The music of

David Lumsdaine

The music of David Lumsdaine

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Big Meeting

There are two Durhams in Great Britain. First, there is the county, which, with Northumberland, makes up the north-east corner of England. The land falls from the high open hills in the west, through moorland valleys, to a fertile plateau scored by river gorges which meander eastward to the North Sea. Away from the river estuaries, the coast ends abruptly in high cliffs and buttresses that are home to a large population of sea birds. In the middle of the plateau is the second Durham – the city – which is set on a U-bend in the River Wear and centres around its marvellous cathedral and castle that perch high on a peninsula above the gorge.

During the industrial revolution the estuaries all but disappeared with the development of enormous shipyards; the countryside was pockmarked with mean villages and the pit heaps of hundreds of coal mines.

For most of the twentieth century the character of the county of Durham remained overwhelmingly industrial while the city was essentially ecclesiastical and academic – privileged and isolated from the people around it. But every summer since 1871, the miners and their families from all over the north-east of England made a pilgrimage to Durham city and took it over for one day on the occasion of their Miners' Gala – the Big Meeting. Before the days of coaches, they would walk all through the previous night. They entered the city in the early morning, marched or danced behind their Lodge banners and colliery bands down the several hills to the riverside and there they converged to walk along Old Elvet, where it became the custom for the leaders of the Labour Party to salute them. The music of the bands was anything from Sousa marches and popular songs to hymns, and, above all, the miners' hymn which could be heard as a refrain throughout the day. From Old Elvet the people went on to the Race Course where they assembled for speeches given by their Union leaders, politicians and churchmen.

Then came the family reunions, the picnics and games, the wilder novelties of the fairground, the gatherings in and around the pubs. In the middle of the afternoon a picked group of bands would lead the more sober to the Cathedral for a service marked by its sombre memories of family and friends who were victims to the demands of the industry.

The mining industry has clearly had a terrible history, but human resilience created a way of life to protect, resource and give responsibility and meaning to the lives of the families engaged in it. In 1971, the year of our particular Big Meeting, this culture was beginning to feel the effect of the closure of the large steel works at Consett, as well as the disappearance of many of the smaller collieries. There were fewer banners and bands than in the past, but the spirit of the people was still strong and positive. They felt that the widespread unemployment which had hit the county couldn't last for long. By 1984 unemployment was wholesale, and the mining union came to the forefront in the battle against the policies of Margaret Thatcher's new age; but their unity and power were destroyed with military efficiency. By 1992 the last of the Durham pits was closed and a way of life disappeared.

When I set out that morning in July 1971 with several of my students, two portable tape recorders and microphones, it was not with the intention of using the material we might collect in any particular way; we simply wished to document an aurally unique event. However, as soon as we began to play the tapes back I knew that here was the seed of a kind of a composition, of a poem, though I had no idea of how to set about realising it. It wanted to be much more abstract than a documentary, more concrete than pure sound. At least I did know that it would be some kind of sound collage which would allow the cornet to blossom out of tune, and people to talk, shout and remain themselves, while a purely musical world grew out of them and around them.

The work had to create a sense of space and perspective, both physical and musical. Its musical structure is as much geographical as temporal. For instance, one area of the work centres on Old Elvet in the morning, others on the speeches at the racecourse, the fairground; Palace Green and the cathedral in the afternoon. The work is not about these places and the events going on there, it grows out of them into one long slow-moving hymn.

It was important to me that the music/poem should be given its meaning by the person listening to it, not from myself composing in 1978, nor from those people speaking in 1971. The silences which punctuate it are not only a reminder of its artificiality but also provide a psychic space in which listeners can let their own experience flower. With one exception—my electronic hymn—the material is confined to sounds of the original recording and their transformations in the electronic music studio. Even those transformations are suggested by the nature of the recorded material—filtering, phase changes, amplitude and frequency modulation, transposition. These are phenomena which could be harnessed and extended in the studio to create a continuum whereby the source material grows organically into abstract music, and out of 'actuality' into the listener's imagination.

If there were no direct precedent for this work, I did find many pointers from elsewhere along the way: for instance, the structural allegory of the Divine Comedy, the radiant E-flat of The Magic Flute, the subtle transformations of imagery in Varèse's Poème Electronique, and the harmonic adventures I have enjoyed in so much of the music of Charles Ives – which themselves grew from his experience of hearing several bands at the one time. It was still a long time and there were a number of false starts, before the work began to flow in the spring of 1978. Fittingly, I finished it on the morning of the 1978 Big Meeting.

We made the work in the Durham University Electronic Music Studio which was in the basement of the Music School, right alongside the Cathedral. I was fortunate to have the support of an able and enthusiastic team. Peter Manning had helped me to set up the studio from its inception in 1970 when he was one of my doctoral students. His dedicated assistance was crucial to the work, as was the expertise of Ron Berry, our Technician-in-charge, who was responsible for designing and building so much of the equipment which made the realisation possible.

