slate fences


For many years I lived on a farm called Watercatch, near Bristol in the west of England. In the field behind it was an enormous underground tank, built early last century as a water supply. The sound was great after rain - drips from the roof and a long, long reverb. I made some beautiful recordings down there. This farm brought together lots of my musical interests. I had done several performances with dripping water before I moved there, and developed it further while I was there. Next to the farm were woods with lots of dead sycamore in, which kept us warm in winter and made lots of rope ladder style log xylophones in summer. The field in front of the farm was called "Slate". I don't know why, but it pointed to another direction, because in 1986 I spent three months working 200 miles away in the slate quarrying area of North Wales around Mount Snowdon. A beautiful area - high mountains and steep valleys, remote sheep farms, and in the distance, the Irish Sea, the sandy beaches of Ynys Mon (the island of Anglesey) and on the Llyn Peninsula, the Whistling Sands of Oer. The sands whistle says the tourist brochure. I was convinced it must be something to do with the wind or the sea and kept listening harder and harder (if that's possible) but could hear nothing apart from waves, wind and a distant diesel generator. Maybe the weather wasn't right for sand whistling. Then a group of children ran past, and the sand was squeaking under their feet! So I ran too and the sand squeaked for me. Or creaked, I'm not sure which, but that must have been it, the whistling. After all, I reasoned, the "Squeaking Sands of Oer" wouldn't do much mileage as a tourist spot.

Anyway, here I was at the very heart of the slate industry. During the 18th and 19th centuries slate from Llanberis, Bethesda and Blaenau Ffestiniog was shipped all over the world - as far as Valparaiso in Chile for example. The quarries employed thousands of craftsmen and labourers and were responsible for roofing the factories of the early industrial revolution in Manchester and the north of England. Part of the complex jigsaw of social and geographical conditions that led England to industrialise its production earlier than the rest of the world.

The stone is grey. But each quarry has its own distinctive colour - green, blue, purple and even red. The red is unusual, but has such a lovely warmth to it. Its a sedimentary rock, formed from layers of mud at the bottom of the ocean, then metamorphosed through heat and pressure. And it has such a strong horizontal grain structure that it can be easily split with a chisel into sheets 5mm or less thick which are still strong enough to withstand the battering of wind, rain and hailstones on roofs for a hundred years or more, and the battering of wood and rubber percussion beaters for - well, for how long? I don't yet know, but the first instruments I made with slate are now over ten years old and are going strong.


What instruments? Slate marimbas, llechiphones, although I don't speak Welsh it seemed right to give them a name based on the Welsh word for slate (llechen, singular; llechi, plural). The form is similar to a wooden marimba. Slate bars about 5mm thick are supported on rubber tubing at their nodal points. Underneath each bar is a plastic resonating pipe. Beaters are rubber balls on wood or leather bound wood. Tuning is by grinding underneath with a file or (quicker but noisier) an angle grinder.

What do they sound like? Probably much mellower than you'd expect. More like an African marimba than an orchestral one, something like a metallophone but not such a long ring. A unique sound, and I'm surprised it hasn't already been used much more. Some people have compared it to a harp sound too, which I can see, but that is also to do with cultural associations since the harp is an important instrument in Welsh folk music.

What tunings and ranges? I've made them from C1 (two lines below the bass clef) up to G5 (an octave above the treble clef), but the tone is strongest, and most distinctively slate, between C2 and G4. The tunings have been strongly influenced by the first one I made - seven slates split from one rock, all the same length but different thicknesses, turned out by chance to be a five tone scale: D2, E2, G2, Bb2, C3, D3, E3. I love this scale. It's very encouraging for workshops because it is so harmonious, the notes forming a ninth chord if played together, and at the same time, because of the tritone between E and Bb, it's not as bland as the more common pentatonic C D E G A. One of the reasons I responded positively to this initial accident of tuning was that I'd heard it used in the beautiful music of Hukwe Zawose from Tanzania. So I've made a lot of llechiphones on this scale. I've also made many fully chromatic models, and many less usual tunings. My particular favourite at the moment is an equipentatonic tuning, where the interval between each key is 2.4 semitones. For a while I made a standard range of llechiphones which I made available for sale, but now I just make to commission, and try to respond to individual needs.


In the area around the quarries, slate is used not just for roofing, but all sorts of other things - floors, walls, work surfaces, doorsteps. Driving down the narrow mountain road to Penrhyn Quarry in Bethesda, a twenty foot high slate wall suddenly borders the road, rich dark grey and at Porth Penrhyn near Bangor the whole beach is made up of thin shale like slates stacked on their sides making a wonderful accidental sculpture. Back on the mountainside many of the fences between the narrow fields are made with huge slabs of slate sunk into the ground and tied together with wire. Born of practicality and necessity, but to the outsider giving the area a unique sculptural landscape. Even more dramatic is the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. Ten miles inland and south of Mount Snowdon, it seems that all you can see is slate. Here the slate is mined underground rather than quarried, but huge man made mountains of waste slate surround the town and merge with the distant green hills. The scrap makes a great sound too. You sometimes hear wild goats running over it, or walking over it yourself is a musical experience either listening to your footsteps or selecting pieces that you like the sound of.

