Author: Lucy Stevens
This self-directed one-week residency at Fermynwoods Contemporary Art Sudborough Green Lodge was a chance to experiment with drawing, using different mediums to visualise birdsong. A technique I’ve practised for just over a year to produce a register of birdsong, mono prints, graphic illustrations and installations. The register features over 50 hand drawn symbols (for 25 species), which I feel best represent the vocalisation of each species call or song based on the tone, pitch, duration, timbre and rhythm. With around 25 more species still to be added! Listening, recording and visualising birdsong are all tools I use to identify birds in the field.
The sound recordings of birdsong that I would like to develop into drawings are compositions gathered from Jersey, Sweden and Swithland Wood in Leicestershire, ranging from 2 – 6 minutes in duration. For these three compositions I have isolated the sound of individual species to visualise through sonogram software, and created a transcription of the whole composition using a combination of hand drawn symbols, similar to a music score.
The sound recordings gathered at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey, were particularly interesting as they feature endangered species. The composition includes Hammerkop, Red Fody and White-faced whistling duck and species that could be heard outside of the Kirindy Forest enclosure, the Blackbird, Chaffinch and Herring Gull. Therefore the drawings created whilst in residence were all based on the vocalisations of these birds.
The residency offered the time and space to focus on visualising the Kirindy Forest composition, using the transcription of the sound recording as a starting point. To experiment with mark making using a range of mediums including ink, chalk, paint, watercolour, mono print, pen, pencil and oil pastel.
The techniques I felt produced the most successful compositions included paint to create inkblot images and using fine liner and felt tip layered with ink and watercolour to create small detailed studies. Perspex and card with paint to create big expressive gestural marks and combining mono print (in black) with coloured inks.
Drawing is a method to document my experiences of listening to birds, to demonstrate the complexities in their vocalisations, expressing rhythm and timbre using hand-made marks. It is a direct development taken from listening, recording, editing, identifying and transcribing bird sound. The work isn’t a scientifically correct representation of a sonogram, but rather a method of automatism and interpretation of the wide range of marks produced by this tool. The Sound Approach to birding, a book used to identify birds states ‘Bird sound has structure but you can only see it in a sonogram.’
Transcribing bird sound could be seen as a method for generating another language, but one that has many accents and the freedom to develop with new ‘words’ being added and adjusted, similar to the work of Olga Karlikova.
Below is a series of experimental works from the residency to visualise birdsong from the sound recording gathered from Kirindy Forest at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Click on the images below to enlarge them and view as part of a gallery slideshow.
Even though this residency was focused on the visual side of birdsong, I couldn’t resist recording the dawn chorus in the wood near the lodge where I was staying. Recording sound for me is an opportunity to get outside; to discover new locations and listen to wildlife – it gives me a thrill each time. With this recording the sounds from the traffic can’t be escaped but overall it was a quiet chorus, which meant identifying individual bird species was a bit more straightforward. Despite this there were a few scraps between two Wrens and a group of Wood Pigeons and I was pleased to capture the sound of the Tawny Owl.
I’ve been invited by Iain Barber, Head of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester to take part in a field studies trip in Slapton, Devon as part of the Zoology Degree. This will be a great opportunity to record birdsong in a variety of habitats across the area and to gather data on bird behaviour to inspire new artwork. I arrive at 10pm with a car full of sound recording equipment. After being shown to my room, I set up the microphones in advance of tomorrow’s 5am alarm.
Sunday 26 April
In the morning I record the dawn chorus at a wooded area in Slapton using a pair of DPA 4060 microphones on a stereo bar with Zoom H4n, which provides an omni-directional soundscape of the area. These are positioned deep into the wood with a reed bed close by.
I also use an M-S set up with Sound Device, which I’m slightly in awe of and have been kindly loaned from Hear This Space’s Simon Smith. This set up provides a more directional point of focus for recording birdsong and is positioned on a pathway between the trees. It’s a good start and I can hear the Cetti’s Warbler, along with the Reed Warbler, Blackbird, Blackcap, Robin, Mallard, Great Tit, Carrion Crow, Pheasant and Herring Gull (in the distance), Wood Pigeon, Jay, Chiff Chaff, Wren and 3 Canada Geese flying above.
There’s something spectacular and meditative about listening to birdsong especially when you’re listening to it through headphones, amplified by microphones. The whole experience is completely immersive and one that I can happily indulge in for hours.
The students on the Zoology course are devising their own projects and observing and gathering data on different species, including the Cetti’s Warbler to explore the diversity in male singing between different territories. Another project is underway to observe Robins and the difference in numbers of species found in the town and rural environments. Other projects include observing the behaviour of Rooks (there’s a tree full of them on-site!), examining the size of cowpats in relation to the number of dung flies and their courting behaviour. Monitoring Great Crested Grebes behaviour in particular foraging and courting activity and observing and measuring the diving synchronicity of Tufted Ducks! I’m hoping to use some of this data as inspiration for a new piece of artwork to visualise their findings, along with the sound recordings I’ve gathered.
