MAP

The Hollow Mountain

Voice in the live performance of Maria Fusco’s, 'Master Rock', by Claire Walsh

Interior of Cruachan power station, postcard. Image courtesy Maria Fusco

Interior of Cruachan power station, postcard. Image courtesy Maria Fusco

I saw all his knotted up complexities and piled up obscurities suddenly as nothing of the sort… they were just the result of his taking short cuts through walls and ceilings and floors. He goes direct from centre to centre but you never see him on the stairs or the corridors... Wherever he turns his attention, his whole body rematerializes at that point. [1]

 

In 1960 a group of explosives experts, known as ‘tunnel tigers’, from Donegal in the north west of Ireland, began blasting into the sides of Ben Cruachan, one of the highest mountain peaks on the west coast of Scotland. Five years later Queen Elizabeth II opened Cruachan hydroelectric power station inside the hollowed out mountain. On October 17, the weekend of the 50th anniversary of its opening, I travelled across from Edinburgh to Ben Cruachan to see the premiere of Maria Fusco’s Master Rock.

 

Commissioned by Artangel and BBC Radio 4, Fusco wrote a drama for three voices to be performed live inside the mountain and, in collaboration with the French composer, Olivier Pasquet, created a sonic environment within the power station’s grand turbine hall. The sum of these parts would become a ‘repertoire’ to voice the histories of the station’s construction. A radio broadcast of the live performance was aired on BBC Radio 4 and a book of the same name was co-published by Book Works and Artangel.

Publicity postcard of the newly completed turbine hall at Cruachan Power Station, c. 1965. Photo courtesy The North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board archive courtesy ScottishPower

Publicity postcard of the newly completed turbine hall at Cruachan Power Station, c. 1965. Photo courtesy The North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board archive courtesy ScottishPower

The three voices of Master Rock are: John Mulholland, one of the Donegal tunnel tigers, who with the help of his compatriots, drilled, blasted and excavated tonnes of granite rock out of Ben Cruachan to make way for the power station; Elizabeth Falconer, an artist from southern England who created the large wooden mural which has adorned the turbine hall since 1967; and the granite, the voice of the 450 million year old rock which sheathes all who enter Cruachan station with its mass. [2]

 

The three voices never interact during the performance. However, a conflicting dynamic arises between Mulholland and Falconer, both through the stories they tell and in the voicing of these stories. This dynamic is also a generative one. Their voices are solid. Mimicking sharp objects, they cut into the soundscape of the turbine hall with the forces of accent and elocution, carving a space for the granite’s voice. Language mirrors labour: Mulholland blasting rock, Falconer carving wood. The following words explore how accent and dialect might be shaped by physical forces and how, within Master Rock, they become solid and abrasive through the actors’ delivery.

Master Rock by Maria Fusco, performed inside Cruachan Power Station, 2015. An Artangel and BBC Radio 4 commission. Photo by Robert Ormerod

Master Rock by Maria Fusco, performed inside Cruachan Power Station, 2015. An Artangel and BBC Radio 4 commission. Photo by Robert Ormerod

  
EF: Into the hollow mountain I leap, discovering a place crosshatched with
instinct and ardour.  What I show in this mural is a part that stands in for the whole. Me? Why I’m also a part that stands in for the whole. I am the only woman here. This mural is more real than me. The image is everywhere, the individual nowhere.

JM: When we’re drillin’ and blastin’ into the fresh rock we’re the first ones to have ever laid eyes on it. We’re gods on the inside of the mountain and just plain men on the outside. [3]

 

In 1979 Ted Hughes published a volume of poetry set in West Yorkshire called The Remains of Elmet, in which he lays his native Yorkshire tongue on thick. It includes ‘The Sluttiest Sheep in England’ ‘that never/ get their back ends docked’, and ‘Auction at Stanbury’ where, ‘On a hillside, part farm, part stone rubble/Shitty bony cattle disconsolate/ Rotten and shattered gear’. The matter-of-fact Yorkshireman’s dialect is, according to Hughes, akin to the language of Shakespeare. The poet admired the playwright’s ‘inspired’ dialect and direct use of language; ‘Wherever he turns his attention, his whole body rematerializes at that point’; the voice that doesn’t seek an external vantage point to speak from. 

 

Hughes was interested in how dialect and accent seemed to emerge through forms of labour and humanity’s engagement with the elements of nature. In The Remains of Elmet, he articulates how, over the course of thousands of years, wind, water and stone have shaped the Yorkshire tongue. In ‘For Billy Holt’, the people of his rocky, windy homeland ‘cut rock lumps for words’, in ‘Crown Point Pensioners’ ‘their vowels furl downwind, on air like silk’. By stretching the Northern dialect to its limits in this body of poetry, Hughes objectifies it.

Master Rock audience members in the turbine hall of Cruachan power station. Photo credit Olivier Pasquet

Master Rock audience members in the turbine hall of Cruachan power station. Photo credit Olivier Pasquet

The tunneller’s animated and rasping voice—with broad accent honed in the outskirts of An Gaeltacht—clatters against the polished elocution of the artist’s southern English accent. Falconer’s statements are deliberately overwrought in their pronunciation; delivery drawn out, clear and measured. Her tone hits a flat note in my ear which is further emphasised in proximity to Mulholland’s fervour ‘The conditions is bad, for we have to scutter through the reek. We don’t let on. Rush, rush, rush. Our oxters are in gullions with the toil.’ [4] 

 

The sensation of ‘flatness’, as I perceive it here, is a generative force within the overall sound environment of Master Rock. The acoustic frictions, caused by the jolting rhythm of the two voices, speaking one after the other, carve a space within the soundscape of the turbine hall for the third voice, the granite, to materialise within. The voice of the granite is multi-layered, musical, and sounds like a force grappling to harmonise many voices: the countless tongues Cruachan rock has absorbed over time, human and other. In this space its voice becomes audible for a short time, escalating to a nearly unbearable frequency and then seeming to expend itself as if the space had disappeared or closed again.