And yet. . . this is a romantic view. I struck up a conversation with a young woman in a pub in Blaenau Ffestiniog. "I don't know what you like it for", she said, "There's nothing here except slate and sheep and rain." Slate has become a relatively expensive roofing material so most of the quarries are now closed, and its an area of high unemployment with few opportunities. Traditionally quarry work was hard and dangerous, and many local people regard the tips as a monument to the gruelling labours of their fathers and the lives lost through accidents and industrial disease. Its only a minority that would prefer the tips to be grassed over and forgotten about.

Slate also symbolises the exploitation of Wales by England - or rather the English bourgeoisie. Many of the quarry owners and bosses were English, while the labourers and craftsmen were Welsh. The craft of working slate can't even be properly discussed in English, because there are many technical terms in Welsh that have no English equivalent.

I started my experiments with slate as a musical material in 1986 during a residency at the slate museum in Llanberis. I was ignorant of the dangers. Tuning with an angle grinder in a public corridor, slate dust filled the air but I was soon warned that once the dust gets in your lungs it stays there and during my residency I soon came to recognise the feeble walk and posture of some of the older men in the area whose lungs had been ruined by long exposure to the dust. In the 19th century some quarry owners had even claimed that slate dust was good for you. Of course the quarry workers all knew it wasn't, but it took until the 1970s for official recognition and compensation to be given for industrial disease caused by the dust. All the stewards working in the slate museum were ex quarry workers and I learnt much from them and struck up friendships with a couple of them.

Cān Y Graig - Slate Voices

I came to love the area and after the residency was finished, started visiting regularly. Like a lot of instrument makers, ultimately I am more interested in music than instruments - or rather I see instrument making as being part of the creative process of music more than an end in itself. Other parts of the process are composing, performing, listening and perhaps most important of all, creating a physical and social context for all these activities to happen. I gradually developed the idea that a performance that was about slate, used slate to make the sounds and was performed in the heart of the slate quarrying area would be particularly resonant (not just acoustically) and I set my heart on achieving this. This eventually took the form of a cross art form performance called "Cān Y Graig - Slate Voices" which we performed in North Wales in 1990. I commissioned six poems from Gwyn Thomas and worked with singer Sianed Jones on setting these to music. Sculptors Andy Hazell and Lucy Casson made a set out of scrap and industrial materials that echoed the landscape of the quarries. Textile artists Annie Menter and Barbara Disney made batik backdrops that drew attention to the colours and shapes in slate, and also drew on the local tradition of engraved slate fireplaces. Andy also took many slides of the slate area, edited some archive film we found of work in the quarries and manipulated a complicated three screen projection system during the performances.

slate voices underground We performed Cān Y Graig - Slate Voices fifteen times in six different locations. Two of them had this special resonance that I was looking for. The first was the slate museum itself in Llanberis. The space we used had been the foundry for the second biggest quarry of all and still had the original furnace and industrial saws and planes powered by an enormous waterwheel. Here we had the most complete exposition of our material. But more exciting for the audience and acoustically more resonant were our underground performances at the Llechwedd slate mine in Blaenau Ffestiniog. Four hundred feet underground, the audience had to wind their way down low roofed tunnels carved out of the rock to reach the enormous cavern which once had been solid slate and now rested silently beside an underground lake. For evoking the life and work of slate workers over the years this context couldn't be surpassed and many of the audience said afterwards they were deeply moved by the experience.

Breezes and Drips

The tuned slate marimbas I suppose are my main slate instruments, but just as interesting are simple hanging chimes made from random pieces of slate ranging from a few centimetres across up to almost a metre. As with most percussion instruments of this type, the bigger ones are dominated by overtones rather than the fundamental pitch and give very rich individual tones. I've set them up as wind blown instruments and also in arrangements as mobiles where they collide with each other producing more random rhythms and series of sounds.

At the moment I'm working on a project to bring together my interests in water and slate. I took five of my llechiphones outside and placed them underneath a large oak tree, so I could stand on one of the branches and take a photograph looking down. When it started to rain a few minutes later, my first thought was to rush the instruments back inside, but before I had a chance to do this I noticed what a great sound the big drops of water falling off the tree were making as they hit the slate. So instead of taking them in, I brought my tape recorder out and recorded it. Later I used this tape in a piece with two singers, but I also had a prototype design for a new instrument - the dripping llechiphone - which should be finished this summer. (Rain Songs) My plan is to use this in an installation with a development of another water instrument of mine, the gurgler. This one consists of a set of pipes standing in a bowl of water with air bubbling up inside them through a hose sprinkler.

next : moving towards africa

Sianed, Marco and Will

© Copyright Will Menter - first published in Experimental Musical Instruments, September 1997.

!CD! for details of recording of Cān Y Graig - Slate Voices.

writing by will

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