Hidden depths – a review of “Written in Water”

Last week I spent a sunny afternoon in Gosport trying out Ben Mawson’s sound experience package for Gosport, Written in Water.   On the face of it, it’s a simple enough idea.  You walk round Gosport with a small handset encased in a plastic box and mp3 style headphones, and listen to different sounds embedded in different parts of the city, in the form of ‘circles’ which you can see on the display in your handset.
That in itself is a really pleasant and informative experience.  As you walk around, you hear a synthesis of historic material, such as Churchill’s speeches near the DDay embarkation point, and the sounds of a parade, enhanced by Ben’s own atmospheric musical compositions.  The experience is enhanced by many interviews from local people, juxtaposed with the historic material, sometimes in unexpected ways.  For example the stirring military history is aligned with a veteran of later conflicts talking about his troubles since he left the forces.
So far so good – I walked down the High Street, along the seafront, past the Trinity Church and back via the Sail Boating Lake.  I learned a great deal about local history and people’s visions of themselves and the town.  I was also conscious that in my hour or so of pleasure, I was also missing out on much of the material – it is such a rich tapestry, it could support many, many listenings.  Yet in writing this, I haven’t really captured the essence of the real joy of Written in Water.  From what I’ve said so far, well, really, you could have got that far, and better, and more, from reading the publicity….soooo……
When I was walking around, on so many occasions, sounds around me in the present merged seamlessly with the material in the headphones and became part of the piece.  For example, a man walking past me talking loudly into his mobile phone; a group of sailboat enthusiasts shouting with excitement as they launched boats for today’s race; new birdsong mixing with old.  This makes every listening, even of the same walk, or circle, a unique experience where the listener forges new compositions from the material provided with what is going on around them – and of course, interpreting it differently in the light of individual experience.  You really have to try this yourself to understand the hidden depths I valued so much in my afternoon, which was unlike any other afternoon.  Gosport, and Ben, should be proud of themselves and I look forward to his future work.
Professor Lorraine Warren
Massey University
New Zealand
L.Warren /at/ massey.ac.nz

Brookfield Soundscape

As composer in residence this year at Brookfield Community School, I worked with a fantastic group of Year 9 music pupils. My job was to give them their first glimpse of how to create a musical composition that changes every time a listener interacts with it – which is yet a fantastic, well-designed experience for all who enter it.           

One of the great challenges was that the music would be jointly composed by several dozen pupils.             
Our job was to open new possibilities in music composition – taking the pupils into areas of experimentation they hadn’t previously considered – then helping turn these ideas into a landscape-based game using audio played by a GPS-tracked handset.             
Contributions ranged from manipulated found sounds, beats and sound effects to poetry and free form spoken word that encapsulated their imaginary engagement with the open spaces and built environment of the school’s lovely campus.
Some deliciously weird and incongruous sonic fantasies were superimposed upon the sounds of the place’s everyday life.
Our first workshop was a broad introduction to strange musical innovations using technology over the past century and a half. We moved rapidly through early such one-offs as Herr Schalkenbach’s 1860s “Piano-Orchestre Électro-Moteur” and Russolo’s “Intonarumori” to Hugh Le Caine’s 1948 “Electronic Sackbutt”.

This use of GPS as a way of attaching sounds to landscapes has been a journey of discovery for me over three years of producing these landscape-situated pieces, from St Paul’s Churchyard and London’s South Bank to Southampton Common and the historic maritime town of Gosport.
It has forced me to reconsider the nature of musical composition where, in the hands of listeners their own interaction is the last act in creating the heard music. We explored what tools for designing interactivity can do and ways to rethink the processes of making a piece of music, asking what – under these new conditions – a musical composition is.
This was a small, really inventive and thoughtful group of young musicians, chosen by their teachers to lead the student project. They worked in pairs to investigate the strange new musical and experiential offerings of the ‘noTours’ software platform.
Questions included what would be the behaviour of virtual circles filled with sound; how the circles would overlap/ surround/ interfere with or complement each other and to what extent we are leading the listener experience or allowing it to unfold for itself.
Subsequent sessions centred on using the simple online interface to build virtual circles in the landscape (try it for yourself, free, at http://editor.notours.org !)
Brookfield Community School – satellite view

There are some simple tricks to making a geo-located soundwalk a fantastic experience and I was thrilled to see how these inventive young thinkers quickly made the soundscape very much their own piece of work.

