Opera North Blog

Ghost-hunting, The Grateful Dead and unheard music: DARE Art Prize update


In the six months since he won the inaugural DARE Art Prize, composer Samuel Hertz has found himself researching earthquakes and extreme weather, consulting a parapsychologist and a guru of psychedelic sound, writing a libretto and accompanying opera singers with an industrial tapping machine.

Launched to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the DARE partnership between Opera North and the University of Leeds, the DARE Art Prize is aimed at challenging artists and scientists to work together on new approaches to the creative process. Samuel, a US-born, Berlin-based composer, impressed the jury with his proposal for an electro-acoustic chamber piece for infrasound – low frequency sounds below the level of human hearing.

The early stages of Samuel’s process included a two-day workshop in Opera North’s chamber venue, the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, where he made recordings with mezzo-soprano Helen Évora and bass Whitaker Mills, four subwoofer speakers, and a tapping machine – a percussive device used by acoustic engineers to determine how spaces react to noise. The two singers, who are members of the Chorus of Opera North, performed a libretto written by Samuel, which he describes as “a dialogue between human bodies and ecologies, which takes as its reference point the notion of ‘field’ within acoustics terminology, as well as the situation of three lovers or friends lying in a natural field, swapping stories and dreams about feeling themselves in relation to environment and each other."

The final piece, for live musicians, electronics and visual media, will receive its premiere at the Howard Assembly Room in April 2018. In the meantime Samuel is working with two academics at the University of Leeds, Dr Freya Bailes, Academic Fellow in Music Psychology, and Dr Luke Windsor, Professor of Music Psychology, on ways of assessing the effect of infrasound, and on programming a series of talks and performances in association with CAVE (Centre for Audio Visual Experimentation) at the University.

In the course of his research Samuel has also interviewed leading paranormal investigator Steve Parsons, who has carried out extensive research into the link between infrasound and perceptions of paranormal activity, even designing and building specialist equipment to measure and record the phenomenon. He talked to Samuel about this technology, and about the history of infrasound, its psychological and physiological effects, and some of the earliest attempts to harness them in the development of the lowest tones of the church organ.

Samuel has also sought advice from luthier and audio engineer Rick Turner, one of the architects of The Grateful Dead’s spectacular “Wall of Sound” speaker array, and esteemed collaborator of Fleetwood Mac, Frank Zappa and Led Zeppelin among others.

As part of his investigations into the potential of low frequency sound, Samuel has written a piece specifically for the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, which will receive its premiere at the Annual Science Museum Group Research Conference on 23 November. A Shadow Feeling uses the exceptional capabilities of the sound system in the Museum’s IMAX cinema to produce resonances elsewhere in the building. Additional sounds will be played quietly in these areas, producing a 'duet' with the building itself, and audience members will be led to the different spaces to experience the combinations of the live and pre-composed sound.

As the final performance in April 2018 draws near, Samuel will be working with collaborators and leading some performances over the course of a three-week residency at The Tetley centre for contemporary art, Leeds, from 5 February 2018.

Samuel Hertz, winner of the inaugural DARE Art Prize, comments:

My collaborative research and development with staff at the University of Leeds, Opera North, and other organisations has been continuously rewarding and surprising. I'm consistently engaging in wonderful dialogues with creative researchers, artists, and engineers, and this project has so far proven to be incredibly fruitful in my imaginings of spaces of low-frequency sound and planetary sonics. 

I'm excited to continue with the upcoming public-facing research presentations and concerts through the spring. It's an ever-evolving challenge to synthesize all of the information I've unearthed so far, and I'm looking forward to moulding and shaping these pieces into the story (or stories) I'm beginning to be able to tell.

The second DARE Art Prize opens for applications on Monday 20 November. The deadline for submissions is Friday 12 January 2018, and the winner will be announced on Monday 12 February. For more details contact lesley@dareyou.org.uk.   

DARE Art Prize winner Samuel Hertz (centre) with Opera North Projects Director Dominic Gray (left) and Professor John Ladbury, Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences and Professor of Mechanistic Biology, School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of Leeds (right). Credit: University of Leeds.

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