A Cunning Blog

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Sounding Heritage


HME16_0012-cropI wangled a ticket to yesterday’s Sound Heritage Sydney symposium, presented by Sydney Living Museums at Elizabeth Bay House. Sound Heritage is a research and interpretation network of academic music historians, early music performance experts and heritage professionals founded by Jeanice Brooks (Professor of Music at the University of Southampton). In other words, people-who-know-stuff, people-who-do-stuff, and people-who-look-after-stuff getting together to bring heritage sites to life.

The beauty of this network is not just that it makes the trip with your parents to a museum on a rainy day more interesting. It’s absolutely not about sexing-up or dumbing-down culture. It’s a two way process, a multi-way process in fact, that brings value to the visitor experience and also provides insights for curators, historians and musicians.

The day was packed with stories of rifling through piano stools and personal bound copies of sheet music (which were the nineteenth-century version of Spotify lists), poring over pencil marks and annotations and bringing old instruments back to life. Amongst a goldmine of interesting stories, Professor Brooks gave an overview of experiments in interpretation at Tatton Park in Cheshire, while Dr Jennifer Gall, of ANU, talked about restoring sound to heritage sites closer to home, including Lanyon Homestead, Mugga Mugga and Calthorpes’ House. Meanwhile Nicole Forsyth and Genevieve Lacey talked about some of my pet obsessions: space, silence and listening. Forsyth is working at Rouse Hill Estate, a heritage home managed by Sydney Living Museums, exploring nearly two centuries of of one family’s music hoard. She’s been experimenting with music and story-telling in heritage sites with composers Damian Barbeler and John R Taylor.

Nicole makes the point that the current HIP practitioners (such as ABO, ARCO et al.) are still presenting their research – their performances — primarily in modern concert halls, whereas music pre-recording, so music before the early twentieth-century, was most frequently experienced as a practical, participatory and social activity, in the home or with friends.

This resonated strongly with me: sitting in an auditorium taking in the gobsmacking performance of a mighty virtuoso is only a tiny part of the spectrum of how one experiences music. And it’s a spectrum, not a hierarchy, by which I mean that playing duets with my daughter in front of friends on a makeshift stage in a minuscule second hand book shop is every bit as vital — possibly more — as hearing the SSO. Different things to different people, of course, but both vital.

Which brings me to Genevieve Lacey’s work, Pleasure Garden, a sound installation inspired by her feelings for the music of 17-century musician Jacob van Eyck. It was premiered in the grounds of Vaucluse House as part of the Sydney Festival in 2016. The space was intrinsic to the work: using multiple speakers, triggered by movement sensors, everyone experienced the work differently, at their own pace, as they explored the gardens around Vaucluse House. Genevieve incorporated field recordings from her research and also — and this is key — set the dynamic level of the music low enough that the live, environmental sounds, from birdsong to ferry horns, was audible. Thus it became not just a passive experience, but an active one, and not just because you were physically moving through the garden but because you were actively listening, distinguishing different sounds. This act of listening is, for me, so important: it can create an intimacy and connection with your surroundings which allows you to experience the world in a much more immediate, vivid way, even if only for a moment.

Congratulations to all involved in putting on the Symposium, especially the convenor Matthew Stephens of Sydney Living Museums. There was so much so say, so much to hear. We’re clearly going to have to do this again.

Before you go, can I remind you to take a look at my book project, Sanctuary, now crowd-funding at Unbound? It’s a labour of love and a fascinating dive in music in post-war Britain. I’d love you pledge to help make this book happen! Or you can help by sharing it on social media or in real life or inviting me to talk about it or write about it for your blog, newspaper, broadcast or class. Thanking you in advance…


  1. What a great wrap-up of an amazing day at Elizabeth Bay House – thank you for sharing Harriet. The other feature of the day was it’s emphasis on music as a living art being made and enjoyed by people, not just passively listening. We have become so used to recorded music that the idea of it being something we can do ourselves has largely vanished from contemporary life. We have been spoilt by how accessible recorded music has become.

  2. Thanks, Ian. Yes, I agree. Living art in living museums!

  3. Pingback: Sound Heritage down under - SOUNDINGS Music at Southampton SOUNDINGS Music at Southampton

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