The foghorn sounds.
Its abrupt and terrific interjection comes from a square black mouth, a colossal metallic holler that is stupefyingly loud. It floods my ears and shakes my guts. I am overwhelmed. I freeze. Tiny hairs rise on my covered arms. Its moaning blast ends in a gruff grunt that jolts me from my stupor. One eternal second of absolute and total silence follows, and the crowd around me erupts in the type of giddy laughter reserved for moments of awe. It is true aural obliteration.
In June of 2013 I drove from London to the North East with friends, to see Foghorn Requiem, a vast open-air performance that assembled three brass bands with a total of sixty-five players, on the cliffs at Souter Point lighthouse in South Shields. They were joined by a motley flotilla of over fifty ships out in the North Sea that included a ferry and fishing boats, sailboats and lifeboats, ketches, yachts and tugs. At its centre was the almighty Souter Point foghorn, that sounded from the middle of the crowd over the heads of the brass players and out to the ships on the horizon, a voice of compressed air from hulking diesel engine lungs.
It was a bright and blustery day, chilly under a blue sky. The crowd had amassed around the whitewashed lighthouse and foghorn building – square like an electricity substation, with two outsized rectangular mouths on top, gaping like black doorways tapering into two narrow necks. There were families with children on shoulders, people huddling in bright waterproofs around flasks of tea; couples with dogs and grandparents perched on camping chairs, kids lifted up to sit on the boundary wall of the lighthouse compound, and people like me, underdressed in jeans and light jacket for the brisk 11 degree summer day in South Shields. We waited, shivering and harried by the wind, for the performance to begin.
As the brass players filed in, a quiet descended. This reverent silence was broken by one high clear note, sounded by a single trumpet player from the top of the lighthouse. Then the brass began, and a sequence of sombre phrases was lifted by the breeze, the notes carried out to sea. The ships and boats replied in harmony – tuned to the notes of the brass – as if they were an echo from the vast landscape itself. They answered in staggered and idiosyncratic voices, the ferry loud and adenoidal, the small ships pinched and whinnying. Their conversation, between brass and boat, colliery and maritime, filled the blue-grey seascape from the cliffs we stood on all the way to the distant horizon, a mournful exchange on a scale much bigger than ourselves, as if these industries had been given voices with which to compare misfortunes.
And then, into this lament, the foghorn bellowed, a sound to call through fog and heavy weather, that could reach twenty miles across the sea. Over the heads of the audience, it bellowed again. It sand-blasted my ears with a force and power that diminished the brass and ships, those formerly huge sounds now mice to an elephant. Each time it sang, I felt more excited, more alive – it was shaped by the cliffs and water, from the first giddy interjection to a noise that gathered emotional power as it traversed the landscape.
The final note of the Requiem let the air drain from the foghorn’s tanks, and as the pressure faded, the hardness of the sound was lost. It hummed, sang in broken-throated keening, and when it no longer had the strength for that, it stuttered and wheezed until its last breath hissed like air from a punctured balloon.
When silence settled, I stood frozen to the spot. A lump rose in my throat and my eyes watered. I looked around, and saw tears and glazed looks in the faces of the crowd. Something had departed, and we were alone. In that last gasp, the foghorn had articulated not just its own death, but the death of an industry and all that was left behind. This was industrial music, and it meant something – only not in the way I was used to.
A few years previous I had been working for a music magazine covering underground and experimental music, and was commissioned to review an album that became the unexpected beginning of my obsession with foghorns. The record was called Audience Of One, by an avant-garde Australian percussionist and composer called Oren Ambarchi, on which cymbal skitters and anxious strings sound like wind on rigging and the shifting of great hulls. Into this scene, dropped in without warning, is a huge vibrational blast of brass, a French horn reaching long and lower than its usual range. When I heard it, I had imagined a harbour, and instinctively compared the brass to a foghorn in my review. But then I stopped, to fact check my comparison: What is a foghorn, anyway, and what does it sound like?
In looking for the answer to that question, I stopped being a music journalist and became something else – a foghorn obsessive, a historian of sound, and the favourite anecdote of many friends (‘a PhD in foghorns…?‘). I also discovered something much bigger than the French horn on that album in a horn made to compete with the seas and the weather, that could parp, moan, holler, and wail, louder than anything else on the coast, that was big enough to shout down death.
Plenty of musicians over the years have proudly worn a badge of loudness, and many had suckered me in with chest-rattling sonics, from dub to doom metal, noise and hardcore punk, played on sound systems that looked like aeronautical engine parts in cavernous spaces co-opted specifically for their acoustics. I had always loved these vibrational ecstasies, where sound became physical; where I was silenced by noise. This was bigger and better than any band I’d seen or rave I’d danced through. The foghorn was a level up from even the greatest of these speaker stacks; a soundsystem playing for the open sea at the almighty volume the endless oceans demanded. It had got me, hook, line and sinker.
