To mark the 100th anniversary of the BBC’s first radio transmission, audio artist Nick Ryan was commissioned to create an innovative sound installation in one of London’s busiest and noisiest locations. Headliner sat down with him to find out more…
The Strand, one of the capital’s most bustling, congested, noise-polluted thoroughfares, may not seem the likeliest of locations for a sonic art installation. But for sound artist Nick Ryan it was the only location for his latest project, celebrating the centenary of the BBC’s inaugural radio transmission. Though the majority of the millions who pass through it daily may not be aware, The Strand is regarded by those in the business of broadcast as the birthplace of radio in the UK. Indeed, The Strand’s Marconi House was the very first place in which radio was transmitted in London, while Bush House was the home of radio for some 70 years.
With this “hidden history” in mind, Ryan set about creating VoiceLine - an ambitious and extensive piece that would pay homage to The Strand’s past and raise awareness of its place in broadcasting history. After four years of development, Ryan conceived a vision whereby a linear sound array featuring 39 L-Acoustics 5XT coaxial speakers — each located three and a half metres apart and set along a path within the newly pedestrianised quarter — would play sounds throughout the day celebrating the culture and heritage of the area. Powering the array are 10 L-Acoustics LA4X four-channel amplified controllers, each connected to an AVB network where they can be independently controlled.
“For people around the world, The Strand is a recognisable landmark, but a lot of people in London have no idea that all of these voices emerged from these buildings,” Ryan tells Headliner. “I discovered that the very first radio signal came out of the seventh floor of Marconi House on November 11, 1922 and it had this very long wavelength of 350 metres, so I wanted to reimagine that wavelength in two dimensions along the street as a line of speakers, like an invisible pathway of sound where you could retrace this geometry and experience all sorts of different sound worlds that would change from moment to moment.
“Some of those sound worlds would be taken from the BBC audio archive. Some are from local communities, like the tap-dancing studio at Pineapple Studios, the cast of Mamma Mia, and even a quadraphonic recording of a family of whales made by my colleague Michelle Fournet, a leading marine acoustic ecologist. I‘ve spent a lot of time researching and getting sounds, and I’ve also worked with historians to tell the story of the site going back 800 years. It’s a 12-hour programme every day of sound collage. The first thing in the morning is the dawn chorus, then it could be Woman’s Hour at 10am which is much more narrative.”
For Ryan, VoiceLine has been an enormously rewarding but challenging undertaking. From developing the physical speaker structures, concocting a 12-hour audio programme, and helping people understand the concept of sound art, it has pushed him creatively and practically like no other project.
“I started about four years ago but I was commissioned a year ago,” he elaborates. “And it has been a real joy. It’s a real challenge making a public piece of work, especially one with such a big footprint, and it was very important to me that we involved people in the local area and community groups. So, we had to explain this idea to them that is quite alien – the concept of sound art. And it was technically very challenging – 39 channels delivered to speakers and programming all the content so it is continuously evolving. Some of it is non-linear, and it’s always programmed at particular hours to change its sequence.
“The eventual aim is to explore whether this could be a permanent instrument for London. At the moment it is temporary, and as such, we had to design a structure which was temporary. That was interesting. I wanted it to look really beautiful, even though it’s a sound work, and because it’s above ground it had to have a structural aesthetic. It’s inspired by radio technology from the early last century.”