The Sound of the Machines

Thibault Jacobs
Community engagement, Education
Intangible, Tangible
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Steam engines powering the first Industrial Revolution in Europe have had an incredible technological, economic or social impact on our society. They also defined a sound landscape, resonating through every European city, we might forget today. The exquisitely restored machines of the Wielemans Ceuppens brewery in Brussels are a unique opportunity for school children to engage with that reality. Performing the sounds of the machines allow them to figure out the way machines do work but it also helps them to take a glimpse into the life of men and women working in factories a century ago.

An imposing steam engine stands in all its glory in the middle of an isolated building along the railway. The Carrels & Frères Machines used to power one of the most prestigious brewery complexes of Brussels, beer capital of a beer country. One day, the brewery closed its doors and then followed the years of decay. The machines suffered, rust invading their components… But slowly, thanks to a dedicated team encouraged by an EU-Europa Nostra Grand Prix, empowered by a private funding, the machines regained their youthful appearance! Today the machines stand still, bright under the light shining through the large windows surrounding the hall. The voices of the visitors, the tram buzzing by outside are the only noises breaking the silence. What is the sound of that machine? And the sound of that wheel powered by a rod? And how does those noises add up to the thousand other small or big noises produced by a fully working industrial complex? Which leads us to question: what was it like to work in such a factory? What effects might it be having on the workers senses? "The sound of the machines" is a transdisciplinary project. It aims to transfer technical and historical knowledge through an artistic and playful method involving both the body and the senses of our young visitors. First, we do study the function and sound produced by each part of the machines: the steam coming in, the valves whistling, the connecting rod going back and forth, the plungers running one way and another... With their voice but also with their body movement, the young attendees can feel it: the steam engine is a fantastic rhythmic machine. The visits and workshops intend to evoke the sounds of the factory and create an industrial polyphony bringing the children closer to the men and women who worked here a century ago. In one respect, the participant becomes part of the machine, breathing new life into it.

European Dimension

These innovative visits have been conceived as the follow-up of the Wielemans Machines project. The project consisted of the restoration of the old brewery Wielemans-Ceuppens steam engine and surrounding machines. The research leading to their restoration has been awarded an Europa Nostra Grand Prix in 2013. The restoration of these machines and the related pedagogic-artistic project "The Sound of the Machines" do have a genuine European dimension. They both highlight in a lively manner the way the Industrial Revolution engulfed and reshaped the whole European continent in the 19th century. The phenomenon affected the life of millions of people on our continent, not only in their working habits, but also in their very body and senses. The consequences of the Industrial Revolution, of the machines, on the soundscape, particularly in European cities, is not the easiest phenomenon to grasp nowadays though its socio-economic effects are still noticeable. The European project is deeply rooted in this thundering 19th century and Brussels, once nicknamed “the little Manchester”, was a central hub in the booming cultural and socioeconomic networks. The Wielemans Ceuppens brewery development is directly related to the increased cross-border circulation of ideas, goods and workers.

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