Pioneered by Radio Merseyside’s Roger Hill and his Pure Musical Sensations programme, the Music For Empty Spaces project aims to draw attention to Liverpool’s empty spaces and provoke us to think about how these spaces are used. We speak to some of the musicians who have composed songs in response to empty spaces, as well as to Roger Hill about why he started the project.
An alarming number of properties in Liverpool are empty, unused, abandoned, discarded and unloved. Just take a walk around the city’s commercial district, centred on Old Hall Street, or wander through the back streets of the Baltic Quarter, and you’ll probably pass by hundreds upon hundreds of square metres of dead space hidden behind walls of former banks and warehouses. This phenomenon is not just restricted to the city centre: scores of vacant spaces and buildings throughout Merseyside have played an important role in shaping the story of the area, and all that’s left inside them now are memories of former glories and grand plans turned to dust. In an age where there’s a chronic lack of housing anywhere, how can we just let tens of thousands of square feet lie fallow?
The MUSIC FOR EMPTY SPACES programme, run by Radio Merseyside’s Roger Hill, aims to draw attention to some of these spaces and make us re-think how we use them. “The region is full of empty spaces, many of them unnecessarily empty, some atmospherically so,” says Hill, who was involved in a project to bring events and community use to a city-centre office building on Water Street and who is aware of the property situation and the large amount of neglected building space in the Liverpool area. At the same time, the development of other city spaces like Sefton Park Meadows and the Futurist Cinema on Lime Street have become major public issues. The Music For Empty Spaces project – which has been running for six months – is “a response to the important issue of how the city treats its buildings and public places,” clarifies Hill.
Local musicians were invited to take part in the project by creating music with empty spaces in mind, and the best of that music will be broadcast on Hill’s legendary alternative music programme Pure Musical Sensations on Sunday 1st November. The musicians were invited to choose any space that is: empty but accessible, e.g. a beach; inaccessible, e.g. closed buildings; busy but can be imagined empty; private; abandoned and forgotten. “Some of the artists have used their commission to address these issues,” says Hill, “but others are celebrating places in which they have a personal interest. This is both a showcase of the creativity of Liverpool musicians and a chance to bring to public attention a set of issues which are important to all of us.”
Christopher Torpey and Bethany Garrett spoke to four of the musicians taking part to find out a little bit more about the hidden spaces that are being given a voice.
Space chosen: The Futurist Cinema, Lime Street
Track: Wreck ’em For The Futur(ist)
Bido Lito!: Why did you choose The Futurist as your inspiration for this project?
Jonathan Raisin: I began thinking about a few different spaces, or even the idea of the whole city centre as an empty space. But as I was working on the piece, the Futurist Cinema became the key. I was walking around that area and was reminded both of what a brilliant building it is in itself, and what a tragedy – what a scandal – it is that it will be demolished. It is an absolutely iconic building and representative of a whole load of contested spaces in Liverpool that are being challenged by all the current redevelopment.
BL!: What was it about the Music For Empty Spaces project that made you want to get involved?
JR: I’ve been thinking and writing about the city, about Liverpool, for a few years now. I’m particularly drawn to the buildings and spaces that linger in some sort of limbo: deserted and decaying but still escaping demolition or redevelopment. I actually like these places and mostly wish they could be left as they are. I’m interested in the idea of the fabric of the city as a repository of memory. So, when Roger mentioned this project it seemed like a great thing to get involved in. It’s actually given me a bit of focus for making more sound pieces exploring other spaces.
Space chosen: the North Liverpool Extension Line (‘the Ralla’)
Track: The Ralla
BL!: Tell us about your chosen space and why you chose it for this project.
Jonny Davis Le Brun: The space was chosen by Our Keith and it’s called the Ralla: it was the North Liverpool Extension Line, which was closed in the 70s, and it’s a popular cycle route today. Our Keith has fond memories of it as a place for youthful mischief. It was nice to throw a positive spin on the Music For Empty Space theme. Rather than look at abandonment and, often faceless, redevelopment, the Ralla is a story of locals embracing a space for the good of a community. It now forms part of the coast-to-coast Trans Pennine Trail – it seems this stretch of land just can’t shake its suitability for transport.
BL!: How did you go about getting across the idea of emptiness in your song/piece?
JDLB: Our piece very quickly took on a kinetic energy informed by the theme of travel, which is so intrinsically woven into the Ralla. Whether consciously or otherwise, the direction we all took with it was emphatically forwards: the propulsion of industry, the pace of change, the ticking of time through generations, Our Keith’s energetic youthful exploits, the vast growth of weeds through the disused tracks.
Track: Only The City
Bido Lito!: What space did you choose for your selection and why did you choose it?
Dan Wilson: It’s a little more convoluted, unfortunately. The song itself is a kind of lament about the manufacturing base and what’s been lost, so it’s kind of based in the Cultural Quarter or what I generally call ‘The Beard District’. A lot of the buildings and factories there have been turned into creative spaces. I was writing a poem about something similar to some of the remits and Roger asked me to get involved. So it wasn’t about a specific space, but more that district or whole area. There’s a love-song element posed through the idea of these spaces, and so the idea is conveyed through the medium of the traditional kind of ballad or love song.
BL!: Do you think that, in a way, that space is kind of inaccessible for certain people in the city – not physically, but in the sense that it might be intimidating or expensive?
DW: Yeah I suppose it is. Now, cities try to keep up with each other and evolve and they don’t try to remember the past, they’re forging a new kind of future. So even when there are a lot of these buildings that have architectural nods to the past but they now house creative industries, there’s something slightly, err, hollow in there, I think. That’s like a general thing about lots of cities really, that’s what cities have to try to do now to keep up or to be forward-looking, but there’s a kind of emptiness therein, I think.
Space chosen: Queensway Tunnel exit, The Strand
Track: About Town
BL!: Where exactly is the space you chose as your inspiration for this project?
Germanager: You know where the tunnel comes out opposite the Liver Building? Well, just above the tunnel there’s a sort of patch of grass, it’s like the roof of the tunnel as it exits. It looks like you could sit on it and watch the cars go by or have a picnic on it or something, but you can’t get to it because it’s got a big fence there.
BL!: Why did that particular space appeal to you?
G: It’s just the idea that there are all sorts of places which are inaccessible, but they’re still real places. It’s strange how they come to be sort of bypassed and you walk past them all the time and just don’t notice they’re there.
BL!: How did you go about getting across the idea of emptiness in the piece that you made?
G: Well it’s not a particularly empty-sounding piece; if anything it’s kind of the opposite, which is what I was sort of trying to do. There’s a notion in filmmaking that comes from this 1920s Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, that suggests music or sound on films should be a counter to what happens on screen. That’s something that I quite like, this idea of a counterpoint. So the music I’ve made kind of represents the frenetic noise and urban madness of the city. It has lots going on in it, it’s a bit headlong, but the idea is that the music would be so frenetic that it would jar with the actual space.