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Top of foghorn, looking out at sea

Requiem for a Foghorn


One of the most elegant and saddest moments in modern history took place in 2013: the last foghorn in England emitted its last honk, and dozens of ships performed a requiem in its honor.

On June 22, 2013, more than 50 ships gathered in the North Sea to perform a musical score, to honor the last time a foghorn would sing its song off the British coast. The piece was called Requiem for a foghorn. The elegy was played by three orchestras, sailing ships and the Souter Lighthouse’s speaker. Conducted and controlled from a distance, the ships made their horns bellow to a score that lasted 40 minutes and ended in the epic roar of the last whistle of England’s last foghorn.


Fog Horn with boats at sea in background

The melancholic sound emitted by this siren is the result of the environment it travels through –– in this manner, the real “composer” is fog itself. For the last 150 years, these sirens (notice the fortunate homonym with the mythological creatures) have warned sailors of the dangers of the sea during foggy nights, but they have gradually been replaced GPS radars that are now found on every ship. Just as the first lighthouse to ever have been built burns in the history of Alexandria, so it is that the song of the last siren echoes in the history of England.

Very soon the last of the lighthouse foghorns around the UK will have been decommissioned and their familiar call will become just a memory. But a distant foghorn has always had something of the quality of memory; its softly melancholic sound has always seemed to have come to us from somewhere lost. The Foghorn Requiem will be a final farewell to a sound, and to the people and way of life it represents.

These sirens, also called “Foghorns” were the nocturnal companions of lighthouses: if the latter, as Carlos Monsivais said, “are the eyes of the night”, then foghorns are the voices of the fog, whose absence could lead ships to sail blindly towards invisible reefs and coasts. But their voice is more than a symbolic warning, a clamor that touches directly the most profound and desolate corners of those who hear its cry.

Spectrogram of the dying note of the foghorn ©Autogena & Portway 2013

We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships; I’ll make one. I’ll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like the trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and to all who hear it in the distant towns. I’ll make me a sound and an apparatus and they’ll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life. (Ray Bradbury, The Fog Horn)

The Foghorn Requiem was one of those experiences whose ephemeral beauty can still be felt even from afar, from imagination and retrospective. While looking out to sea, the brass ensemble performed something that the mourning party will never forget: the sound of the Souter Foghorn playing the last note and holding it until its reserve was out. “While the reserve was emptied and the air pressure dwindled, the note slid downwards, hesitated, broke and slid into silence” Sarah Angliss described. “Sounds like an animal, don’t it? A big lonely animal crying in the night”. 

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