It was originally created as a quadraphonic work. Up to six stereo sources – that is, twelve tracks – were mixed down onto four tracks that communicated with the four loudspeakers surrounding the audience. We didn't have an automated mixing desk, so, having prepared the individual layers of a section in the form of stereo tapes, I would make up a cue score and conduct the mix-down onto the four track tape recorder as a live performance. The band would consist of six of my students – one in charge of each stereo tape recorder – and Peter Manning and myself playing faders and joy sticks at the mixing console. We would rehearse, perform and record each area of the work like this. The studio was not just a collection of machines, it was our musical instrument,.

The layers of sound which counterpoint one another are given their own spatial location. Listeners can choose where to focus their attention. The layers have an ambient life of their own – they move about the auditorium, they surround the audience or withdraw to the furthest audible point. With the assistance of Dolby A – a somewhat mixed blessing – we achieved a wide dynamic range which took us from the crazy hullabaloo of the fairground to the panting of a passing dog with a minimum of residual noise. The quadraphonic version can only be performed with special equipment, so I hoped also to release Big Meeting as an LP recording. Soon after making the original version, Peter Manning and I set about creating a new mix-down which would be suitable for the stereo medium.

There were several problems to be overcome in the process. Firstly, since the original tracks were themselves in stereo, mixing them down directly from the quadraphonic version (where they would often be spread over three or four tracks) sometimes led to unacceptable phase cancellation. That is, the sound would appear to be squeezed, to lose its body. This was particularly noticeable in the climax to the fairground music (which was much more extended in the original), when the layers of the fairground begin to rotate around the four loudspeakers at different rates and amplitudes. Secondly, so much of the sense of physical space was lost – and there is a correlation between that feeling of space and our sense of time. Cutting the space meant that the stereo work had to be much shorter – an hour long rather than the 77 minutes of the original. We found the solutions to the first two problems, but there was another which was quite intractable. The limited dynamic range of vinyl pressings meant that for publication I would have to compress the perspective of the stereo version to a point which I found unacceptable. Disappointed, I left the stereo version abandoned for a number of years until I decided to make a digital re-mastering which retains the original dynamic range.

Many of the source recordings contained flaws of one kind or another. In the years between 1971 and 1978 we were able to make much better technical recordings of aspects of the Miners' Gala, but we never used any of those 'better' recordings in this work. The thumb-prints and grain marks of the original recordings were an integral part of that one day in Durham in 1971 and the idea of 'improvement' was irrelevant.

I had come to Durham in October 1970 to join the Music Faculty at the University and heard much from my new friends of the mythology of the Big Meeting. On the day itself I found it just as everybody had described, only more so. All the shop windows in the city were boarded up, everything closed except the pubs, the cathedral, and the fair; the city was cleared of traffic, and all the streets given over to the bands and the crowds of people who were the meeting – people marching, people dancing, people listening patiently to speeches, people screaming on roundabouts and in dodgems, retired people quietly reminiscing by the riverside, people drunk and happily raucous, people filling the cathedral with their voices tuned to songs of celebration and dark remembrance, tired people trailing up the hills in the middle of quiet roads in the evening, children pick-a-back or trailing sleepily behind. It is to this community that this electronic poem is dedicated.


This is a very democratic work. Though I’m the person responsible for its composition, a great number of people contributed to its details, including the following whom I wish to acknowledge and thank for their contributions:

First, the people present that day in 1971, from the politicians, the bishop, the hawkers, the people round us, the children in the crowd; the bandsmen and the composers of their music; my recording crew, Ralph Allwood, Christopher Barnes and Richard Cooke.

Secondly, Peter Manning and Ron Berry who were crucially involved throughout the course of the studio realisation and also the music students who assisted with the final mix-downs.

In the preparation of this CD, I wish to thank:

Michael Hooper for planning the project, Craig Vear for fine-tuning the master on behalf of a now deaf composer;

The Dean of Durham, the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove for permission to use the recordings made in the cathedral;

Avril Sokolov for permission to use the cover print by the late Kirill Sokolov from the series of collages he made of the Big Meeting in 1984.

Big Meeting was composed with funds made available by the Music Board of Australia Council and given its first public performance at Durham Town Hall in November 1978.

David Lumsdaine, 2009

00:00 Track 1
Beginnings. There are three gateways into the piece, three requests to “Speak” Ends with a promise, “I’ll see yer.”
05:44 Track 2
Descent from a cloud high over Durham. Mostly people talking, then bands in Old Elvet. Boy tells his Dad, “It’s stopped.”
15:02 Track 3
Approach to Fairground. The Fairground dances, dodgem cars invade Old Elvet. Everybody joins in the dance, including Mum. A passing dog survives a severe mechanical breakdown.
28:20 Track 4
The Miners’ Hymn (Gresford - Robert Saint). An unfinished Amen raises the question...
31:12 Track 5
“Where yer goin?”. A walk across Palace Green into the Cathedral in the company of a band. (Nottingham - after Mozart)
38:36 Track 6
A supplication leads to an underground hymn. Further requests to speak bring forth...
47:14 Track 7
...praise, and not so much a recapitulation, as revelations. Among other things, Dad is enlightened.
55:50 Track 8
Coda. A peal of bells passes through the Pythagorean comma, and the hymn is translated to the key of D. A drum has the last word. (A taste of Deep Harmony - Handel Parker.)