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:

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
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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.

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

Annotating Landscape with Audio: 6 December,

You are invited to join us this Friday 6th December for a practical training session on geo-located soundscapes tool noTours.  
Please email lw4 [at] soton [dot] ac [dot] uk to book a free place.
Lunch will be provided and parking is available on site.


Introductory seminar on
notours software for Android
presented by Benjamin Mawson
6 December 2013, 10 am – 4 pm
Avenue Campus (Building 65, Room 2149)
University of Southampton
Outline of Day – approximate timings:
A mix of short introductory talks and hands-on development.
10.00 Welcome and Introduction:
– Concepts and background to situated soundscapes
– Technical and editorial issues
– The editor interface
– New software developments
– Starting to work with the editor Interface
11.00 Break
11.15 First practical session:
– getting used to the interface
– creating project zones and editing sound behaviours
12.15 Site visit and discussion
– assessing the situational setting for your soundwalk
– topography, function and routes
– ambient noises & acoustic responses
12.30 Lunch
13.00 Second practical session:
– building your first geo-located soundscape
– GPS and open spaces
– managing files and folders
14.00 Field test 1 (Test your design in situ using gps-enabled Android):
– what was most and least effective
– feedback and discussion
14.30 Break
14.45 Third practical session and field test 2:
– Editing and developing your soundscape
15.45 Summary

16.00 Close

Painting the landscape itself. No, I mean really, actually painting it. Oh, and in sound.

If ever you decide to demonstrate your crazy, arcane research, the ideas you dream about and discuss with yourself, sometimes inadvertently aloud – then find you’ve accidentally instigated the biggest, most exciting and terrifying project of your life, don’t call me to complain. I will only laugh.
I was working on how to motion-track listeners so they can walk inside a piece of music – we’re getting there, with amazing work from composer-programmer Iyad Assaf, it’s called 3D-BARE.
I called music tech guru and composer Julio d’Escrivan for advice.
He put me in touch with Enrique Tomas, whose noTours software uses GPS and does a similar – well, different – thing to what I was working on but with such interesting results and rich possibilities that I was hooked.
noTours lets you edit a place with sounds: overlapped, interlocking, spliced, hovering in the landscape.
When a composition is complete, I now do something additional with it – splitting it into horizontal and vertical fragments, spreading it across a garden or along the Thames, then inviting people to come and listen.
I recorded singers a few months ago, one at a time, then combined them into a ‘virtual’ choir, in a setting of a poem called “Take Me By The Hand” for Southampton’s Musical Alphabet weekend.
There’s now a version spread between the paths and trees, buildings and water of the university campus. Singers and the place, sonically and physically bound together. Blurring and augmenting the heard reality of a place allows us to do strange and interesting things…
So I’ve been constructing musical compositions embedded in landscape and decided to make more systematic my approach to recording the landscape itself and, more importantly, the people in it.
Six months on, I’m coordinating the Audio Portrait of Southampton – to capture the place, the year, its noises, sounds and music. An immersive sonic montage spread across the green spaces of the city for listeners to walk inside and investigate, like a virtual city built only of sound.
Southampton Music Hub and Art Asia have recently come on board, bringing fantastic, diverse musical talent to the Portrait and I was recently interviewed by Xan Philips on Voice FM.
We’ll be demonstrating on 11th October at the University’s next Creative DigiFest, SXSC2. Come and hear for yourself!

Music You Can Walk Inside


After several years working outside of academe and music, I returned at last to composing and then to study for a PhD in 2010.

I visited ISVR and encountered their 3-D speaker systems and realised a problem for studio-based composers could be solved by a little invention. 

I proposed a means for listeners to walk inside a piece of music and investigate its parts at will, hearing it differently on each audition. They’ve taken it on and the construction of our 3-D Binaural Audio Rendering Engine is under way!

Here are two reasons to do this: composing in the digital studio, your music can exist either as a data file or be heard using speakers. 

But why would anyone go to a concert to see no-one actually playing? 

Concerts are about far more than listening to sounds among other people – we witness live ‘interpretation’, a musician’s struggle to create beauty and meaning by moving horse hair across a string, blowing down a pipe or banging things together.

Music has always been in flux, perhaps now more than ever. 

But the two ways we listen, at least to what is still differentiated as ‘classical’ – or worse ‘contemporary’ – music have effectively been the same since the gramophone and wireless became widespread, around ninety years ago. 

We either listen to a recording or go to a concert hall and sit still in awed, reverential hush as though the composition were an inviolable object to be revered and recreated.

So, secondly, the idea that a composer’s score somehow is the work has been a part of this problem: of course it is only an approximate transcription of what the composer imagined, just as is the performance. 

They are both attempts at reaching something magical, beyond. 

So if music is produced in a studio, without possibility of being ‘performed’, does the output we hear suddenly become this strange, fixed object that we imagine a composition to be? 

How terrible, if there were only a single way to hear a piece of music, in all its deep-seated reference and memory, refraction of experience and heard sounds!

The 3-D BARE is some way from completion but promises to shed new light on both listening and the compositional process as we rethink how to present work in this way. 

Meanwhile, I have hooked up with a collective of composers and engineers called (“Listen” in Galician), who have built the amazing tool noTours (, for situating sounds in a place by way of an android phone connected to GPS, a map the phone can read of where the sounds have been placed, and the sounds themselves, all stored in the handset.

In the last year I have composed pieces where the audience enter a space and moves freely, investigating multiple threads and layers that emerge at different rates, in different forms, around the art gallery, foyer, hangar. . . 

Each listener encounters a different version of the music, a combination of interwoven lines, intersecting at changing points in time, according to their physical position.

Then, they step outside with noTours and, under the satellites that encircle the planet, are guided through the same music, transformed now into an invisible structure, stitched and piled, locked together or floating free, in the landscape itself.

Composing like this is about using a space, integrating with it, reflecting it and its sounds back into the musical world you are constructing. 

The real ambient noise of the place is blended with (and played with, repositioned by digital smoke and mirrors) and replaced in the space, transformed and transposed. 

Now, what is the composition and what is the space becomes hard to determine, and less relevant. 

The experience, I am told, is immersive – the sonic reality of a place is both distorted and augmented at once, heightening awareness both of the sounds constantly around us and of the music situated within it.

Next project, an Audio Portrait of Southampton, a snapshot of the city in 2012: 
   a geo-located composition based in song, music and oral accounts of life in the city. 

Contributors sought: please get in touch now!