Resounding Rivers

Ghosts of Belfast rivers past can be heard around the city as part of PLACE's sound project. Listen to Matt Green below

If you are one of those people who need to run to the toilets when they hear running water, you might want to be careful where you go in Belfast for the next few months. Through the use of situated sound systems throughout the city, Queen’s Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) PhD student Matt Green has brought back the voices of the lost rivers of Belfast.

Although, it is a bit disingenuous to say they were lost. Try discarded in pursuit of the advancement of the city. ‘Industrialization meant things had to sacrificed,’ Green says, taking a break from putting together the PLACE sound installation. 'And in Belfast that was our rivers.’

Green’s interest in Belfast’s subterranean rivers started when he was working on a mobile sound project for the Ormeau Baths Gallery. He was looking for something unique about the area that he could use and came across an old map that showed the Blackstaff used to run down the centre of the street.

‘Something as powerful as a river and it can just be put aside and forgotten,’ he says. ‘You’d never know without reading these books or looking at the map that there was a river under your feet.’

He points out the Blackstaff, which used to have wild salmon swimming in it, is now a ‘horrible little concrete channel that runs through an industrial estate.’

For Resounding Rivers Green has expanded the Ormeau Baths Gallery project to include the Farset, which has also gone underground, and the Lagan, which remains on the surface but has lost much of its original girth. At six locations throughout the city Green’s situated sound systems will broadcast the sounds of the river from its heyday.

In order to ensure that he has reproduced the sound as accurately as possible Green has researched not just the geography but the history of the rivers.

‘Basically I’ve looked at what was there and tried to imagine what the sounds might be,’ he explains the process eagerly. ‘Then I visited places in Northern Ireland that might have something similar and taken that sound.’

For the installation at the BBC, where Joy’s Paper Mill and Dam were located, he took the sound from a Cookstown mill. ‘I think they were happy to have someone document that sound,’ Green says. ‘It’s unlike anything you’d hear today with all this wooden machinery.’

Other sites Green used to source sound included Bangor Marina, Lough Neagh and the Mournes, blending together the sounds of running water, bird song, boats at dock and creaking sails.

The remixed sounds can be heard at PLACE, Kelly’s Cellars, Bittles Bar, the Cloth Ear, the Waterfront Hall and the BBC Broadcasting House. Green is impressed with how supportive the venues have been.

‘I’ve done situated works outside galleries before,’ he says, ‘but not right on the street and not at venues that aren’t dedicated to art at the time. They’ve been incredibly supportive.’

Green is also delighted with how receptive the public has been to his sound work, even before it was available in it’s finalized version. While he was putting the installations together at the sites people would come over and question him about it. ‘I’d ask their opinion and edit the sound,’ he explains. ‘I loved having that rapport.’

That accessibility to the public was one of the things that Green most wanted to accomplish with these installations. The sound is ‘completely on the street’, so people can follow the trail of the rivers through Belfast without ever having to go into the location.

For Green it is a way to get people who don’t necessarily visit galleries to interact with his art and make of it whatever they want. ‘They can see it as art or they can see it as ordinary sound in the city or they can be a little bit confused. I’m happy with all those things.’

Resounding Rivers runs from May 6 - June 5. A map and list of venues is available at PLACE.

Tammy Moore