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Music for Foghorns



On Distance and Drowning (Wannes Gyselinck)

The sound of a foghorn is sculpt­ed by dis­tance. It takes its arche­typ­i­cal shape only after hav­ing trav­elled over sev­er­al hun­dred meters. By mov­ing through undu­lat­ing air mol­e­cules and dis­tort­ing sheets of mist, and tra­vers­ing the entropy of the bil­low­ing sea’s sur­face, it sheds vol­ume, los­es shrill­ness and acquires its warm, res­o­nant and mourn­ful sonor­i­ty. However, when heard close-by, with a vol­ume approach­ing 120dB, its sound is lit­er­al­ly deaf­en­ing (110 dB is the aver­age human pain thresh­old for sound; 150dB will rup­ture your ear-drum).

The foghorn’s emo­tion­al­ly provoca­tive sound is noth­ing more than an inci­den­tal by-prod­uct of its func­tion: to com­mu­ni­cate with oth­er ships over great dis­tances. Its plain­tive and sor­row­ful con­no­ta­tions may well derive from this nau­ti­cal func­tion: the sound as a mark­er between life and death. The foghorn’s wail seems to car­ry the col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of (most­ly) men at sea – their long­ing, wor­ries and dread – and the mem­o­ry of the women on land, wait­ing for their hus­bands’ return.

In her six-part com­po­si­tion, Signaux pianist-com­pos­er Heleen Van Haegenborgh turned the foghorn into a musi­cal instru­ment, pro­vid­ing a counter-voice for her (inside) piano. (read fur­ther under the stills)

Through YouTube, Van Haegenborgh dis­cov­ered and made con­tact with Raoul de La Roche Aymon, a col­lec­tor of foghorns in Burgundy, France. From his col­lec­tion of more than three hun­dred foghorns, she chose a set of 23 tones from which she formed a chro­mat­ic series of two octaves. De La Roche Aymonthen devel­oped a key­board from which this unusu­al set of horns could be con­trolled. The com­bi­na­tion of key­board and horns pro­duced an entire­ly new instru­ment, com­pa­ra­ble in some degree to the pipe organ – albeit one that can be heard, and only lis­tened to from a dis­tance of miles. Moreover, their is no such thing as a vol­ume con­trol). The key is pressed and com­pressed air is pushed into the cor­re­spond­ing horn: it is a bina­ry action – the horn blows or it does not – there is no inter­me­di­ary posi­tion. Sonic colour­ing can only be achieved by allow­ing the sound to inter­act with the sur­round­ing open space, at sea or in a landscape.

By con­trast, Van Haegenborgh exploits the piano’s full range of son­ic pos­si­bil­i­ties. She com­bines reg­u­lar play­ing with a range of extend­ed tech­niques – most notably, bow­ing the strings of the piano with fish­ing line, cre­at­ing del­i­cate, qui­et and some­times even horn­like sounds. The main chal­lenge of com­pos­ing a non-ampli­fied duet for foghorn and piano is, per­haps obvi­ous­ly, one of balance. 

Signaux was first per­formed live in a remote cor­ner of the Ghent har­bour. The audi­ence was seat­ed close to the piano inside an emp­ty store­house. The horns were posi­tioned in the open air, at a dis­tance of about 200 meters. The only way to bring togeth­er the sounds of the piano and the horn togeth­er effec­tive­ly was to sep­a­rate them by a great dis­tance. This spa­tial sep­a­ra­tion of the two sound sources func­tioned as a nat­ur­al equal­iz­er – caus­ing the del­i­cate and qui­et sounds of the bowed strings inside the piano to be almost indis­tin­guish­able from the horns resound­ing in the open air. 

Another dis­tance that is both marked and bridged in Signaux is that between the con­tem­po­rary and the past. Van Haegenborgh has reworked raw musi­cal mate­r­i­al from the hymn, They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships’ (1685), com­posed by Henry Purcell. The words are those of psalm 107, evok­ing the small­ness of men faced with the vast­ness of the sea, in which they can see their Lord at work, both rais­ing and calm­ing storms. This his­tor­i­cal dia­logue with past times is not direct­ly sig­nalled; rather it is encod­ed in the com­po­si­tion, both lit­er­al­ly and metaphor­i­cal­ly. At both the start and the end of the com­po­si­tion one hears the puls­ing trans­la­tion of the words of the psalm into Morse code. On a more abstract lev­el, the past is engraved in the now in the guise of a heav­i­ly decon­struct­ed ren­der­ing of Purcell’s thick har­monies and melod­ic lines, fad­ing into sparse frag­ments of sounds – dis­tort­ed echoes from the past, chang­ing shape and dis­solv­ing into new sounds as time pro­gress­es. (read fur­ther under still).

In Regina, estab­lish­ing dis­tance serves to cre­ate, once again, the ide­al con­di­tions for bet­ter hear­ing the voic­es of the past. Expanding her use of string bow­ing even fur­ther in Regina, Van Haegenborgh explores a wide array of sonorous tex­tures. The bowed strings at first sound ethe­re­al and whis­per­ing, not unlike the eerie sound of glass organs, only to build up towards a thun­der­ing mass of dark, groan­ing overtones. 

The duet – or duel – in Regina is that between out­side’ and inside piano’, between the out­ward key­board and the piano’s entrails. In Regina, Van Haegenborgh sets up a dia­logue at an even greater his­tor­i­cal dis­tance, with frag­ments from Jacob Obrecht’s Salve Regina (late 15th cen­tu­ry), and the motet Laboravi Clamans by Jean-Philippe Rameau, which can be found as a musi­cal exam­ple in his Traité de l’Harmonie Réduite à ses Principes Naturels (1722). Its words, too, were tak­en from the psalms (psalm 69). The King James ver­sion reads: My throat is dried, mine eyes fail while I wait for my God.’ Its pre­ced­ing vers­es the­mat­i­cal­ly span the gulf between Regina and Signaux: Save me, O God; for the waters are com­ing in my soul (…). I am come into deep waters, where the floods over­flow me.’ It allows us to hear Signaux/​Regina as a dip­tych in which voic­es from the past emerge and are flood­ed again – a med­i­ta­tion on dis­tance and drowning.

Wannes Gyselinck



  • Composition and concept
    Heleen Van Haegenborgh
  • Realisation and technical support foghorn organ
    Raoul de la Roche Aymon
  • Performance foghorns
    Heleen Van Haegenborgh
  • Performance piano
    Heleen Van Haegenborgh
  • Graphical design
    Laurens Teerlinck
  • Label
    el NEGOCITO records
  • Commissioned by
    Havenfestival, Festival of Flanders
  • Première
    September 22, 2013

©Virginie Schreyen at Raverseyde Vrijstaat O

©Raoul de la Roche Aymon at Netwerk Aalst, the roof

©Robbrecht De Smet at Havenfestival Ghent

©Virginie Schreyen at Raversyde/vrijstaat 0

©Virginie Schreyen at Raverseyde/Vrijstaat 0

©Heleen Van Haegenborgh At Oortreders

©Fiorella Stinders

©Fiorella Stinders, Havenfestival 2013

©Brecht Van Maele at Havenfestsival Van Vlaanderen

©Heleen Van Haegenborgh at Museum Emile Verhaeren, Sint Amands

©Heleen Van Haegenborgh at Raverseyde/vrijstaat 0

©Deinze, on the roof of the city Hall 2017

At MA festival Zeebrugge 2019

By Laurens Teerlinck

De grote Verleiding, Kortrijk

De Grote verleiding, Kortrijk

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