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Soundpit at Southbank Centre: Getting groovy in the sand

Sound Pit

By Amy Brotherton

If my six year old declares an activity “good” that’s pretty high praise. But when he busted out “amazing” as we emerged from the Soundpit installation at the Southbank Centre I wasn’t surprised; it’s a mind-bending sensory experience unlike any my kids have encountered yet. Have you ever wondered what sound feels like? Or what music looks like? These are some of the ideas that inspired the trippiest sandbox play area you ever did see.

The exhibition has timed entry slots, and upon arrival you and your group are asked to remove your shoes and warned that it will be dark inside. Giant curtains part and we wandered in to room illuminated only by the swirling colourful lights that illuminate a series of sand pits and raised sand tables. The music coming from the speakers at each sand area sounds like whale song intertwined with ancient trance music. It takes everyone a few minutes to adjust to this otherworldly setting. It’s actually quite a chilled out atmosphere to be in, considering there are squadrons of children – who are playing with sand. The patterns the lights create on the sand combined with the exotic music make you forget it’s even sand though, it’s like you are feeling music. Far out man, I know. Drug free, I swear. And because the patterns and sounds shift depending on how you manoeuvre the sand, kids catch on that they have power to compose.

Obsessed with finding a way to make music with sand, artist Di Mainstone seized the opportunity when she was awarded the Artist in Residence position for the European City of Science, Manchester 2016. A cross-disciplinary team was formed and Soundpit was developed in a live laboratory during Manchester’s Science in the City festival, with input from musicians, coders, neuroscientists and members of the public.

“Our vision is to create a fully immersive sensorial musical instrument for the 21st Century – one that opens up the art of music making to all, regardless of age and ability,” said Mainstone. “Soundpit is not purely about sound, it is about the convergence of three of the senses – sound, vision and touch, exploring the effect this sensorial mix has on our thoughts, mood, creativity and wellbeing”.

Each sandpit has a name and its own look. There are a few large ones the floor that you can walk in, sit in, or lay down and make sand angels in, as my 3 year old was moved to do. (Yes, she leaked sand for a few hours after we left). There are also several sand tables, with wonderous mountains of sand atop them that are quickly moulded into other shapes by curious hands. Unfortunately, there are no step-stools at the tables and children aren’t allowed to sit up there so little ones need to be held up to experience these.  After holding my 3 year old up to table height a few times my back and I had a talk and convinced her to just play in the floor boxes. Because a good portion of the exhibit is at table height it is probably best for ages 5+ to fully experience it. It is open to all ages though, and there is plenty of space to leave buggies, bags, coats and shoes at the installation entrance.

The sessions last 45 minutes and cost £8 per person, kids and adults. After about 30 minutes exploring my kids had had a thoroughly good explore and were ready to leave, my son started asking when the lights were going to come back on. To make Soundpit more affordable perhaps a half-hour session at lower price would be more suitable for families, particularly considering many younger kids can’t interact with half the installation due to height issues.

Soundpit is open until 2 June 2019 (except 12th May); every day during the school holidays and weekends; entry times 10.15am-16.15pm

For more information please click here.

*We were invited by the Southbank Centre to visit Soundpit. 

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