Soon, I was losing hours to foghorns on YouTube, scouring online images, digging for mothballed local history sites typed a decade ago in basic fonts with textured HTML backgrounds. I found images of the foghorn’s machinery, housed in domed blocks of concrete architecture, or squat brick buildings, where their huge trumpet mouths poked surreally from holes in the wall, or sat proudly on top of the structure, as if crushing the low slung buildings. I scrolled through pictures of square horns and elegant bell-shaped mouths, trumpets that curved gracefully in swan-like necks towards the horizon. I tracked down the only book on foghorns ever written, by a historian and film lecturer called Alan Renton, whose recordings of foghorns were held in the British Library. I even joined the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, a heritage organisation for ex-keepers and lighthouse enthusiasts.
Other people heard about my growing obsession and passed on their stories. I started talking to people – anyone – about foghorns. I heard stories and memories, and photos reached me from unknown ramblers on all edges of the country, emails arrived from strangers in British Colombia, Belfast, and Orkney. What emerged were myths, stories, modern folklore and unsubstantiated anecdote. One emailer suggested I had been unconsciously collaborating with them in the psychic realm. Someone else emailed to ask if foghorns were used in underwater tactical deception manoeuvres in the Second World War, and another related a brilliant story about how the foghorn sounded all day and all night when Jersey was liberated. An urban myth reached me, about a soundsystem in Sheffield that had acquired a decommissioned foghorn, as rival crews competed to have the loudest dub. The soundsystem probably wouldn’t have worked with the big old horns I was hunting, but the image of a gigantic siren next to bass bins and tweeters was irresistible, the story of a foghorn finding its rightful place in music, the control it had exerted over the coast by colonial 19th Century maritime exploits boldly reclaimed by a Jamaican diaspora. This latter tale was so compelling I contacted half of the soundsystem experts and crew members in the UK, trying to find a thread that would lead me to this profound fusion of sound, maritime, and music.
Along the way I picked up other stories of industrial machine co-opted for their power – of a sound artist who had bought a 10ft tall diaphone, salvaged from a lightship; of cacophonous harbour compositions; of Russian symphonies that had turned coastal cities into orchestras.
As someone interested in music and technology the stories I heard meant something to me. This was not just about inventing instruments, or ways to play music, but about how industrial machines with pre-existing, alternate functions had been co-opted in unexpected zones of culture. Added to that, most of these stories were only half true, and I became fascinated by what was so compelling about an obsolete technology of a recent past made new again; resurrected; given a new function and folklore for the next generation.
What most of us think of when we hear a foghorn – a melancholy sound calling out from the coast – is a foghorn, but this is just one type of fog signal. There is a whole arsenal of instruments used as navigational aids on the coast – bells, explosives, horns of various types – but there was one I became more interested in than the others. The type of sound that I heard from those gaping trumpets at Souter Point was a particularly huge piece of technology, and a familiar motif in film, literature, and music. While what someone calls a foghorn might be a ship’s horn, an electric siren, or a honking great diaphone like I’d heard in South Shields, properly speaking, a foghorn is the latter, and it was the latter that I craved. It turned out to be difficult to get a fix, because when I came to look for them, most foghorns were silent, and those that could still be heard were often not used by mariners, but switched on weekly during the summer, for tourists to be awed by their power.
The foghorn at Souter Point ran off diesel engines that filled compressed air tanks, which fed pressurised air through pipes to a valve at the neck of the horns, which open and close to make that gigantic sound. Ships and boats also carry fog signals – these can be anything from horns that sound like their shore based counterparts on big ships, to beeping electric horns, to small pleasure boats carrying the sorts of aerosol air horns you’re more likely to see at a rave or carnival. The big ships can compete with smaller foghorns in moody tone and power, but the truly iconic are the big beasts installed around the coasts at lighthouses, ports and harbours.
We recognise the sound of the foghorn as a staple of the coastal soundscape, particularly in the UK and North America, and it is commonly included on sound effects libraries. But take a step back from any familiarity you have with this sound, and look again. It is an audacious and surreal technology, a huge 100dB instrument that is as loud as any up-to-11 rock group, only it is found on the most rugged and isolated edges of the land, calling loudly out to sea from absurdly huge trumpets. Pan out from those trumpets to take in the panorama, and you’ll find these strange and immoveable industrial instruments are perched on the very edge of the land. Their calls are deafening, and their architecture is alien: conspicuous sentinels in the landscapes they serve. Other big horns exist – tide sirens, air raid sirens, tornado drill sirens – but nothing speaks to the sea like the foghorn does, nothing comforts while it warns, and nothing else comes imbued with the colossal weight of life and death, memory and melancholy that I heard that day on the cliffs at South Shields.
This conjunction of sound, and place, and people had snagged me, because nothing I saw or heard or read could quite explain this scene. There is no other sound tied so deeply to a type of weather, and no machine sounds quite that massive. Its brass trumpet mouth is often big enough to crawl inside, and it is powered by hulking engines that guzzle fossil fuels. What had hooked me was the foghorn’s scale and feeling in that instant of experience, but I wanted to understand this sound’s story. Who had decided that this terrible horn was a good idea? Where did such an obscene machine come from? Where could I hear it again? Why had it moved so many people to tears? And did it actually work? I had to know, and to know, I had to go much, much deeper.
Jennifer Lucy Allan