5 Comments
  1. Never heard of that Francis Bacon novel but sounds really cool! I’ll have to pick it up and have a read. I really like that smal chunk you posted from it regarding his descriptions of the sound houses!

    • sonicskepsi permalink

      Glad you liked it Enos. No need to buy it though; you can download the full script from the link on ‘New Atlantis’ within the post

  2. Ha! Even better 🙂

  3. thanks for this nice,instructive and understanding article you’ve post!

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