Cruachan Power Station mural by Elizabeth Falconer. Photo by Martin Clark

Cruachan Power Station mural by Elizabeth Falconer. Photo by Martin Clark

The staging of this sense of ‘flatness’ (which might be better described as the effect of a delivery of one component of a work which does not court the senses in the same way as another component of the work) is a technique explored by Fusco in previous live performances of her writing. In her on-going series of writings about the Canadian actor Donald Sutherland, Fusco uses a selection of films from 1970-1980, starring Sutherland, as starting points, writing a text relating to each with the aim of tracking his gestures as he moves from one role to the next. During a reading of these texts at the ICA symposium ‘Art &…’, 2012, Fusco first plays a clip from Fellini’s Casanova of Sutherland having sex with a doll. ‘Sutherland is in bed embracing a life-sized, mechanical doll dressed up in 19th century fashion. He pulls the doll onto himself and starts to have sex with her. In close-up we see her blank face. Her head turns slightly, her eyes flicker. Sutherland starts to cry out, I love you, I love you. When he has finished, he places the doll beside him. Suddenly her leg shoots up.’ [5] As the scene ends Fusco picks up her sheet of paper and reads the related text while the listeners who have just endured seven minutes of Sutherland fornicating with a mechanical doll (played by Leda Lojodice) quickly reorient their senses. [6]

 

The spoken text falls flat in comparison to the vivid imagery of the film. In relation to this deliberate set-up in the Donald series, Fusco says, ‘the project is inevitably, I think, going to fail in some way… inevitably the reading seems a little limp in comparison to the film… That interests me in terms of the disappointment of listening perhaps and also the lack of completeness about writing.’ [7]

I see parallels between this experimental mode of writing and performing and the delivery of Falconer’s story in Master Rock; restricting the magnitude of one part of a work by its proximity to another more sensory part. Although in the case of the Donald Sutherland screening and reading, the difference is between mediums, in Master Rock the same affect is achieved through the actors’ different modes of delivery. This is also due to the differing speeds at which we process their messages. Although Falconer’s story is voiced at a more moderated pace than Mulholland’s, the mural artist’s philosophical remarks and  detailed visual analysis demand a different attention in the live setting to the visceral memories retold by the tunnel tiger.

Lalor Roddy, Denise Riley and Ceylon Hay perform Master Rock inside Cruachan Power Station. Photo credit Laura Edbrook

Lalor Roddy, Denise Riley and Ceylon Hay perform Master Rock inside Cruachan Power Station. Photo credit Laura Edbrook

EF: I work with the grain, staining image to create my mural. Making of this wood, a new world to tell what really happened here. My strokes lap upwards from Loch Awe washing hidden rhythms into the grain, water meeting wood.

JM: One power station, hewn by 4,000 men. We must be hard and fly to survive in days like these. Our youngster memories knows this here rock, it calls us by our real names. [8]

 

Ideas of inheritance and the interconnected relationships between labour, language and voice permeate Fusco’s repertoire for a mountain. John Mulholland’s dealings with Ben Cruachan are physical, ‘A fistic encounter of the first order is at hand.’ [9], and this is reflected in the directness of his speech. Elizabeth Falconer’s story is less embodied and seems to lack his passion, yet the content of her speech is full of keenly observed mythologies relating to the site along with imaginative ideas about representing history in visual form, and in turn representing the visual form in language.

Working together in the turbine hall, their diverse tongues, coupled with that of the granite, become part of a repertoire of hidden histories; speaking of social and historical inheritance, labour and voice. In Master Rock words are objects shaped by work and voice is a physical force. Language reflects the character’s physical, emotional, intuitive and cerebral interactions with Ben Cruachan. Habitual behaviour is perpetuated by cultural and familial tradition.


JM: Whenever we get somebody working the tunnels, the next one of our family goes into the same thing,
The father goes,
Then the son goes
When he’s gets up big enough [10]

 

Hands, mouths, oxters and eyes are all employed to extract the history of Cruachan power station. It is fitting that in taking on the task of writing a history of this complexity, involving countless buried voices, Fusco has created a repertoire. As well as denoting a body of parts regularly performed in a theatrical context, a repertoire is also defined as the stock of skills or types of behaviour that a person habitually uses. Inheritance, bound up in language, generates its own narrative in Master Rock.

Master Rock is available to listen here and a documentary of the making of Master Rock can be viewed here.


Claire Walsh is curatorial assistant at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and guest co-editor of MAP throughout 2016



[1] Ted Hughes on the ‘inspired dialect’ of Shakespeare, Ted Hughes interviewed by Egbert Faas, 10 May 1970.
[2] Both Mulholland and Falconer are based on real people of the same names. John Mulholland’s part was read by the actor Lalor Roddy, Elizabeth Falconer’s was read by poet and philosopher Denise Riley and the voice of the granite was read by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ceylon Hay.
[3], [4], [8], [9], [10] All extracts from Master Rock: http://www.artangel.org.uk/projects/2015/master_rock/about_the_project/master_rock
[5] Description of scene in Fellini’s Casanova in Scene by Scene: Film Actors and Directors Discuss Their Work, by Mark Cousins, 2002
[6] http://blip.tv/temporarysiteorg/maria-fusco-art-symposium-london-ica-1025243
[7] Writer and curator Maria Fusco in conversation with writer Thomas Raab, SPIKE x Kunsthalle Wien Conversations, 23 May 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUCnHkL5aA8