Site specific work

Performing Industry

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Photography by DWC Imagery
Performing Industry, 2017. Photography by DWC Imagery

When I was asked to produce a performance with musicians in response to an exhibition about Leicester’s industry, it was an easy choice. Peter Wyeth of course. I’d seen him perform years ago and was blown away with his loop pedal skills a long time before we even met properly, and he’d recently taken a field recording of mine and ‘Wyethed’ it with his wonderful, delicate loops, guitar riffs and vocals. We were both in agreement that the performance needed something else special and were both big fans of drumming girl duo Rattle– who turned out to be available (after their tour of Barcelona!) and the perfect choice for the show on Thursday 27 July at Attenborough Arts Centre.

The Workforce Symphony, a soundtrack I produced for the Leicester: Memories of Industry exhibition at AAC was split up into single sound files, including sounds of machinery, people working in factories and interviews with retired industrialists, and then shared with Peter and Rattle to re-hash and interpret for the performance.

After several meetings and lots of emails sharing ideas and music samples, we got together at lunchtime on the day of the performance to set the stage and rehearse. With the support of g8 artists (who exhibited new work as part of the LMOI exhibition) we decided on the seating arrangements, staging, artwork and collections. We knew we wanted the space to be intimate so that the audience could see as much as possible, especially the artwork on the screens and on stage and Peter working on the floor with Rattle, using all sorts of gadgets, sculptures and objects as unconventional instruments.

Performing Industry, 2017. Photography by DWC Imagery
Performing Industry, 2017. Photography by DWC Imagery

The performance had a changing tempo, which matched the idea of factory life and working long hours by mimicking the rhythmic sounds of machinery using a variety of percussive instruments, guitar (with violin bow), drums, field recordings, loop pedal and a pair of iron cobbler’s shoes and hammer. Peter’s melancholic vocals accompanied the sounds to describe a routine walk through the city of Leicester on his way to work, describing the buildings, shops and factories that he once saw, which have now gone.

All of this was part improvised-part rehearsed to create a collaborative response full of touching harmonies and melodies combined with lots of booming drums to produce crescendos of thunderous experimental but playful music. It was the first time Peter and Rattle had performed it as a special one-off performance and I’m proud to have been a part of it. Thanks to everyone that made it happen and came to see the show.

The Red Species List concert

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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’.

Watch a short video on Vimeo of the concert and artworks

Listen to the full hour-long concert on Soundcloud

The Red Species List

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Best 2     Best 3

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.

Yellow hammer 1 new (1) crop

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.

Yellow hammer 1 new (2) crop       Yellow hammer 1 new (22) crop

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.

International Postcard show

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Cuckoo song 1Cuckoo song 2

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!

Visualising birdsong residency

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Experimental drawing to visualise birdsong using paint and coloured inkThis 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.
Triptych of experimental drawings using a range of mediaThe 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.
Hammerkop at Durrell Wildlife Conservation TrustThe 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.

View of artwork on walls at Sudborough Green Lodge, NorthamptonDrawing 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.

Unheard Voices

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Hear this space set upHear 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 Lucy and Brona rehearse_edited-1listening 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:

The Ugly Weekender

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Lapwing and circuit with bground_edited-1Last 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
  • Lapwing
  • Skylark
  • Sedge Warbler
  • Nightjar
  • Great spotted woodpecker

Birdsong recordings (apart from Nightjar) by Geoff Sample.
Circuit illustrations by Jim Frize.

Great spotted woodpecker and circuit with bground_edited-1The 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