This article was originally written for Talliston Times by John Trevillian.
Our senses make life meaningful. In fact, it can be said that what is experienced through the senses is life itself. Seeing and hearing are the basic fundamentals of life and as much a necessity as human nourishment as food and water. Though both of the higher senses may seem to be of equal importance, it is not often realized that hearing has the greater effect in determining the character of our lives. In fact, hearing has traditionally been regarded as the highest, most powerful of the senses which is probably why music is arguably the highest and most influential of the arts to many people.
Patrick Drummond, Ardmore’s veteran sound editor with over 30 years experience, summed up the joys and motivations of working in the (often unfairly overlooked) sound department, saying: “The last creative brushstroke that is put onto a film is the soundtrack. A real joy can be felt as life is breathed into a film story conceived of many years before…” Films show clearly that sound is undoubtedly a vital element not only in movie production, but also in our life’s at large. Can you imagine Jaws without John Williams’ score? Psycho without those grating strings as Janet Leigh is mercilessly knifed in the shower? And the most important aspects of sound are those qualities which convey emotions. It is through the different expressive qualities of sound that we learn the various nuances and subtleties of emotion. This enormous range of gradations in our emotional experience is communicated most often through the sonic arts, thereby saving us the need to have corresponding real-life experiences.
The Sound of Music
There are various reports exploring the effects of ambient noise on creative cognition.
Research suggests that it’s harder to be creative in a quiet space, while loud workplace can be frustrating and distracting. But there is such a thing as having enough noise to work and the mix of calm and commotion in an environment like a coffee house is proven to be just what you need to get those creative juices flowing. There are even companies like Coffitivity who provide an app that plays coffee house murmur – and I’m listening to it now as I type these words in the race to meet the Talliston Times deadline! Being a little more technical, here’s some more info on how ambient noise can affect creativity. Results demonstrate that a moderate (70 dB) versus low (50 dB) level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks and increases the likelihood of innovative products. A high level of noise (85 dB), on the other hand, hurts creativity - with different music structures affecting different types of creativity activity (such as writing and painting). And as Talliston was designed specifically to inspire creativity, sounds were always going to be integral to that storytelling palette.
TALLISTON’S SOUND SYSTEM
Hidden in the Victorian Boiler Room is the sonic nerve centre for the entire house, allowing multiple levels of ambient SFX and music to flow into every room and location of the house – including the gardens
A World of Sound
In each location of the house and gardens, great pains have been taken to mix both hidden speakers and visible period pieces to create the various levels of sound required. A good example of this is the Treehouse Sanctuary, where quadrophonic speakers surround guests with the noises of birds, creaking tree trunks and the village noises below, while also incorporating a reproduction 1960s stackable threespeed record player/radio from Steepletone Products. Based on original 1960s designs and with a red leatherette finish, this item had to look new to the period rather than buying an authentic antique. Below sit a variety of easy listening vinyl albums to bring a little Bacarach into the ambience. For variety, the sound effects (SFX) can be interchanged to create a high wind scenario and also rainstorm (for the wet season). Visitors have commented that the room actually feels like it is moving in the wind – and a great illustration of how persuasive the element of sound is.
Outside, secreted in porchs, lantern bases and even a bird box external speakers provide sounds of the Canadian wilderness, village life and folk bluegrass to blanket and compliment life outdoors. In this way, an underlying mood is created, and if you do explore further inside the Boiler Room (our coal-black cupboad under the stairs in the Victorian living room), you’ll find drawers of individually created CDs and iPod players crammed to the gills with music and SFXs ranging from Big Band anthems through Nordic folk to spine-tingling creeks and scuttling noises that come as if from nowhere in the Haunted Bedroom.
The entire final effect completes the journey of senses through the house – a journey that starts every morning at 06:45 when the entire house switches on for our unique version of the morning alarm call…
Some attributes of Papa Legba: loa of crossroads, ways & thresholds; facilitator of communication, speaking all languages; speaker & way-keeper between the world of the living & of the dead; he is syncretised with St Anthony, patron saint of lost things.
