Remembering movement: time and place thickened

autumn walk: small mammal survey

Autumn walk: sharp oblongs of reverberation

As summer begins to amble through spring, the remaining sonic perambulations of autumn and winter within the moors are completed.
The recordings from which autumn is composed are now over a year old: the sonic remains of forgotten weather and belated days. It is always very difficult to know what sounds to include and which to leave out, especially when, as an artist working with sound I am interested in the distinct and sensuous qualities of all sounds, the abstract or concrete elements of each sonic detail. I am also interested in not only the sounds inhabiting the landscape, but also the changes and behaviours of that environment and therefore the acoustic ecology and temporality of the soundscape heard. The notion of a sound walk introduces momentum, a sense of movement and therefore narrative into the soundcape: the rhythm and succession of sounds leads the ear through place and time. Even though the seasonality of the sounds creates a palette from which the walk is composed, the strict chronology of the recordings is not allowed to determine direction or progress through the landscape: place and time are allowed to meander and mingle. The hours of walking and listening are reassembled to create a walk that never took place, a remembering movement through the sounds of a forgotten landscape. The narrative structure evolves as a non-linear movement, time and place are allowed to merge and coalesce, generating a temporal spatiality informed perhaps by that soporific listlessness which inhabits the films of Andre Tarkovsky. The sharp edit of a gate latch lifted, harshly attaches one place to another, opening and closing distance, whilst moving the listener through a permeable landscape. Slow cross fades suggest a somnambulant narrative of transition; place and time thicken as they emerge slowly within each other. This aural thickening of time and place is similar to that of the olfactory experience. In the aromatic world of the Rhinoceros this is how experience happens. With a nasal membrane the size of a human brain:

[the Rhinoceros] inhabits a universe of gradual cross-fades as other creatures fade into or out of his olfactory world. The slice of ‘present’ between past and future, which we, privileging vision over all other senses, experience as razor-thin…is for the rhino a thick juicy slab of time…’ Michael Bywater, Lost Worlds

The word ‘walking’ shares its origins in such thickening: a walker being ‘one who fulls or thickens cloth’ (Chambers Dictionary of Etymology). The composition of each sound walk also evolves through a thickening process in which each previous walk informs the content and direction of the present. Landmarks and reoccurring elements emerge, but all with a seasonal shadow. The sound of water, which flows through all the walks, changes from season to season. There is a particularity to the acoustics of autumnal water, which makes it distinct from the river and rainfall of summer. This particularity is present, not only the timpani of rainfall on dry leaves, but also perhaps in the discrete contrast of wetness seeping through the crackle of frost and drying reed-beds.
The emptiness of the autumn soundscape is palpable, especially when preceded by the fecund chorus of spring and summer. A vacant spatiality is revealed, a pallid landscape punctuated by small sonic details. Sound is intermittent, a foggy silence interrupted with the occasional Hammer Horror squeal of a water rail or the viscose chaff and spatial rent of a runner approaching and departing.
Autumn seems suited to survey and repair.  A lack of procreation means that breeding animals are less likely to be disturbed and the environment can be assessed: The water vole population is at its highest and the small mammal survey is less likely to harm pregnant females. This survey introduces it’s own percussive spatiality, as the traps, laid with seeds, fly larvae and straw, offer up sharp oblongs of reverberation.

Autumn walk: deciduous trees

Autumn walk:  air caught in a net of wire

Autumn walk: water sounds and river sculpture

The labour of repair introduces it’s own abstract qualities, extending an otherness to the spatiality and temporality of the world apprehended.
In reforming the riverbed, using shingle to improve the subaquatic landscape for breeding trout, we hear the acoustic sculpture of form and substance: a rock thrown into the river, hollows out a sudden wet baseline; the cascade of shingle provides a curtain of damp percussion, whilst the gargling diesel engine of a tractor, retreats and disappears into silence.
Emergencies repairs to a collapsed hatch, which takes water from the River Itchen into the mini-stream and out across the reed-beds, result in a temporary interruption to the soundscape. The paths are closed with wire fences placed across the boardwalk and path at the rugby-field bridge. An area of sound is temporarily shut, but by attaching contact microphones to these fences we are allowed audible access to the Musique concrète of air caught in a net of wire and the echoing gait of people walking over the bridge. Into the moors and these dark reverberations, drift the public address of Bonfire Night and the invisible static constellations of fireworks: a tiny big bang of acoustic space and an annual soundmark of autumn in the soundscape of winnall moors.