At lunch I record using 4 channels (so 4 microphones). Using 2 above water to capture a stereo image and 2 underwater in the reed beds… although not much can be heard in the water, probably because of the time of day and the fact the sun isn’t out. However, the recordings above water are interesting and feature the Cetti’s Warbler, Reed Warbler and the sound of the reeds gently blowing in the wind.
On my way back I hear the Rooks in the trees and cant resist recording their harsh and aggressive sounding calls, especially as I haven’t yet recorded this species, so this was a great opportunity to add it to the birdsong register and to make plans to create a visualisation of their song!
A 4am start to get up and out and in position to record in the ancient woodlands at 5am. It’s still dark at this time, especially in a dense wood, but Iain helps to carry the recording equipment, which is a life saver as we head down a steep pathway into the wood.
I set up the microphones (using a torch to help me see!) The DPA’s are in the middle of a narrow pathway with woodland on either side and the M-S set up is off to the right hidden within the trees. In this type of environment extra long cables are a must, as it means I can move around without interfering with the recordings and there’s more chance of birds getting closer (if you’re lucky) to the microphones to share their songs.
Whilst listening from 5am – 6am I heard a Robin, Great Tit, Blackbird, Chaffinch, Blackcap, Pheasant and Herring gulls (in the distance), Blue Tit, Wood Pigeon, Carrion Crow and a Chiff Chaff… but I’m sure there will be more birds to identify once I listen back to the recordings a few times! A background rumble can be heard on the recording, which I believe is either the sound of the sea/boats nearby.
Lunchtime was spent looking for interesting shaped stones on the shingle beach and recording the sound of the sea using my DPA’s, whilst eating sandwiches and cake- perfect.
Tuesday 28 April
My last early start and I decide to head back to the reed beds as the recording I made on Sunday at lunchtime didn’t really capture the birds at their best and loudest. This time (at 6am) they could be heard particularly well, along with the song of the Cetti’s Warbler.
I head back out before lunch to record at the Fresh water lake, which runs parallel to the sea. A Coot busy building a nest and a mallard can be heard, with the sounds of a Robin and Chiff chaff in the trees behind. It’s a lovely sunny day and I can’t resist sitting by the sea and recording the sound of the waves again…. This time taking the M-S set up (with windshield) and a pair of hydrophones to record underwater and the sound of the waves lapping the shore.
I’m really grateful for this opportunity to be able to take part in a field trip with students at the University of Leicester and to learn about the projects taking place, along with the hours of gathering research and analysing data that each group has been working tirelessly on. I’m also fascinated to learn how students will present this data and how I can be inspired by this information, whether its displayed as a graph, text or a map, so that I can visualise this to create a new artwork. Listen to all 8 sound recordings here
Hear Th↓s Space commissioned me to respond to the German Expressionist art collection at New Walk Museum by creating a new soundtrack. The group are a collection of composers and curators who put on site-sensitive events. They also work collaboratively with other arts practitioners and musicians to facilitate multi-speaker sound systems as part of external events. I’ve been involved in the project ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (Total work of art) since January and have attended several sessions to learn more about the German Expressionist collection, along with workshops open to the public to help gather recordings from inside the gallery and basement. To make a soundtrack in response to a collection of artworks is no easy task, especially with such a diverse range of creative movements from the 1920s and one that rejects realism and expresses strong emotions of anxiety and fear. I’ve taken inspiration from the collection at the museum, as well as German Expressionist films and composers, particularly the music of composer Arnold Schoenberg, who avoided traditional forms of beauty and crossed the barrier of tonality in his music, using rapidly changing textures, dynamics and moods. It was these ideas of dissonance that I’ve experimented with in this new soundtrack ‘Unheard Voices’, which I’ve produced in collaboration with vocalist Brona Martin who features on the track and performed live at the concert at New Walk Museum. The sounds were recorded on-site at the museum in a variety of rooms, spaces, galleries and the basement, including listening through air vents to the café below, comparing the different tones of each room, enhancing inaudible sounds, the sound of archival material and experimenting with giving everyday objects and surfaces a ‘voice’. Many sound recordings were gathered and those selected for the final soundtrack were grouped into chapters and then woven together, to form a narrative with a start, middle and end, using Brona’s voice as a storyteller to complete the composition. Her voice was used as an instrument to respond to, mimic and match the pitch and tone of sounds, which have been abstracted by stretching, reversing, repeating and overlapping to create a haunting quality with changing moods and high contrasting volumes and crescendos. The recordings captured by composers and participants were created as individual compositions and shared as part of a multi- loudspeaker concert on Friday 20 March at New Walk Museum in Leicester. Listen to Unheard Voices, a collaboration with Brona Martin below:
Last weekend I was at Ugly Weekender; a 24 hour get together of artists, performers and musicians, to explore DIY electronics, sound and design with Dirty Electronics, as part of Reactor Halls at Primary in Nottingham.
