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Karen Monid Creates Sound Waves at Illuminating York Festival

Karen Monid Creates Sound Waves at Illuminating York Festival


Karen Monid became the first sound artist to present a stand-alone acoustic artwork for York's annual “Illuminating York” digital arts and lighting festival. “Contours” brought a fresh, provocative and highly entertaining medium through which visitors to the 2011 Festival could explore and enjoy the city's rich cultural history.

The ground-breaking decision to stage the piece - exploring the poetic, religious and musical culture of ancient York's Viking settlers and Anglo-Saxons - in the city's Dean's Park received great critical and popular acclaim. It was experienced by over 50,000 visitors across 4 evenings.

This year's Festival theme of ‘Voices from the Past' – the first time it has had a content signature - enabled the Festival event to broaden into some new platforms and parameters whereby the public could explore, interpret and understand the city as a place with a living breathing past. Contours was one of these toe-dipping installations.

York is also the home to a number of famous ghosts, and has a thriving night time tourist and local economy based on its ghostology, which gave the historical value of the piece additional resonance and meaning.

Monid has created soundscapes for two previous Illuminating York Festival projects, both of them accompanying visual works by large format projection specialist Ross Ashton. The dual site 'Accendo' in 2008 and last year's 'Rose' son et lumière at York Minster were both exceptionally well received, and whilst researching and creating these, Monid built up an intuitive feel and affinity with the City and the importance to it of this specific historical era.

“I was extremely proud to be asked to present Contours in York,” says Monid, “I felt it was a real compliment to and an extension of my previous work there, and I was even more delighted with the turnout”.

Contours was physically set up as a circular soundfield that could accommodate up to 400 people in the centre for each 10 minute looped session. It was mixed as a quadrophonic soundtrack with no synthesised sounds applied – all source material being originated from raw recordings.

“The presentation blended past tradition and modern technology,” she explains, adding that this basic approach creates a very rich, real and enveloping atmosphere in which the guest becomes immersed.

Monid recorded poetic recitations in seven different languages - Old Norse and Old English – as per the originals – and then translations into modern Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic and English. These were fragmented yet all worked continuously as one rhythmic communication.

“The idea is that people experience the power and emotion at the very essence of the sounds and spoken words, and reproduce their own autonomous ranges of accompanying images in their heads,” explains Monid.

All the instruments involved in the Contours soundscape are genuine reproduction articles from the period played by Monid herself. This includes a seventh century lyre modelled on one found at Sutton Hoo and reproduction wooden pan-pipes, based on an original set unearthed at the Jorvik excavations in York. She also plays a sheep's bone flute custom made for the project in Norway.

The texts were taken from the Poetic Edda, a collection emanating from Medieval Iceland and based on the mythologies and allegories of Beowulf, an epic Anglo Saxon poem written in Old English.

Monid wrote an original piece of kulning – a song used by shepherdesses, primarily in Sweden, to recall cattle at the end of a day's grazing – in a very British style, which is integrated into the work. Its tonality is traditionally designed to project over large landscapes and can carry for several kilometres.

Choosing the right site in York was vitally important. It had to be well endowed with elements of nature and as far as possible, quiet, which is always challenging in an urban setting. Having full acoustic control was paramount due to the importance of the words and the idea of recreating the vibe of walking into a Bardic campfire scene and hearing stories told by the Bard and his lyre.

Monid decided to add a circle of light to the installation to denote the soundfield and encourage people to walk in and listen, for which she worked with lighting designer Neville Milsom. It was a simple set up with lighting fixtures changing colours along with the flow of the piece. Lighting equipment was supplied by Stage Electrics.

The d&b loudspeaker system of four C7 speakers and four Q-SUBS were supplied by The Stage Management Company. The speakers were positioned 20 metres apart, and Monid designed special weatherised hides for these which were built by Raise The Roof. In the dark, the speakers were invisible, blending into the trees, foliage and other surroundings. The soundtrack was played back via an Alesis HD 24 machine via a small sound console. Also part of the technical staging team was Illuminating York production manager Ben Pugh.

The positive feedback has been spectacular and should set the scene for further developments to the festival and the more potential for both audio and combined sound and visual projects.

Editor's Note :

Contours was originally commissioned for Odin's Glow, where it was designed and presented as a large outdoor surround sound installation near a small village bordering Newton-Under-Roseberry in Cleveland for Redcar & Cleveland Council. It was re-mixed and adapted by Monid to work in the completely contrasting setting of York

For more press info on Karen Monid, please contact Louise Stickland on +44 (0)1865 202679/+44 (0)7831 329888 or Email

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