The hot musical sounds of a steam engine

Trumpets? Check. Eighty-five-ton flywheel? Check. U.K. music students incorporate the roaring sounds of a working steam mill engine into an original musical composition.

Steam engine concert
Heather Stephenson stands next to her fellow musician, the Alexandra steam engine, at a concert earlier this month. University of Manchester

If deck railings, shower innards, old bike wheels , and Nike sneakers can be made into musical instruments, why stop there?

In the grand tradition of making music from unlikely materials, students at the U.K.'s University of Manchester incorporated the sounds of a giant working steam mill engine into an original composition.

Three brass players accompanied the running twin Victoria and Alexandra engines (yes, they have names) at Ellenroad Mill in Rochdale, England, at a performance earlier this month. The brass players started with a fanfare, gathering speed as the 85-ton flywheel, which measures 28 feet in diameter, gradually roared to life to play its part in a piece by Simon Joyner, a Manchester master's student in composition.

Ellenroad Mill was built as a cotton spinning mill in 1890 and destroyed by fire in 1916. It was rebuilt after the war, but in 1985 was closed and largely demolished, leaving only the engine and boiler houses. The next year, it was saved by the Ellenroad Trust, which arranged for the refurbishment of the boiler house and engines and opened the site as a steam museum whose engines steams away on the first Sunday of every month.

The "twin-tandem compound" engine delivers about 3,000 horsepower, enough to run 20,000 100-watt lightbulbs -- and greatly entertain an audience at a Sunday concert.

"The spirit of the music is linked with the rhythm of the engine, amplifying its physical workings and moving parts as it gathers speed, reaches an optimum power, and finally comes to rest," Joyner said. "The idea is to create a musical whole out of the engine's sonic and visual character, but the project is also about taking classical music out of the concert hall and into other environments."

We're guessing the steam engine's size will prevent it from being part of any traveling bands, so if you'd like to hear the composition, you'll want to listen to it here (the steam engine joins in around three-quarters of the way through).

Composer Simon Joyner, along with fellow university musicians Heather Stephenson and Jamie Phillips, play along with the Ellenroad Mill steam engines. University of Manchester

About the author

Leslie Katz, Crave's senior editor, heads up a team that covers the most crushworthy (and wackiest) tech, science, and culture around. As a co-host of the now-retired CNET News Daily Podcast, she was sometimes known to channel Terry Gross and still uses her trained "podcast voice" to bully the speech recognition software on automated customer service lines. E-mail Leslie.

 

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