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A field of summer: ghosts of sounds now no longer here

sebastiane hegarty: boardwalk through summer sebastiane hegarty: the path to the pond sebastiane hegarty: the scratch of mandibles upon wood

sound walk through summer (edit): sounds now no longer here

sound walk through summer (edit): the teeth of a grass cutter hover over summer’s path

The sound walk through summer in the moors is now complete. Opening with dawn of summer solstice in 2010, the walk accompanies the listener over the reed beds and out into the working landscape of the northern moors. Through this acoustic trespass, admittance is provided to an area of the moors, normally off limits to even the most robustly booted public foot. In this farmed landscape, volunteers meet under the shelter of a barns corrugated roof, whilst outside rain pours down from blocked gutters. The sound (or noise if you prefer) of work is an inherent part of the moors soundscape: this is a maintained environment and has been so for hundreds of years.  The spatial percussion of hammers arriving simultaneously distant and close, as clips are driven into wooden posts, opens up a sound field, which remains in perpetual flux. It is perhaps fittingly ironic that the sound of people fencing in space, should conjure up notions of place as emergent and impermanent:  ‘Acoustic space has no favoured focus. It’s a sphere without fixed boundaries, a space made by the thing itself, not space containing the thing. It’s not pictorial space, boxed-in, but dynamic, always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment’ (Edmund Carpenter, Eskimo. 1959). In the sonic landscape, things that are there are always close to not being there, disappearance is a constant companion to audition. For this reason, I sometimes feel the word soundscape, with its allusion to landscape, introduces a sense of the concrete and fixed where there is none. I think the word sound field may be a more appropriate term, introducing as it does, a fuzzy edged notion of place, which remains adequately open and unfixed. According to my beloved Chambers Dictionary of Etymology the word ‘field’ is developed from the Old English folde, and the Old Saxon folda, meaning ‘earth, land’ therefore relating to the substance of place rather than its edges. Other dictionaries reference ‘open land’; place that is boundless and unfilled; although there is later reference to field as ‘a parcel of land marked off and used for pasture or tillage’. If we consider other notions of field we find: the ‘electromagnetic field’; the ‘field of gravity’, and Mark Rothko’s colour field paintings. For these fields edges are blurred and substance appears vague and immersive. Is this not like our experience of the acoustic world surrounding us: edgeless and immersive with an un-favoured focus? Walking through this summer field, there are sounds that appear to disappear and return, whilst others are lost to any coming summer.

The intermittent and abrasive electrical static of grasshoppers produce points and clusters of noise, like pins on an empty map. This noise will fade with autumn, but reappear next year. A tree branch split and fallen over a wooden fence however, introduces a transient creak, which was there last summer, but, with the removal of the branch, has now disappeared completely from the present field of sound. The use of contact microphones not only uncovers the field beneath the threshold of audition, allowing us to hear the insides of trees or the delicate gnaw of wasp mandibles on a wooden fence, it also brings into presence the ghost of sounds now no longer here.

In a perfect abrasive counterpoint to the electrical static of grasshoppers and gnaw of wasp mandibles, the mechanical teeth of a grass cutter also hover over summer’s path. These approaching jaws rent open the sound field. As they close in, the oily mastication is perceptibly tactile and sound brims over into touch. The summer sound walk ends with the roll of a river’s tongue and an electrical cloud* of Pipistrelles (‘cloud’ being the collective noun for bats in flight).

sebastiane hegarty: the gloaming sebastiane hegarty: bat detecting

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Walking spring over summer and winter beneath winter

