Rewilding – final piece

In this post I present the finished version of Rewilding, along with some reflections on my compositional journey, the piece’s construction and its final form.

For the best viewing experience, and if your internet connection and computer will allow, click on the cog on the right side of the vimeo play bar and choose 1080p from the dropdown menu

I originally intended the piece to have a linear form, gradually escalating from the stillness (and relative lifelessness) of the existing moorland landscape to an increasingly complex soundscape, representing the growing abundance of returning wildlife. 

However, my ideas changed as I started to collect audio and visual material.   Visits to each of the moorland scenarios and habitats I had initially chosen to feature in the piece (e.g. wind turbines, grassland meadow) resulted in me gaining intimate knowledge of these spaces, and experiencing each as having their own distinct sonic and visual identity.  I took in their ambiences but also investigated the more hidden sounds, the ones seldom dwelt on, or inaudible to the human ear, such as the creaking inner workings of wind turbines, and the subtly different sonic signatures of various reeds, grasses and sedges swishing and rustling in the wind.  

On more than one occasion my planned intentions for field trips and the sounds I was aiming to capture were de-railed once I got into the field.  A foray into the moors in search of the call of the red grouse resulted instead in me coming upon the delicate electrical glitches of two adjacent pylons.  I sat down between them, and with headphones on and became absorbed in a long, stereo recording – intricate static dialogue across the summer evening air, backdropped with the rustle of tussocks, and occasional curlew.  On my way back to the car I was then distracted again, through a fence, over a drainage ditch and deep into the tussocks by the call of an elusive grasshopper warbler.  I did eventually in the course of other field trips manage to capture red grouse calling, but never close-up.  My experience was that they make their distinctive call only very occasionally, and maybe not necessarily to attract a mate, or defend a territory but when they are disturbed and exiting a situation.  Recording success is possibly best achieved as a two-person mission – one to flush a bird out, and another to point a shotgun mic (NOT a shot gun!).

I also found myself making other ecological observations.  One evening I set my equipment up on a tussock dominated slope.  Some ten minutes after commencing my recording the repeating call of a willow warbler came into earshot, a sound seemingly incongruent with the surroundings.  I then realised that close by was the smallest of young tree plantations, an area only a few metres squared.  It struck me how even tiny bits of rewilded habitat can attract in a new species.  

On the managed grouse moor I noticed how brown and lifeless the heather looked compared with the heather of more natural scrubland. Less purple blossom, less insect life. I wondered about whether the heather management regime on the grouse moor meant the root structures of these plants were comparatively weaker, leaving them more vulnerable when conditions of prolonged dryness and heat prevailed, such as that experienced in the summer of 2018.  Or perhaps the concentrated blanket of one species meant there was just not enough water to go around. 

Of all the wild flowering plants I came across bramble bushes seemed to attract the biggest variety of insect species including various flies, bees, aphids and ladybird larvae.    

Back at home in my attic my compositional aims shifted.  They became not about moving from silence to a gloriously rich ecological cacophony, but about reflecting and respecting the individual sonic qualities of the difference spaces I had visited – about bringing a bit of the essence of my experiences in the field into the piece.   Thus, what has resulted is a sectional piece, roughly of two halves, with the first representing the more managed moorland habitats and the second the mosaic of habitats that might result if nature was left to take its course. 

The diagram below represents how I grouped my audio and visual material into different ‘pools’ representing different spaces, and how these were then drawn on to form the sections of the piece. 

Diagram showing construction stages and sections of Rewilding

Chapman (2017, p.48) discusses Chris Watson’s tripartite approach to composition whereby he creates a foundation layer of general ambience, a secondary layer of more detailed habitat-specific sounds, and a foregrounded sonic element, such as a certain species.  In Rewilding I found the use of background ambience vital to provide audio ‘glue’ and to also help mask unwanted sounds, but I feel my differentiation between secondary and fore-grounded sounds was often quite blurred.  On occasion I purposefully fore-grounded sounds as a way of bringing sonic interest to the piece (e.g. flapping and deer barks).   Likewise, I also introduced exaggerated and hyper-real elements as a way of creating sonic interest, and tension and release.  Such examples include a munching insect, and crescendo-ing drones from pylons and turbines. Having said this my over-riding aesthetic intention was to generate quite naturalistic material as I was trying to keep a connection with the believable.  I used very little processing or effects.  With audio for example I relied solely on layering of sounds (although this was substantial), automation of volume, panning, corrective EQ and use of iZotope RX 6 audio repair tools. 

In terms of labelling my work and contextualising it within the wider genre of sound art, technically I feel the most appropriate way to describe the audio component of Rewilding would be ‘composed sound’.  This is the term also used by Cathy Lane for her audio work Hebrides Suite (2015), which I feel employs a comparably naturalistic form of soundscape composition.  Equally, my work (audio-wise) feels akin in its compositional approach to several of the naturalistic soundscape tracks on The Vancouver Soundscape CD (World Soundscape Project, 1973) including Entrance to the Harbour and Harbour Ambience. 

As a piece of ecological sound art it’s been important for me to use scientific and environmental knowledge as the basis for the creative choices I have made (see https://rewildingsounds.co.uk/2018/09/23/setting-some-ground-rules-for-the-project/) and to provide contextual information for people on the moorland habitat (see https://rewildingsounds.co.uk/2018/09/11/how-did-the-moors-of-the-central-pennines-come-into-existence/ ) There are several ways in which I could further enhance the knowledge base for people including:

  • Providing information on the specific locations chosen for recordings, such that those wishing to could visit and experience them first hand.
  • Providing a guide for listeners identifying the species that can be heard at different points in the piece. 
  • Jointly authoring additional posts with local land owners and organisations pursuing re-wilding ventures, so their experiences and messages can be shared.