The Brookfield Soundscape Project involved a wonderful mixture of live music performance, with the inspiring ‘Tomorrow’s Warriors’, creative writing (which contributed elements to the soundscape), learning about acoustics – sound waves, reverberation, frequency vs pitch, how sound travels, how a space sounds and can be acoustically redesigned – with Steve Dorney from the University of Southampton’s Institute of Sound and Vibration Research and real-world maths problems and solutions.

Our interactive soundscape was just one element of it but, by the magic of digital technology, this surreal multi-author auditory spectacle of imaginary worlds remains suspended in perpetuity above the landscape of the school.

Visitors will be able to walk back inside the moment where pupils secretly recorded a music lesson one spring early in the 21st century and placed their teacher’s voice, looped and accompanied, in the amphitheatre outside.

How machine and human sonically interweave to express the strange sensory combinations of dreamy interpretation with the efficient buildings and their clock-based routines. Where song, speech and wordless subjectivities meet in a poetic sound kaleidoscope.
At the highly successful launch earlier this month, pupils were delighted by the fascinated engagement of so many surprised, happy visitors, for whom this was a first taste of emerging forms of musical art. 

Over a few hours, parents, governors, teachers and friends arrived for timed slots to experience the students’ artistic work.

So many thanks to Brookfield’s Head, Ria Allan, to Shaun Riches and Ben Cull, Head and Deputy Head of Music and the students who helped also make the launch such a wonderful success, not least by manning the stand and keeping all the kit running perfectly over the evening. 

I hope these creative explorers will continue to make wonderful music for many years to come!    

Brookfield Soundscape is now available, free, at the Google Play Store:


Imaginary Sonic World – a geo-located soundscape on England’s south coast

Written in Water : Portrait of a Town

Imaginary Sonic Landscape of Gosport, Hampshire
Live on Basic.fm
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“Written in Water” is a piece you have to experience in a landscape. 

It is spread across a square kilometre of urban and green spaces on the south coast of England, at the end of a curved peninsular.

For the last 500 years of the town’s millennium of existence it served the British Navy, supplying, mending, maintaining.

Military medicine was pioneered, deep sea diving was invented.

Queen Victoria came through on the train (there’s no longer a station) en route to her summer palace at the Isle of Wight.

Steamers and sailing ships departed for the continent, holiday makers spent a precious few days free from mind numbing, back breaking work, bathing at the golden beaches of Lee on the Solent a few miles along the coast, promenading and passing days on the now disappeared pier and fairgrounds.

Tens of thousands of American, Canadian and British troops disembarked for Normandy, seventy years ago last month [June 2014] from Priddy’s Hard, bought from landowner Jane Pridhay in the eighteenth century for the Navy to create shallow berthing and dry docks for maintenance of its fleet.

The tidal waters have always made it a difficult part of the harbour to use, accessible to boats at only two short periods of high tide each day.

At Haslar Hospital the discovery of an affordable treatment with citrus fruit for sailors most prevalent and fatal of diseases – scurvy – was discovered in the 1760s though not implemented for several decades.

The armed forces have now all but left the town, barracks now serving as schools and residential accommodation.

Royal Clarence Yard mixes flats with offices and many empty, never inhabited retail units, around the old slaughterhouse, by the water’s edge.

I walk along the esplanade and wonder at the stillness of the sea in the basin and the protection afforded from the sea beyond.

Forts on opposite sides of the harbour were described by Defoe in 1727 thus:

“Before any ships attempt to enter this port by sea, 
they must also pass the cannon of the main platform 
of the garrison, and also another at South-Sea-Castle; 
so that it is next to impossible that any ships could match 
the force of all those cannon, and be able to force their way 
into the harbour; . . . . 
the mouth or entrance into Portsmouth is narrow, and may be 
lock’d up with booms, which before the ships could break, and
while they were lying at them to break them away, 
they would be torn in pieces by the battery at the Point. . . .

