Tomorrow night, the sounds of Fingal's Cave - the awesome natural structure on the uninhabited island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland - will be brought to virtual life thanks to the BBC Radio 3 documentary strand Between The Ears...
In collaboration with The Glasgow School of Art’s School of Simulation and Visualisation and using cutting-edge technology which captures not only the acoustics of the melodic cave, but its awe-inspiring visual scale and beauty, BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds audiences will be transported to the site, and sounds, of natural beauty that inspired so many musicians, artists and literary figures and poets during the Romantic period. Felix Mendelssohn made it ashore in 1829 and was so moved by the unearthly sounds that fill the cave he created the remarkable Hebrides Overture in response. Jules Verne said, "the vast cavern with its mysterious, dark, weed-covered chambers and marvellous basaltic pillars produced upon me a most striking impression and was the origin of my book, Le Rayon Vert”. During the 19th-century era of romanticism and the sublime, the Germans were particularly enthralled by Fingal’s Cave. Not only did they visit, but quirky plays and stories were even set there (including Bride of the Isles about vampires living inside Fingal's Cave).
Featuring a rich cinematic sound experience, we follow the work of Dr Stuart Jeffrey from The Glasgow School of Art’s School of Simulation and Visualisation, and sound designer and composer, Aaron May, as they both – in their own ways - explore the remarkable Fingal's Cave. A few years ago Stuart and a team of archaeologists from the National Trust for Scotland discovered Bronze Age remains close to the cave and near a 19th-century building that was used by early tourists as a shelter from the elements. We join Stuart on location as he continues the dig and unearths further evidence of a Bronze Age site, and we accompany him into the heart of the cave during different sea states.
At certain times, the cave actually sounds musical, and this is the reason why local people named it the ‘musical cave’. Stuart explains that inside the cave there is a natural cognitive dissonance that can be very unsettling, indeed some visitors are left feeling on edge. He added, "The resonant sounds of blowing and popping in Fingal’s cave, together with booming waves, create a natural soundscape that does not match the movement of the waves - this is one of the things that makes it sound magical and musical. I’m delighted we can work with BBC Radio 3 and BBC Arts to bring that experience to audiences who might not be able to visit for themselves."
The location’s rich mythology, including that of mermaids and giants, highlights the sublime aspect of the place. Stuart's wider research, a collaboration with Professor Sian Jones at the University of Stirling, is trying to fill in the gap between how the Romantics viewed it - a site of awe - and how we see it today. “We have become dull souls, seeing it only as a nature reserve,” he says. Stuart hopes to change that perception by investigating whether cutting-edge technology can capture a place’s very essence.
And this is where composer Aaron May comes into this story. Whereas Stuart has spent many hours within the magnificent natural structure, Aaron has never set foot in Fingal’s Cave. But for this documentary he has created a new musical composition based upon his experience of entering a phenomenally exact virtual reality reconstruction, made by Stuart and his team at Glasgow School of Art. The VR version, features laser scans, photogrammetry and acoustic sound maps. You are able to tour the entire length of the cave and even hear how a piece of music would sound if played within it. A version of this virtual reality experience, complete with Aaron’s composition, will be made available for listeners to explore on their smart phones. And of course, Aaron’s remarkable and evocative soundtrack will feature in the radio documentary.
Alan Davey, Controller, BBC Radio 3 and BBC Classical Music, says: "At Radio 3 we’re always looking at ways to offer audiences an escape from everyday life and a chance to view the world through a different and more reflective lens. It’s also important to find new ways to make heritage sites more accessible and tangible to people. We hope listeners will enjoy losing themselves in this awesome and evocative cave from the safety of their own mobile phones and radios. My thanks to BBC Scotland production, Glasgow School of Art and Dr Jeffrey in particular for working with us on this amazing piece of radio."
In addition to the main mobile and Radio 3 project, a version of the virtual reality simulation, running on an HTC Vive, will showcase as part of BBC Arts and BBC Radio 3’s presence at Summerhall at Edinburgh Festivals in August 2019. For those unable to make the trip to Staffa, it’s the nearest audiences will get to experiencing the full majesty of Fingal’s Cave, allowing them to recreate the sound of their voice as it would be if they were to speak in the cave.
Until then, here's the London Symphony Orchestra playing Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, aka Fingal's Cave.