One of the interesting & trickier questions in thinking about making an event for/with/through/in Talliston is the relationship of the spaces to each other & how this affects those experiencing the house itself & any event therein. Each space (room or garden) has - is - its own time zone, location, has its own multi-layered history, & its own sound & scent. There are no neutral in-between spaces to buffer the transitions - any space between rooms is a place in in its own right (the palazzo Hall of Mirrors stairway & entrance vestibule filled with clocks, the Fountain Courtyard), so the visitor to the house moves instantly between space, place & time.
For a visitor on a guided tour of the house, this can be exhilarating even as it can be disorientating, the labyrinth pathway dissolving a sense of conventional layout, while the guided aspect provides a continuous thread that stands in for a through-narrative (the umbrella narrative being the story of the house's transformation: conception, evolution & completion), as the visitor is dropped in & out of each room or garden's specific story.
For an event like ours, things become more complicated. As we engage with the immersive natures & histories of the spaces, we are also evolving our own takes on them, as we develop ways of exploring the rooms & gardens using sound, performance & other elements. But this separates us from Talliston's overarching narratives - its creation history, the guided thread, & the new narrative introduced in the Stranger's Guide to Talliston novel - & this separation gives us an interesting problem, because however engaging we can make the experience of each space, the participants' overall experience risks being a dislocated, serial one of separated spaces without the satisfying accumulation serial structures can bring, or the warmth of comprehension of an overall through-narrative to tie the spaces together.
So, this leaves us with some approaches to consider - we might highlight the dislocations, the labyrinthine disorientation, the juxtapositions & jump cuts; we might create our own through-narrative, tying the spaces together, guiding the experience of the participants; or we might find a way to smooth the passage between spaces whilst still leaving the narrative relatively unimposed, available to each visitor to craft for themselves.
A possibility might be to reconsider the relationship of the spaces to each other - instead of fully separate spaces, one might conceive a situation where the spaces have been brought into contact with each other, where the thresholds, boundaries are blurring, & where (while each space retains all of its particular, engaging character, nuances & histories) elements might emerge (however tiny) & manifest, to indicate a strange overlapping or interpolation of the spaces - an approach which may open up ways to explore any of the ways our guests might experience the event.
A question of stories: an intersecting, overlapping, emerging, layered, fragmenting constellation of stories & how they are experienced, & the bigger stories they coalesce to form?
One of the most creatively seductive rooms in the house is the Room of Dreams, the Alhambra palace bedroom, whose travel-writer inhabitant has decorated the walls with souvenirs from her many journeys. The room itself, with its gauze net hazing the bed & is suggestion of a continuation beyond the window draws the visitor into a dreamlike state. The room is suffused by its own dreams, the dream of its own time & place, & the dreams of places travelled to & experiences lived - but the filtered light calls other possibilities & states of dreaming: the dreams brought in by creators & collaborators; the dreams of our audience; the dream states of the other rooms & their inhabitants; the dreams we follow; & it seems humans are not the only animals who dream....
Another room currently occupying my thoughts is the Haunted Bedroom, whose ambience perfectly captures its gothic narrative, a tale of hauntings & a dead child. But how else might we explore the idea of haunting, or hauntings? Haunting is a word we use more widely alongside the ghostly connotations - we are haunted by a melody or a phrase, an event or a place that resurfaces in our memories; places we return to time after time are our haunts - we ourselves haunt them; & this brings us back to being haunted by people, leading us back to our own & others' ghost stories.
& what else does the room give us? what to make of the ceiling decorated wth children's stories & fairytales? having recently recovered childhood books of fairytales, whose text & illustrations had remained more embedded in memory than i had realised, perhaps this lends us another aspect to the hauntings this room might encompass...
