“My radiophonic work explores the relationships between poetry, sound art and drama. It is an exploration of Being and Becoming, steeped in the natural world, a kind of natural opera – an opera of the spoken and unspoken word”
If we could hear the voice of nature, what would it say?
Can we use technology to strengthen our connection with nature?
These questions have perhaps predictably led my musical practice towards deep listening, natural algorithms, drones, birdsong, free improvisation and other (for want of a better word) ‘shamanic’ modes of performance and composition.
Yet, the music is only a small part of the picture. My radiophonic work tells nature’s stories by subtly – often subliminally – creating drama, characters and narrative. The listener’s consciousness merges imperceptibly temporarily with birds or rocks or ferns.
On this page, you will find some proposals and commissions I’ve been involved in, which will hopefully give an idea of the sorts of things I’ve been up to.
The Assisi Machine
The Assisi Machine is a radio drama containing various sound collages. It was broadcast by Radia.fm and was syndicated to 26 stations worldwide in August 2018.
Dramatic verse has, for the last 300 years or so, been out of fashion for poets. In spite, or perhaps because of this, I find dramatic verse a very exciting and under-explored field within poetry. For one thing, professional actors can really add so much to a poem. I don’t see why a poem has to be read by its author, as an expression of their personal feelings. Poetry has the potential for so much more. By creating characters, the poet is freed from the usual concerns of ideology, poetic style, modernism and all the other constraints that ‘quality’ lyric poetry is subject to.
So, the Assisi machine is the story of a machine that can translate birdsong into human speech. The machine’s creator has died under mysterious circumstances and his machine is at first thought to be a hoax. The drama unfolds through extended drone sound pieces where we hear a machine trying – and eventually succeeding – in translating birdsong. And, it turns out that the birds speak in beautiful poetry.
The dramatic movement is not through dialogue or gesture, but through the interplay of poetry and drone music. (Drones are a recurrent theme of my practice, as they force us to focus on change, which in this case drives the drama.)
Further thoughts on Droning
I am obsessed with drones. They work as realpolitik and metaphysics, which is kind of odd.
First, there is the drone of the sitar or the bagpipes, which Indian musicology says is the sound the universe makes. It may or may not also be the music of spheres, either way, it keeps the world in existence, in balance. This drone works busily behind the scenes, just like worker bees, who are also drones. Military drones work busily behind the scenes. They fight wars at a safe distance on the west’s behalf, ensuring that the capitalist system remains in existence. If the fighter drones stopped, our world would collapse, just as, if the music of the spheres ended, our world would collapse.
I started a band, Drones Over Keyham. We are an all-girl Electro Punk band. Our songs are in some ways political and in others, cosmic, usually both at the same time.
Drones Over Keyham were commissioned to close the Plymouth Art Weekender in September 2018. We were also ‘fresh find of the week’ on BBC Introducing in May 2018. We have been described as ‘the best band in the Plymouth. Underground’, which I guess is something.
The Assisi Machine – Thoughts on a Sequel
One of the biggest lessons from working on the Assisi Machine was how much preconception affects our perception of sound. A human voice pitched up through an LFO will sound like birdsong, if you persuade the listener beforehand that that is what they are hearing.
This view of the world appeals to my sensibility perhaps thanks to my background in Anthropology and Linguistics. The classic theories of Sapir-Whorf suggest that we view the world through culturally-constructed filters, especially language.
As artists, we can create multi-layered, ambiguous pieces, but as dramatists, we can direct the listener through the landscape, channeling them into following the story.
There’s a whole literature on the phenomenon of ambiguous audio – sometimes called Rorschach Audio – and this is the starting point for the sequel to the Assisi machine, which I’ll be working on in 2019.
Ultra-Now – A ritual for the precise middle of a festival
Ultra-Now is a multi-sensory piece which perfectly captures the Now as the moment of pure being and pure becoming. It is performed at the exact middle point in time of the festival, as close to the geographical centre of the festival as possible.
All the lyrics and musical instruments are created on-site during the festival.
We collect leaves and pine cones and sticks around the festival site and then make musical instruments by amping them up with pickups, making rattles, making broomstick basses etc.
The song lyrics are found poetry based on overheard snippets of conversation from the festival.
At the exact middle point of the festival, Saturday afternoon at 4pm, the Ultra-Now ceremony happens. We perform the words and instruments, taking cues from the shapes and movements of the clouds and hills and humans and birds around us at that moment.
This ritual is performed in the spirit of Wagnerian total art, appealing to all the senses, and uniting body and mind in the field of awareness. We burn incense made from flowers and bark collected on-site, pass around foraged foods and wear clothes and masks made from found items.
As a bonus, we give a workshop on the Sunday, showing how to make driftwood instruments and write found poems.