I was commissioned to create a portrait of the town using virtual sound, spread using GPS across the town itself.

I recorded the ambience of the urban and natural environments, machines and birds, boats, traffic, people working, laughing, fighting, drinking, arguing, milling aimlessly around in the sun, sheltering from rain under eaves.

The endless whirr of the security camera on a high post below my window, the butcher shouting meaty promises through a loudspeaker on market days, the squawking electronic toys and mobile phone stands.

At the top end of the high street, between the town hall (where crowds celebrated the return of 33 Field Hospital from Afghanistan with a marching band) and Walpole Park, an accordionist plays a melancholy rendering of ‘Autumn Leaves’.

On Stoke Rd I met an old man who sang to me, before disappearing.

I met local teenage volunteers and former bomb factory employees, remembering spending their teens in protective clothing filling shells with toxic explosive chemicals, under the watchful eye of an unforgiving supervisor, ready with a walking stick to administer spontaneous admonishments for anyone taking illegal breaks.

Where now is a firm of solicitors, at the corner of Spring Garden Lane, was the home of a Miss Nicholson, who lived alone with half a dozen servants.

Marge’s job was to serve at her table. She married and her husband was so severely injured and shell-shocked that he spent the two years following the war in sanatoriums, visited by his young wife only every few weeks, when she could afford the ticket and a day off work.

Paul left the marines and coped for many years with severe depression before rediscovering the healing power of music making.

Tony was a very young man when he left boarding school (“it suited me because I had a great fear of my father”) to serve on the first British nuclear submarine, using the ballast tanks to bump the boat upwards, breaking through thin ice at the North Pole for a game of football.

The town has a surprising amount of music making and unusual instruments.

The 1934 Compton electric cinema organ is a counterpoint to the early eighteenth century organ of Holy Trinity Church, reputed to have been played by Handel.

The town’s amateur samba percussion band sometimes gather for an impromptu celebration at the Ferry Gardens, attracting large happy crowds.

I captured, tightened, loosened, piled up, looped the sonic character of my surroundings.
Voices are overlaid with ancient machinery transformed to rhythm sections of virtual ensembles.

What you will hear now, in the broadcast version, is a combination of these elements, compiled as though you were walking through the town itself, with your GPS-connected handset playing the sounds of the virtual circles you enter. To hear it as it really exists, come to Gosport and walk inside this mixture of place and its virtual portrait, hung above it.

Some circles overlap, creating surprise counterpoints in lens shapes, at street corners, bridgetops and park benches.

It is impossible to hear all of the permutations and GPS technology has a built-in inaccuracy (to prevent us ordinary folk from using it for its intended purpose, accurate targeting of remotely controlled ballistic missiles).

This means that a sound placed by the composer carefully at a precise point may shift and turn up some way off.

This uncertainty adds to the indeterminacy of the whole, helping work towards an intended unpredictability, 

a hope that the virtual overlaid with the physical space 

not only encourages contemplation of the place and its ghosts 

but new imaginative associations between sounds perceived in our everyday surroundings, 

to wonder at the stories behind the fleeting auditory evidence they shower around them before disappearing.

The following 29′ 59″ are a mash-up of some of these elements into a hypothetical, impossible soundwalk. 

If you want to compose your own portrait of the town, come to Gosport and borrow a free handset from the Discovery Centre or download it here for free

In September 2014, Gosport Heritage Open Days will be holding a public soundwalk event. 

Booking Starts 16th August 2014

I’ll show how it was made, how to explore it and some of the extraordinary discoveries I made that you can find within the town-wide soundscape.

1st day in Brno, Leos Janacek country

When I left the amazing converted palace I’m staying at, early this afternoon, it felt strange to be staying somewhere that looks so glamorous and yet costs less than a soulless UK hotel chain with shipping containers for rooms.

