Strength of tide, saltiness of water and other factors will affect the sound coming from this floating installation.
There’s a turbidatron and a salinity sampler sequencer and various bits of musical machinery to create gurgling or plinky sounds depending on a whole range of factors from tide strength to the saltiness of the river Tyne.
Called Flow and commissioned as part of the Cultural Olympiad, the floating artwork, which had its first preview on Wednesday before its public opening on Sunday, is one of the more unusual things to have appeared on the river.
The wooden structure is a tidemill with a 4.5-metre-tall water wheel and a host of ingenious machines and electro-acoustic musical instruments on board. And if that is still confusing then it is “more reason for people to come down and see it for themselves”, said the project leader, Ed Carter.
In truth it is fairly straightforward. “It is a river-powered artwork – a series of instruments that are powered by the water wheel and respond, hopefully, to the river.”
What musical noises are made depends on a series of factors – the strength of the tide, the salt and nitrates content of the water and its turbidity, or murkiness – hence the turbidatron. Visitors will also be able to alter the sound themselves on wooden mixing desks.
The project was conceived in 2009 when UK arts councils invited submissions for 12 regional visual arts commissions as part of the Cultural Olympiad. The main collaborators are Carter, a music and arts producer based in Gateshead, and Owl Project – three artists (Simon Blackmore, Antony Hall and Steve Symons) who work with wood and electronics to create music-making machines.
But many more people have been involved in the project. “It’s been amazing,” said Carter. “There have been so many people involved. We’ve been writing our thanks list for tonight and I think we’ll just be reading it for the whole opening event.”
The cast includes the architect Nicky Kirk, waterwheel designer David Willcox and a team of boatbuilders led by Nick Spurr up the coast in Amble, Northumberland, from where Flow was towed at the end of February. They are also supplying a specially made ice cream of sea salted caramel and toasted pine nuts (think wood and water).
The response has been overwhelmingly positive, said Carter. “We’ve had really nice feedback. People have been interested in all the different elements because this is not something that appeals just to people interested in sound art, or sculpture, or architecture or engineering.”
There is still some cynicism when it comes to the Cultural Olympiad – and the spending on it – but Carter said: “We’ve really not had much opposition at all to be honest. I think we’re fortunate to be in a region which is really supportive of culture and the arts. There’s a track record of people doing ambitious projects here.”
It is one of 12 £500,000 publicly funded arts projects across the UK which come under the banner “artists taking the lead”.
Among the others are a boat made from donated wood in the south-east and an enormous plume of smoke being created by the artist Anthony McCall on Merseyside.
The artists behind Flow will decide in June what to do with their creation when the six months are over, but for now visitors just need to turn up from 11am to 7pm between Wednesday and Sunday to board it. Or people can listen to it on the fourth floor balcony of the Baltic centre just a walk across the Millennium Bridge – and online.