"I looked for God on Mount Olympus, but all I saw was a crested tit" he said.
This 1995 documentary was recently posted on YouTube. It reminds us that the great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas (1913-2000) was a keen birdwatcher. He admits to being more in tune with nature than with humans, and as the programme reveals, his postings as an Anglican vicar included the Dovey Estuary and the Lleyn peninsula, chosen for their ornithological importance.
"I looked for God on Mount Olympus, but all I saw was a crested tit" he said.
Review: London Contemporary Music Festival 14 December
In his short introduction to Okeanos, Chris Watson told a packed house, assembled in the cavern-like underground Gallery Ambika P3, at the University of Westminster, that the seas and oceans are the most sound-rich environment on the planet. Six years of recording and assembling these sounds led to Okeanos, an eight-channel composition of songs, signals and vibrations from the smallest crustaceans to the loudest and largest animals ever to have existed.
Watson may be best known as the recorder of wildlife sounds made famous in the Attenborough programmes or Tweet of the Day, but he first came to public attention in the seventies as a musician, part of the trio Cabaret Voltaire.
Okeanos is in essence an hour of underwater recordings made using hydrophones hung ten to twenty metres below the surface, at various places around the globe. To rely entirely on natural sound to sustain a long piece is a compositional challenge. Watson succeeds partly by exploiting the narrative logic of a journey from pole to pole, but mainly by careful recompilation of sound, from the large-scale and structural to the minute and detailed, to create a musical logic too.
Beginning at eighty degrees south, and above the surface, we hear a colony of Adelie penguins. We follow them into the sea, and into a sound-world of singing Weddell seals and vast movements of water. These undersea waves and swells have a sound unlike those at the surface or on the shore. Having nothing to resound against but other bodies of water, they create a deeply menacing pulse. Against this the singing seals and myriad small sounds provide an orchestra of microscopic detail.
The icy Antarctic waters merge into the Indian Ocean and coral reefs with thousands of tiny sounds from crustaceans and molluscs. Across to the Caribbean and the virtuoso singing of humpback whales, before crossing to the Atlantic coast of western Scotland. Here grey seal females provide a touching harem chorus. Orcas off Norway’s Lofoten Islands join in with songs that sound like they were created digitally, unlike any that could be created for an airborne acoustic. It is the sound-carrying qualities of sea water that are part of the attraction for Watson. In the final leg of the journey, the sounds of bearded seals off Svalbard, were recorded up to twenty kilometres from their source, but are as clear and haunting as if they were with us in the gallery.
If being a composer is all about choosing, matching and compiling sonic elements, then Chris Watson is a composer. Arguably he has a greater orchestral scale and diversity at his disposal than any other composer, as well as an unrivalled knowledge of both the technicalities of obtaining these rare sounds and their zoological importance. This attention to context is the key to making a work that is both beautiful and authentic, not to mention a revelation.
Babies welcome at Spitalfields next week
The extraordinary mimcry of Australia’s lyrebird has inspired artist Zoë Palmer to create an extraordinary opera, or, as she describes it, an interactive musical adventure made especially for 0-2½ year-olds. Musical Rumpus: Lyrebird has toured venues in the East End of London, culminating on 4 and 5 December in the final performances at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green Road, as part of the Spitalfields Festival.
I asked Zoë why she chose the lyrebird to provide very young children with their first music theatre experience. Like many of us, Zoë first discovered the lyrebird through David Attenborough’s Life of Birds. “Ever since I saw that clip on YouTube I knew I wanted to work the lyrebird into one of my shows. I was inspired by the incredible mimicry, this bird that could imitate anything from other species to camera shutters.
“It was also very moving, because this particular bird was imitating chainsaws, too, creating a record of the destruction of its own habitat.”
So how did this become the inspiration for Musical Rumpus? “I’ve been specialising in early years music, but I’ve also recently completed a Masters in Human Ecology, and I realised the lyrebird is some kind of metaphor for creative development.
