An accompaniment to Jane and Louise Wilson’s exhibition of photographs taken around the Chernobyl exclusion zone (which ran 12 July – 3rd September 2011), Bang the Bore’s tenth event – our first at Southampton University’s John Hansard Gallery, on Saturday 6th August 2011 – presented music themed around nuclear energy in the context of the wider energy industry, culturally embedded fears, environmental impact and humanity’s ceaseless and increasing demand for more power.
This article presents some of our documentation of that event – our original poster (above), videos of the performances, notes from the programme and some of the audio and video we used at the event itself.
From our original programme:
In the immediate aftermath of Fukushima and the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, nuclear power barely seems out of the headlines. Yet while newsreel footage of Japan and photographs of Pripyat are filled with apocalyptic imagery, humanity is facing what many believe could be an actual apocalypse in the form of global climate change. Many scientists, environmentalists and politicians believe that nuclear energy is a compelling alternative to environmentally destructive coal power stations at a time when the industry is beset by controversy. Across the world, commentators are reassessing the risks of safety, cost, waste storage and potential proliferation against our baseload demand for power, its position within the wider portfolio of energy options, their environmental footprint, and the governmental logistics required to manage adequate infrastructure in the face of increased unease amongst their electorates.
The Zone of Alienation is the literal translation of the Ukrainian name for the radioactive exclusion zone around Chernobyl. The zone stands as both a monument to one of the worst disasters in the history of the nuclear energy industry and as a question mark, an ambiguous metaphor for many of the assumptions we make about radiation, energy and the environment. Bang the Bore will present an evening of music – as well as audio and visual presentations – dedicated to questioning these assumptions.
- – - –
based on Concret PH by Iannis Xenakis, modified and performed by Dan Bennett
Based on composer and architect Iannis Xenakis’ classic piece Concret PH, which was composed for Xenakis and Le Corbusier’s Phillips Pavilion at the 1958 World Fair in Brussels (occasion for the construction of the iconic Atomium building).
Concret PH can seem on first hearing to be a modest, even minor piece. It is less than three minutes long and deals for the entirety of that duration with a wavering field of microscopic sound events. Beyond these appearances, however, the work is a highly ambitious and groundbreaking work of post-war modernism. Constructed by filtering and painstakingly collaging fragments of a recording of burning charcoal, Concret PH marked an early exploration of particle and cloud based approaches to composition and of three-dimensional sound-spatialisation methods; and broke with conventional structural forms (even within the then new form of electroacoustic music) by exchanging event and narrative based structures for a hovering exploration of sonic material. This form, despite the short length of the piece, works to imply the endless unfolding of an idealised physical process, emphasising the eternal facts of material and energy over transitory, human matters.
With Concret BP we adapted and extended the ideas of the original for a different political context. We sourced our recordings from the burning of oil shale, gathered from cliffs nearby the Hinkley B nuclear reactor on the south west coast of England. Pitch classes (analogous to scales), used in filtering and resonating the recordings and in the sine waves which augment them, were derived from the relative abundances and atomic weights of the compounds found in kerogen (a hydrocarbon mixture extracted from oil shale). Oil shale requires considerable energy to burn and the piece begins with the sound of the blowtorch we used to ignite it.
Oil shale is a controversial source of liquid hydrocarbons found in abundance beneath some of the UK’s most significant conservation areas. The process by which the oil is extracted has proven environmentally damaging and offers a relatively low energy yield per gram of the carbon released in its mining and processing. Nonetheless the fuel now plays a significant role in the energy policies of the US and other major economies – though not, at the time of writing, the UK. The relatively short stretch of coastline from which the oil shale for this piece was gathered is home to Hinkley A & B (and soon C) nuclear reactors, another reactor at Oldbury and was the proposed site for the Avon Barrage, now shelved but set to have been one of the largest tidal energy projects in the world.
Dan Bennett is a Bristol based musician and programmer. He records as Skjølbrot.
