Soundscape composition

Soundscape composition focuses on the use of field recordings to explore the inter-relationships between sound, nature, and society. As defined by one of its leading practitioners, Hildegard Westerkamp, its ‘essence is the artistic, sonic transmission of meanings about place, time, environment and listening perception’. For further insight into what soundscape composition might mean in theory and practice, I recommend Hildegard Westerkamp’s wonderful writings on the subject. I also strongly recommend ‘Sounding Art’, a marvellous recent book by Katharine Norman, which features a literary soundwalk with Hildegard. You can read my review of this book, by clicking here. The text below provides details of some recent soundscape compositions, and links to soundfiles.

Village soundings. A series of four 30 minute pieces composed for Resonance FM, and broadcast during 2002, focusing on the soundscapes of a group of villages in rural East Anglia close to where I was living at the time. Click here for sound files.

i. A14 Features the sounds of a main road, the A14, situated very close to my home, and the reactions of local people to the continuous sound of traffic.
ii. Reach Fair Sounds of one of the oldest village fairs in England, held annually in the village of Reach.
iii. Golden jubilee A sonic insight into how my local community celebrated the Golden jubilee of HRH Queen Elizabeth II.
iv. Community stroll Another jubilee event, designed to encourage people to collectively visit local landmarks (and soundmarks).

Shick shack Features recordings made in Australia and in Cheshire, where my family is from. The piece explores the story of William Buckley, who was transported to Australia from rural Cheshire, as described in the book ‘Strandloper’ by Alan Garner. Broadcast on Resonance FM in 2002 as part of the Houyhnhnm Tales series produced by the Sonic Arts Network. Click here for sound files.

Bird hide A short piece featuring recordings made within a bird hide, in Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, one of the UK’s oldest nature reserves. The piece was released on the ‘A Call for Silence’ CD produced by the Sonic Arts Network in 2004. (Binaural recording, 3 min. 50 s. in duration). I made this recording while searching for rural tranquility – something increasingly difficult to find in our predominantly urban society. Wicken Fen is one of our oldest nature reserves, and is something of a wild oasis among the agricultural landscapes of East Anglia.Which sounds feature in the soundscape I recorded? The sound of wind in the reeds, distant shots, bird calls, the creaking of the wooden hide, and the sounds made by the birdwatchers themselves: breathing and speaking in hushed tones. This is the sound of people listening and watching intently, trying to sit as silently as possible. Some conservationists have suggested that nature reserves are sacred places, to which those that value wildlife make a pilgrimage. Given this, the silence of the birdwatchers could almost be considered as an act of reverence. But of course, the silence is not total. The scratching sound heard at the end of the recording was made by a wasp, eating the wood of the hide. Click here for sound file.

Glow worm hunt. Recorded at Badbury Rings, Dorset (10 pm, July 26th, 2003). This short piece was featured on the earshot4 CD produced by UKISC, on architectural soundmarks. Badbury Rings is a neolithic hillfort close to my home in Dorset. The site has been a local landmark for thousands of years, and today is valued as an archaeological site and is a nature reserve. For me, its main importance is as a haven for wildlife, and as a great place to picnic among the butterflies. The hillfort is constructed as a series of three deep, concentric ditches, which originally enclosed a substantial village that was destroyed by the Romans after 3000 years of habitation. Always a sacred spot, today naturalists are the pilgrims. This piece features recordings of a glow worm hunt made during a warm summer night, involving a group of about 100 people. My interest in soundscape recording lies in exploring how people interact with their environments – a sort of ‘acoustic human ecology’. In this piece, the conversations and other sounds made by the glow worm hunters as they move across the site provide the structure and content of the piece: excited anticipatory chatter at the edge of the site is followed by quiet attention as the history of the site is described by an expert. As people enter the enclosed space of the Rings to start hunting, conversation becomes more hushed and the ambience more intimate, particularly when the glow worms are encountered in the darkness. The soundscape finally dissolves as people spread over the site and start to head for home. Click here for sound file.

