composer, improviser, audio artist, researcher
composer, improviser, audio artist, researcher
For several years I've been intrigued by David Bohm’s idea that the order of one's perception must match the thing perceived. For example to listen to music we try to enter into the field of music in our perception of the phenomenology of sonic forms. By the same token artists working in the fields of climate change and adaptation are faced with ecosystem complexities. In my view such complexities require specific ways of thinking, at least at the research phase. The upside of this is that new doors open at every turn, the downside being that you risk losing focus at the production phase of a given arts project. I’ve taken full advantage of the complexity of the field - what began as a fairly straightforward and simple data sonication concept within the realm of the sonic arts has grown arms, legs, wings and roots, spreading out into anthropology, ethnography, oral and social histories, agricultural production, to name the most prominent fields.
I’ve also had some new ideas. Between the open space of the gallery (or site-specific location), which will usually accommodate several dozen listeners, and the igloo/climate research station hybrid (in-progress), designed for three or four listeners, sits the option of a small intimate individual listening booth. While researching shamans and religion (see Alice Beck Kehoe) I came to a fuller appreciation of the role of shamans in their communities and the physical setting of communal gatherings and rituals. I also learned about ‘the shaking tent’, a cylindrical lodge or tent, a bit like a small wigwam. These are widespread among the Ojibwa, Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi), Cree, Penobscot and Abenaki. A shaman, paid by a client, would construct his or her tent and enter it at dark. Singing and drumming summoned the shaman's spirit helpers whose arrival is signified by animal cries and the shaking tent. These spirit helpers were used in curing and anti-sorcery.’ I'm not chasing a trivial idea here but seek to examine the comparative merits of indigenous versus scientific environmental knowledge.
Returning to data sonification per se and at the same time bringing it all back home I’ve decided, following my conversations with Chris Fremantle, to take a closer look at river level monitoring stations on the Annan in Dumfries and Galloway. From what I can gather there are three such stations on the Annan. I'll explore the possibilities of sonifying the three data streams (in near real-time) simultaneously, then to render the whole in the context of a sound installation. It's not quite a three body problem but given the perceptual difficulty of separating out two simple sound streams such modelling will require careful planning and design. As levels rise and fall in response to a period of spate for example, it’s possible that the relationships between the levels at any given point in time (or short window) will assist in an understanding of flood levels. There is anecdotal evidence of people upstream contacting businesses downstream by telephone to warn them of rising levels. The downstream person then moves basement goods to higher shelves. Simple adaptation. It struck me that there’s another theme here to look at, that of carefully designed alarm systems, sounds in the public domain, to let people know of imminent flood levels. But something less obvious and dramatic than a World War Two siren.
Artist and film-maker John Wallace told me about how farmers are quietly adapting to changing climatic conditions over the years, for example by moving animals further up the hill, away from flooded or boggy land, with cost implications over time for fencing and perhaps for insurance. If we take a generous view of sonification and overshoot clever digital models (I’ve already argued in the past that field recordings cannot tell us much about the state of natural environments, at either the quantitative and qualitative levels), we can see how strands of oral history, carefully rendered and supported by textual, cartographic and photographic documentation, will afford far more than just an interesting back story to the main sonification narrative. There is much to be had from exploring such adaptations, for example, on the land along the Borders rivers, in particular the Tweed and Teviot, near where I live. This will involve gathering and ‘sonifying’ stories, treating knowledge as data, from one perspective. Following on from the strands of ethnographic investigation undertaken in 2013 as part of Working the Tweed, this project invites a wider look at other regions in Europe and further afield.
Studio Improvisation, 1 March 2017
I thought it would be interesting to show what goes on in my studio. My neighbour thinks I watch porn all day. Never! That's a slur on my good name. What I actually do is experiment day after day, come to terms with failure as part of the process and occasionally learn something new and useful. It's a fundamentally human process, much under-rated in the current era. From this learning process I eventually make new work.
This short video shows me at work experimenting in the studio with two hand-made bowed psalteries, an ebow (electronic bow) and metal preparations - spring steel and ferrite rods, bandsaw blade, nails. The idea here is to make the ebow agitate the metal or whatever else I place on the psaltery, producing anything from a pendulum-like shimmering sound to a electronic/metallic percussive sound with a background sheen of string resonance. People often ask how I create the sounds in my compositions so I've demonstrated this by closing the gap between studio experiment and completed work. The sound in the video is taken from Koobi Fora Ash, a finished piece, released on my Bandcamp pages, which uses the same materials. After several recording sessions, I select, edit, timestretch and filter, re-record and so on till the job's done and it's time to mix. Interested to hear what others do.