- – - –
based on Clocker by Alvin Lucier, adapted by Bang the Bore and performed by Richard Thomas
Clocker is a characteristically idiosyncratic entry in experimental composer Alvin Lucier’s catalog. Like many of Lucier’s pieces it explores phenomenology and experience – in this case our psychoneurological relationship with time. The original takes as its sound source the ticking of a clock, and treats that sound source with audio delays controlled by galvanic skin response sensors – often used in measuring stress – which causes the time frame of the clock’s ticks to expand and contract according to the varying emotional state of the performer.
For this version we exchanged the clock for a Geiger counter and low level Thorium radiation source, replacing time with radiation in the composition’s conceptual framework and thus providing a musical metaphor for the World Health Organisation’s conclusion that some of the worst long-term effects of the Chernobyl disaster were on the mental health of the evacuated residents.
Richard Thomas is a musician and sound-recordist based in London. He performs as Magnus Spectrum and as part of The A Band.
- – - –
God of Concrete, God of Steel
by Frederick R.C. Clarke, performed by Ganbatte
J. Robert Oppenheimer’s infamous quotation from the Bhagavad Gita, commenting on his own role in the Manhattan Project, is perhaps the first and most elegant example of the religious awe that underpins and confuses many of our preconceptions regarding nuclear energy: “I am become Death, shatterer of worlds.”
To many, radiation is the Absolute Evil of fundamentalist fears, an invisible ‘unnatural’ force onto which we project our superstitions and false mythologies. And yet it is all around us; it is the light from our Sun, it powers our cities, diagnoses and treats our sickness, cooks our food, enables our communication networks, catalogues our history and maps our DNA. The understanding of radiation confers a godlike power to create, heal and explore, yet our popular culture overflows with images of annihilation, extinction, mutation, cancer, decay and toxicity. Radiation is the rampaging Godzilla, the poisoner of Captain Spock, the Armageddon unleashed by Skynet. But the naïve Judeo-Christian dualism between hope placed in technology and progress and the fear of radioactive destruction is perhaps most fully realised in the primary coloured pantheons of American comic books, in which the Old Gods return with new names and terrible new powers to lay waste to our world.
This performance of Frederick R.C. Clarke’s peculiar 1971 hymn God of Concrete, God of Steel fused field recordings made in one of the derelict cooling towers of Thorpe Marsh Power Station, improvisation and sacred singing, against a backdrop of pop culture iconography (a video collage juxtaposing quotes from Grant Morrison’s Supergods and Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline with footage culled from several incarnations of Hulk and Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman). The lyrics, with their undercurrent of energy utopianism and proclamations of a “God of atom… God of physics,” are available below for anyone wanting to join in worship.
Ganbatte is one of the solo projects of Leeds-based musician Seth Cooke, in which voice, drums and voice-controlled synthesizer form the basis for planned, unplanned and badly planned improvisation and song-deconstruction/destruction.
God of concrete, God of steel,
God of piston and of wheel,
God of pylon, God of steam,
God of girder and of beam,
God of atom, God of mine:
all the world of power is thine.
Lord of cable, Lord of rail,
Lord of freeway and of mail,
Lord of rocket and of flight,
Lord of soaring satellite,
Lord of lightning’s flashing line:
all the world of speed is thine.
Lord of science, Lord of art,
Lord of map and graph and chart,
Lord of physics and research,
Word of Bible, Faith of church,
Lord of sequence and design:
all the world of truth is thine.
God whose glory fills the earth,
gave the universe its birth,
loosed the Christ with Easter’s might,
saves the world from evil’s blight,
claims us all by grace divine:
all the world of love is thine.
“Four miles across a placid stretch of water from where I live in Scotland is RNAD Coulport, home of the UK’s Trident missile-armed nuclear submarine force. Here, I’ve been told, enough firepower is stored in underground bunkers to annihilate the human population of our planet fifty times over.
One day, when Earth is ambushed in Hyperspace by fifty Evil Duplicate Earths, this megadestructive capability may, ironically, save us all – but until then, it seems extravagant.
