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Susan Stenger's popular audio visual installation to tour Northumberland

Susan Stenger's artwork inspired by the music and geological features of the Northumberland coast is making a comeback

Colin Davison Susan Stenger, Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland, 2014
Susan Stenger, Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland, 2014

The sights and sounds of coastal Northumberland inspired an installation which is going on tour, as DAVID WHETSTONE explains

A work of art inspired by the music and geology of the Northumberland coast is to embark on a tour along that very coast.

Susan Stenger’s audio visual installation, Sound Strata of Coastal Northumberland, was commissioned for the 2014 edition of the biennial AV Festival and displayed in a room at the Laing Art Gallery last March.

The work proved popular with visitors and is now to be shown at the Gymnasium Gallery in Berwick, at Woodhorn, near Ashington, and at the Lookout Tower on Holy Island.

All are appropriate locations for a work which traces its origins to an 1838 diagram by mining engineer Nicholas Wood.

The diagram shows a cross-section of coastal geological formations from the River Tyne to the Scottish border.

In the hands of the American sound artist, the visual diagram was transformed into a sonic score.

The 59-minute work takes the viewer/listener from the coal seams of Tyneside to the porphyritic rocks north of the River Tweed while echoing the sounds specific to each area of coast.

Speaking about the installation before it opened last year, Susan Stenger explained how she had responded to the theme of the 2014 festival which was Extraction.

She had visited the Mining Institute in Newcastle and been impressed by a statue of one of its founder members, Nicholas Wood, a County Durham engineer who contributed to colliery and railway safety in the early years of the 19th Century.

She then went to Great North Museum: Hancock where archivist June Holmes showed her Wood’s geological diagram, Coast Section from the River Tyne to the River Tweed.

Susan recalled: “I went to her and said I was looking for some sort of geological chart. A lot of the things I’d already seen showed a bird’s eye view but I said I was looking for a cross-section.”

Out of the box and the protective tissue paper it came, the Nicholas Wood diagram which was about to be given a new lease of life in the 21st Century.

It was the artist’s “Eureka!” moment.

Artist Susan Stenger
Artist Susan Stenger

Musicians were brought into the project including Stewart Hardy (fiddle), Andy May (Northumbrian pipes), David Clement and William Wotherspoon (solo Highland pipes), players from the City of Newcastle Pipe Band and the Newcastle Kingsmen sword dancers.

Susan, originally from New York but now based in London, recorded the musicians and composed a soundtrack to accompany a slow walk along the 40ft diagram.

It was exhibited at the Laing – and will be on tour – in a curving, suspended display case. The trick is to start at one end as the music begins and proceed slowly along, guided by its different geographical references.

The tour of the work, following in Wood’s footsteps, is accompanied by a 96-page hardback publication which includes an essay by nature writer Robert Macfarlane and a CD stereo mix of the installation.

There is also an accompanying programme of talks and events including a series of coastal sound walks led by acclaimed Newcastle-based wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson.

See the installation at The Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick, from March 21 to April 26; Workshop Gallery, Woodhorn Museum, Ashington, from June 27 to July 26; and The Lookout Tower, The Heugh, Holy Island, from August 1 to September 6.

For details of all the associated events go to www.soundstrata.co.uk

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