I was commissioned to compose a relaxing ambient soundscape for the Castlefield Viaduct in Manchester. The railway viaduct – which opened in 1893 – is set in Castlefield just south of the city centre and steeped in cultural and industrial history.
The viaduct was closed in 1969 and has since been fenced off and inaccessible to the public. The National Trust plan to turn it into an elevated public park in a similar vein to the High Line in New York City. The intention for the viaduct follows the National Trusts original mission as expressed by one of its co-founders Octavia Hill:
‘The need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise and, I believe, the sight of sky and of things growing seem such human needs, common to all’.
In the summer of 2022 the National Trust opened a newly renovated section of the viaduct as a pilot and to gather public opinions for how it could be used in the future (if you’d like to visit there’s information here).
I was asked by my friends at O Street design agency in Glasgow and their collaborators Creative Concern in Manchester to make a looping composition that soundtracks visits to the recently opened section of the viaduct.
The soundscape I created reflects the industrial and cultural history of Manchester and a sense of the city today. My composition features rhythmic sounds from the viaduct itself, sounds of trains, trams, weaving and water alongside field recordings of the wildlife that’s made a home on the structure. The National Trust’s wildlife survey revealed that many different birds, bats and insects can be found there.
The harmonic structure of the composition is inspired by the sound of Manchester’s tram horn (which I discovered plays a D Major chord). I analysed a recording of worker bees busily collecting pollen in a garden and noticed that their buzzing was also very close to a D Major scale. This coincidence inspired the scale and chord sequence I’ve created.
The chord progression in this piece is made from slightly stretched and pitched versions of the Manchester tram horn’s chord.
I’ve augmented the tram horns by creating my own synthesiser instruments. The sub bass is made from the buzzing of a worker bee and wing beats of a moth. The additional layered synths are made from a hybrid of bee and tram sounds. I’ve variously re-pitched the squeaks of the wheels of passing trains and trams so that their harmonics are in tune with the D Major chord sequence.
I’ve taken a recording of a butterfly fluttering it’s wings and added a resonating filter to create very subtle cymbal effects. The butterfly is acting as a very restrained jazz drummer who’s soft beats transition into quiet echoes of a weaving loom.
The echolocation sounds of Common pipistrelle and Noctule bats can be heard intermittently at the beginning and end points of the loop.
There are subtle layers of waterfall sounds from the surrounding canals.
Feral pigeons can be heard flapping their wings – reverberating through an echo made from a local railway brick arch.
I’ve included songs of the other birds identified on the ecological study of the viaduct: Wren, Black Redstart and Little Ringed Plover.
Thanks to David Freer at O Street, Cheyenne Brown and Steve Connor at Creative Concern and to Raz Ullah for his excellent field recordings of the viaduct.