Fog Signal Transmission

 
A perfect summer’s day. Sunshine, slight breeze. The Ness ablaze with flowers.
Derek Jarman, Modern Nature

Prelude

Seagulls flocking over Ness [field-recording]: 02:00 / mp3 / 2019

At 9:15 AM on the 24th July 1991, the Post Office collected a hand-written envelope, that had been dropped into a letter box in New Romney near Dungeness. A day later, a bright orange envelope, addressed in a flourish of black ink, fell onto the floor of a one-bedroom flat in Park Fields, Wolverhampton.  Addressed by Derek Jarman this envelope is kept between the pages of a copy of Modern Nature.

In June this year, Modern Nature featured on the BBC Radio 4 series, Book of the Week.  Beautifully read by Rupert Everett the programme was recorded at Prospect Cottage, Jarman’s home in Dungeness. Everett reads from the desk where Modern Nature was written, and an orange envelope inscribed. The letter enclosed within that envelope ends with the words: ‘Dungeness is all flowers.’

Since receiving the letter in 1991, I have wanted to return to Dungeness and see Prospect Cottage in full flower. This summer, twenty-five years after his death I finally returned. I say ‘return’ although I had never actually been to the Ness. And yet, having waited so long, it does feel like a return of sorts, a return to somewhere I have never been and to a memory I am yet to forget.


Starlings Transmitting [field-recording]:  02:32 / mp3  / 2019

Listen. Listen now. Listen to Ness.
Ness speaks. Ness speaks gull, speaks wave, speaks
bracken and lapwing, speaks bullet, ruin, gale deception.
Ness speaks […] transmission, reception, Ness speaks
pure mercury, utmost secret, swift current, rapid fire.
Listen again. Listen back. Listen to the past of Ness […] [1]

As part of the ‘fifth continent’ Dungeness is set adrift, detached, flat and exquisitely bleak. Closer to Calais than London the Global Positioning System of my mobile, ignores Brexit and positions me firmly in France.  On the shingle, the derelict shell of a wooden shed [2], is thought to have been built by Marconi as part of his experiments with the transmission of wireless radio signals across English Channel. The airwaves still chatter in the frequent modulation of broken English and spoken French. Like many of the buildings on the Ness, Marconi’s ‘Wireless shed’ has been converted into a modernist holiday home.

A physical and architectural neighbour to the Wireless shed  [3], the Fog Signal Building is part of the Trinity House Experimentation Station [4]. In August of this year it became the site of my most recent covert residency and micro-FM transmission. The industrial bungalow lies low in the shingle at the very tip of the headland. Rising from its flat concrete roof, the perpendicular pluck of a decommissioned radio tower breaks cover, transmitting a ghost of presence in the horizontal empty – Ness. Every morning a small electronic murmur of starlings settles on the tower, briefly recommissioning transmission.


Fog Signal Building once housed the air pumps, whose compressed breath, mouthed through an array of six horns, tested the distance and propagation of fog signals. An architectural ghost of these forgotten voices remains in a monochrome tower of mute horns, which peaks over the sine waves of shingle, bellowing silently, out to sea.

Formed through longshore drift, the ‘dangerous nose’ of the Ness is constantly wiped by oblique incoming winds. And yet the landscape seems strangely still, evacuated of presence, it oxidises quietly. On the horizon the sea is visible, but it’s sound remains distant and remote, an audible rumour behind a vast tide of shingle.


Considered one of the quietest places in the UK, in the 1920’s the Ness was referred to as ‘the nearest approach to silence […]’[5] and selected as a good site for the large array of three acoustic mirrors at Great Stone (aka Denge). The early warning system of these concrete ears extends along the Kent coast, from Denge to Hythe, onto Dover and the South Foreland Lighthouse, where in 1899, Marconi conducted the first international radio transmission.

