Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Benjamin Tassie Meet the composer who wants Sheffield's rivers to play their own music

Musician Benjamin Tassie has built bespoke, hand-made instruments and then lowered them into the River Rivelin
– and in the process reawakened older ideas about our place within nature

A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time Hind Wheel Benjamin Tassie plyaing the Medieval rebec
Benjamin Tassie.

The upcoming City of Rivers exhibition shows how Sheffield's five rivers have been as intrinsic part of the city's development – not just economically, but environmentally and artistically too. But the early 20th-century paintings that sought to capture the River Rivelin did so solely from a human perspective – it was a one-way exchange, with the river itself a mute partner.

Walkley-based composer Benjamin Tassie, whose new work 'A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time' is featured in the exhibition, wants to give the river its voice back. Working with instrument maker Sam Underwood, he's designed and built a set of instruments that are actually played by the Rivelin itself. Ahead of a live performance at Weston Park Museum on 30 November, we spoke to Tassie about how the project aims to reconnect us with the living world.

What inspired the work?

The album and the idea came out of some earlier work that I'd been doing thinking about music and nature, and how they can interact somehow – how art can give us new ways of relating to nature. Then it was hanging out in the Rivelin Valley actually, just walking there, running there. It’s such an evocative landscape – it’s beautiful there, all of this nature, but also these layers of history, this idea that the landscape has changed.

The river has outlasted centuries of industry and yet has been shaped by the water mills, all the mill ponds and things. So I wanted to make something that interacted with that landscape, and that presented a pretty straight line to ‘I should build some water powered instruments’! It's not just imposing some art onto the landscape, but trying to have that be more of a symbiotic relationship.

Why was it important that the river itself played the music?

I designed and built [the instruments] with an instrument maker called Sam Underwood. Why the river playing? Well, I had done this earlier piece commissioned by an Icelandic Baroque quartet, and they premiered it in Reykjavik and recorded it there. Then I played that through a speaker at Stanage Edge at dawn. I wanted to get at the same kind of thing: music and the landscape, especially historically-informed music. How do they go together?

But it felt to me that there was this divide, this separation. So with this one I wanted two things really. One is that the river itself should have a role in playing the instruments – they're mechanical, so two have water wheels that then operate the mechanical mechanisms inside them. The other is a kind of organ that you submerge and it pushes the air out of the tank and plays these pipes.

A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time Second Coppice Wheel Benjamin Tassie and Rebecca Lee

Tassie and Rebecca Lee recording with two of the water-powered instruments at Second Coppice Wheel in the Rivelin Valley.

Benjamin Tassie.

So the river plays them but it was also about having more of a harmonious relationship with the landscape. Each of the instruments is based on historical musical instruments: one’s kind of like a harpsichord, the other is kind of like a hurdy-gurdy. Then there's this organ, which is based on an ancient Greek instrument called the hydraulis. Historical instruments are very quiet on the whole – they're not as loud as a modern violin or something. So there's this idea of being less noisy in the environment, not dominating it so much.

What can the past teach us about how we relate to the landscape? We have this very modern idea of progress, always going forwards, but maybe history can be instructive somehow. It was all about this balance and this sense of dialogue with the landscape. On some of the tracks I play alongside them – I played a medieval rebec, a string instrument, and a lap-steel guitar as well. And then Rebecca Lee played the bass viol and Rob Bentall played nyckelharpa. It really was like a collaboration, not only with the instruments but with the environment as well. It was very relaxing actually, quite a soothing experience where we didn't want to dominate. We played quite quietly and the flow of the river controlled the speed of the instruments. It did feel like a collaboration with the river.

I wondered how you think this piece fits into ideas around rights of nature, and about moving away from this ‘dualism’ thing of humans being somehow separate from nature and from the river.

There's this idea from Bruno Latour in his book ‘We Have Never Been Modern’ that gets at the dual ideas of modernity. One is this idea of time and progress: always going forward, disregarding the past. The other is this separation of man and nature. The modern project is that we are always getting bigger and louder, and also more cultured – further away from our primitive, inadequate, more naturalistic way of being. He basically says this is wrong. And we see that it's wrong more and more, because especially with climate change we see how entangled we are with nature.

I was at the Rivelin again after the floods and you really see it – that a lot of violence had been done to the landscape by this flow of water. You put both of those things aside – progress and separation from nature – and it allows you to aim at a more equal relationship with nature. Art can model that as well, in a way that talking about it, or writing about it, or looking at the statistics don't get at.

Each track is one take, whatever happens within that take is the piece. Through field recording you listen differently to nature – you afford it more care and attention than you might do normally. It lets you really experience that personhood, if you like, of nature that you're describing. I think ecological sound art does that very immediately – when we hear things it bypasses a lot of the distance that has affected us as ironic, post-modern people! When you hear a river, when you hear those natural sounds, it bypasses all of that somehow.

What made you decide to record only at dusk or dawn?

Partly it was because we filmed some of them. So this film that we made with lovely Jake from Opus Films was a really important part – right from the beginning I wanted it to not only be in an audio format, but also have the visuals of it, because it is so beautiful there and these instruments are so strange and serene when they're in the river. So partly it was to get good light, you know... golden hour.

It wasn't about avoiding people, because I was astonished to see that there are people at the river at four o'clock in the morning! But it's quite a magical time of day. There is a quality to the sound at that time of day that you don't get so much later on. You get the sounds of the world waking up: traffic starts at six, seven o'clock in the morning or something. Some motorbikes feature quite loudly on one of the tracks. It worked quite well actually – I quite liked that sudden intrusion

How are you going to translate it into a live performance in a very different setting?

The film is at Weston Park Museum’s City of Rivers exhibition from the end of this month, and they talked about having some kind of performance alongside it. I'm going to take these three water-powered instruments, which are kind of big water wheels. And I'm going to get the most enormous plastic tubs I can find, fill them up with water, and then use a system of pond pumps to operate the water wheels. I think it will be quite a fun way of approximating the river within the museum.

As well as recording the tracks, we also just made field recordings of the river. So for each of the locations I have a really beautiful recording, I worked with a guy called Ross Davidson, and he did a lovely job of capturing the environment. So the gig will be the water-powered instruments and these fields recordings that play as well – they really give you a sense of being at the river. Then, just as we did at the river, Rebecca and myself are going to play a bunch of old instruments alongside it. I have a spinet that I’ve tuned microtonally, guitar, some synthesisers, rebec... these sorts of things. We're going to try and reproduce how it was at the river, which is about really listening to the sounds of the environment, the sounds of these mechanical water-powered instruments as they operate, and then just playing in tune with that.

Learn more

'A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time' will be performed at Weston Park Museum on 30 November. Tickets are £8.

Weston Park Museum is wheelchair accessible, and the performance will be in the cafe on the ground floor. There are accessible toilets at reception, in the museum corridor and in the picnic space. You can find more information about accessibility at Weston Park Museum.

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

More Music

More Music