The first shock was traffic: even hard men stand cautiously waiting for the green man to cross the road, and you see instantly why. An incomprehensible criss-cross of tramlines and rights of way on a non-aligned crossroads outside the hotel offer four directions, each of them forking again within sight.
I cross and go down the big road, since I can’t pronounce the names and don’t have a map. I tell myself, it’s behind you. When you turn it will be ‘that’ way.
This holds for a good while as I meander down side alleys and back to the big road, squinting at Czech signs and building names.
I realise that this dual carriageway between fabulous ornate stone structures is the art school district and the list of venerable looking institutions for graphic, visual, plastic arts and design grows endlessly as I stare and photograph columns and roof gargoyles, wandering aimlessly.
The ‘big road’ leads to a square with even crazier criss-cross of trams and traffic, demarcated not by kerbs but by patterns on the cobbled roads.
The square is an enormous irregular polygonal piazza with another old palace, (that of the former governor), one of three buildings housing the regional museum of art.
It appears shut but I approach, to photograph the sad fretting statue kings, then see a person enter a side door and follow, expecting to pay or to see someone, but no one is there. Cordons bear the universal ‘no-entry’ symbol straight in front and the cloister is being refurbished with modern cafes under construction.
Some men and women smoke and chat in the courtyard, between cars that I cannot work out how they could have got in. In the cloister are some potted trees and a ladder. At the end is a montage of old pop music posters.

I return and find a staircase from a
particularly dark fairy tale and climb curiously. The ceiling vaulting is striking and the sight of a piano brings first excitement that I can play then dismay to consider the resonant, broadcast acoustic. It would have to be soft single notes a minute apart. Not really my bag. Plus I anticipate the habitual piano-related ejection, so give up the idea.
Approaching the instrument yields a surprise: prepared piano as art exhibit. Further along is a seal, in stone. 

