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McIntyre-Burnie’s Wind Tunnel Project: hypnotic, absorbing and unsettling

For several weeks in summer, Farnborough Aerodrome was invaded by nightingales and starlings. But don’t worry – the avian guests didn’t damage any aircraft. PSNEurope went to investigate

Nonetheless, the BBC sound engineer at the time had the foresight to complete the sound recording for posterity. Obtaining this unique and historical ‘soundtrack’, McIntyre-Burnie set about creating a ‘response’ to the drones of the Lancasters and Wellingtons. (Continued from part one.)

“I wanted to get an interplay between the sound of war and an answer to that from human voices coming from an unknown space.” Enlisting the help of a male voice choir comprised of ten men most of whom who used to work at the site, he assembled them in the return tunnel and recorded their wordless singing, inspired by, and partly emulating, the arch of aircraft noise, and exploiting the resonant notes of the space. McBurnie used a stereo pair of AT3032s to record the voices in the vastness of the tunnel, with reflections captured via a Sennheiser MKH60 and a split distant pair of Sennheiser MKH 406s. So to the finished installation. Once entering building Q121 – having discarded their shoes (“almost as an act of reverence to respect the space,” says the composer) – visitors are treated to the sound of nightingales overlapping with the bombers, fading back to the nightingales and then the cycle repeats but this time with the choir recording emanating from the return tunnel but permeating the whole structure, thanks to the acoustic qualities of the building. A Tascam HD24 was used to playback the multi-tracked looped performance.

McIntyre-Burnie’s work is hypnotic and absorbing, solemn and forbidding in the drone passages but brightened by the birdsong: a juxtaposition of times of peace and terror. It completely transformed and filled the space – and all with only (effectively) six speakers and no subs. Why did the artist approach Tannoy to get involved? The answer is clear as you leave Q121: vintage Tannoy horns still adorn the building, and were evidently part of the working PA for the facility back in the day.

The second building housed the rest of the project. Entering R52, you are met with an unsettling, denser composition, based in and around a wooden tunnel used for aerodynamic testing on a smaller, ‘model’ scale. Within this, McIntyre-Burnie created a four-channel mix using Tannoy Precision 6.4s (“with their lovely bottom end,”) video projection and a three-channel exterior atmosphere. Film material featured a loop of a drone beetle flying, slowed down to a fraction of its normal rate (pictured above right). The music McIntyre-Burnie composed (featuring breath of the male voice choir and a recording of a bass player from FSO playing his 5th string, down to 30Hz, within the Q121 wind tunnel) suggests the study of flight can lead to darker paths. There are no nightingales to ease this journey of the mind.

Emerging into the third main space, the visitor is met with four tallboy-sized Tannoy speakers from the Prestige range – high-end and somewhat expensive Canterbury and Kensington GR models (“60 kilos a piece!”) -– stood atop original wooden aeroplane inspection towers. These were arranged so they “deliberately disrupt the quadrophonic circle and instead encourage people to listen through the architecture”, says McIntyre-Burnie. “I wanted people to explore how sound moves off walls and bounces off windows, as opposed to standing at one sweet spot.” The piece used recordings the sound designer made at Brighton’s West Pier concert hall with veteran sound recordist Chris Watson (formerly of Cabaret Voltaire and latterly David Attenborough’s sound man) using an array of Sennheiser 406 and 416s and a pair of vintage 110 mics. Prior to its collapse into the sea, the pier was a massive roost for starlings, says McIntyre-Burnie.

“Studying their murmuration flight and morphing this with a sonic study of its sister pier’s rollercoaster, we asked the question, do birds ever fly simply for the thrill of it?” The result, as PSNEurope moved around and through the space, was as if to take wing with the swooping and soaring of the birds – or was it the rattling and screaming of the coaster and its passengers? It was certainly a dynamic and thrilling ride for the senses which deserves to be rehoused and enjoyed elsewhere. Here’s hoping another sponsor books a ticket soon.