I’d be interested to know if people would like me to pursue any of these options as part of this blog!

I’ve thought about what ‘pro-environmental’ action I can suggest to people who may experience the work and want to do something positive to promote rewilding. Whole-scale rewilding of the South Pennine moors would be a complex, long-term and highly political project. There are however several bodies engaged in restoring segments of local moorland habitat and at the end of Rewilding I provide sign-posting to these initiatives.



References

Chapman, D. (2017) Context-based Sound and the Ecological Theory of Perception. Organised Sound22 (1), 42-50

Lane, C. (2016) The Hebrides Suite. [CD] Germany: Gruenrekorder

World Soundscape Project (1973). The Vancouver Soundscape. Canada: Cambridge Street Records.

A small vocal workshop

As discussed in other posts my intention was to include vocals as part of this creative project. As well as the sound walk (see January 20 post) I also invited several people to a small workshop.  This took place one February evening at Magic City café, Todmorden.  It was an opportunity to share the draft audio-visual piece (without vocals) and for us to collectively workshop ideas for vocal parts.

Vocal workshop participants, Magic City cafe, Todmorden

I found the workshop a particularly enriching experience for the project and it demonstrated to me how art can facilitate connectedness to nature.  Unexpectedly, on sharing the draft audio-visual material there was consensus from the group that it would work best as a stand-alone piece and did not need any vocal parts adding!   We carried on with the workshop though and what resulted was a great discussion about our local environment, with people sharing their personal experiences and thoughts about the moorland habitat.  Afterwards people passed on their own recommendations for relevant books, music and radio programmes they had come across – the rewilding conversation continued.

In retrospect I wonder whether it would have worked better to include vocalists right from the start of the project as co-collaborators, rather than present the near final version of the audio-visual material for vocal addition ‘on top’.  Also, I feel some sections of the piece lend themselves more easily to inclusion of vocal sounds than others. I can imagine human drone or wind-like sounds or even spoken word could work well in sections with static, rustling, wind, and mechanical drones, but that it would be more challenging to successfully integrate vocals into sections which already contain a lot of pitched material and noises from creatures, such as sections rich with bird song.

One idea which resulted from the workshop and would be good to pursue as a future project was the creation of a suite of small ‘rewilding’ pieces for vocals and fixed media – each focussing one aspect of the landscape (e.g. pylons). 

Re-wilding – adding sound

I’ve been working on the soundtrack for the piece, listening to and editing field recordings and matching them with the visual material. Here is a working draft for the first few minutes, representing the moors as they are now, and prior to any re-wilding.

Pylons, turbines, tussocks, rough pasture and managed grouse moor.

Some of the sounds from these places appear larger than life, blurring the edges between reality and hyper-reality. Pylons crackle, turbines creak, sheep munch and burp, fences and gates rattle and screech. The wind is ever-present in its different forms, swishing and swirling. A passing aeroplane casts a heavy downward drone.

At the end of this section, the entrance of a bee and faint call of a willow warbler signal imminent transition.

A short field trip

I took a trip out this week with a couple of people who will be working on the vocal elements of the piece. We went to some of the places where I’ve recorded sound and taken footage. We listened-in, connecting to these places with our ears, and thought about how we might use our voices in the piece. 

It was bone-chilling weather but interesting to hear the landscape I’d visited in the summer in its winter state.  With the aid of recording equipment we could hear our surroundings amplified in a way that can’t be experienced with the ‘naked-ear’.  Up in the scrub there was a surprising amount of bird-life despite it being mid-winter.  

Annie and Jane listening on the hillside

Musical ideas that surfaced on the windy hillside were the sounds of susurration (whispering or rustling), drones, and vocal rounds using sounds or words evocative of the landscape.

Visual material

I’ve started to put together the visual material for the piece, using video footage I’ve taken in various local locations over the last few months. These early, draft ‘segments’ – which I’m posting on Vimeo (see below) – are subject to further iteration but serve as some initial building blocks. They will be paired with audio (field recordings) and then hopefully added to / worked on by vocalists. We’ll come up with ideas for how to use our voices in combination with this material until we have a full piece to perform. Maybe we’ll go on some small soundwalks in the locations where the audio-visual material was collected to get a feel for these habitats, and to generate ideas for how we might respond vocally within the composition.

The emerging structure of the piece is one where the listener / viewer experiences the range of habitats currently dominating the landscape (e.g. tussocky moor, heather moor managed for grouse, rough grazing land) before venturing into ‘wilder’ habitats more likely to predominate if nature was left to its own devices.

Rewilding Project – opening visuals (draft) from Jo Kennedy on Vimeo.


Setting some ground rules for the project

Introduction

 In CM’s blog ‘How did the moors of the Central Pennines come into existence’ (11th Sept 2018) she describes how the plants and animals that might have been present in the landscape 10,000 years ago had largely been replaced by others 5000 years later, and again, 5000 years after that. That is to say, the environment is in a continual state of transition, dependent mainly on natural fluxes in climatic conditions, and human activity and its associated impacts.

This throws up a question for this project – ‘If you are considering re-wilding, what exactly are you intending to re-wild to?’   This is an important consideration since it will guide how the soundscape evolves through the piece. What sounds appear, and when, will be dependent on what parameters have been set for re-wilding and what ‘state’ is being aimed for.

Continue reading “Setting some ground rules for the project”

Collecting Sounds

Over the previous few months I’ve been out in the local landscape taking field recordings, gathering a library of material I can draw on to build the electronic sound track for the piece.

The moorland has several habitats within in it.  There are vast areas of nearly impenetrable grassy tussock.  In locations managed for grouse heather is the dominant species.

 

Continue reading “Collecting Sounds”