“It’s an abstract piece, but it is based around the idea of the bird doing what children do, borrowing material and creating their own language. Eventually it comes together in a developing language of words and song.”
She also sees a deeper, primeval connection. “Before words and music were natural sounds, which blossomed into beautiful loops and patterns and sang the world into being.”
The 50-minute work casts the children as a “roving chorus”, gathering sounds from three different environments: home, city and forest, and creating their own song. Parents are invited to engage, too. Some, Zoë says, are a bit frightened, uncomfortable with letting go and simply being, but most get wrapped up in a shared experience with their babies.
Closing date: Monday 1 February 2016
Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Forestry Commission England have announced the second edition of Jerwood Open Forest, an opportunity for visual artists to propose ideas for a major new £30,000 commission to be realised anywhere within England’s Public Forest Estate, supported by Arts Council England.
Three reasons to look toward La Ville Lumière
We are all with Paris, trying to understand the incomprehensible. And with or without Friday’s outrage, in two weeks’ time we would still all be with Paris, trying to unravel the tangle of politics, science and human rights that is the climate change agenda. Next month world leaders assemble there for the most important climate change negotiations to date, and tens of thousands of activists and fossil fuel industry lobbyists will converge on the city, too. At the forefront of representing civil society will be ArtCop21, a climate festival of culture and arts, with over 120 events, exhibitions and installations across the city. It’s a global festival: artists are participating on all continents with over 420 events in total.
Meanwhile, Paris and the other great cities of western Europe remain in the minds and the hopes of a tide of refugees, many of whom are there already, most are yet to set off on the most traumatic and possibly hopeless phase of their lives.
The world leaders at the climate summit will trade rhetoric on these issues, and the original purpose of their conference may be pushed into second, or even third place behind discussing (the oil-rich) Islamic State and the human tide flowing across our borders. They will want to compartmentalise their agenda, keep these issues separate in their talks, they are each complex enough on their own.
Expect a 100-year wave of climate refugees
But there is a case for keeping it all ravelled together. If carbon emissions targets were simply about striking a balance between conflicting economic pressures on western governments, there would be no need to assemble in one place to thrash them out. But we all know it is not that straightforward. The pressures would still keep coming. Expect the natural environment to fail across swaithes of poor-world and rich-world alike. Expect a 100-year wave of climate refugees into the richer, less climate-vulnerable world if we get it wrong for them. Expect the handy distinction between economic migrant and refugee from terror to disappear.
Politics has no language for this complexity, but art has. Three reasons to look to Paris: solidarity between grieving nations; hope for a climate deal that demonstrates governments can act together and with resolve; and a cultural focus that will help us all understand the world a bit better.
The shortlist for the 2015 British Composer Awards has been announced. Congratulations again to Kerry Andrew who has been featured in NATURAL LIGHT. Kerry is on the shortlist for her liturgical work Salve Regina. The 36 shortlisted works also include two that were written to commemorate the centenary of World War I and reflect on the powerful images of nature in wartime that persist and symbolise hope.
John Casken's Apollinaire's Bird is an oboe concerto and a meditation on the brutality of war. It is inspired by Guillaume Apollinaire's poem Un Oiseau Chante, written during the first world war, that describes the birdsong heard above the din of combat and the memories that the song evokes in the minds of the soldiers mired in the trenches below.
Papaver, by Dai Fujikura, sets words by regular collaborator Harry Ross. Taking the universal image of poppies as icons of remembrance, and based on Ross’s realisation that normal life, including the continued presence of poppies, goes on around the war cemeteries of France.
Picasso helps locals win momentous victory
The beechwoods of Zilbeti, in the foothills of the Navarran Pyrenees, have seen their fair share of momentous battles. It was here that Charlemagne's advance was halted by local Basque fighters in 778. Napoleon's France and Spanish forces saw significant action in 1794, and in 1813 Wellington repelled French relief forces after a series of bloody setbacks. And the peace of the forest could hardly resist the brutality of the 1930s that afflicted all Spain.