Ringing Sky: Sebastiane Hegarty

Spring soundwalk: enterance into dawn

Spring soundwalk: finale and pagoda adagio

The first sound walk is now complete and will take the listener upon a twenty-five minute circumnavigation through spring in Winnall Moors. Re-composed from recordings made through two springs over the moors, the walk begins at dawn with isolated notes of birdsong and my frosted steps upon the boardwalk over reed beds. The birdsong builds in volume and complexity as several dawns combine to reveal a polyphonic chorus, surrounding the listener in territories of song. The sounds of my own steps accompany the listener, reminding you that another was present here and this dawn has now passed. It is this ability of sound to meld present and previous experience, which interests me, perhaps just as much as the quality and temporal aspect of the sounds themselves. It is intended that the listener may use the sound walk as a poetic audio guide, a sonic ghost accompanying them upon a peripatetic amble around the moors. In this way, recorded sounds will freely associate themselves with those available in the present time and place of the listener, revealing a temporal palimpsest of acoustic and visual experience. The listener can walk around the moors in the company of a previous season, the same as that now present or in contrast to it: time thickens as we walk spring over summer or winter beneath winter.  For me it is not important that the coordinates of the sound walk be strictly arranged to correspond directly to the fixed geography of the moors: that is I do not attempt to map precisely and chronologically a fixed circumnavigate movement through the moors. I prefer to let the sounds determine their own path, although by chance the location of the dawn birdsong opening the spring walk, corresponds almost exactly to location of the creaking adagio (from a HWT pagoda set up as part of the Trust’s 50th anniversary celebrations) with which it concludes.
This circular transit is echoed in a bank of swans arriving and dissolving inaudibly into the distance before returning, once more to disappear.
At the finale of the walk a bouquet of warblers, having returned here from tropical Africa, throw their songs into the air, whilst a work party, sink a post into the ground, a mobile phone adding to the chorus of territorial voices. The toil of the work party is telegraphed down a wire fence, throwing one more acoustic circumference around the moors.

As I now begin work on the summer walk, I am aware that certain sound events reoccur, so that the geography of the landscape may be tacitly disclosed within the sound walks. However, the events do not necessarily arrive at the same point in time upon each walk.  The sounds of dawn open both the summer and spring walks, revealing changes in the songs and voices present, whilst the sound of the dipping pond and mini-stream, although occurring in both walks, appear at different points along each sonic path.
In recomposing the summer walk, I have also became aware of a latent desire to use sounds, which corresponded to my idea of what sounds should be heard in each seasons: those seasonal sonic clichés which are familiar to our ears. My imagined summer was to be a dry humming soundcsape, murmuring with soporific warmth. In fact the recordings reveal summer to be stubbornly and faithfully wet: the loud timpani of rainfall on wire fences, accompanied by a softly apparent drizzle and the damp caw-caw of a solitary crow. As always sound teaches the ear to listen: ‘let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories…’ (John Cage).

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Walk out to winter: a puddle and a plastic bottle

Christmas Day 2011: the moors flooded

Christmas Day 2011: A plastic bottle in a river

Christmas Day 2010: the cackle of reeds with occasional crow

Christmas Day 2011: a Christmas puddle

Up at 4:30 to walk into winter and Christmas Day on winnall moors. Last year, I was disappointed to find the traffic noise arrived well before sunrise, so this year I attempted to beat the traffic and enter the moors with night still present. The first sound I heard as I walked from the streetlight of the Durngate into the moorish darkness, was a gentle and intermittent clunk. In order to locate and amplify the sound, I swept my microphone through the landscape, like a snakes licks the air with its tongue. The clunk was found to be coming from a plastic bottle, caught in the current of a water hatch, where the river Itchen spills into a carrier. This detritus of daily life had become a chaotic percussive clock, ticking away at the precise measurement of time. I listened to this rhythm, recording it from a number of positions in order to mix the sound of the river with the escapement of the bottle. By this strangely mesmeric watch, the space between seconds could expand or decrease. Normally I find the presence of litter depressingly offensive. I complain to myself about the selfishness and inconsiderate nature of the human race, people do not appear to care about their environment or about the danger and harm they leave behind. But here I was, in the moors before dawn on Christmas Day, listening attentively to the sound of an unwrapped present: a plastic bottle in a river.

This year, Christmas day in the moors was wet and dank; pools of water rising and stretching out to submerge areas normally left dry. I remember last year the temperature was below freezing, a Celsius reflected in the crispness of the sounds recorded. In 2010 Christmas cackled with the rustle of reeds and occasional crow, the sounds available seeming sparse and distant. This year too, the echo of birdsong suggests a deserted landscape of scattered voices, but there is also a sense of dampness hanging in the air. Merging puddles of water cut off the path to the pond, which has now become a hidden place, available only to the wellington foot of the well-prepared walker. There is something about puddles that reduces me to a playful child. It is wonderful to walk through a deep puddle and hear the splash and squelch of your own footsteps, without the consequence of getting wet. I feel intrepid, as if I were conquering not only land but also the confine of my senses. I bring back these sounds like Walter Raleigh brought back potatoes and tobacco.