Around the corner is a very resonant cast bronze lady who I tap for a while to obtain a few samples. I wonder if I will be discovered and equated to a pervert by an angry Czech security guard but none arrives and I record some great percussive sounds in the echoing hall on my trusty Zoom H1.
There turns out to be nothing else available to see. 
The icons and the map of the world just visible beyond locked glass doors tantalise with elements of the vast permanent exhibition of art from the gothic to the 19th century but I cannot find any printed material on it and leave after a strange half hour, confused but happy with the random nature of my finds.
This building and many others were clearly palaces, as though what is now a city was once a large village of stately homes with just fifty or a hundred yards separating them. 
A statue of a man a bit like Janacek stands tall in a nearby triangle of park containing one of many modern fountains. But with the moustache and garb I realise – what do I know? Janacek or Any Czech?
I pass him and find an alley under another old palace, through to a square I had walked past but missed before.
I photograph the stone ornaments and their graffiti, pass through, turn wander, photograph, wander, sit. 
The Janacek Music Academy appears, bearing the best caryatids of all I’ve seen around the city. What a joyful discovery that he is at least duly celebrated and renowned in the land of this birth!
Then I realise I am lost. I also cannot remember the hotel’s name or its street. I do not know the size of the city or which direction I should walk in.
It had been flat and is now hilly. The architecture is a confusing mixture of baroque fantasy and brutalist functionality with modern statuary and fountains, interweaving tramlines and people in bright coloured clothing speaking an impenetrable language.
Day 1 anywhere I am shy, even if I can understand a word. This is like being young, excited and helpless in a foreign city but in the body of a grumpy tired bastard who wants a beer but isn’t sure how to ask for one. No, it is not likethat: it just was, a bit annoying suddenly.
I decide to give up bothering about where I am and to just continue walking without undue concern, finding the signs for an incredible sounding concert, on the walls of another baroque masterpiece of geometric stonework that also looks entirely comfortable, grand and inspiring to be in. (I can’t help thinking that we have entirely lost a sense of how to build structures that can at once open and inspire the imaginations of visitors and yet maintain stolid gravitas, authority).
Then I realise I had passed the Philharmonic Hall earlier, and this is it from the other side and I must therefore soon be ‘home’. As I walk back up ‘big road’, noticing an enormous green hill above a stone retaining wall that seemed not to have been there a couple of hours earlier, I wonder what to do about supper.
It would be too easy to go back to the hotel and choose from an English language menu, probably alone, under a fifty foot ceiling.
I find a café terrace and order a beer (“Pivo Prosim”. I’d learnt that through necessity 25 years ago. Still can’t remember “Thank you” after a few attempts). What warmth and happy idleness creep up my exhausted legs to meet the sinking cold beer, as I watch the men and women pass in yet another idyllic looking triangular square.
The kebab shop next door (“Kebap”) receives a visit from a fat and a thin man. The thin man looks like he has black belt in Angry. The fat man hitches himself up a lot and waits for nods. They park their BMW with a flourish of rage and walk across to assess the performance of the young men running the kebab (“kebap”) shop. Then they come to the next table from me and sit in threatening silence, smoking the last pack of fags in the world before it disappears.
I enter and pay at the bar, aware that this is uncool but keen to keep moving. Two pints come to slightly less than two quid. 
Another surprise I had had this morning was remembering that there had been no point at all withdrawing Euros at the airport, since Czechs don’t want them any more than we do. An easy bit of casual English ignorance, to have unthinkingly got ‘mainland money’, which didn’t help matters when being done the favour of paying with them and getting mildly questionable change in Czech koruna.
But then with about 24.5 CZK to the euro and about 34.5 to the pound (it is just less than 3p for one Czech crown), the arithmetic is more exhausting than crossing the road or reading street signs. Lucky it’s a quid a pint I guess. Jeeeez.
It had to be supper time so I moved on and looked around, finding a cellar bar quite soon, where although the World Cup was on, only about eight blokes were watching and they were eating tapas and chatting, which isn’t what you might expect to find in a Southampton or London pub at a similar moment.
The menu card was entirely (of course) in Czech. I apologised for the hundredth time to the barman and asked if he spoke English. He gave me an English menu and I was delighted on quick surreptitious tally to note that prices were the same for each item. 
The goulash came with a basket of bread, all pepper and beef stock and earthy fire. Magnificent. A large glass of fat local red was a happy accompaniment. Bill: 157 CZK. A fiver to you, princess.
The enormous happy barman was delighted I was so delighted by the goulash and continually shook my hand as I said goodbye. 
Germany beat Portugal 4-0 in an indisputable demonstration of the greater efficacy of a plan of action, solid team work and playing by the rules over a bunch of narcissistic spornosexuals performing solo mating ritual displays with the ball before losing it and falling over crying. 
An embarrassment but entirely just, from what little I took in of the action. The Portuguese at least gave some semblance of trying to score even unto the last, although they could have just carried on doing little dances for each other and lost no worse.
I returned towards my hotel, turning to look back at where I had been before leaving the street. Approaching the cellar bar as I had, from underneath the walls that rose from it, I hadn’t realised it was the substructure of yet another palace.
Brno is astonishing.

Arrival in Brno

After 8 months on my largest project yet, Written in Water: Portrait of a Town (91 audio tracks linked via GPS across an English coastal landscape), I brought last loose ends together last week, including a 30 minute radio version of what you might hear on a hypothetical soundwalk (to be broadcast shortly, more details to follow…) [additional blog post here
So I thought a change of scene was in order, to cleanse the brain, stretch the ears, pace some new streets. A prolonged online faff about destinations and cheap getaways led me to the conclusion that package ‘deals’ are not what they’re cracked up to be and I got 50% off the cheapest city break I could find by booking the hotel and flight independently. 
A memorably insane return from Innsbruck with Nastyjet in October last year (after a wonderful trip to the 1st ESSA conference in Berlin, meeting my newborn niece in Austria and a chance meeting with the finest post-New Orleans jazz band I’ve ever heard, on a train, followed by an equally memorable and insane evening with them at Treibhaus, Innsbruck), had me forswearing budget airlines forever, even if it meant doubling the cost and multiplying the journey duration by an unknown factor.
 I succumbed again though to the budget airline ticket, this time with their Irish counterparts

(although deeply wary of their colourful CEO, a feeling increased by the erudite description of O’Leary’s entrepreneurial persona by my friend Dr Lorraine Warren.