Like visions of Heaven and Hell on a medieval triptych, childhood memories of the thermonuclear post apocalyptic wastelands of my dad’s radical antiwar samizdat zines – with their gruesome hand-drawn images of how the world might look after a spirited thermonuclear missile exchange, never overlooking any opportunity to depict shattered, obliterated skeletons contorted against blazing horizons – sat side by side with the exotic, triple-sunned vistas that graced the covers of my mum’s beloved science fiction paperbacks. Digest-sized windows onto shiny futurity, they offered android Amazons in chrome monokinis chasing marooned spacemen beneath the pearlescent skies of impossible alien worlds. On television, images of pioneering astronauts vied with bleak scenes from Hiroshima and Vietnam: it was an all-or-nothing choice between the A-Bomb and the Spaceship. The Cold War tension between Apocalypse and Utopia was becoming almost unbearable.
And then the superheroes rained down across the Atlantic, in a dazzling prism-light of heraldic jumpsuits, bringing new ways to see and hear and think about everything.
The superheroes laughed at the Atom Bomb. Superman could walk on the surface of the sun and barely register a tan. The Hulk’s adventures were only just beginning in those fragile hours after a Gamma Bomb test went wrong in the face of his alter ego, Bruce Banner. In the shadow of cosmic destroyers like Anti-Matter Man or Galactus, the all-powerful Bomb seemed provincial in scale. In the Marvel Universe, radiation was a kind of pixie dust: sprinkle it on a scientist and voilà! A superhero was born. Radiation was responsible for the origins of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, Daredevil and several other early Marvel superheroes, transforming the isotopes of fear into fuel rods of wonder and possibility. Stan Lee stole back the annihilating radiation of the Bomb, and for children like me – raised in its icy shadow – he peopled the glowing darkness with extraordinary heroes.
Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea.
Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.
Superman is so indefatigable a product of the human imagination, such a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves, that my Idea of the Bomb had no defence against him. In Superman and his fellow superheroes, modern human beings had brought into being ideas that were invulnerable to all harm, immune to deconstruction, built to outsmart diabolical masterminds, made to confront pure Evil and, somehow, against the odds, to always win.
What we construct in our imaginations, we have a knack of building or discovering. We may not have flying men or invulnerable women racing among us, but we now have access to technologies that once existed only in comic book stories. Being extraordinary is so much a part of our heritage as human beings that we often overlook what we’ve done and how very unique it all is. Superheroes may have their greatest value in a future where real superhuman beings are searching for role models.
When the superhumans of tomorrow step dripping from their tanks, they could do much worse than to look to Superman for guidance.”
from Supergods, by Grant Morrison (author of Superman, X-Men, Fantastic Four and Justice League)
“We are as Gods and HAVE to get good at it”
Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline
- – - –
Also playing throughout the evening was a soundtrack of material related to energy and nuclear power – radio announcements, recordings of wind turbines, the thriving wildlife in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, extracts from Jakob Kirkegaard’s feedback recordings in abandoned Chernobyl buildings, explorations of the internal acoustics of abandoned cooling towers and a compilation of nuclear-age songs from the cold war period (mostly culled from the Atomic Platters archive). Audio streams of two of the cooling tower recordings are presented below.
The final embedded video (below) is an eighty minute scrapbook of images, film, quotes and ideas compiled by Seth Cooke to accompany the event. It was shown during the performances of Clocker and Counter, as well as during the intervals between performances – so while it has audio during some segments, the original intention was for it to be used as silent visual accompaniment. In presenting this documentation it must be pointed out that all these videos are only a representation of the work that was presented at Zone of Alienation, and that important contextualising factors have been lost along the way. So while this last video may seem, in places, to be a one-sided polemic, the original intention was to deliberately conflict with Jane and Louise Wilson’s anti-nuclear material. The aim was to present contrast, to raise questions, to strike a kind of cognitive dissonance in the audience – not to present a coherent argument. Bang the Bore don’t own the copyright to any of the work featured (although Stewart Brand, George Monbiot and Peter DiCampo all gave permission for their work to be used at the event) so please email us at bangthebore (at) googlemail (dot) com if you own anything featured here and want it removed. We’ll do so happily, without argument.
We would like to thank members of the Bang the Bore online community for their help in researching and collecting material for this event.
Bang the Bore is an increasingly loose collective of individuals, without consensus or manifesto, who congregate with a view to collaboration and support. We would encourage you to join us.