Sri Lanka comes to Somerset

My first opportunity to share the work I created on the Sura Medura residency in Sri Lanka is coming up in March in my home county of Somerset.  Please do come and join us in the beautiful 15th century Bishop’s Barn in Wells.  Details below.


Opening Doors

Bishop’s Barn, Silver Street, Wells, Somerset, BA5 1US 
Saturday 24th March 2018, 7.30 pm
          Doors Open 7.15 pm      Tickets £5 on the door             

This Spring the doors of the 15th century Bishop’s Barn in Wells, Somerset, will open for an intimate evening with two very special women.

Helen Ottaway and Melanie Thompson have been working across multiple arts disciplines all their professional lives.  They would like to share an evening with you where you will find yourself immersed in their stories from two residencies located in two very different parts of the world.

Through film, sound installation, demonstration and specially prepared talks, Melanie and Helen will take you through the fascinating process of creating original site-specific work in response to Sri Lanka and Denmark.


Helen Ottaway – Six weeks, Hikkaduwa, sea sounds, drawing music on the beach and a magical musical box.  Helen was sponsored by Inside Out Dorset to take part in the Sura Medura  International Artists Residency in Sri Lanka.

Melanie Thompson

Melanie Thompson – Two years, Aarhus, two solo performances in one night and a film about drowning. Melanie was invited to collaborate with Reflektion Teatre, Denmark and its director, Bjarne Sandborg.

Ten years ago Melanie and Helen created Palace Intrusions, a two year public art project, for Wells. They are now returning with the intention of creating a new work for the city and its community.

This event is part of the Into the BARN project 2018.

For info on parking in Wells see:

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Moving out and moving on

By the end of my residency in Sri Lanka I had composed five miniatures pieces for musical box, created a sound installation and made a performance writing music on the beach. I gave my three works the collective title ‘Wave Songs’ and presented them in their different forms during the final exhibition at Sun beach Hotel in Hikkaduwa.  The musical box pieces and the sound installation also featured in an exhibition at the JDA Perrera gallery in Colombo as part of Sri Lanka’s first Human Rights Arts Festival.

During the last two weeks of the residency all six artists worked together.  What resulted also formed part of the final exhibition in Hikkaduwa in the form of an impromptu performance emerging during the curry and rice banquet.


Throughout the residency I recorded sounds from the environment and interviewed local people and fellow artists about their experiences of loss and sense of place. I had chosen the corridor in the hotel as the site for my sound installation.  The hotel is wedged between the sea and the main Colombo – Galle coast road and the corridor is the line that links these two sound worlds. I created two stereo soundscapes, one based around sounds of the sea and one based around sounds from the road and the jungle beyond, including the inland lagoon.  The sea soundscape featured the voice of fellow artist Kyna Hodges who talks about being at the beach when she heard that someone very close to her had died; the oposing soundscape features extracts from an interview I conducted with the assistant manager of the Tsunami Museum in Peraliya.  She tells of her flight inland away from the tsunami with her two children.  The sound of water pervades both soundscapes: the powerful sound of the waves breaking on the beach (including recordings taken with my new hydrophones) contrasting with the gentle lapping of the waters of the lagoon stired by the oars of our boat. Other sounds – bells, traffic horns and fragments of the music I had been writing during the residency – drift in and out.

Creative muvo

I placed my tiny Creative Muvo speakers one either end of the corridor facing each other. The effect was an emersive enhancement of the existing aural environment, a feeling of being submerged in a heightened and narrated version of the soundworlds of the sea, road and jungle.

I have written in previous posts about the musical box mechanism that I took with me to Sri Lanka.  I was very slow at first, feeling my way to composing with this tiny machine one punched hole at a time.  I got much faster over time and by the end of the residency had produced five tunes.   The soundboard and mahogany box, commissioned from Nalinda the local wood carver improved the quality and the volume of the sound of the machine enormously and I could now hear the music despite the sound of the waves.

Wave Song 1 – Blow the Wind / Wave Song 2 – The Fishermen’s Song / Wave Song 3 – Drawing Waves / Wave Song 4 – Drawing Lines / Wave Song 5 – The Corridor Song

Inspiration for these miniature tunes came from the sea itself and the shape of the waves, sea songs and shanties and the work songs of the fishermen in Galle.

wave song 3
Punched paper roll for Wave Song 3: Drawing Waves

As part of the final exhibition, I gave demonstrations of the musical box in one of the side rooms off the hotel corridor.  Recordings of the five musical box tunes can be heard on Soundcloud here


The third itteration of Wave Songs was a performance on the beach.  With doctored rake and a large stick pencil, (thanks to Anders Rigg for doing some pencil sharpening with his axe) I attempted to write my Fishermen’s Song in the sand.  As in my previous attempts the sea quickly erased what I had written.  Fellow artists Lorna Rees, Kyna Hodges and Rae-Yen Song sang as much of the song as they could before it dissapeared.



Back in the UK I am reviewing and evaluating my time in Sri Lanka.  I have come away with the knowledge that I can be creatively productive without my usual tools and support systems.  I created three new works which are compositions and performances in their own right but may also form the starting points for larger works to come.

My aim during the Sura Medura residency was ‘to collect material for and start to write a piece of music which expresses my grief at the loss of my parents (2010 and 2017) and in some way makes a link with universal feelings of loss and absence.’  I was thinking in terms of a kind of requiem or at least a piece of work that might have a similar function to a requiem.  Having returned to the UK with a body of work – miniatures, sketches, performances and images – I am convinced that this material can be the starting point for a work on a larger scale and particuarly that the instrumental ‘songs’ and vocal fragments I composed would lend themselves to choral arrangement.  As well as musical material I have returned with the germ of a performance piece (drawing music in the sand) and some fantastic promotional photographs (thanks to Lorna Rees).

I will be talking about my residency in Sri Lanka and showing work I produced there at a special event in the Bishop’s Barn, Wells on Saturday 24th March, 2018.  Doors open 7.15 pm for a 7.30 start. Tickets £5 on the door.  I will be joined by artist Melanie Thompson who will be talking about performance work she has recently made in Denmark.


I am delighted to have had the opportunity to take part in the Sura Medura residency.  I’d like to thank Bill Gee and Kate Wood of Inside Out Dorset and Activate Performing Arts for nominating me; Neil Butler, of UZ Arts and Sun Beach Hotel, for hosting and mentoring; Chandragupta Thenuwara for his support and for inviting us to take part in the Human Rights Arts Festival in Colombo; Chaminda for delicious (and for me garlic-free) food throughout; Bettina Linstrum for continued coaching and my fellow resident artists: Lorna Rees, Anders Rigg, Flick Ferdinando, Kyna Hodges and Rae-Yen Song for companionship and reciprocal support.  I also enjoyed meeting several Sri Lankan artists and many friendly and generous local people.