Being an infrequent flyer, my estimate of driving in 2 hrs to Stansted for a 2 hr flight to central Europe for less than the Eurostar to Brussels
overlooked the confusion of airport parking (add an hour)
and the purgatory of labyrinthine queues at security to half undress into a tub, have your deodorant sent back for a 2nd scan then put in a sandwich bag to prevent it being used as a bomb. 

Image: Roger Taylor. Daily Telegraph: "Airport queues longer than flights"

(Really, guys? Have you made aircraft hijacking history with that one?)  (add an hour) 

And the queue by passengers for two different countries at a single gate, (add 30 minutes)…  leading to the memorable announcement on the plane that we were flying not to Billund, Denmark, the home of Lego, but to Brno, Czech Republic.

One rather short man with a round yellow head and cup-like hands confusedly got his luggage and disembarked before we taxied onto the runway.
A wonderful sleep, coiled like a slinky spring into a space for an eight-year old, then staring down through thinning clouds at star-like clusters of red-roofed villages, between irregular polygonal fields and immense woodlands strafed with thick interior lines of bare earth; an apparently thoughtful and selective use of such natural abundance.
The eight huge cooling towers of the Soviet era nuclear power station at Dokovany rise in an impassive stare above the flat greens and browns, the invitingly meandering Jihlava river, the promontories of its steep bends surmounted with angular steep roofed

Image: Luboš Motl


I learnt this from comparing the view from my seat to a scan of Google Maps, which led to the discovery (not seen from the sky) of another wonder of energy sourcing, the hydroelectric dam at Dalešice.
It is these combinations of conservation and guardianship with high technology that are one of my strongest foreign impressions of the new Czech republic.
 Brno, Czech RepublicI was here (Czechoslovakia as was) aged 18 in a youth orchestra on tour, in summer 1989, about 3 months before the dour misery of endgame Soviet Europe imploded, supplanted with a decade of wildly optimistic, often gallumphing political and economic reforms that changed the country and perhaps most of all Prague forever.
From a place of poverty and intimidation, secrecy, surveillance and suspicion, the new Czech Republic is a place of fantastic artistic, theatrical and musical innovation where tradition and cultural heritage are continually renegotiated, not simply supplanted with transatlantic commercialism. (You saw raincoated men behind newspapers in every hotel lobby – those cliches and the less funny, grotesquely corrupt and abusive police, an all-powerful state machine of censorship and control were everyday realities for a frightened and bullied people.)

My last trip here (well, to Prague) was as a removals man, six years ago, in deep snow. Today it is sunny and hot and the colourful ancient city of Brno awaits.
Although it seems a shame to put my boots back on and leave the air-conditioned cool of my home for the next few days… 
Probably an afternoon in the pool and sauna, a sausage supper and early to bed, although plans may change.
After all, I have come here also to work and some wonderful unexpected ideas arose for a one-woman web-based opera cinecast amid my crazed in-flight dreams.

Written in Water – a noTours soundwalk with the Mayor of Gosport

A fun morning with Mayor John Beavis and Mayoress Christine Beavis of Gosport, walking around the town on a lovely Spring day to demonstrate my recently completed geo-located, virtual audio soundscape Written in Water: Portrait of a Town, commissioned by New Dimensions and built using noTours software for Android, that allows you to paint a landscape with sound.

In the hour or so that we walked, we chatted about the large number of local people who’d been involved, how their varied and unique reminiscences and thoughts were edited and placed among music in virtual circles throughout the town centre. 

I’m working on a permanent page about the soundscape with 
** downloadable maps with suggested routes  
** sound previews and  
** a list of the wonderful individuals who helped make the project the exciting, diverse experience it is.

One of the technical challenges of making the sound map was using a landscape  – of streets and open spaces criss-crossed by roads  – to create a coherent, pleasing audio narrative, whichever direction you take.

I’ve been hearing feedback from lots of visitors to the project and while most prefer to navigate the soundscape purely by ear, some have asked for a visual guide as well.

New challenge from the Mayoress: design a postcard-sized guide to the sound map with suggested routes and some teaser clues about what users will find….

