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19 June 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 10:32am

Could Radio 3 recreate the soundscape of a dark, dank cave on the Inner Hebrides?

By Antonia Quirke

Can a digital reconstruction of a real soundscape inspire a glorious musical response? Radio 3 promised it could, with its first “virtual reality radio documentary”: Between the Ears’ “The Virtually Melodic Cave” (16 June, 6.45pm). Press releases promised that the Glasgow School of Art’s School of Simulation and Visualisation (it’s a thing) would conjure up the sounds of Fingal’s Cave – an enormous sea cave on the uninhabited Inner Hebridean isle of Staffa, known for its acoustics – with such emotional scale and accuracy that a sound designer and composer who had never set foot near it might be compelled to write a piece as swooning as Mendelssohn’s 1832 Die Hebridean.

We were instructed to tune in at the allotted hour, wearing enormous headphones. At first; lots of seabird wails and visualisation lecturers trudging in and out of the cave. (“It does have an effect on you! You feel like you’ve really experienced something!”) We were alerted  several times of the trials involved in even getting to the forsaken rock: “wheelbarrows of food”, fresh water, a number of graduate students and someone called Derek from the National Trust were all crammed into one tent when it inevitably rained.

“We want to create the space in time in the digital realm,” frowned a lecturer over valuable recording equipment. But no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t grab the full physical effect of standing inside the cave – until someone twigged that as the cave was shaped “like a trumpet”, the air inside it was pushed oddly “out of sequence” to the waves, causing a “profound rumble”, which they concentrated on capturing.

And they really did capture it, using (presumably) microphones that somehow (and sorcerously) resonate in both gut and heart. Nothing else in the programme could possibly approach that moment. Certainly not the new musical composition element, which sounded like a closing montage theme for The Naked Chef by the French band Air, and not remotely vivid enough to replace the effect of the Rumble, which I’m still feeling now. That sense of something with fangs and drums breaching a cordon and coming straight for you. A shudder. A thrill. 

Between the Ears
BBC Radio 3

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news