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a river runs through here: the pluck of air and fret of hydrophones

As part of the Winchester Arts Festival, 10 Days Across the City, I composed a cycle of three soundscapes for the auditorium of the Theatre Royal, Winchester. The cycle included a twenty-minute sound walk through a year of Winnall Moors and was accompanied by a sonic river, flowing through the public address system. These wet sounds came from recordings of the movement of water through the moors. I have spoken before about the myriad voices of water in the reserve, and also made reference to the history of water sounds in experimental music (drawing substantially on the academic Douglas Kahn, who devotes a whole chapter to this history in his excellent book, Noise Water Meat). The installation of a soundscape within a particular space requires a different form of composition. When creating sounds for radio broadcast, you are aware of a pressure to not dwell on a specific sound, but to continually move through the sounds, from one event to another. In an installation context, the audience are not generally hurrying to listen: you can allow sound time. Sonic ‘events’ can linger, emerge and fade away; sound colouring the space and filtering into consciousness. In composing the sonic river, I used duration to mask repetition, emphasising the fluidity and moving stasis of river sounds. The river runs as a twenty-minute loop, with slow changes in texture and current. The river ends with the same sound as it begins, the loop appearing dispersed, organic and un-repetitive, as is the nature of watery sounds (The blog version of the river has been shortened, in response to the more narrative structure of web-based events).
What I found particularly interesting at the theatre event was how the sonic river interacted with the architecture of the building and the other events occurring in the artistic occupation of the theatre building. The front of house public address speakers provided pockets of sound so that as you passed beneath them the water appeared to be dripping down upon you. In the non-spaces of the corridors and stairs that lead you to the auditorium, the wetness takes on a distinct echoic quality that remains evasive in terms of location. The sounds appeared acousmatic as the visual source of the sound was hard to determine: the wetness of the river responding acoustically to the space, whilst simultaneously washing away certainty, immersing the corridors in a general dripping liquidity. The word ‘acoustmatic’ has something of the theatrical in its origin; referring to a pupil of Pythagoras who sat behind a curtain listening to Pythagoras’ lectures, without being able to see him. The term has come to refer to sound or ‘acoustical impressions’ whose source we can not identify or know and can now refer to the abstraction of sounds in the electro-acoustic music or Musique Concrète of composers such as Pierre Schaeffer or our own wonderful Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, who as part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop gave us the classic Dr Who theme.
My interest in the river’s sound is more concerned with the spatial acousmatics which occur through the water’s interaction with the architecture, than with the aural abstraction of sounds from their original source. However, the composed river does contain sounds evoked through strategies which can cause abstraction:  the hydrophone recordings of the mini-stream encourage an almost icy crystallisation of water sounds, resulting in a hard, clinking, isolated fragmentation; by inserting an aluminum wire into the bed of the mini-stream, the current of water turns into a textured, rubbing, vibration, akin to the rumblings of mechanical motion.
In the vertical rectangle of the theatre atrium, the river seemed to move away from the speakers from whence it sprang, the architecture pulling the water up into a sort of invisible sonorous cloud hanging above our heads. I could not determine if this was a result of the verticality of the space, psychologically orientating our ears to the normal English position of precipitation, that is, rain pouring down upon our heads, or if the architectural structure of the cube was bouncing the sound upwards. Either way, it was a subtle but distinct alteration in the perceived spatiality of the river flow. In the toilets, the river broke it’s banks, overwhelming the confined space and drowning the visitors with its aural condensation. In one of the toilets it became an unintentional soundscape for a piece of experimental wet theatre (Shady Jane, Sailing On), as a shingle floor and two soaking wet women greeted visitors: the supposed damp remnant characters of Ophelia and Virginia Woolf.

Through the back stage speakers, the Winnall Moors soundscape that was filling the empty auditorium escaped, creating pockets of dawn chorus in the dressing rooms, accompanied by the percussion, piano and pedestrian sitar of Hossein Hadisi’s, Avant-garde Composers Ensemble (ACE), who were moving around the building reacting musically to the architecture, each other and the entire soundscape.
On the first floor balcony of the atrium Sam Cave, one of the members of ACE, sat playing guitar (Picture: Dave Gibbons). Underneath him the pointed drops of water dripping from the river, mingled with a choir of people’s voices describing the space as they moved through it. The guitars beautiful pluck and twang of air echoing the percussive drops of a rivers current against the electrical sensuous fret of the hydrophone.

