A magical sound on the river

Last sunday, the 6th October, I was lucky enough to go on a magical journey that took me along the River Rea and into Cannon Hill Park as part of the MAC's 50th anniversary event Sounding the River.  The event only ran for four nights but it could have run for a month based on the numbers that had gone on the journey and I wish it had run for longer so that I could have experienced it at least one more time.

Sounding the River
Take a magical journey of sound, light and performance down the River Rea and into Cannon Hill Park.
Find yourself meandering along the riverbank where fire lit performers extinguish the darkness, mechanised birds fly past your ears and trees come alive with strange electronic song. As you drift along hidden river walkways, enter into a dreamlike place of water sounds, floating music and delicately rippling worlds.
Jony Easterby has brought together a group of internationally acclaimed artists to celebrate the hidden beauty of Birmingham’s urban river. Several of these artists created Power Plant, a feature of Durham’s enigmatic LUMIERE festivals and Liverpool’s Capital of Culture, which continues to tour the globe. All have a reputation for transforming the outdoors into fascinating, playful places that enthrall adults and children alike.

The River Rea, the river Birmingham was founded on, has been culverted and hidden away, even next to Cannon Hill Park, and the chance to walk along part of the river I had never been down felt like an adventure in itself.  Going to one of the last timed performances, the darkness of the river and park illuminated by the performances and installations made it a magical experience in which all your senses were in use.

As you made your way initially down to the river by the MAC you began a journey along the river illuminated by small LED lights and the sounds of cymbals that led to giant glowing water drops, electro woodpeckers and kingfishers, fireflies, a sacred prehistoric engagement with the river and a song of the river.

Looking beyond the the clever performances and installations, the trail accentuates the features of the park – it is a celebration of nature and the River Rea. Lead artist Jony Easterby sees it as ‘a way of exploring [the river's] unsung beauty, its hidden past and changing ecology by taking artwork out of the doors of mac, and into the surrounding landscape.’ You noticed the beautiful flatness of the Rea juxtaposed with the turbulent waters when it hit a weir. Lights up-lit trees to made you study their form in a different way.http://morecanalsthanvenice.wordpress.com/2013/10/04/sounding-the-river/

The event fully immersed you in the beauty of the river and in it's integral but now forgotten part in Birmingham's history.  With the installations you could explore the hidden past of the river and Red Earth art group's River Crossing provided an intimate engagement with the river and man's ancient relationship with water.  The performance spoke of the anglo-saxon settlers' own relationship with the River Rea and water as they founded the hamlet of Birmingham, the name coming from Beorma-Ingas-ham,  meaning the settlement of people of Beorma, on the river; http://news.richarddenning.co.uk/?p=272905

The event as Jony Easterby,  Lead Artist, notes in the Programme introduction is a celebration of the river and a reflection on it's change from a problem to be controlled and bricked in to a valued corridor of life and biodiversity.

The River Rea project arose from a desire to release the artistic potential for both artists and audiences of an often-ignored river that runs through the centre of Birmingham. Urban rivers are a reminder of the forces of nature, benign, hostile and beautiful that flow through our lives, and the Reas 14 mile stretch of often culverted river course reflects the many aspects and contradictions of Birminghams character and communities that have sprung up throughout the centuries along its banks. 

After following the river we emerged into Cannon Hill Park along the porous boundaries between river and park and to a reflection on the nearby Nature Centre and a clever kinetic sound sculpture using piano strings and nature in a harmony of nature and man and sound.  The route through trees back towards the MAC, illuminated and with sounds adding to the senses, provided an engagement with nature and space and developed the intimate engagement with the river into the role the river plays in the ecology of the river valley and adjoining Cannon Hill Park.  Rather than seeing a park with it's manicured lawns and lovely flower beds you were part of a relationship with the park and it's trees sitting on either side of the river and reaching skywards to the starry sky above.

A short video of the kinetic sound sculpture reproduced from http://www.youtube.com/user/Brumpolarbears

The event, as the programme's introduction notes, aims to help us see and hear the river with new eyes and ears and I for one found myself enjoying a more personal and aware relationship of a river that runs less than 20 metres from my house and which i've walked and run past without nothing more than an admiring glance and enjoyment of green space.

With such a popular event and a river that has oft been ignored it would be great to see this as an initial event of an annual event celebrating the River Rea.  The river has now been recognised as a useful water feature in a city, being noted in the Big City Plan's consideration of Birmingham as a water city (http://birminghamcentral.blogspot.com/2008/11/big-city-plan-3.html), that has used canals in lieu of a larger river for industry and now leisure and which could add another blue route across the city.  

It would be great to use the opportunities to redevelop Southside and the Highgate area and Digbeth to open up the river away from the controlled and bricked up environment it has been relegated to.  The collapse of the Digbeth scheme that was to see it brought to the surface, http://birminghamcentral.blogspot.com/2013/03/pieced-together-jfk-memorial-mosaic.html, was unfortunate but may yet give rise to other developments which may come to value and showcase the river.

I would love to see Sounding the River evolve to encourage new artists to build on this production and to showcase their reflections on the link between Birmingham and the River Rea and be part of an annual event while also allowing more people the opportunity to experience a magical experience.

The following are a selection of pictures I took from the event.


Jony Easterby said…
Thanks for your intelligent and thoughtful observations on the event...lets hope the river carried on running through all of our lives with more awareness of its understated beauty.

Jony Easterby

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