Composer, promoter, workshop facilitator and 2022 Sound and Music Composer-Curator participant Steven Chell tells us the Durham folk tale of the Lambton Worm, and walks us through how he uses it as a base inspiration for The Loathsome Worm, his music-making workshops for young composers.
In this instalment of the Sounds of... Series, composer, promoter, workshop facilitator and 2022 Sound and Music Composer-Curator participant Steven Chell tells us the Durham folk tale of the Lambton Worm, and walks us through how he uses it as a base inspiration for The Loathsome Worm, his music-making workshops for young composers.
I first remember being truly excited about music one summer visiting my uncle in Derbyshire. I must have been eleven or twelve years old, as OK Computer had just come out, and I was eagerly waiting for us to go to into the city so I could pick up a copy. I'd asked for Parklife for Christmas a few years earlier, which led me to The Bends the following year. I must have listened to that album every day for twelve months straight. OK Computer was the first album I had anticipated, that I had been excited about in advance, that I set time aside to go and buy for myself.
In terms of being a creator, I feel I was a relatively late bloomer. I didn't join bands until I was seventeen, and even then, it was largely thanks to friends snapping me up because I was the only person available who didn't mind giving singing a go. I only started writing my own music when I was nineteen, but since then, I haven't stopped. After becoming involved with my local music community, I have consistently booked and promoted events for the last twenty years. I have brought bands from all over the world to the North East, and now book a small grassroots music festival each year to encourage bedroom producers on to the stage and create networking opportunities for local electronic musicians and artists.
The idea behind my community project, the Loathsome Worm, was to not only stoke that early excitement, but to introduce attendees to their peers, foster friendships, and get them involved in a little community of new creators; experimenting and discovering together.
The inspiration comes from the legend of the Lambton Worm, perhaps the most famous piece of folklore from County Durham in North-East England, where I grew up. Centred around the River Wear, it was first made into a song in 1867 by Clarence M. Leumane. We use the area of Penshaw Hill—as referred to in Leumane’s poem—as the main location of our geolocated soundwalk, which I’ll touch upon later. This was an adaptation from earlier oral traditions, which said the beast in fact wrapped itself around Worm Hill in Fatfield, hence its name. This was a stone’s throw from my childhood home, and where I often went sledding in winter.
The Lambton Worm (C.M. Leumane, 1867) arranged and performed by Geordie Wilson
It can be a little hard to understand for those not familiar with the Northern accent, as it features many words that only exist in the Northumbrian dialect, so I’ll offer a brief translation, and a shortened version of the tale. The story follows John Lambton, an heir to the Lambton Estate of County Durham. One Sunday he skips church to go fishing, despite being warned by an old man that no good will come of it. Indeed, he captured an awful creature on the end of his line, and decided to throw it down a well on his walk home (you can still visit the well to this day). Years passed, and John went off to fight in the Crusades. Upon returning after seven years overseas, he learned the worm he cast away as a child had grown and grown, eventually leaving the well to wreak havoc on the village. He vowed to kill it to atone for his mistake, seeking the advice of a wise woman who lived near Durham. She told him to cover his armour with spearheads and fight the worm in the River Wear. Upon slaying the beast, he must kill the first thing he sees, or else his family will be cursed for nine generations, and no heir will die in their beds. John prepares, and tells his father to release a hound when he hears three blasts of John’s bugle, which he will use to signal his victory.
When John goes to fight The Worm, it wraps itself around him to try and crush him, but instead becomes impaled on the spearheads. John is then able to hack away at the worm, and great chunks of flesh fall into the river and are washed away. Unable to heal itself, The Worm becomes weak, and John despatches it with a final blow. He lets out three blasts on his bugle to signal his victory. His Father hears is overcome with joy for both his son’s and the village’s safety. He forgets to release the hound, and rushes out to congratulate his son himself. Unable to kill his own Father, John lays down his sword, and so the family become cursed. Rather spookily, the next three generations did actually die in unfortunate circumstances. Robert Lambton drowned at Newrig. Sir William Lambton, a Colonel of Foot, was killed at Marston Moor. And William Lambton died in battle at Wakefield. Henry Lambton, who would have been the 9th and final generation to be cursed, died in his carriage crossing Lambton Bridge on 26 June, 1761.
The legend of the Lambton Worm has continued to permeate pop culture throughout the last 156 years. In 1911, Bram Stoker released his novel ‘The Lair of The White Worm’. And more recently in 1988, Ian Watson released ‘The Fire Worm’ – the same year Stoker’s novel was made into a film. Both drew heavily from the tale of The Lambton Worm. William Mayne also released a children’s novel in 2002 – The Worm in The Well – which is an adapted retelling of the original legend, adding yet another layer to the tale’s evolution. Most famously perhaps, screenwriter Anthony Shaffer wrote a film adaptation for the Lambton Worm in 1989 as a direct sequel to his 1973 film The Wicker Man. Unfortunately, however, the project never came to fruition.