After our whirlwind trip to Essex, Gavin and I met with Gemma and Gary to discuss our ideas. This meeting cemented for me just how extraordinary Tallistion is - the distortion of time and place was difficult to explain and it became clear that, until Gemma and Gary had also experienced it, we would not be able to make any concrete plans for the content of our performance.
However, we had a great session coming up with potential ideas. We explored the different ways we could use the space and how we could interact with/enhance/become part of Talliston. Would it be more successful to allow members of the public to explore freely, or to guide them through each room? Could we change what people might encounter in each space, thereby increasing the feeling of an ever-shifting labyrinth? Will there be a 'story' behind the performance? If so, how clear or abstract would that be? Perhaps we could leave 'clues' to the story for people to interact with? What level of interactivity would create the best experience? etc etc...
As you can see, there are more questions than answers at this point, but there's plenty to experiment with when Gemma and Gary experience the magic of Talliston for themselves.
Talliston has to be experienced to be believed.
A year ago, I played a short concert for the Congleton Unplugged festival, a local gig just round the corner from my home. One of the pieces I played was an open form score by Rachel Graff (co-collaborator on these current projects), called ...the room kept on ticking by itself. By chance, one of the audience members was Lin Bardsley, who in chatting to me afterwards mentioned a place called Talliston House & Gardens in Essex & its owner John Trevillian; her description was of an unusual & magical place, with one space entirely filled with clocks. Lin thought that Rachel's piece & some of the other repertoire might fit well in the house, & offered to put me in touch with John. I jumped at the chance. Originally, I'd assumed by the name that it was some kind of stately pile.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Talliston House & Gardens is a 25-year labour of love & imagination, & rather than a mansion lolling in a deer park, it is in fact an semi-detached ex-council house in an unassuming estate in Great Dunmow, around a mid point between Stansted Airport & Colchester. The footprint of the house has barely changed from its original incarnation, but John has developed 13 spaces, transforming each room into a creation from a particular time & place, each with its own histories & stories. These metamorphoses are achieved by travelling the world to source real artefacts & materials.
But with Talliston writing & words only take you so far. A quick visit to the website will give you some visual idea - the gorgeous photos (some of which now appear on this site, thanks to John's generosity) give a sense of what you will walk into. A chat with John will add extra information - behind all the transformations & stories is a simple ethos: that anyone should be able to transform their surroundings in however small a way to enrich their lives, & that the Talliston experience can provide the nudge to do this. We all agreed though that, if we were going to create an event that lived up to Talliston's proposal, a visit would be essential.
This turned out to be absolutely correct. Rachel & I popped ourselves on a ferociously early train from Manchester to get down to Essex by lunchtime, where we were met by the fantastic Marcus (who also cooked us a delicious lunch). If this all sounds like gushing hyperbole, this is one of the effects both of Talliston & the way John Trevillian opens up the experience of his (& his faithful team's) creation. One of the most attractive aspects of Talliston (particularly to people who make muti-disciplinary events) is that it is very much a fully immersive experience - as impressive as the decor & the evolved backstories are, John's imagination has also stretched to things like carefully designed layered sound in all rooms, & also specially-matched 3-layer scents for each room, details which make the shift between times/places all the more convincing.
John's generosity & enthusiasm during our visit is borne out by the community of people Talliston attracts, & the variety of people & communities it serves. Each room is enough to get the creative wheels turning, & as a whole Talliston is a gift to our sort of work - a rich environment that leaves enough room for the imagination to play with. Rachel & I came away very excited about what might be next.
& what is next? Once the initial thrill is past, the questions (all exciting ones to have to answer) begin to arrive: what sort of an event could combine musicians (our inestimable collaborators Gemma Bass & Gary Farr of the Vonnegut Ensemble) & a variety of media & thread it through Talliston, creating a new experience whilst respecting the creative forces already at work? How might we move audiences around the spaces most effectively? What impact might John's new novel, which narrativises the Talliston spaces, have on our thinking? & more.
All of this questions will form the topics of future blogs as this project develops over the next year, so watch this space....