The project is going to be a free download from the Google Play store very shortly but if you want to try it out now – it’s completely free! – come to the Gosport Discovery Centre, borrow a handset, and walk around to listen wherever you choose.

My website (Benjaminmawson.com) will shortly contain all the files and info you need if you want to put together a DIY sound walk for your own Android phone…..

and there will also be a version you can use anywhere. . . . . . . 

~~~ inspired by listening to #Satsymph‘s geo-located Hermes on a Welsh hill-top earlier this week, (previous post).

The Mayor’s blog post about his firs geo-located virtual audio experience: http://www.mayorofgosport.co.uk/2014/05/02/


Geo-located soundscape at an Iron Age Hill Fort

#Satsymph: Hermes
GPS-based soundscape on Google Play

A prankster and inventive genius from birth, Hermes was the messenger of the gods and guide of dead souls to the Underworld.  

He aided the heroes Odysseus and Perseus in their quests. Hermes was the son Zeus and a mountain nymph. 

Hermes was the son Zeus and a mountain nymph. As a newborn he was remarkably precocious. 

On his very first day of life, he found the empty shell of a tortoise and perceived its utility as a sounding chamber. Stringing sinews across it, he created the first lyre. http://www.mythweb.com/encyc/entries/hermes.html 

After months of work in studio headphones, walking in urban Hampshire landscapes to test geo-located audio circles for “Written in Water”, I’m spending a couple of days in the luminous, green and stony Brecon Beacons. 

Today I had a wonderful walk from Mynedd Illtud (St Illtud’s Common land)

to the top of Twyn-y-Gaer and the still visible earthwork fortifications of an ancient hill fort.

It was the most peaceful time I have known in months, entirely solitary but for sheep and a military jet that filled the sky for a single minute like the apocalypse.

Pen y Fan to the north, from Mynedd Illtud
Pen y Fan to the north, from Mynedd Illtud

The thousands-year old grass path rose and fell gently over undulating pasture and gorse until the last, panting steep stretch demonstrated to this breathless walker a brilliantly defensible site.

At the top, I wanted to investigate a colleague’s geo-located music app – how  would it work at this random spot. 

I set the app’s area centre as the triangulation point – the highest point on the hill and, no accident, clever Iron Age builders, the dead central point of the fort. 

The radius was defined by the perimeter of the earthworks, below which, on the north side, was a steep drop of several hundred metres.

#Satsymph app for iPhone, their new project: Hermes. 
Surreal two voice, spoken welcomes to the Greek god’s temple begin to overlap with music by Marc Yeats. 

Yeats’ style is endlessly surprising, adaptive, resourceful.  The musical language is complex and multi-layered, filled with strategic, mimetic reference but free of the ‘memes’ that guide listening to a specific narrative or state.

on Twyn-y-Gaer

Above the windy peak, no human movement visible in the vast primeval landscape, clouds sweep and curl above, in streaks and swathes of lightness.

The crisp air bristles at this high spot, a cone almost, with higher peaks to the north and a near sheer south drop.

Sense of the place was mediated by the music and words imported there on a digital handset. 

#Hermes is often beautiful, sometimes absurd, lush and wistful and coupled with the location made for a remarkable, unrepeatable performance that I will cherish.

While thinking about what happened to me on the hill, listening to Hermes, I discovered a new word: Engram, a “lasting trace left by psychic experience”

My experience both of hill forts and of geo-located media has been shifted: the ‘Engram’ has been etched and will feed my musical piranhas.

(I love hill forts, trying to really see the huge labour that went into establishing them, the organisation of people and resources to build these ring mounds of earth at the highest viable point for a self-sufficient settlement…. who the community within were, their beliefs, fears, daily struggles…  sudden violent, terrified, furious defence against attacks from without, what they did in the evenings, what made them argue, laugh, fall in love….) 

‘Hermes’ project is portable.  One can take it and listen anywhere. 

My work so far has been very specifically geo-located. The reason: re-engaging people with place – to *feel* a place they thought familiar.

How can we use these tools to transform environment? I had a strange and delightful experience of #Satsymph’s Hermes. 

Partly because it was where it shouldn’t be. But then all virtual art is somewhere and its locus was almost never imagined for that purpose.  I enjoy the superimposition of the virtual upon the physical: presently called ‘augmented reality’ it will hopefully find better names in time. 