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River Sculpture: the gait of tractors and texture of shovels

Tractor reflected in the river

Tractor spilling stones into the river

In autumn, up in the north of the moors, I met Martin De Retuerto (Winnall Moors Project Manager) for a bit of ecological river sculpture. Over the past 400 years the chalk streams that flow through the moors have been altered in ways that changed the energy of the channel and thereby altered the way that water naturally sculpts and forms the river habitat. Since October of 2009, the HWT have been working to re-build the streams, in particular the Barton Carrier, which joins the River Itchen and whose fishy inhabitants include: Brown Trout, Bullheads and Grayling.

Many artists have used the natural environment as both a material source and site for art practice. In the 1960’s and 70’s ‘environmental or land art’ emerged as a tributary of Conceptual Art: including perhaps most notably Robert Smithson’s spectral Spiral Jetty (1970), and in Britain the poetic traces of Richard Long’s walks through an environment. More recently the sound artist Bill Fontana has re-located the submerged sounds of the Thames into an installation at Somerset House and poured the roaring pulse of Chesil Beach across the streets of London.
The chiseling of the Barton Carrier has a less obvious interaction with the general public, but perhaps a more lasting consequence for the environment.
Martin’s sculpture was assisted by tons of gravel and a small caterpillar tracked tractor with bucket. In order to create shallow pools for the breeding Brown Trout, the gravel was poured into the water, with Martin directing the pour and using a spade to make small adjustments. The stream will carry on the re-building of it’s own course.

The idyllic sound of a chalk stream is perhaps more normally associated with the gentle lapping of water, the gossamer buzz of river-fly, the whip n’ whir of angler’s fly-fishing and the occasional gulp of a fish taking an insect from the water’s surface. But the sounds of this river sculpture are just as fascinating to the open ear.

It is not just the bucket of (pebble) rain (heard from above and below the water) poured into the river that fascinates, the sculptural process itself offers a spatial narrative and rich sonic palette: the slow clattering mechanical gait of the tractor approaching the river, the balletic tip of a pneumatic wrist and subsequent garrulous perforation of water, followed by the brooding withdrawal of caterpillar tracks and the final organic demise of engine pitch.
This sonic landscape is accompanied by the dissonant sound of a Martin’s spade shoveling water and pebbles. Slightly reminiscent of chalk on blackboard, the sound also has a texture and metallic spatial whirl that adds to the concert of watery voices that inhabit the moors. Listen below:

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Three from underneath: rough tongues and a pond shanty

In April of last year the dipping pond turned black with the seasonal arrival of tadpoles. The water was transformed into a dark vibrating jelly: a primordial tadpole soup. I had sunk my hydrophone into this broth of possible toads and heard an appropriately squelchy mess of sound: very like sucking jelly through your teeth.
When I returned to the pond this April, instead of a black blancmange of toad, I discovered a moving herd of tadpoles, a plague of aquatic locusts proceeding like water buffalo over the green foliage in the water. They moved in a seemingly coordinated rotating action and as I sunk my hydrophone beneath them I was greeted with the rough rasping tongues of tadpoles grazing (actually tadpoles don’t have tongues, so it was perhaps more of a lippy bovine mulch). The herd thinned out and the munch of straggling tadpoles faded away.
In the background there was a strange but constant ticking sound, I knew this to be the photosynthetic clocks of pondweed,  occasionally accompanied by the squeaking whirr of a gaseous release.
In amongst this background noise emerged a loud, repetitive and slightly aggressive chant. I could not see anything in the water that could locate or identify it and I had no idea what I was listening to. The sound had a changing but recurring pattern: an intermittent series of calls dispersed with silence. When I downloaded the sound to my computer the extended pattern became visibly evident. After posting the sound as a sonic question on soundcloud, I was informed by @L’attrape son that the sound was in fact a Sigara Dorsalis or water boatman. Although I had seen some of these darting around underneath the water, the sound seemed far too large to be emitted by such a small bug: the water boatman  seeming visually detached from its loud sonic presence. Although I discovered the origin of the sound I have not, as yet, found out why this noise is made, and other questions come to mind: Is the sound territorial or amorous in nature? Do both male and female water boatman sing? Is there such a thing as water boatwoman?
Could these sounds be the pond equivalent of the sea shanty: bawdy drinking songs, watery tales of love and loss?

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