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:


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: 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, Soton.ac.uk

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