Having listened on Twyn-y-Gaer to #Hermes, I am surprised by the shift in my sense of this necessity of a specific location: it comes as a kind of relief, in fact. 

Specific geo-location of specific media is useful, interesting and revelatory.

But it is not essential either to enjoyment of a space or of the work experienced within it.

The questions I will now be asking, as I walk around landscapes, will include
– is this a suitable locus for something I can imagine bringing here virtually
– why would it be suitable or not
– are there not in fact infinite ways to combine virtual and physical experience 
[that spawn additional objects, ‘heterodyning’ in acoustics (where two tones generate through combination their sum and difference, new incidental artifices)]

Does my piece based at St Paul’s Cathedral, re-processing and evoking its environs, historic and present, have to be solely there?

I thought that it was good to bring people to a place to resocialise the experience of the digital, but on a hilltop today I understood that it was not artistic but social practice that requires the shift – and artists need to be as flexible as possible to continue capturing the spirit of our time and turning it into lasting art.

Download #Satsymph today. Follow them on twitter for updates about their work. 

And go somewhere amazing to listen to Hermes. You Will enjoy it!

Written in Water: Portrait of a Town

This is a long story and I’m not going to tell it all now: here’s the main thing –

it’s the story of a town founded 800 years ago that supplied the British Navy, surrounded by water, on the end of the land.

a story in sound about the town of Gosport, once  principal supplier of the British Empire’s naval fleet, 
a main departure point for the D-Day landings, 
the origin of deep sea diving, 
home to both a historic and beautiful organ played by G.F. Handel and 
a rare electric Compton cinema organ, delicious and multifarious beasts, both. 

Marge, 92 worked making bombs when she was 17, in the munitions factory.
Tony voyaged under the North Pole in the first nuclear sub, during the late 1950s.

Sometimes planned, often randomly encountered individuals and places of this incredible location have been a source of eviscerating joy and sadness. 

I’m attempting to paint a thickly coloured sound portrait of a town whose history, present and future embody the flux of the late 20th, early 21st century Britain.

It isn’t just a bunch of stories and vox pops: the project assimilates the sounds of the place, now and historically, with music captured in the street and in concert. The incredible sound of some fine local music makers: amateur bands, professional performers and historic recordings.

It is a musical composition built from thousands of audio fragments: captured, generated and borrowed. 

The only way you can hear it is by walking in the landscape with an Android handset with the app on it.  
The GPS signal locates you and lets you hear the part of the sound in the space you are walking through or sitting in to listen deeply to.

As you walk, you reconstruct the whole from all of the stems I have lovingly compiled over months of walking, recording, interviewing, listening and dreaming about this wonderful town’s strange and uniquely resonant past. And what it’s future might be.

What you will hear is nothing like any recording, broadcast or electronic composition you have ever encountered.

Fifty plus circles in the landscape containing unique miniature broadcasts are interlocked, overlapped, sequentially linked.

You need a GPS-connected handset with noTours software and our project “Written in Water: Portrait of a Town”. We will provide.

Come to the launch… or any time (Gosport Discovery Centre)

You’ll walk inside a sound portrait of the town and its long history – 

moving through the landscape 

with its own living auditory personality 

always changing and shifting around you,  

as you navigate the virtual composition.

Contact us for more details or visit

Player Piano Study No.8 (“Ignoratio Elenchi”)

I awoke this morning before first light, having been dreaming some of these patterns: this is the eighth of my essays in virtual piano performance, part played, part programmed. 

Edited as score, graphs and ‘piano roll’: 
the music is an approximate recall of the repetitive arpeggiated cycles of my dream, in bright yellows, oranges and greens.

During rhythmic periods of equal length, speeds of harmonic change overlap between the two parts. 
Cycles are established then eroded or asynchronously phased before rejoining and again diverging incrementally in pitch, by octatonic degrees.

These are the ways that continual falling and swooping motions described themselves in the dream, suddenly broken with a different thought.