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 !)
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:

A brief history of futures past: musical exploration of the impossible

I’ve been digging through a long-ignored tape cassette collection with which I have moved house around a dozen times in fifteen years and yet haven’t listened to since before around 2000.
Remembering the essential octagonal bic biro, for pulling up slack, to prevent the whole thing being chewed in the doggy jaws of an old tape player. 
I’m trying to compile a story from unearthed bits and pieces I composed or recorded or wrote a long time ago. 
The story is this: 

why the ‘bebop-romanticism-klezmer-highlife-cinta-baroque’ hybridity that I tried first to transcribe then to convey to academy-trained musicians, for them to play on a stage in front of an audience of at most a hundred expectant classical-canon conformists 
turned into 
simulating impossible, acoustic, performance with early commercial digitalia
then into 
collecting sounds on the street and recompiling the street inside an enclosed space, with glimpses of  the original hybrid crowd’s voices
finding ways to walk inside it so it’s always different, unrepeatable.
I’m still working on telling that story through some peculiar digital sound objects and rambling, utterly inappropriate words.
<.~<.~<.~ <.~<.~<.~ HTTP://BASIC.FM  ~.>~.>~.>~.>~.>~.>
<.~<.~<.~ Watch this space for my first radio broadcast  ~.>~.>~.>
<.~<.~<.~ on augmented reality and music composition  ~.>~.>~.>
<.~<.~<.~ <.~<.~<.~ S e p t e m b e r  2 0 1 3  ~.>~.>~.>~.>~.>~.>
Meanwhile, I discovered some striking archaeological evidence of the ‘shift’, the evolution out of learning to play the standard repertoire in a regional orchestra, through keeping up with incredible street bands in Belgrade, Budapest and Paris, and capturing live events for the bubbles to build fleeting dreamscapes in sound.
A major influence on my shift away from notes on paper for people, toward the construction of musical junk-sculpture, was the improvising pianist John Law. 
Nearly twenty years ago, I went into a large echoey room with a Steinway, intending to record my Piano Sonata.
A master of digression and procrastination, even then, I instead recorded this. 
Exhibit A: “In Walked John Law”, solo piano improvisation, September 1994