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

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.