The great English Cathedrals are truly wondrous places and deeply spiritual, irrespective of religious beliefs. Lincoln Cathedral is surely one of the most awesome of them all. From the moment the door closed behind us, the bustle of a chilly Autumn afternoon was immediately lost in the reverberant majesty of this ancient building.
The ‘Binaural Boffin’, sound engineer, Dallas Simpson, was already unpacking some unusual gear. The dummy head perched on a tripod in the centre of the Great Transept was an early indication of how surreal the evening would become.
While Troy and Dave were getting their own gear set-up, I made use of the remaining daylight to take a few shots of the fantastic Victorian stained glass windows and of the Cathedral in natural light. Despite its cavernous size, even the quietest noises carry throughout the entirety of the building and I became very aware of how much noise my camera shutter was making. During the soundcheck I asked Dallas if the camera was going to be audible in the recording. ‘Let’s see’ he said. Standing about three metres away, while Dave and Troy were playing, I pressed the shutter. Hearing nothing myself above the sound of the instruments, I expected Dallas to say ‘go on then, I’m ready’ but he turned and said, ‘yes, there’s a definite click there’. The man has the ears of a bat! (Memo to myself: forget hi-fi upgrade – book ear syringe treatment instead!) At this point I decided I had better get most of the ‘action’ shots done during the soundcheck.
By now we had the Cathedral to ourselves. The evening service was over, the doors were locked and we had the amazing privilege of having our own private Cathedral for the next couple of hours.
Dallas, the ‘Bearded Binaural Boffin’ had discarded his footwear in favour of an oversize pair of thick, white, woollen socks. Dallas takes binaural recording a step further than most – literally. For those who don’t know, the technique aims to simulate, as closely as possible, what it sounds like if you are actually there. Tiny microphones are placed in the ears of the afore-mentioned dummy head, placed in the centre of the sound stage. When played back through headphones, this should replicate sounds exactly as heard. Dallas uses this technique creatively. He fits the same microphones in his own ears and moves around the sound stage. By moving closer or further away from an instrument he can alter its volume in the ‘mix’. In addition, by turning his head he can pan sounds from ear to ear. He also uses a giant dome which he sometimes holds to reflect or focus sounds more directly. This brings me back to the socks. Because he is walking around, his movements have to be as silent as possible. This has to extend to his breathing too, so his movements are very slow and sure – sloth-like in fact. It’s like watching a dancer in super-slow motion!
Quite how two musicians can plan to improvise together for an hour with nothing rehearsed, is astonishing. That the occasion was to be recorded and filmed as well, is surely folly?
After Dallas’ final instruction: ‘all mobiles off!', the Cathedral descended into a total, reverberant silence to be broken a few seconds later by the dreamy sound of Troy’s low whistle wafting up into the echoing heights. Some ethereal, spacey chords from Dave’s keyboards followed a minute later. ‘From Silence – Part One’ was underway.
As if to underline the spiritual nature of the occasion, as the last strains of this first piece decayed slowly into the ether, the Cathedral clock bells struck, as if by way of applause.
The technique Dallas employed was to step, very slowly, between the two musicians positioned directly beneath the organ at the head of the nave, and occasionally off into widths of the transept. Slowly twirling on occasions with his head looking high up into the ceiling, a box of electronics under one arm and the other stretched out for balance, he was indeed an eccentric sight. Troy was obviously inspired by his mobility and also rose from his stool on occasions to stroll around the transept, often followed by Dallas and one of the three cameramen, giving the impression of a Pied Piper!
The music that followed naturally divided into six separate pieces, which could really define the term ‘ambient’. The occasion was totally mesmerising and Troy himself was amazed to discover that they had been ‘out’ for over an hour.
The giant, resonant space had lent even a tin whistle, the smallest and humblest of instruments, a huge grandeur, amply filling the building even when I listened from the very back. Only during the louder moments did I dare to take any photographs as I had the camera positioned only a couple of metres behind the dummy head and the soundfield microphone which were also being used for recording. Towards the end of the evening I was also conscious that perhaps I should have had something more substantial for lunch as I could feel my stomach start to consider rumbling in protest. A camera click on the recording would be one thing; a discordant intestine, quite another. I consoled myself with the comforting fact that I had, at least, abstained from the baked beans!
Troy and Dave had hoped to use the inspiration from the Cathedral and it’s acoustics to achieve ‘something beyond themselves’. What they finally achieved surpassed the expectations of us all as you will be able to see and hear for yourself upon the release of the forthcoming DVD and CD!