Uncovering the history of a high street

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Jez Riley French’s sound walk Breet Velvit Ake (‘Bright Velvet Wander’ in the Yorkshire dialect) evokes Whitefriargate’s history using a range of hidden, overlooked or usually inaudible sounds from the street.
It is shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2021 Awards, and was part of High Street Sound Walks, a series commissioned by Historic England and National Trust to help people discover the magic of their local high streets for Heritage Open Days 2021.

Jez riley French is a sound artist from Hull who explores sound as both material and subject. His work over the past four decades has involved installation, intuitive composition, scores, film and photography. In recent years he has focussed on recording surfaces, spaces and situations, using technology to uncover and capture an incredible range of sounds that we would never normally have the opportunity to hear: his work has included the sound of the dolomites dissolving, ants consuming fallen fruit, the Tate Modern building vibrating, the infrasound of domestic spaces around the world, glaciers melting in Iceland. He is known for his pivotal role in expanding the use of extended recording techniques, including the recording of structural vibrations, into the sonic arts.

Here, Jez describes his work.

Breet Velvit Ake is more of a meander than a walk. The street on which it focuses, Whitefriargate in Hull, East Yorkshire, is short, the shortest of the high streets chosen by Historic England as part of High Street Sound Walks. It would take perhaps 5 minutes at the most to walk from one end to the other at a confident pace. My work with sound, and indeed my personal connection to listening in whatever context, often involves the concept of duration and listening to sounds outside of our attention, so, this piece was always going to reflect layers of place; geographical, historical, personal and geological. 

As a starting point I researched the streets connections to non-mainstream culture, from the 1970’s onwards, questioning how any street, at the edges of a city centre and somewhat neglected in recent years, can and must re-emerge as one not aiming for commercial success alone, but as a space for a creative relationship to place.

I weaved into this the sounds of the architecture itself; their minerals dissolving, their names as a poetic link between their countries of origin and the streets history as a dock side hub of migration and immigration. I recorded the sounds of spaces within the Art Deco stores that bookend the street, and mid-way, the upper floors of the old Boots store, formerly an inn, untouched since the late 1800’s. I listened in on plants growing through cracks in the paving and from rainwater drains, and to the gulls on the rooftops above.

Whitefriargate also sits in the midst of numerous sites of important historical and social shifts, especially female rights and freedoms. Most of these stories too have been pushed to the edges of city history; ignored, unwritten, uncelebrated and under-researched. For example, in 1795 Mary Wollstonecraft spent time in and around the street searching for a cargo ship to take her and her infant daughter to Sweden in order to retrieve a stolen treasure ship for her lover, Gilbert Imlay.

The sound walk reflects on the history of the street, weaving in these story threads, music and the sounds of the civic architecture including the electromagnetics of shop signs and security systems. These raise some of the fundamental questions around listening as a creative act; faulty borders, imposition, aesthetics and, simply, how locations resonate if we give them attention and accept our limitations in perceiving these traces. 

Breet Velvit Ake was produced in association with Absolutely Cultured. High Street Sound Walks was a commission by Historic England, National Trust and Heritage Open Days with support from the players of People’s Postcode Lottery and produced by Sound UK

Jez’ reflection is the eighth in a series of the artists shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2021 Awards talking about their work.

Six journeys of discovery

There are six other High Street Sound Walks available. Each one offers a distinctive, immersive soundscape taking listeners on a journey of discovery. They bring hidden histories and stories to life, helping people to see their high street in a new light.

Listeners can take a self-guided route, supported by an illustrated map created for each place. The walks will encourage people to slow down, pause and reflect, and experience their environment in a new way.

Sound artists worked with communities in six places to collect stories so that each sound walk was informed by and represents authentic local voices and experiences. The works connect listeners with the people, past and present, who have made their high street what it is today, transforming the everyday into something magical. They are available at HistoricEngland.org.uk/SoundWalks alongside creative interpretations for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Jez Riley French

Jez Riley French

my work involves a focus on located listening and recording, including the development and use of extended techniques, photographic scores and encouraging discussion around the borders of sound and sound culture. As an installation artist and music / sound...

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