Soundtrap II: Leafcutter John

Artvehicle 19/Review

13th June 2007 — 22nd July 2007

Beaconsfield is housed in an attractive 19th century building that was once a Ragged School, so it is no surprise that this exhibition is also part of Architecture Week. The space Leafcutter John uses for his solo show was once the schoolroom and the key element in his composition/installation is the floor. The only things noticeable when entering the room at the top of the stairs are two large speakers on tripods. This brings emphasis to the dark stained wooden floorboards and the high white walls. There was no one in the space when I arrived, and this is important, as there was no sound. No sound from the sound piece I'd come for, but as soon as I trod on the boards it began. It is these floorboards that slope upwards away from you that have been microphoned and rigged to transmute your footfall into sound. It's a great revelation that comes from the first cautious steps to real enjoyment as each step brings a new noise. It is impossible to not run, exaggeratedly walk and jump a bit. I tried to detect sounds and thought I could hear gamelan, Tibetan bowls, bells, harpsichords, whistles and some non-specific synthetic guitar-like sound.

According to the press release there are three 'layers' at work in the piece. Leafcutter has recorded over a couple of months an archive of sound from the floor, its natural sounds and also human interaction with it. In addition, there are 'field recordings' of things, appropriately, for example, like school bells. This archive is then fed into a software programme of Leafcutter's devising. Layer 1 maps the floor in terms of its possible sound ranges. Layer 2 is the sound we hear when we tread on the boards; it is a 'musical response' by the programme utilising the archive. Layer 3 is the ongoing recording of the floor; the archive keeps growing and evolving and will be used in his live performance on 7 July.

I could have remained in the space gently evoking these sounds for some considerable time, however this is a public gallery after all, and they probably want more than one visitor a day. Firstly, two men (art students maybe) came in and I felt aggrieved as they had interrupted me tip toeing across the room diagonally and backwards. One of them sneezed and triggered a tinkle of sound. Then, up the stairs, came about 20 schoolchildren of about 5 years old with five or so teachers. They paraded to the stage at the top of the slope, sat in a circle, and began talking about the room. I stopped and with the other two visitors, watched. I was hoping this wasn't some planned 'performance' as the teacher tried to build up the atmosphere by bouncing some light plastic balls down the slope towards us (it wasn't). Then chaos - lots of running around, shouting, screaming followed by a discussion of the sounds that they could decipher - things quite predictable for children, I thought, (they aren't actually original and cute) like big dinosaurs, princesses, fairies, animals and magic.

What is so successful about this exhibition is the way that the space has been transformed through very little physical addition. Standing on the floorboards and anticipating moving and the sound that will accompany you is sublime. If it is possible, though, I would recommend going when it is unlikely anyone else will be there.

(Oh, technology. It is only two days since my visit and already on Leafcutter John's blog, a film clip, made by the two art students, has been posted. You can't see me, I am standing to the left, scowling at the children:


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London SE11 6A

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Soundtrap II: Leafcutter John — Soundtrap II: Leafcutter John Beaconsfield  Installation View Photograph: Ben Tomlinson

Soundtrap II: Leafcutter John
Installation View
Photograph: Ben Tomlinson