Resonant Cambridge A 30 minute composition composed for the Drift Festival, and broadcast over the web during 2004 as part of their ‘Resonant cities’ theme. The piece features field recordings made in Cambridge over a two-year period. The piece is structured as a geographical journey through the city along different travel links, which interconnect in both space and time. My initial aim in approaching this piece was to search for ‘soundmarks’, or ‘sonic landmarks’, that characterise the City of Cambridge. I attempted this by recording a series of soundwalks in different parts of Cambridge, and also by holding a series of interviews with people that I met. The piece therefore deliberately attempts to blur the distinction between sonic composition and sound documentary. While making the recordings I became increasingly aware that I was mostly listening to the sounds of people on the move – whether walking, cycling, rowing, or travelling by car, plane, boat or train. The soundscape of Cambridge, as of many other cities, therefore appears to be composed of many intersecting transport routes, each generating their own sound environments, which interact with each other where they meet. These interconnections give the piece its structure. I also became interested in what people talk about as they move around, so the piece features many short samples of conversation, giving micro-insights into people’s lives. Since making the recordings, I have moved away from the area, so my choice of which sounds to include was partly influenced by those that I find most ‘resonant’, in terms of their ability to trigger memories about the place. Best of all is the sound of the trash compactor in Cambridge market place, ironically placed at the centre of consumerist activity. Click here for sound file.

Notou. Montane rainforest, Mont Koghi, New Caledonia, at dawn, 5th April, 2004. (Binauaral recording). I made this recording while fulfilling a long-held ambition to visit New Caledonia, a place of outstanding conservation importance for its unique flora and fauna. Perhaps nowhere else in the world has the ancient biota of Gondwanaland been so well preserved; most of the species found there are endemic, and many are very ancient forms or ‘living fossils’. Yet pressures on remaining forest areas are intense, principally because of mining and fire. I recorded these sounds at dawn, having camped in the rain forest overnight, and was astonished to hear the sonorous, booming sound featured on this recording. I thought at first that it was an enormous frog, but I later found out that it is the call of the notou (Ducula goliath), an endemic pigeon – in fact the largest pigeon in the world. The species is found nowhere else, and is threatened with extinction. Scandalously, it is still legally hunted. I have never heard a bird call such as this; it is clearly a sound designed to carry long distances in dense forest canopies. For me, this extraordinary sound captures the unique and precarious nature of this wonderful place. Click here for sound file.

Elements. A project funded and supported by the Poole Arts Development Unit, aiming to make art accessible to people accessing various care centres in Poole. A series of visual arts workshops created 16 banners using mixed media, exploring the theme of the four elements. This soundscape composition features recordings made during the workshops, a group ‘soundwalk’ event along the shore at Sandbanks, Poole, and poetry created and recited by Paula Brown, together with field recordings made in the Poole area during early 2005. The composition was featured in a multi-media exhibition at Longfleet United Reform Church, Poole, at which the banners were presented. Click here for sound file.

Against the flow, we prosper. 8:30 mins; featuring sound recordings made by Lynn Davy. Performed at the Sound Cafe event, Jedburgh, November 26 2005. This piece was compiled from sound recordings made in the town of Peebles (Scottish Borders) during 1994. The piece explores the sound environment of the community in which I lived at the time. Peebles, like many other Borders towns, prides itself on its sense of identity. This is most clearly expressed during those events held during the year that are desgined to bring the community together. This includes not only those people dwelling in the town itself, but those making their living in the surrounding farms, who are most in evidence during the annual Agricultural Show. In addition to this event, this composition features recordings of the Beltane Festival and the Rideout, when horseriders from throughout the Borders join in a ride around the town boundaries. Their cries of ‘Hooray!’ together with the horses fording the river are perhaps the most distinctive local soundmarks. Sounds of Bonfire Night, also included here, are typical of places throughout Britain, but in Peebles this is a genuine community event, with hundreds of people surrounding the bonfire at the end of the evening. The title of the piece is Peebles’ motto, referring to the salmon of the river Tweed, which swim upstream to spawn each year. Click here for sound file.

Reindeer camp. January 2006. Produced for ‘Music, art and climate change’ This brief piece features a field recording made on 2nd January, 2006, at the site of the Reindeer Camp at Hengistbury Head, Dorset. This is one of the largest Palaeolithic sites in Britain, and is the place where hunting communities gathered, camped and produced flint tools together around 12,500 years ago. At that time, the site would have afforded excellent views over the floodplain of several major rivers, where herds of reindeer migrated to the west for spring calving. Today, all of this is many metres underwater, as a result of the rise in sea level that occurred at the close of the last ice age. Then, the nearest coastline would have been hundreds of miles away, whereas today the sea is eroding the cliffs on which the site is located. Looking out over the English Channel from this point provides a powerful insight into the extent of climate change that has occurred here in the past, and the impact that this must have had on human communities. The recording features a conversation with my eight-year-old son, Arthur, who may himself live to see substantial changes in the world’s climate. Click here for sound file.

