Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Sound of Stone

When I first became interested in stone I took part time work in a quarry, my job was delving flagstones.  This meant being at the rock face, prising slabs of stone from the surface, using the natural bed of the stone to rive the pieces free.  Some of the slabs were huge and the work was heavy going - I was on piece-rate and didn't fare very well - not so much due to the hard labour, but more because I spent time looking in stunned amazement each time I broke a flag away.  There before me was the surface of clean, fresh, raw stone which was seeing the light of day for the first time in millions of years!   But more, there is a sound, a wet suction cracking sound, which signals the parting of the stone from its place, which for me is sublime.  Music.

Stone continues to make sounds which please.  All the time I am working I am instinctively listening to the noise the hammer and chisel are making when connecting with the stone.  Sweet, clean tones, unless I'm stressing the stone too much, and then I hear it, and lighten my blows.  Often I test the soundness of a block of stone by striking it smartly with my hammer, it reveals its denseness, a dullness suggests I should be wary.

Different stones play different music.  When I was working Portland Stone for the first time I was thrilled by the sonorous ringing as I carved.  It was my White Bird - and it sang back to me throughout its making.

In fact Portland Stone is known for its 'ringing' and when many quarries were being worked in the area, it was full of sound, like bells pealing as the quarrymen hammered.

The Portland Sculpture Quarry Trust are working on a project with Evelyn Glennie, the percussionist, for the 2012 Oympics  on a composition to be played on a lithophone made from pieces of Portland stone, cut to make different sounds.

I'm hoping I've connected to this video from them successfully - if not, sorry - do go and listen on their site.


  1. I love the sound of the stone instrument.
    Is it true the sound of the stone allows you to find 'the grain' to avoid cracks or breaks as you carve?
    I visited Tommy Lal, a stone carver in Stow on the Wold, many yeras ago. He had a sweet studio in a cricket pavilion, he showed me how stone resonates and I remember something to do with a wrong and a right way.
    Beautiful bird sculpture, perfect proportions.

  2. that was wonderful, very interesting. glass has a distinctive sound when it cracks from stress, a little 'tink'. but when you hear it, you know the worst has happened.

  3. Jane - certainly I use sound a lot as an indicator of the stone's condition, its hard and soft bits and bits to keep clear of. I'm constantly tuning and adjusting to get the sounds I need - and the smell tells you a lot too!

    Ellen - I know all too well that 'worst has happened' sound - but I understand glass moans like mad and twitches when cooling!?

  4. What a lovely description of working with stone. I did Fine Art at Leeds College of Art, which involved a couple of years of stone carving, I remember the feeling that the form was complete, just beneath the surface, like fruit inside its skin.

  5. Very enjoyable reading. I've never been tempted to sculpt in stone but if I were to I think this poetic description would convince me.

    I couldn't help but think of John Singer Sargent's watercolors of the quarries at Carrara as soon as I saw that first photo.

  6. Rosemary - it sounds as though you should be carving! I love the sculpture you collected from your College days.

    Ken - you speak just as temptingly about painting, and I will go and look at John Singer Sargent's watercolours - thankyou.

  7. Have you heard of Neddy Dick? His real name was Richard Alderson, he lived in Keld in Swaledale around the end of the Nineteenth Century. He had a stone xylophone made from stones from the River Swale (or nicked from local walls),which he mounted on a horse and cart and toured with around the dales. Around the same time there was another group from Keswick called the Till Family with the same sort of instrument, presumably made from lakeland slate. I think there is some sort of similar instrument in the Ruskin museum.

  8. Stuart - I had never heard of Neddy Dick - what a great story and thankyou - a wonderful piece of history. I'm learning more about lithophones and there is a great site with lots of other stories I know what to do now if sculpture doesn't work out! Get a little travel cart and learn to read music!

  9. I love the idea of your Viennese stone and string instrument, I will look and see if I can find this - were the stones played, or the strings - perhaps both?


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