New voice for 800-year-old bestiary

New voice for 800-year-old bestiary

A rare book which once belonged to Henry VIII has been brought to life in a new way through music and sound.

The Aberdeen Bestiary – a precious medieval ‘encyclopaedia’ - has inspired composers Professor Pete Stollery and Dr Suk-Jun Kim, members of SERG (Sound Emporium Research Group), to produce a soundscape of some of the animals and beasts featured in its lavishly illustrated pages.

Bestiaries were popular in the 12th and 13th centuries and used to provide Christian moral messages but few were produced to the high standard of the Aberdeen manuscript, which has been in the care of the University for almost four centuries.

The book was created in England in around 1200 and first documented in the Royal Library at Westminster Palace in 1542.

Its rare and fragile nature means it must be protected from the light and can rarely be displayed to the public but a digital version has been created to allow greater access.

Dr Kim, a sound artist from the University of Aberdeen, said it was the desire to open up the precious manuscript to the public that inspired the Bestiary Sounds project.

He said: “The Bestiary is an exquisite document lavishly illustrated and covered with gold leaf and while we can read the text and look at the images, what was missing for us was the sound.

“When these manuscripts were created they would have been read out loud but now we don’t do that. We recite the words in our own heads.

“By adding sound to the narrative structure we wanted to bring the bestiary to life and to make it not just a document of the past but something for the here and now.”

The composers, who are both lecturers in electroacoustic music at the University of Aberdeen, created sounds for four animals – the wolf, swan, owl and an imaginary bird called the caladrius. 

They will share their work at a concert in Aberdeen’s ‘Seventeen’ at 17 Belmont Street on March 27 where the soundscapes will feature alongside projected images from the Bestiary.

To reconnect the text to the city, Dr Kim recorded sounds at local landmarks including Aberdeen Harbour, Duthie Park and Union Street which were included in the compositions.

“Although the Bestiary was not originally produced in Aberdeen, it has been here for almost four centuries and we felt it was important to bring out that relationship,” Dr Kim added.

“By using sounds generated in and around the city we sought to replace it here. We also asked people to read the text which goes alongside the images in both their normal speaking voices and in whispered voices.

“The aim was to give sound to both the animals and their habitats and to give the text a new dimension.”

The composers hope to continue creating soundscapes for the bestiary, writing short compositions for almost every animal, beast and insect contained within its pages.

Dr Kim said: “We selected the first four animals because their stories spoke to us. The caladrius for example was said to be taken to the bedsides of the sick and if it looked the person in the eyes they would live, if it looked away it was said they would die. For a composer this image triggers lots of sound ideas.

“Similarly with the owl, the bird is often seen as a miserable creature, only coming out at night but I wanted to explore its more playful and child-like qualities through sound.

“With each of the animals we approached the composition by looking at how we could give the text more meaning and greater significance.”

The free concert on March 27 will get underway at 6.30pm and booking is not required.

The project has been supported by the Aberdeen Humanities Fund