The Wire MARCH 2006 - by Phil England


Many of the sound works wrought by Max Eastley in a long career as an instrument maker and sound artist have shared an environmental link, but even he didn't anticipate what he would hear among the Arctic's glaciers.

To try and make something like the outside inside is incredibly difficult, says Max Eastley, reflecting on one of the key challenges at the heart of forty years' work as an instrument builder and sound artist. Eastley is perhaps best known for his kinetic sculptures - simple machines that incorporate irregular motion and sound are powered by tiny motors. Because they work randomly, you never get the same thing twice. It's not like a recording that is locked. It's like an organic machine, because everything is so unstable. It's like an opening outwards - it has a route out to the sea, if you like. There's a doorway to to the outside from inside.

As well as creating a wealth of indoor sound sculptures that incorporate natural elements such as sand, stone, straw and wood and that mimic the unpredictable, yet self-regulating aspects of natural systems, he has also created numerous works for the outdoors that are powered by the movement of the elements, especially the wind. Two of these instruments are on permanent display in Capel Manor Gardens Enfield and The Devil's Glen, County Wicklow, Ireland. Others have been documented on New And Rediscovered Musical Instruments - a split LP with David Toop issued by Brian Eno's Obscure label in 1975 - and later in a 1988 documentary film made for Channel 4, Clocks Of The Midnight Hours.

Two of Eastley's most recent projects illustrate very well the interior/exterior interface that he bridges. At the end of 2005, he organised a string of workshops as part of a project designed to develop young people's relationship with the Yorkshire Moors. Music Creator involved a group of teenagers from Middlesborough who'd never been on the moors before. They can see the moors, but they never go out there. Yet they are only twenty minutes away, says Eastley.

Screen based lifestyles and mobile phones mean that a whole generation is missing out on what previous generations understood as a valuable experience. Eastley describes their first trip out on the moors: It was raining, windy and grey, and they all got soaking wet and were moaning all the way up this hill. Once they got up there we couldn't get them back down. And they all wanted to go out again when they came back. They couldn't get enough of this outdoor thing.

Music Creator also involved primary school pupils and children with special needs. Eastley brought in improvising musicians Andy Diagram, Steve Beresford and Lol Coxhill, and the team used a range of tools and strategies, including some of Eastley's windblown instruments. At the end of the project, the kids constructed storyboards for compositions constructed from the sounds of the environment.

A lot of the kids had never listened to the world through a microphone with headphones on and they were absolutely astounded by this. The special needs kids were quite amazing, because they've all got an incredibly different view of the world.Some of them never speak. One teacher told me, 'One of them has started speaking because what you were doing with sound really communicates a different kind of language alternative.' I think some of these children feel intimidated by written language.

It's been a busy few months for Eastley. In addition to his workshops in Yorkshire (which continue this month in the Yorkshire Dales), he has also installed new sound sculptures in Cork and Riga, while holding down a teaching post at Oxford Brookes University. A second album of improvisations with the drum and trumpet duo, Spaceheads, is due out this spring, and in January he performed in a duet with Steve Beresford at a memorial concert for Hugh Davies, performing on two of Davies' invented instruments. I find as I get older I can work faster. I couldn't work this fast when I was thirty years old.

The biggest project that Eastley has been involved with over the past few years, though, is undoubtedly Cape Farewell. Initiated by photographer David Buckland, the project takes artists to the Arctic to see the impacts of global warming first hand. Artists of the calibre of sculptors Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread, writer Ian McEwan, dancer Siobhan Davis, and architect Peter Clegg have travelled along with scientists, educationalists and a film crew, from the tip of Norway to the Arctic island of Spitzbergen over the course of three annual expeditions.

Eastley, who has been on all three voyages, is the only sound artist involved in cape Farewell. It's had a huge impact on me and on the whole way I think. You get addicted to it; people keep going back there. He went armed with a DAT machine, gun microphone and a hydrophone. He recorded the sounds of the ship moving through pack ice, bird calls, a colony of kittiwakes, bearded seal songs, walruses and the sound of glaciers melting. The results form the soundtrack of a recently broadcast BBC4 documentary on the project, Art From The Arctic, and has also been used to accompany Buckland's photographs in a number of exhibitions.

Last December, Eastley made a piece for Cape Farewell's Ice Garden exhibition in Oxford. Working with a team of professional ice sculptors, he constructed two one-hundred-and-fifty kilo blocks of ice from alternating layers of clear ice and stones. As the suspended blocks slowly melted, the stones fell onto an amplified plate of metal. It had a sword of Damocles quality, Eastley remembers. You were waiting for these things to fall. When it was lit up at night, you could see the dripping water, but you couldn't see when a stone fell, so there was suddenly this bang. It was really shocking. It went to the back of your head. The weight of the sculptures meant there were questions about whether they would break. One of them made a really loud bang not long after it was put up. And there was a crack. That's what ice does.When you hear those glaciers, you'll hear a sound like a field gun going off.

Eastley is now developing new works for the next phase of the project that takes the form of a touring exhibition called The Ship. Cape Farewell's mission is to use artists and educationalists to help get the message of climate change across. The Arctic melt rate has had to be revised upwards over recent years. If the ice-cap continues to melt, it will contribute to sea level rise and also to a feedback effect which will amplify the effect of warming further as the Earth loses its reflectivity and absorbs more heat from the sun. Within decades, accelerated warming, with its catastrophic impact, could become irreversible.

The challenge is to make a piece of work that has something of this in it. All the artists are dealing with it in different ways and are combining things when they can. There were some great conversations on the boat with all these people. It was a really stimulating place to be a focus on these problems.

I couldn't say that art will solve everything.It won't solve anything, he continues. But there was a feeling that there has to be a kind of amalgamation of everybody - artists, politicians - all looking in the same direction. First, you have to convince people that it's happening then, second, what can you do about it and how long have you got?