With our workshops being based so close to Worm Hill, and the tale providing so many fun opportunities to explore sound, it seemed the ideal story to re-write for ourselves, too. After the initial proof of concept workshops, our feedback questionnaires showed that every attendee felt more confident using recording equipment and techniques, and 80% felt more comfortable coming up with and sharing ideas. All participants said they felt more confident working as part of a team, while 80% said they were more comfortable sharing their ideas when approaching tasks, and expressing their creativity. Feedback also showed that the workshops opened avenues to new interests, and helped develop existing ones, with all participants agreeing that they both learned something new and had fun.
We not only look at song writing, arrangements, storytelling and recording, but also engineering, sound design, and broadcasting. This simultaneously helps attendees develop as artists and creators, whilst also introducing them to new career paths within the music industry; fostering a curiosity that will lead them to discover new interests and opportunities. I believe introducing young creators to the idea of earning an income from multiple revenue streams is more important now than it ever has been for people working in the arts.
I'd like to talk you through each of the scenes created in our proof of concept, using key sounds to demonstrate how initial ideas, group discussions, the application of new skills, and experimentation led to the final pieces. I love how everything came out. I feel it sounds like we captured it all, together, in a day. I'm starting to understand myself that it is important to recognise and enjoy your achievements at every opportunity you can.
One of the attendees brought a guitar to the workshop and, when we were discussing sounds, casually shared with us that he knew a trick to make guitar strings sound like bells. We recorded a few different takes and layered them up, pitching a few of them down until we found the sweet spot. We added some equalisation to further bring out the deep and full sound, blended in some large cathedral reverb to mimic the space, and we had our Church Bell for the opening scene!
Scene One quickly introduces us to our first character voice as well, the Old Man. As we had no male volunteers, we recorded a female voice and manipulated the sample to make it sound older, and more masculine. We did this by subtly slowing it down and allowing the pitch to drop naturally this way, before experimenting with formant shifting. This allows you to change the tone of a voice without further changing the pitch or timing and making it sound unnatural. Used in moderation together, these techniques can drastically change the sound of a voice without introducing unnatural artefacts.
With the music for this scene, the group decided something 'Medieval' sounding would be ideal, and so we looked into lutes, and how we could add a little drama with some heavy drums. We wanted the music to be light and introduce a theme without getting too intense too early in the story.
This was one of the messier scenes. We snapped, cracked, twisted and squished all manner of fruit and veg to get some really visceral sounds that would mimic the tearing of flesh and the crunching of bones as the worm ate. We found a sample of a cow eating online, and lined up key transients with those of our dearly departed fruit and veg to give the feeding a natural and realistic pace.
We also had a lot of fun bashing and scraping desk legs, curtain rails and bits of shelves together to make our sword clashes. These had to be layered up based on their tonal qualities, with a little short delay and reverb to get that classic recognisable effect of two blades striking and then sliding off one another.
In this scene, the audience begins to learn just how terrible things are becoming. We thought sparse piano and string instruments worked well when creating a sense of doom and foreboding. It was very interesting to see how similar everyone's ideas were when an emotional element was brought into play with the music, and how different feelings were easier to express through different arrangements.
In this scene, we had to mimic a cheering crowd with only eight people. This was a great chance to be a bit silly and have some fun. We did five takes, and with each take we all put on a different voice and shouted something different. Can you hear the rather specific dilemmas faced by some of the villagers? This technique was great to demonstrate how some solo artists record choirs or gang vocals by themselves, and without any budget. Get in character, and layer up!
We also had a lot of fun with our new character, the Old Hag. We used a binaural mic to record the voice, with our (pretty excellent) voice actor walking around the mic and moving between 'ears'. This gives the impression of the voice eerily floating around the listener. We wanted to make it spookier still, so we did a rather unnatural octave drop, with the sample locked in place so it didn't slow down. We then reversed the left and right and lowered the volume. This gives the impression of a subtle yet foul echo following the voice, creating unease.
Scene three offers a brief reprise from the action, so we returned to our lute for the music.
For the final battle, we made use of our hydrophone; a small waterproof microphone. This was submerged, and by breaking the surface of the water in different ways, we were able to create various textures and tones we could layer up to make our rushing river. We also recycled the fruit and veg from earlier, dropping them into the water to make a deep splash. This mimicked The Worm flailing in desperation before being despatched by John Lambton once and for all and collapsing into the froth.
The most challenging aspect of the ultimate scene was the music. We wanted it to be exciting and tense, telling the story almost on its own. The soundtrack for the video game 'Halo' was a great reference point that was suggested by one of the attendees, and so we used very metallic sounding percussion and a synthesised angelic choir to try and create a similar atmosphere. We were also able to bring back previous ideas for the earlier scenes, namely the heavy drums for pace and the stringed instruments to add tension and uplift the arrangement at the climax of the tale. This also greatly strengthened the thematic link between the four scenes, making it sound more like a coherent body of work.
I hope you've enjoyed this insight into our workshops, and hearing about why we began this project. If you'd like to keep up to date with what we do, follow us on Instagram. If you would like to experience our geolocated walk around the Penshaw and Cox Green area, visit our website.
If you would like contact us to discuss creating your own geolocated soundwalk, audiobook, or simply bringing a story to life, e-mail us at email@example.com
Cover image: Penshaw Hill by Steven Chell