Thin Air

Site-specific sound sculpture

Composer Helen Ottaway

Sound designer Alastair Goolden

Voices Cecilia Evans (soprano), Kath Cooper (soprano), Melanie Pappenheim (mezzo-soprano), Caroline Radcliffe (contralto), Choirs, guides, volunteers and staff of the host venues.

“Though silent when empty, this space rapidly fills with an ethereal noise as the visitor shapes a sound sculpture… Thin Air makes an intriguing end to this ambitious, risk-taking, provocative and highly enjoyable exhibition.” Frances Spalding, The Independent, May 1999

“[Thin Air] was a breakthrough in art and music experience. [It] established new notions in the threshold area between art forms, enhancing people’s awareness and experience of aspects of contemporary practice in both fields.” Annette Ratuszniak, curator, The Shape of the Century

“[Thin Air] confused the boundary between ´life´ and ´art´, and played between choreography and composition. It set up a complex matrix of spectatorship, participation and composition: which is what gave the thing its liveness.” David Hughes, Live Art Magazine, September 2002

“Thin Air played with [this] constellation of technology, space, the personal, the collective, the sacred and secular: a few bars of choral song high in the gallery, a spoken number by a silent chapel, a tone or two here, a name there, one sensor with a seemingly predictable response and another, ineffably mysterious. Motifs of the spiritual and spectral – breath in the building, soul in the voice, the gothic echo – flourished… In a corporate era, live art and the church forge unexpected allegiances through the technological, the ephemeral and the interactive.” Shirley MacWilliam, Live Art Magazine, November 2002

Thin Air is composed of the fragments which float in the many spaces of a Cathedral or large religious building. Over centuries, a multitude of people have left traces, from masons carving decorative figures on the stonework to benefactors donating money for restoration and maintenance. Such a building contains numerous names, carvings and inscriptions, some long forgotten, as well as invisible traces: memories, stories, snatches of hymn tunes…

Each new work is specific to the building for which it is created. The work is made up of exclusively vocal material (sung and spoken). This is both collected from the location and newly composed, inspired by the building and its community. Installing the work is like scattering hundreds of audible fragments in the space. It is the movement of the people who visit and traverse the building that conjures the music, the interactive environment, achieved through the use of Soundbeams and a digital sampler. All who move in the space trace and weave strands of sound, engraving their own marks in the air.

Thin Air was the first site-specific sound sculpture created by Helen Ottaway and Alastair Goolden. It was the second Artmusic installation to use Soundbeam technology along with other sound equipment to create a movement activated environment. Allowing the composition to unfold through the activity of the ‘audience’ the piece is both interactive and random. The encounter for the participants is engaging and liberating. Their movements are perceptibly transformed into dance as they become the engineers of their own experience.

Performance History
2007 Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, commissioned by Oxford Contemporary Music in collaboration with Oxford Playhouse and Dorchester Abbey, part of Oxfordshire 2007 and Dorchester Festival

2006 St John Maddermarket, Norwich (Churches Conservation Trust), commissioned by Norfolk & Norwich Festival

2005 St Finbarre’s Cathedral, Cork, Eire, commissioned by Granary Cork for Cork 2005, European Capital of Culture

2002 Southwell Minster, commissioned by Nottinghamshire County Council for the ‘Music in Quiet Places’ series (see video here)

1999 Salisbury Cathedral, commissioned by Salisbury Festival for the ‘Shape of the Century’ sculpture exhibition