A funereal crowd gathered at the cliff’s edge expecting entertainment and they were not disappointed. Souter Lighthouse stands metres from the crumbling coastline between the Rivers Tyne and Wear in north east England, a candy cane building that has warned passing ships away from the treacherous rocks since 1871. The day was blustery, white tops capped the waves, rain spattered intermittently from scudding clouds all adding to the reverent mood as people huddled waited to hear the Souter Lighthouse black horns sound their parting crow: a Foghorn Requiem.
Foghorns are quietly departing the British coastline as their part in maritime safety is replaced by sophisticated on-board satellite global positioning systems. This requiem was a staged musical event allied to a feat of computer-based sonics designed to send this one on its way in style. A flotilla of ships offshore were linked to a brass band playing the requiem composition on the cliff via custom-designed computers and software – to control the pitch of the ships horns and exactly when they should sound, to the millionth of a second – precision developed by Delta Acoustics and the Cultural, Communications and Computing Research Institute (C3RI) at Sheffield Hallam University.
The entire project was devised by artists Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway and played by the black-clad Foghorn Requiem Band Ensemble, led by composer Orlando Gough and conductor Stephen Malcolm, but there was really only one star of the show and that was the 121 decibel throated foghorn itself. Loud as a jet engine’s roar, the steam-powered bellow was designed to be heard 18 miles out at sea, pitched deliberately in the note of F to catch the sailor’s attention then falling steadily to an F sharp rumble that played in the guts.
Expectant faces waited as the band meandered along the cliff top playing a slow dirge. When the players finally sat it was the turn of a lone trumpeter positioned high on the lighthouse top deck to blast out keening notes to Souter’s horn. Music ebbed and flowed from the ensemble and was blown on the winds in and out of the tall grass and standing bodies.
When the foghorn finally sounded it shook people to their core. There were nervous laughs followed by clapping and a few isolated cheers. In all the horn sounded six times over the space of about an hour, responding to the music and the offshore symphony of ships horns. When its final moment came, the operator had built up the steam reservoir to its full reserve and just let it blow.
Foundations seemed to shake and the voice carried high and far for what seemed like an eternity. Then it faltered and the low end seemed to give in, shuddering in its last gasp. Sound started to fade from its black throat in a dying breath, rasping and high pitched, closing down to a whisper before suddenly it was gone. It was a piece of glorious steampunk revery and high drama to celebrate the death of an era. A sound gone from the world, now preserved only in memories. People left the scene as they had come with only one slight difference, every one had a distant knowing look as if a small part of that soul departed had nestled there in their consciousness.