I was invited to take part after a discussion with John Richards regarding the exploration of bird identification apps and how these could be used creatively.
After meeting everyone and being treated to a wonderful and unusual banquet of food (by the
Small Food Bakery), we had a discussion about the notion of the project and how circuits could lend themselves to a performance.
Jim Frize who designs and creates electronic musical instruments was keen to collaborate on the bird app project and had some great ideas about how we could work together, plus the technology and expertise to build 6 different circuits to represent the song/calls of 6 bird species (which the British bird ID app falsely recognised as real birds!)
These birds included:
- Great Tit
- Sedge Warbler
- Great spotted woodpecker
Birdsong recordings (apart from Nightjar) by Geoff Sample.
Circuit illustrations by Jim Frize.
The end result was a slideshow presentation which offered the audience images of birds coupled with electronic sounds created by circuits. These were followed by a series of hand drawn circuits accompanied by the sounds of real birdsong. The performance was narrated by Phillip Henderson (an artist and member of Reactor), who introduced the slideshow and read the RSPB’s birdwatchers code of conduct, followed by a brief description of the birds vocal repertoire.
The whole event was fantastic and a great opportunity to meet and collaborate with some really nice, talented people, who produced some awesome work over the 24 hour duration.
Things Ive learnt:
- Open Office is shit for slideshows (with embedded sound)
- Its easy to mistake a pile of clothes for someone asleep on the floor
- Tea ice cream is lovely
- Recording the dawn chorus after no sleep= shadow hallucinations and spying pigeons
- There’s a lot of talented folk out there
- Being involved in a group performance wasn’t half as scary as I thought
- Squash is also called diluting juice
- Birding apps aren’t always accurate
Back on Friday 14 November I was invited to talk about my recent collaborative project The Swithland Wood Recordings, an Arts Council England funded project to visualise birdsong and inspire music, at The New Networks for Nature conference at Stamford Arts Centre.
Artist Lyndall Phelps very kindly asked me to share her presentation slot to give the audience a flavour of how contemporary artists can be inspired by the natural world.
New Networks for Nature is a broad alliance of creators (including poets, authors, scientists, film makers, visual artists, environmentalists, musicians and composers) whose work draws strongly on the natural environment.
Amongst other things New Networks for Nature aims to collaborate with like-minded partners and establish events that enable people of all backgrounds to express themselves creatively about nature and place and to establish (eventually) a regular festival that serves as a larger celebration of landscape and nature by all its myriad stakeholders, from artists and allotment holders, to biologists and choreographers, right through to zoologists.
You can find both our artist biographies on the presenters page of the New Networks for Nature website.
A collaborative artist-led project, between sound and visual artist Lucy Stevens and tabla player Rishii Chowdhury, inspired by birdsong. To fuse field recordings, musical improvisation, printmaking and drawing techniques, to develop a series of new print and sound artworks that represent pitch, repetition and duration of bird vocalisation. Culminating in an group exhibition as part of Passion2Print with Leicester Print Workshop at the LCB Depot, and a video to document the process of the project (created by Bill Newsinger). As part of the project Stevens and Chowdhury will receive mentoring and training from Lyndall Phelps, Geoff Sample, Roopa Panesar and Terry Forryan to develop their practice, enhance skills and professional development. Funded by Arts Council England. Find out more at www.representingbirdsong.wordpress.com.
Radioactive Present: Air Traffic
A Collaborative Project by Esther Ainsworth and Lucy Stevens
A sonic exploration of the East London Skies
Lucy and Esther formed their partnership at Camac Centre for Arts and Technology, Marnay-sur-Seine, France in 2011, creating a sound performance, titled Radioactive, which explored the fusion and live mixing of the contrasting sound worlds created by both artists.
For their current collaboration, Lucy has been invited to take up a temporary residency with Esther in her apartment at the top of Balfron Tower. The idea behind the residency is to explore a collaborative approach to the environment in and around the Tower.
With a birds eye view of the city, both artists used the tower as a starting point, for Esther, considering re-imaging the rhythms of the movement of the city through sound and for Lucy identifying urban birds in flight and their behaviour within the city.
These explorations have led to the identification of a series of ‘hotspots’ around Balfron Tower where the duo have captured field recordings tracking the activity that occurs in the sky, including plane flight and bird flight, and culminating in a series of unique soundscapes of the city as part of the Balfron Tower open studios.
The recordings feature a variety of locations that are rich in ‘sky sound’, featuring a mix of wildlife from East India Dock Basin and Bow Creek Ecology Park and planes taking off and passing over on the roof of Balfron Tower and London City Airport. Listen to the soundscapes on SoundCloud.
A map has been designed to plot areas where recordings were captured to track the activity that occurs above the city, for visitors to match the sounds with the locations.
Air traffic will be on show as part of Balfron Tower Open Studios daily from Saturday 6 September – Sunday 21 September, 12 noon – 6pm.
Balfron Tower, Poplar, London.