How Sunderland’s Northern Spire is set to become a musical instrument

The Northern Spire is to be turned into a musical instrument.

Artist Di Mainstone is working with communities on both sides of the new Wear crossing to create mechanical and digital devices which will bow, twang and pluck the bridge. The music produced will accompany a specially-written anthem and community performance to celebrate Northern Spire which will be delivered later this year.

The IN-SPIRE project has been commissioned as part of Sunderland Culture’s Great Place project and is being delivered in partnership with Sunderland City Council and the Cultural Spring.

Di has a growing reputation for the ‘Human Harp,’ a musical device that ‘plays’ suspension bridges. She has already ‘played’ New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, Omaha’s Bob Kerrey Bridge and Bristol’s Suspension Bridge, among others.

“Imagine the Northern Spire as a 28-stringed harp, with the cables as strings. Each of the cables is of a different length and we’ll create a Sunderland scale and then physical and digital ways of playing that scale,” Di explained.

“We’ll also be looking at other ways of creating sounds from the bridge. This might be inspired from the city’s history – we might use sails to harness the sound of the wind on the Wear, which would echo the city’s shipbuilding past. Or we could reflect on Sunderland’s mining heritage by sculpting elements of our instruments out of coal. It’s also important that the project reflects modern-day Sunderland, so we might look at using a sitar or pipa to celebrate the wealth of global music in the city today,” Di added.

Over the next few weeks she will meet people from each of the five Wearside communities closest to the bridge: Castletown, Millfield, Pallion, Southwick and St Anne’s ward.

“During these sessions we’ll talk to people about their own background and experiences. We’ll use their stories to create a narrative that will inspire our score, created by musician and composer Mandy Wigby, in collaboration with other local music artists,” explained Di.

“Over the coming weeks we’ll be running a series of Bridge Bow Maker Events for people and school children to share their stories, get involved in making prototypes, costumes, music and performance, working with engineers, artists and musicians,” she added.

Di is a WIRED Innovation Fellow and was also Artist in Residence for the European City of Science when it was in Manchester. Prior to this she was artist in residence at Queen Mary University London where she would collaborate with researchers from the Centre for Digital Music and Media Arts and Technology group, to develop new musical instruments that were inspired by the body.

Helen Connify, Capacity Building Manager for Sunderland Culture said: “IN-SPIRE is the first in a series of commissions from the fund aimed at putting culture and communities into the heart of Sunderland’s regeneration plans. It’s an exciting project, one which will be remembered and we’re delighted to be working with world-class artist Di Mainstone on such an important project.”

“One of the ambitions of the project is to bring people together from communities around the bridge who’ve never been connected before to celebrate and explore breadth of cultural backgrounds and experiences that make up our city; from Bhangra to brass, ships to saris.”

Emma Horsman, Project Director for the Cultural Spring, said: “We’re thrilled to be working with Sunderland Culture, the city council and Di on IN-SPIRE, which aims to bring communities together and gives participants a unique opportunity to get involved in a historic moment for the city. The Cultural Spring is all about creating opportunities for people to engage with excellent art and culture in their neighbourhoods and estates, which is exactly what IN-SPIRE is doing.”

Coun Michael Mordey, Deputy Leader of Sunderland City Council, said: “The Northern Spire is an asset for the whole city in terms of the transport link it creates; it has a huge impact on the skyline – particularly for those communities closest to the bridge. So it’s fantastic that this project will bring together residents from either side of the River Wear, joining cultural ideas and experiences to form an exciting and innovative piece of work. We’re really looking forward to the end result.”

Residents interested in getting involved in the project can contact Corinne Kilvington, Great Place Producer, on Corinne.kilvington@sunderlandculture.org.uk