As part of the Hythe Acoustical Research Station, the sound mirrors at Hythe were constructed by the Air Ministry in the 1920’s with the largest of the two (30ft) being completed in 1929. Designed to survey the air, the mirrors listened out for the incoming propulsion of enemy aircraft. Although successful in tests, by 1936 the acoustic premonition of sound mirrors was superseded by the electromagnetic scan of RAdio Detection and Ranging.



Hythe Mirror gunfire [field-recording]: 00:41 / mp3 / 2019

At the summit of The Roughs, overlooking the beached military ranges below, the largest of the Hythe mirrors survives. Tagged and crumbling, its cracked concrete ear still listens. ‘[A]lone with nothing particular to listen to’, perhaps as Derek Jarman writes, ‘this is [its] finest hour.’[6] As I ascend the hill and reach the mirror, I hold a microphone out into the oracle [Auricle] of its hollow, and I am suddenly confronted with a burst of gunfire, the echo of its acoustic shrapnel shattering the mirror’s derelict silence. Francois Bonnet notes that ‘the echo, produced by the repercussions a multiplied sound […] establishe[s] a supernatural sonorous environment’[7]. Brandon Labelle also recognises the ghosting of acoustic delay when he writes: ‘the echo is a sound that comes back to haunt [ …]’[8]. Just as the mythical Echo wasted away,  her bones turning to stone, so too the percussion of the ballistics recurs, an echoic and fugitive spirit, mineralised in the concrete of the mirror.


Air Harp n.3: 04:12 / mp3 / 2019

My previous transmissions at Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station were composed of sounds found and recorded in the surrounding landscape. At Fog Signal I decided to not only listen into the landscape, but also introduce other sounds into it. The ‘air harp’ is a cheap second-hand auto harp, ‘prepared’ with the flotsam of wood, screw and polystyrene washed up onto the Ness. Performed by the wind, this automatic aeolian harp, uncovers the murmuring music of sea breezes.

But from where and whence do these ghostly melodies come? Athanasius Kircher, who first described the Aeolian harp in 1650, ‘surmised that the wind comes in rays’, plucking the strings and causing them to sound. Whilst, in Physiological Disquisitions, the 17th century natural philosopher William Jones proposed that the music of the Aeolian harp originated not in the strings, but in the air itself. The harp operated as a ‘sound prism’ ‘[refracting] the wind,’ dividing and revealing ‘vibrations […] already present in the air.’[8]


Pebble arc: 02:40 / mp3 / 2019

Fog Signal Transmission [harp and signal] edit: 03:00 / mp3 / 2019

The transmission at Fog Signal, begins as the beam of the Dungeness lighthouse automatically announces night fall. A line of pebbles cast onto the shingle, traces an arc of auditory space and presence.  The auto harp sounds, divining the air and revealing a concert of signals already present. I transmit to an unknown and unknowing audience, the transmission, like sound itself, disappearing in the moment of its appearance. Signals lost are sent, received and lost again. No one is listening, nothing is heard.

 

Footnotes

[1] Robert Macfarlane & Stanley Donwood, 2019. Ness. London: Hamish Hamilton. p.5

[2] This shack appears in the landscape of Jarman’s The Garden (1990).

[3] It is difficult to confirm that Marconi built the ‘Wireless Shed’ in the 1890’s.  The building is also refereed to as the Decca Radar Station, built by the Decca Navigator Company in 1961.

[5] Fog Signal Building and the Experimentation Station complex were redesigned by the Interior Architects Johnson Naylor

[5] Richard N Scarth. 1995. Mirrors by the sea. North Elham: Minnis Print Ltd. p.5

[6] Derek Jarman. 1991. Modern Nature. London: Century. p.72

[7] Francois J. Bonnet. 2016. The order of sounds. Falmouth: Urbanomic. p.25

[8] Brandon Labelle. 2010. Acoustic Territories. London: Bloomsbury. p.15

[9] Thomas Hankins & Robert Silverman. 1995.  Instruments and the Imagination. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 94-95.

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