"...Black Fell is certainly a compelling case for playing things by ear." Financial Times (Chris Allnut)

Black Fell, an online interactive digital opera from Martin Suckling & poet Frances Leviston, launches this month –– click here to explore from 3 November. Co-created with Leviston, violinist Jonathan Morton, and the mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg, in Black Fell the listener navigates the story environment by sound. It is set on a cloudy night at Kielder Observatory, Northumberland. A story in song, it was funded by DC Labs, with software development by Marco Ng and John Gray and audio engineering by Alex Mackay. Black Fell was featured in Financial Times here.

Its scenario sees an astronomer return to the observatory at Kielder, Northumberland, where as a child she accompanied her father as he tended to his beloved reflector. That night the forest has drawn in the clouds, thick and settled: there is no prospect of worthwhile observation. Starless, the astronomer turns her gaze inward, searching among ghostly errors of measurement for the echoes of landmarks lost at the dim boundary, where knowledge fades. Black Fell is designed for solo listening via headphones and runs entirely in a web browser. It is not optimised for mobile devices: for best results use a desktop or laptop.

In Suckling’s game-for-music, players are situated within a virtual orchestra through which they can freely move, their position defining not only the spatial position and balance of the audio elements but also the type of music heard and the direction the story takes. Audiences navigate by ear alone, or with the optional aid of a virtual ‘forest’ which provides visual feedback on their movements. The duration of each playthrough is between 9-13 minutes.

Black Fell represents an important contribution to the games-for-music field, where the music takes priority rather than acting as a support to a visual narrative, building on initiatives such as the Gaudeamus Screen Dive. The full story only emerges over several iterations, with the listener’s choices as to how they move through the virtual space determining the text-sequence, orchestration, and structure they hear.

Suckling previously partnered with Jonathan Morton of Scottish Ensemble on the prizewinning interactive combination of music, dance, and cinematography these bones, this flesh, this skin (2020). Black Fell also sees Suckling work again with Frances Leviston. Her poetry was the basis of Suckling’s 2017 string quintet Emily’s Electrical Absence, and her readings of the poems appear on the piece’s 2022 recording featuring players from Aurora Orchestra, featured on The Tuning (Delphian).