Martello Transmission: a song from under the floorboards
It’s night, and there is a gale blowing pitch dark. I am standing at the gate of a small wooden bridge which leads to the door of the Slaughden Martello Tower, close to Aldeburgh on the Suffolk Coast. Above the door, a light has been left on, keeping watch, and providing the tower with a filament of visibility in the darkness. Through a window the glimpsed illumination of a table lamp promises a sallow incandescent warmth, a warmth that waits and invites us in.
I cross the bridge, ladened with the baggage of self-catering and the mute irony of a boxed-up blimp (a zeppelin shaped windshield designed to protect microphones from the noise of air). As I walk across, I adopt the autonomic gait of the funambulist, shifting the weight of body and baggage in immediate response to the turbulent airy whoosh that wraps around the tower. Fumbling with a key, I struggle to open the heavy wooden door, double bolted with atmospheric pressure. As the door finally groans ajar, a hinge of air whistles, soughs, and susurrates. I close the weather behind me and lift a latch into the thick-walled silence of the empty tower.
Built between 1808 and 1812, Slaughden Martello Tower is the most northerly of a chain of defensive towers built along the South and East coasts of England, in response to the threat of invasion by the French emperor Napoléon. The Tower is the last surviving remnant of the village of Slaughden; an important maritime port, which long since succumbed, not to the French, but to the tidal invasion of the North Sea.
Modelled on a defensive Tower in Martella, Corsica, the translation to ‘Martello‘ was thought to have emerged as a consequence of the presumptive English Carry-On, that all Italian words end in ‘o’. With this slippage meaning shifts: in Italian, Martello derives from the hammer which strikes a bell and sounds a warning. Serendipitously if the ‘a’ of Slaugh shifts behind the ‘u’, we are left with Sluagh. In Gaelic folklore, the Sluagh are ‘Hosts of the unforgiven dead’ who take the form of gusts of wind: carrying ‘off the soul of a dying person in a [fluttering] flurry of wings and screeches.
To the best of my knowledge, [the tower’s] effectiveness was never put to the test. The garrisons were soon withdrawn and ever since these masonry shells have served as homes for the owls that make their soundless flights at dusk from the battlements.
The Rings of Saturn. 2002. W. G, Seabald.
In the ‘million-bricked’ up silence of the Martello’s shell-like, all sound becomes conspicuous. On the first of three nights stay, the dark is woken by the peal of whispered vowels and spontaneous consonants of a north-westerly, singing through the vaulted reeds of the tower’s architecture. Sighing out loud, a deep breath drawn through a fireplace disturbs in a deathly rattle, particles of soot caught in the metal throat of its current. Under the floorboards, 200 years old, the creaking songs of footfall haunt and hollow the stillness. Suddenly and from somewhere without origin, a dull thud hammers once loudly. It can only be moments before the tower follows Slaughden into the waves.
Unstable or hesitant […] sounds and words, eroded yet persisting through time – a transmission that sometimes becomes a convulsion, deforming what is there still.
Singed. 2021. Daniela Cascella
In the morning I open the storm door of the easterly window to find tomorrow rising yoke yellow over the squally horizon of the North Sea.
Radio, live transmission
The architecture of the Slaughden Martello is a unique variation of the normal design. Instead of a single tower, four towers coalesce into a quatrefoil; a four-leafed brick clover. Acquired by the Landmark Trust in 1971, the restoration of Martello converted the four towers into four rooms around a large, vaulted centre. Each tower and room correspond with the cardinal points of a compass; an easterly window peeks out over the North Sea, a northerly window looks toward the shingle-shore of Aldeburgh, through the kitchen, the front door looks back westerly across the bridge toward the river Alde, whilst a southerly aspect keeps an eye and ear upon the distant silent Mist of retired radio towers on Orford Ness.
Eerie wooden structures more than eighty yards high which could sometimes be heard creaking in the night.
The Rings of Saturn. 2002. W. G. Seabald.
Arriving at Martello under cover of darkness, I smuggled in a cheap FM-transmitter, a bundle of radios and a folder of field-recordings collected on Orford Ness, some ten years hence. Here within this folder are the accosted derelict voices of ballistic pagodas and the encrypted Morse of air upon door hinge. In a clandestine FM transmission, broadcast from the tower’s vaulted centre, these confiscated voices mingle with others caught lurking in the stone tapes and wooden cassettes of Martello. Through the array of dysfunctional radio sets, weak modulating signals are transmitted live back into the ‘interfrequency’ of the tower, seeping through its walls, out to sea and over the horizon.
The broadcast opens with looped static of a tidal recording (a tide of silence) made over a decade ago, by immersing a silent grooved record into the incoming tide at Cley next the Sea. This is accompanied by the flued voice of the fireplace and pulled-chord chime of the tower’s entrance bell. The chime is rung by dance/movement artist Julia Hall, who enters the Martello and performs the compass of its architecture, opening and closing the four doors in a ritualistic circuit of west, south, east, north, west. This reel of latch and footfall performs in concert with the radios’ short waves of interference and the shingle shanties of rolled pebbles on floorboards.
In the tower FM reception is poor, but the Martello signal breaks through clear. Tuned in and out its song flickers briefly, before disappearing off air in the atmospheric mush of radio silence.
Oh – we sowed our signals and we reaped the air. We eavesdropped on Plasetsk by loop. Algiers by backscatter; we tracked the flights of planes, the arcs of missiles, the paths of ships, the movements of train.
But we also picked up what wasn’t uttered.
Ness. 2019. Robert McFarlane & Stanley Donwood.