Rime of the Ancient Mariner

a voiced recording of ‘Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

by the entire staff and pupil body of Coleridge Secondary School, Cambridge, Jan 2005.

devised and produced by TNWK with sound composition by Simon Keep

TNWK spent a week (Jan 05) in Coleridge Secondary School, Cambridge recording the Rime of the Ancient Mariner line by line – literally line by line – with all of the school’s pupils, all of the staff including the support staff (canteen workers, cleaners . . ) taking part. The total number of people involved was over 400 and only 3 pupils refused point blank to take part, necessitating some people to voice more than one line (although we preserved the fierce artifice of line by line shifts by getting those repeat voices not to voice consecutive lines but rather to come back 10 or 20 lines later – sometimes much later). So, line by line there is a shift of voice, often dialect, intonation, pronunciation, cadence, rhythm . . . the sheer range of names in this school is extraordinary, very very culturally diverse. The mariner is voiced by the pupils and staff intermixed (about 360 young people and 50 staff), the hermit by the head teacher, the narrator and the wedding-guest by year-heads of English and drama.

Coleridge School was at the time facing closure (though since then it has been saved by federating with Parkside Community College). It was placed under the albatross of special measures last year and had succeeded in moving out from under that pressure. However it was considered too small to be financially viable. By today’s standards the fact that all of the teachers know most every pupil in the school is considered a reason to force an amalgamation into a larger institution. As such it seemed to TNWK worth revaluing. We wanted to find a way for working on radio to provide the possibility for a school portrait, but a portrait rendered in sound rather than through a school photo. This ballad suggested itself through our processes of conversation.

We were not thinking about Debord explicitly, although we are taken by quoting him on détournement; ‘The distortions introduced in the detourned elements must be as simplified as possible, since the main impact of a détournement is directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the original contexts of the elements’. Coleridge’s mesh of abjection, the breath of wind, alienation from nature and immanent eco-consciousness as a pillar of the canon and of the English schools curriculum and of ‘learning ones lines’ through this recording has mobilised what we hope will prove a productive tension, a space for creative articulation – an empowerment illustrated through a commons of restraint that voicing the poem gives.

This project in many ways revealed itself to us during the week as directly inspired by our interest in Mierle Ukeles’ work with the New York Department of Sanitation (where she has been official artist-in-residence since 1977). Her first action was a performance entitled ‘Touch Sanitation’, consisting of visiting all of New York City’s fifty-nine community districts, and facing 8,500 sanitation workers, shaking hands and saying to each, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive”.

Our mode of getting to meet all of the people in Coleridge School was far more contained. However, even recording up to 100 people each day proved an intense performance of meeting, listening and engaging. The school meeting room was turned into a recording studio for the entire week and people entered one by one. After recording their line each participant was invited to choose a memento badge from a choice of 7 bearing iconic images from the Doré engravings. The process has already performed an extraordinary work of connection, between everybody in that school, between current and earlier vocabulary and narrative drives, between poetry and everyday speech (kids asking each other which line they had), asking their teachers, quoting them at each other in the playground – swapping badges as the images gathered through the school as the week progressed.

During the editing and production phase, we initially had to choose between the two versions of each line and then to begin to give it flow and in some instances to adjust gain between stronger and weaker vocal signals. Due to numerous noises ‘off’ (doors closing, footsteps on corridors above, water in the pipes) we were using a highly sensitive microphone so as to catch the full grains of the voices, we adopted a modus operandi of getting each person to say each line twice (with a pause between) so as to choose between their adjacent versions. That choice is sometimes clear and sometimes less clear and must be made for each line. The final vocal mix is complimented by an ambient soundtrack composed by Simon Keep from extreme close mic recordings (some using spyware microphones) from around the school and with some of the pupils.

This unique venture – a sound portrait of Coleridge School – formed part of the RADIO TAXI project transmitted from Taxi Gallery – an unusual arts venue based in Cambridge – www.taxigallery.org.uk. Over Spring Bank Holiday weekend 2005 Taxi Gallery became a short range FM and internet radio station broadcasting a live mix of a range of sound and music programmes made with the Coleridge School and members of the local community as well as national and international sound artists.

A CD version of the recording was available end 2005.