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.
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.
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.