Last broadcast from the top of the world. October 2006. Bruce Herrod was a mountaineer and film-maker, who successfully climbed Everest in 1996, the fulfillment of a long-held ambition. Sadly, on his descent, he fell to his death at the Hillary Step. This piece is based entirely on sounds derived from a last radio broadcast that Bruce made from the summit. Given what happened afterwards, his words are almost unbearably poignant. Having accompanied Bruce on a previous expedition, I composed this piece as a small tribute to him. As well as reaching the topof the world, the ultimate achievement of his life, he also reached the summit of what is a sacred place. To Tibetan Buddhists, the name of the mountain is Qomolangma, meaning Mother Goddess of the Universe. A central belief of Buddhism is that life is infinite, and death a transition, something I have tried to explore in this piece. The final section is filtered to the pitch of F-sharp, believed to be the resonant pitch of mountain landscapes. Featured on the Unsafe Sonic Art CD. Click here for sound file.

Rural machines. December 2006. 1. Seaton Tramway, Devon, April 2006. 2. Dorset Steam Fair, Blandford, September 2006. Released on CD-R ‘Location study’, a collection of field recordings and found sound. Dirtydemos 2007 Both pieces feature recordings of machines in rural locations, the first a ‘heritage tramway’ that crosses a nature reserve, and the second one of the most surreal soundscapes that rural England has to offer. This is the sound of hundreds – perhaps thousands – of restored steam engines and associated machinery, which gather annually in a Dorset farm, in one of the biggest events of its kind in Europe. (Of its kind? What am I talking about? This surely is unique). Click here for sound files.

Home from Home. October 2007. Soundscape composition and installation commissioned by Poole Arts Development Unit, 2007, presented in a month-long exhibition at the Lighthouse Arts Centre in Poole. The piece featured interviews with local residents and homeless people in a range of situations and places around the town, focusing on their opinions about where they live. In addition an interactive sound installation was presented in Lighthouse, using recordable doorbells placed on cafe tables, to provide people with an opportunity to leave their own comments about what it’s like to live in Poole. Click here for sound file.

Bridport soundwalk. These recordings present three different perspectives on the soundscape of a particular time and place. The sonic materials were gathered during a group soundwalk conducted on 7th March 2010, from Bridport to West Bay on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset, UK. The walkers both documented the soundmarks of this landscape, and interacted with objects during the walk to create new sounds. These were then edited by the different individuals involved, and processed to different degrees. The pieces therefore present different sonic mixes, or interpretations, of this soundscape. More here: Click here for sound files.

Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing). Choral compositions by Sianed Jones arranged by Karen Wimhurst, recorded live in concert. Based around a traditional Haiku poem written by Matuso Basho. Field recordings from the Nature Sounds Society of Japan.

All trees are clocks. Soundscape composition featuring recordings of New Forest beechwoods throughout the year (2015/16), combined with improvised ‘cello and vocal textures. Further details here and here

Soundcamp 2017 was a series of outdoor listening events on International Dawn Chorus Day, linked by Reveil: a 24 hour broadcast of the sounds of daybreak, relayed live by audio streamers around the globe. Responses to this event included live processing of the audio stream; recordings available here and here 

Sound::lost and found was an encounter with environment that focused on sound and listening. A circular walk from West Bay to Bridport, Dorset, and back. Seeking out ‘lost’ and ‘hidden’ sounds – from inside objects, underwater sounds and electromagnetic sounds, recordings made during the walk were used to realise the Lost and Found Symphony, a soundscape composition produced during a live, improvised performance at the Salt House, West Bay, Dorset. November 2017. Recording available here. 

Tipping point  installation and improvised performances featuring field recordings of ecosystems in Dorset, exploring the impacts of environmental change. Further information here.

Sounds from the Garden was an event organised as part of the Being Human festival, by Goldsmiths at the Horniman Museum and Garden in London in 2019. This included a workshop during which members of the public were invited to learn about sound recording techniques, then use these to capture sounds in the garden itself. The event culminated in an improvised public performance featuring the collected sounds, which was followed by an additional series of concerts the following day. Recordings are available here and here.