Since 2010 another battle has raged, over the future of the forest itself. Arrayed on one side, a Grand Coalition of the mining company MAGNA and the Government of Navarra. On the other, the meagre forces of the tiny village of Zilbeti and their supporters in neighbouring areas, local conservation groups and national NGOs such as SEO-BirdLife Spain.
There is much at stake. The company believe their exisiting magnesite mine is becoming harder to exploit as reserves dwindle. To gain access to new sources they proposed to fell 54,390 beech trees, including, as local ecologists documented, 17,306 mature ones, some centuries old. The forest is home to 20% of Spain's threatened white-backed woodpeckers, as well as European mink and the elusive Pyrenean desman. Moreover, it is protected under European law.
Villagers and the local organisation Coordinadora Monte Alduide decided to call for reinforcements. SEO-BirdLife took up the cause and led a legal fight in the Navarran High Court. But the most audacious manoeuvre came from the local troops themselves
a symbol of oppression and of hope
Then, in a single morning, fifty people wielding organic, biodegradable pigments filled in the design. They created an extraordinary Guernica de Zilbeti some 25 metres wide by 15 high. It is an incredible study in inverse perspective: the nearest and farthest trees are separated by 52 metres, yet the final work, if viewed from the specially contructed viewing platform, created a 2-D effect from a vast 3-D space.SEO-BirdLife's Ramón Elosegui said "Guernica is a symbol of the consequences of oppression, but at the same time a symbol of hope."
This week the High Court gave victory to the forest.
In May 2013 twenty-five conservation organisations published a report into the State of Nature in the UK. It revealed that nature is in trouble - we are losing wildlife at an alarming rate. On Tuesday, two and a half years on, the same organisations launched Response for Nature. Naturalist and TV presenter Steve Backshall was in London alongside UK Environment Minister, Rory Stewart, while similar launches took place in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff.
While we wait for the four country governments of the UK to respond, there has already been a spontaneous, unprompted reaction from a seemingly unlikely quarter. Earlier this year David Harradine, founder of arts company Fevered Sleep, and I met for a coffee, and he almost casually mentioned that he was working on a new work directly inspired by his reaction to the 2013 report.
Fevered Sleep invited people from various locations to take a walk with Associate Artist Luke Pell, who recorded the conversations, and turned the words into a poetic landscape. “It's an attempt to recreate the experience of walking in a real place but in a different form, an on-line form” says David. The result was An Open Field.
Now one of the twenty-five organisations, the RSPB, and Fevered Sleep have come together. In its latest podcast, the RSPB invited David and Luke to talk to broadcaster Jane Markham about their own unique and subtly beautiful response for nature. Click on the button to hear their conversation, and watch the video of Steve Backshall's inspiring presentation.
Review: bird sound sculpture at Tate Britain
Amost as soon as you enter Tate Britain from Millbank you find yourself within a sound sculpture comprising the songs and calls over over two thousand birds. Columbian-born, London-based artist Oswaldo Maciá spent five years in the 1990s collecting bird calls from international ornithological archives and audio libraries. He reworked them into what today we might call a soundscape, scored according to the birds’ pitches.
It is an installation that forms part of the Tate’s BP Spotlights, focussing on individual artists or artworks. There are about a dozen running concurrently, and Maciá’s Something Going on Above My Head (1995-9) is one of the few that have no published close date, so I have no idea for how much longer it is available to experience.
It comprises a number of “carefully positioned” speakers that, according to the blurb “fill the space with a mesmerising chorus that the visitor experiences above their head, much in the way that true birdsong is experienced”. The speakers I saw were spaced regularly in one plane, around the circular ledge that circumscribed the space below a cupola, between the ground floor and first floor. A hand-out includes the diagram shown here –in which certain birds occupy positions prescribed in the highly standardised layout of a classical orchestra.
This leads to the first apparent contradiction: how to create an orchestral layout in a circular space: unless I have misinterpreted the concept. There is no readily-available information about the previous life of the work, so whether it was originally conceived for a more appropriate space is not clear.
