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.
|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.
I hope these creative explorers will continue to make wonderful music for many years to come!
Written in Water : Portrait of a Town
Imaginary Sonic Landscape of Gosport, Hampshire
Live on Basic.fm
TUESDAYS & FRIDAYS @ 1230 BST
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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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
(Really, guys? Have you made aircraft hijacking history with that one?) (add an hour)
|Image: Luboš Motl|
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.
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/
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|
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.
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!
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
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.