The Sounds of the Humber – from concrete to opera
The gentle hum of traffic crossing the Humber Bridge has provided a backdrop to the lapping of water, chirruping of wading birds and wind tickling the rushes since it first opened to traffic 36 years ago tomorrow, and this year marks 40 years since the cable spinning began to connect those two iconic towers writes Jo Marwood.
From the first “Humber Bridge Act” of 1959, to the official opening by Her Majesty The Queen in 1981, residents on both sides of the Humber closely observed its construction as the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world. Indeed, the Humber Bridge enjoyed this accolade for 17 years, until Japan’s Akashi Kaiky? Bridge opened in April 1998.
Visitors today flock from afar to enjoy the Humber Bridge, walking from Barton to Hessle and back, enjoying a picnic and spotting a variety of birds. The various sounds of the Humber often pale in comparison as people strive to capture that perfect photograph as a souvenir of their visit. The whispering of wind through the reeds is forgotten as they juggle expensive cameras, or lean nonchalantly on the Bridge railing with selfie-stick in hand. To address this in 2017, the innovative “Height of the Reeds” project from Opera North sought to reconnect visitors through “A Sound Journey for the Humber Bridge” as part of Hull City of Culture 2017.
People were invited to borrow a set of headphones and “disappear into a sound adventure”. Local sound artist Jan Bang captured the deep music of the Bridge itself, and interwove this with music by Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen, guitarist Eivind Aarset and electronic wizard Jan Bang, as well as the triumphant sound of the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North. Spoken word from local poets interspersing the music evoked the Bridge as an iconic landmark of travel and symbol of home.
Liz Bennet, Managing Director at The Ropewalk in Barton-upon-Humber, managed to reserve a place to take part in this special project, and escape into the world of sound:
“On a windy April Wednesday afternoon, Richard Hatfield and I set off complete with headphones to walk the Bridge from north to south and back again, whilst listening to a specially commissioned piece of music based on the sounds of the Bridge. It has been a long time coming, combining the arts and this iconic structure straddling the Humber, and for me it really worked. With a soundscape in our ears, the vast skies above, the smell of the river and vibrations from the passing traffic, it was a truly a special experience for all the senses.”
The music was structured to last the duration of the walk across the Bridge’s 2,200-metre span and back, and the footpath was closed to the general public during the event. For vehicles travelling over the Bridge, the sight of headphone-wearing people lost in a symphony of epic music was a sight to behold in itself!
The “Height of the Reeds” project was designed to uncover the hidden sounds of the Bridge and its surrounding natural environment. Today, it’s hard to imagine the River Humber without those haunting concrete towers reflected in the swirling waters, and the thick cables curving majestically between them. Many thousands of tonnes of steel and concrete built this historically important structure, yet the surrounding natural landscape of Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire is only enhanced and celebrated all the more.