With the birds, you co-inhabit the cupola and its immediate surroundings. You can hear the sounds above you when at ground level but move to the level above and the sounds are no longer “above your head”. I could find no information as to how long the piece is before the sequence repeats itself, or indeed whether it comprises a single soundtrack or several overlapping and unequal tracks. The latter approach could create a piece that repeats every few minutes, days, years, or millennia, but that is not clear, and presumably not important.
Unfortunately, nothing about this piece is clear. Unclarity can, of course, be a virtue in art. But the programme note makes claims that are difficult to sustain. The piece is said to illustrate Maciá’s interest in the ambiguity of language. The title of the work both describes the set-up of the installation and alludes to “daily events that go unnoticed by the majority of people.” The inspiration for the work was a newspaper article that referred in passing to Russian submarines dumping nuclear residues in the Baltic Sea.
From there to a carefully orchestrated collage of bird song is quite an abstraction, but fair enough. But it is not mesmerising. You either have to listen too carefully to be mesmerised in order to try (and fail, in my case) to detect any sign of orchestration among the overwhelming hubbub of human activity in an appalling acoustic; or you let the sound wash over you, in which case it is as mesmerising as any other background sound in a noisy environment.
The orchestral diagram and the possibility of realising it sonically is certainly a nice idea. The claimed pitch-based link between the species chosen and the instruments they replace is entirely obscure, and the diagram itself contains some oddities such as spelling errors (including the composer’s name!) and incomplete (and one long-obsolete) scientific bird-names.
Piecing together clues, I think the idea is that an artist has taken considerable care to create and present something that you are not supposed to notice, and cannot fully appreciate. The alternative view is that the Tate bunged some speakers into the least useful of its spaces and Maciá dusted off an old work, neither party caring very much about whether it made any sense.
A counter-movement to restore nature literacy
As regular readers will know, the Oxford Junior Dictionary has had over fifty nature words culled, to make room for terms that reflect the indoor lifestyles of today's children: terms like MP3 player and BlackBerry (replacing blackberry). Earlier this year, 28 prominent writers, artists and broadcasters wrote a letter, coordinated by NATURAL LIGHT, calling on the Oxford University Press to reinstate the lost words.
Now two of them, author Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris have teamed up to make a new book based on the very words lost from the OJD. The Lost Words: a Spell Book will be published by Hamish Hamilton in Spring 2017.
This year, Oxford University Press declared hashtag to be children's 'word of the year' based on 120,000 stories written by children.
"Technology is miraculous, but so is nature" says Macfarlane. "Jackie and I wanted to find a way to release these simple wonder-words back into people's stories and dreams."
In her blog Jackie writes: It grew out of a letter I was asked to sign by Laurence Rose and Mark Cocker. The letter was a request for the words culled from the Oxford Junior Dictionary to be returned. These words included bluebell, conker, heron, acorn and perhaps the one that cut deepest for me, kingfisher.
She contacted Macfarlane, who coincidentally had been thinking about writing a children's book for some time, Morris persuaded him it should be a book for all ages.
I contacted Jackie Morris at her home-studio by the sea near St. David's, Pembrokeshire. She explained that Macfarlane had already started sending her material for what will be "a dazzling full-colour book of spells and spellings that seeks to re-wild the language of readers young and old."
They have chosen around twenty of the lost nature words to "start putting nature back into the mouths and minds' eyes of readers through the magical interplay of artwork and text."
Mark Sears, CEO of The Wild Network, an organisation devoted to reconnecting children with nature that has been collaborating in the #naturewords campaign, sees the new book as "the first sign of a counter-movement, a positive move to restore nature literacy."
"There is a real music in the flow of words Rob has sent me" Jackie told me yesterday, having received texts for otter and kingfisher so far. And this afternoon a Facebook message: "He's sent me an acorn piece - pure music!"
a site devoted to nature, and artists who are
inspired by it
editor Laurence Rose
Follow us on
Facebook and Twitter