Author: Lucy Stevens
The Red Species List was a collaboration between musicians Rishii Chowdhury (Tabla), Waqas Choudhary (Bansuri-Flute) and Eleanor Graff- Baker (Violin) and artist Lucy Stevens, to produce a concert in response to ecologically and politically aware artists Lucy + Jorge Orta, who exhibited a body of work at Attenborough Arts Centre (AAC).
The new work commissioned by AAC highlights birds of highest conservation concern on The Red List, due to a rapid decline in numbers in the UK.
The concert features songs of endangered birds as inspiration, using Indian classical, traditional and folk music and field recordings to create an hour-long composition and printmaking, drawing and video to visualise birdsong. The concert was supported by Geoff Sample and The Wildlife Sound Recording Society. Photography by David Wilson Clarke.
Read a short Arts Professional feature related to the concert which shares tips for using art to communicate environmental issues in ‘How to … protect nature through performance’.
Rehearsals for The Red Species List are well underway at Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester, where sound and visual artist Lucy Stevens and musicians, Rishii Chowdhury (tabla), Waqas Choudhary (bansri – Indian flute) and Eleanor Graff-Baker (violin) are working together on a new commission to create a musical and visual experience, inspired by the songs of endangered birds.
This concert is a commission to respond to the current exhibition by Lucy + Jorge Orta at Attenborough Arts Centre. The work of this internationally acclaimed duo questions the social and ecological sustainability of our planet. With Symphony for Absent Wildlife, being of particular influence on this new work due to its comment on endangered species. The audience enter a darkened room, where they encounter an orchestra of woodland ‘Spirits’, wearing costumes made out of reclaimed Red Cross felt blankets. They perform a concert on wooden bird whistles. The masked figures recall the spirits of the once abundant wildlife across the Albertan plains: bison, moose, wapiti, wolves, grizzly bears, and eagles. There is also species from other places, highlighting the global importance of this issue.
This concert concentrates on declining birds in the UK and was given its title, after the traffic light system: Green, Amber, Red list- to indicate a level of conservation concern, according to population and breeding status, with Red as the highest conservation priority. The latest assessment by WWT and Birds of Conservation Concern 4 shows that 67 species are now of ‘highest conservation concern’ and have been placed on the assessment’s Red List, which accounts for more than one-quarter of the UK species. In December 2015 the Curlew and Puffin were added to the Red list because of pollution and declining food sources.
Stevens’ art practice examines the acoustic ecology of the natural environment using field recording, digital illustration, drawing and printmaking as a tool to better understand the diversity of bird species and the wider issues of biodiversity. The work explores the relationship between humanity and nature; including the desire to communicate, interpret and understand bird behaviour through visualising birdsong.
For this project she has created three video works which showcase a variety of methods for visualising birdsong using printmaking and drawing, including a video showing her drawing the sounds of birdsong in time to the soundtrack, and creating over 200 mono prints and selecting 18 to represent the songs of endangered birds.
The soundtrack composed by Stevens features the songs of 25 birds, gathered using a combination of her own field recordings and those from Sound recordist Geoff Sample and Alan Burbidge and Paul Pratley from The Wildlife Sound Recording Society. The soundtrack has been created using only the sounds of birdsong, including the harmonies and the drones, which have been stretched eight thousand times or more to create a completely different sound, some haunting and some mimicking the human voice.
The musicians will respond to the soundtrack of birdsong using a combination of structured verses and improvisation, using a mix of Western classical and traditional with Indian classical and folk music styles. The importance of reconnecting the music with nature is highlighted through the sensitive approach taken by this unique trio, when responding and mimicking the songs using the pitch of the bird’s voice as a key note, to produce an evocative and energetic performance.
Come early and visit the Lucy + Jorge Orta exhibition on until 7.30pm.
Tickets for The Red Species List on Friday 22 April, 8pm can be purchased at Attenborough Arts Centre, University of Leicester, Lancaster Road, Leicester LE1 7HA or at the website here: bit.ly/1PZq4Ss for £8 (full) / £7 (concession) / £5 (student) or at the Box office: 0116 252 2455.
This winter Im working on a new project, The Red Species List, a new commission for Attenborough Arts Centre, in response to the Lucy + Jorge Orta exhibition. The project will be a collaboration with musicians using live music, field recordings and animation to visualise the voices of UK birds currently on the Red Species list and endanger of becoming extinct.
As part of this project I have started to visualise some of the birds voices, including the Cuckoo. The two monoprints are currently on display as part of the International Postcard Show 2016 until 13 February, at the Surface Gallery in Nottingham. All postcards are available to buy for £15 and have been created by artists from all over the world. If you visit the gallery there’s a chance to vote for your favourite submission too!
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