Great Noises that Fill the Air

Great Noises that Fill the Air, Cooper Gallery, Dundee, 2018

During 1970’s, Paul Burwell (1949 – 2007) Richard Wilson and myself, as friends living in Butler’s Wharf, explored the Thames and other waterways mostly by boat, sharing our excitement of the countless possibilities of the visual dynamics and unexpected sounds, often on vast scales, that we encountered. This stimulated the ideas that became embedded in the DNA of the Bow Gamelan Ensemble, which we formed in 1983.

Since our first (intended to be the only) performance at the London Musicians Collective, the Bow Gamelan Ensemble made dozens of performances, events and specially commissioned works around the world including the Cervantino Festival, Mexico, Earth Celebrations, Japan and Creative Time Inc, The Anchorage, Brooklyn Bridge, New York.

Our instruments were specially constructed using scrap metal, electric motors, glass, early warning systems, explosives, paraffin, gases, (including propane, helium and hydrogen), low and high pressure steam, compressed air, high pressure water jets, high-power wind and lightening machines, cranes, boats, barges, fire, tidal energies, acoustic pyrotechnics, often specifically commissioned. These instruments produced a wide variety of sounds ranging from the deep, organ like drones of the pyrophones played with propane, through a gamut of percussive timbres. Both the sound sources and the musical structures generated were unusual because of the physical relationship between the way instruments work and how they had to be played.
We did not so much transform materials, as try to explore the core of what we could get out of the physical object.

We developed relationships with pyrotechnicians such as Wilf Scott, le Maitre Fireworks and El Diablo in Mexico and entered into a range of working relationships with artists and groups such as the sound poet Bob Cobbing, the American percussionist z’ev, Simon York of Miraculous Engineering, Tom Leadlay of the Thames Steam Launch Company, Eel Pie Marine, Ballooning World, Kathak dancers with their percussive bells attached to their bodies, historic re-creation societies and remote control helicoptor enthusiasts. 

Since Paul Burwell’s death in 2007, Richard and myself have carried on working together, with this embedded DNA, in many contexts and modes, continuing to treat both sound and visuals as inter-relating sculptural forms in works such as Dark Haloes and Spooky Drums for Liverpool Biennale, the Red Jail, Iraq, the Maunsell Forts in Thames Estuary, London Contemporary Music festival, Shuffle festival, Bow TAPS with Matts Gallery, which included over 100 other collaborators who embraced an improvisational ethos, An Evening Summoning Rhythmajik with Z’EV, South London Gallery and Resofest, Café Oto, London .

In late 2018, the performance NALEMAG 2  at Cooper Gallery, Dundee, was the opening event for our installation, Great Noises that Fill the Air. The installation, throughout several gallery spaces, included the fragmented but substantial remains, of press, scores, posters, images, films, correspondence and drawings of Bow Gamelan Ensemble from 1980’s. 60 stands were specially constructed to hold a diverse selection of the archive. Gigantic thunder sheets, motorised and timed at random moments, rumbled and roared through the space and the many flickering lightbulbs gave an atmosphere of sheet lightening.

Morgan Quaintance’s article for Art Monthly Dec/Jan 2018/19 ends:

‘Great Noises that Fill the Air’, then, is a comprehensive and engrossing retrospective of not only a unique artist collective, but of a city and a set of attitudes that have virtually disappeared. How did we let that transformation happen? The question rang like a struck bell in my mind as I walked slowly through Cooper’s interior. It echoed out and into the streets of Dundee, lined with the same chain stores homogenising every regional city in the UK. It echoed through the streets of central London when I returned to a West End of tourists, floating Yodas and cold-shouldered street homeless. And it continues to echo through the deathly galleries and institutions shamelessly presenting hierarchy, exclusivity and conservatism as culture in the UK’s capital. ‘Great Noises’ reminds us that an alternative is always within reach. All we have to do is seize it.

Great Noises that Fill the Air

Great Noises that Fill the Air, Cooper Gallery, Dundee, 2018

During 1970’s, Paul Burwell (1949 – 2007) Richard Wilson and myself, as friends living in Butler’s Wharf, explored the Thames and other waterways mostly by boat, sharing our excitement of the countless possibilities of the visual dynamics and unexpected sounds, often on vast scales, that we encountered. This stimulated the ideas that became embedded in the DNA of the Bow Gamelan Ensemble, which we formed in 1983.

Since our first (intended to be the only) performance at the London Musicians Collective, the Bow Gamelan Ensemble made dozens of performances, events and specially commissioned works around the world including the Cervantino Festival, Mexico, Earth Celebrations, Japan and Creative Time Inc, The Anchorage, Brooklyn Bridge, New York.

Our instruments were specially constructed using scrap metal, electric motors, glass, early warning systems, explosives, paraffin, gases, (including propane, helium and hydrogen), low and high pressure steam, compressed air, high pressure water jets, high-power wind and lightening machines, cranes, boats, barges, fire, tidal energies, acoustic pyrotechnics, often specifically commissioned. These instruments produced a wide variety of sounds ranging from the deep, organ like drones of the pyrophones played with propane, through a gamut of percussive timbres. Both the sound sources and the musical structures generated were unusual because of the physical relationship between the way instruments work and how they had to be played.
We did not so much transform materials, as try to explore the core of what we could get out of the physical object.

We developed relationships with pyrotechnicians such as Wilf Scott, le Maitre Fireworks and El Diablo in Mexico and entered into a range of working relationships with artists and groups such as the sound poet Bob Cobbing, the American percussionist z’ev, Simon York of Miraculous Engineering, Tom Leadlay of the Thames Steam Launch Company, Eel Pie Marine, Ballooning World, Kathak dancers with their percussive bells attached to their bodies, historic re-creation societies and remote control helicoptor enthusiasts. 

Since Paul Burwell’s death in 2007, Richard and myself have carried on working together, with this embedded DNA, in many contexts and modes, continuing to treat both sound and visuals as inter-relating sculptural forms in works such as Dark Haloes and Spooky Drums for Liverpool Biennale, the Red Jail, Iraq, the Maunsell Forts in Thames Estuary, London Contemporary Music festival, Shuffle festival, Bow TAPS with Matts Gallery, which included over 100 other collaborators who embraced an improvisational ethos, An Evening Summoning Rhythmajik with Z’EV, South London Gallery and Resofest, Café Oto, London .

In late 2018, the performance NALEMAG 2  at Cooper Gallery, Dundee, was the opening event for our installation, Great Noises that Fill the Air. The installation, throughout several gallery spaces, included the fragmented but substantial remains, of press, scores, posters, images, films, correspondence and drawings of Bow Gamelan Ensemble from 1980’s. 60 stands were specially constructed to hold a diverse selection of the archive. Gigantic thunder sheets, motorised and timed at random moments, rumbled and roared through the space and the many flickering lightbulbs gave an atmosphere of sheet lightening.

Morgan Quaintance’s article for Art Monthly Dec/Jan 2018/19 ends:

‘Great Noises that Fill the Air’, then, is a comprehensive and engrossing retrospective of not only a unique artist collective, but of a city and a set of attitudes that have virtually disappeared. How did we let that transformation happen? The question rang like a struck bell in my mind as I walked slowly through Cooper’s interior. It echoed out and into the streets of Dundee, lined with the same chain stores homogenising every regional city in the UK. It echoed through the streets of central London when I returned to a West End of tourists, floating Yodas and cold-shouldered street homeless. And it continues to echo through the deathly galleries and institutions shamelessly presenting hierarchy, exclusivity and conservatism as culture in the UK’s capital. ‘Great Noises’ reminds us that an alternative is always within reach. All we have to do is seize it.