The first section of my new piece for String Octet depicts the arrival of the White Storks on their journey from Africa to West Sussex.
This is the first time I’ve written a piece that you might call programmatic – telling a story, having a narrative. It’s a simple narrative describing the stork’s migratory journey, but also at the same time I am attempting to depict in music their soaring flight, their inelegant flapping and tramping around the nest and the unforgetable way they clatter their bills.
I’ve always been interested in musical performance as choreography, playing with the moment that gesture becomes sound. And string players would seem to be ideally suited to depicting flight as they make their notes with sweeps of their arms and bows. I hope I can combine the look and the sound in the way I am imagining.
In this first section, the arrival of the white storks, I have used long melodies with large intervals to reflect the wide wing span of the birds as they ride the thermals and spiral in the air. The tempo quickens as they flap their wings and then they glide again. In the end though, music is an abstract art and although it’s useful to make pictorial analogies for inspiration and for writing, I hope that what is conveyed is the spirit of flight and flap without seeming too literal.
Earlier this year I was invited to write a new piece about the white storks at the Knepp Estate in Sussex. White storks have been absent from the English landscape for several hundred years but are being encouraged back by rewilding projects around the country, including at Knepp. You can find out more about the White Stork Project here and if you are interested in going on a virtual stork walk follow this link.
The commission has come from Andrew Bernardi and the Shipley Arts Featival. Knepp is in the village of Shipley and the festival and the estate are frequent partners, including an annual concert at Knepp Castle now titled ‘The Wilding Concert’. The new piece, for String Octet was to have been performed as part of the Wilding Concert on Sunday 21st June 2020. Due to covid19 the concert has been postponed but the festival, the string octet and I are busy collaborating and working towards a virtual premiere of the new work.
Over the coming weeks I will be documenting the progress of the piece in this blog. Because of the remote nature of the collaboration bits of score and recording will be flying back and forth between Frome and Sussex. I will be employing the kind of techniques I use for creating sound installations, recording fragments and experimenting with different combinations. It’s exciting to be working with such great musicians and to get the chance to hone the material with their help into what I hope will be a landmark piece.
You can also follow the progress of the white storks and their fledgelings on the knepp instagram account @kneppsafaris
I’ve been invited to be the curator for a new season of sound art and site specific music, hosted by Black Swan Arts in Frome. We will celebrate listening and hearing in all kinds of ways and situations and have a brilliant collection of artists lined up. There will be exhibitions, installations, concerts, sound walks, workshops, talks………
Nearly finished fundraising…. but we still need to raise £4000, so the last push to meet our target is through a Crowdfunder campaign. Visit www.crowdfunder.co.uk/listen to find out more and pledge your support. The campaign runs until 11 pm on Wednsday 22nd May. Please help if you can. Thank you.
And if you’ve already heard about this through other means, please forgive the repetition.
Over the last few months I’ve been working on a new sound piece for an exhibition called FIFTY BEES III. (9 March – 6 May, Brewhouse, Taunton. Times vary Open Monday-Saturday 9:30am-4:30pm)
A bit of background………….
Lydia Needle sculpts British Bees in wool and stitch. She invites other artists to create responses to the ecology and hidden worlds of each individual bee.
For each of the FIFTY BEES exhibitions, fifty artists, makers, writers and musicians produce one new work in response to one of the bees, in order to give a fuller illustration of the diversity of our bee population, how endangered it is and how our pollinators are completely interlinked with our ecosystem.
There are 270 different bees in Britain. With this the third exhibition 150 of these will have been studied and celebrated.
The bee that loves blackberries
Composed by Helen Ottaway Voice Caroline Radcliffe
Visual artist, and my frequent collaborator, Rowena Pearce introduced me to Lydia Needle and her bee project. I visited the FIFTY BEES II exhibition in Langport in 2018, including a piece by Rowena and found it captivating and full of beautiful work. As far as could tell there had not so far been a response in sound and so I proposed that I might compose a soundscape for the next exhibition. The bee chosen for me is Andrena flavipes, the yellow-legged mining bee. This is a solitary bee, quite common in southern England, with, as the name suggest, bright yellow legs.
I particularly love the fact that Lydia made this bee while by the sea in Cornwall. Water is often a strong influence in my work and in this case it’s already woven into the making of Bee 108. I used the sound of bees as the starting point for my piece. Bees buzz by moving their flight muscles and wings as they fly. Mining bees also buzz while pollinating, vibrating the flowers to release the pollen. The pitch of the buzz varies according to the bee’s size. Buzz-pollinating has its own distinctive sound. When I was given my brief, at the end of August last year, the bees were still flying so I was able to do some field recording to capture the buzzing that forms the basis of my piece.
So with the buzzing in my ears I sat at the piano, pencil in hand and notated to the best of my ability the pitches and patterns made by the bees. The resulting melodies and patterns for voice all have their origins in the field bee recordings. Along with notating the musical sounds made by the bees I have included some of the names of the flowers frequented by my bee. Like me, this bee likes to forrage on brambles, hence the title.
The vocal parts are performed by singer and choir leader Caroline Radcliffe and recorded in her home studio in Frome. The voice starts by copying the bee sounds and then gradually turns the buzzing into interweaving melodic lines.
The piece needed to be played through something and housed in something and so Steve and I set about designing a bespoke box. He found materials – foraged from our cellar and railway sites – and put together a plain and practical wooden box. There’s just room for the playback devise, mini headphone amp and plugs inside and there are holes for the power cable and heaphone leads. The headphones hang on a piece of broom handle slotted across the width of the box. It’s all very self contained and simply needs to be plugged in to play.
The exhibition is at The Brewhouse, Coal Orchard, Taunton, Somerset from Saturday 9th March until Monday 6th May. There are special FIFTY BEES events during the run including workshops, family days and ‘meet the artists’ sessions. See the Brewhouse website for more details. All are welcome to the launch on Saturday 9th March 5 – 7 pm.
To listen, purchase and download The bee that loves blackberries visit my bandcamp page here. More information on Lydia Needle and the FIFTY BEES project can be found here.
With many thanks to Bridget and Rob for the use of their garden for field recording; Satsymph for technical advice; Alastair Goolden for technical advice and electronics; Caroline Radcliffe for her beautiful voice and Steve Ehrlicher for making the box and general support.
UZ Arts are hosting two exhibitons of work by artists who took part in the Sura Medura International Artists Residencies in Sri Lanka in Autumn 2017 and Spring 2018. The Edinburgh exhibition includes the sound installation I made at Sun Beach Hotel in Hikkaduwa and I will be demonstrating my musical box at the private views in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Details below:
Tanuja Amarasuriya and Tim X Atack (Sleep Dogs), Emma Brierley, Flick Ferdinado, Brian Hartley, Kyna Hodges, Rob Mulholland, Helen Ottaway, Lorna Rees, Anders Rigg, Rae- Yen Song, Suba Subramaniam, Claire Raftery, Damian Wright (Periplum).
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.
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 – 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.
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.
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.
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.
I am seeing lines everywhere: the lines of the horizon, the beach, the strip of hotels and cafes, the road, the railway. The way I conceive and write music is also very linear – one melody over another, the harmony almost accidental. My chosen instrument for some of my work for this residency is a hand wound musical box, for which I’m punching paper music rolls. The look of the holes on the paper is very visual and also very linear.
I’ve started punching rolls for the music box – the first being a combination of a continuous series of waves and a well known sea song. I’ve just finished a second – an arrangement of the calling of the fishermen as they haul in their nets. It’s hard to hear the music machine over the roar of the sea, so I have commissioned a soundboard and box for it. The box is lovely – made and carved by a local craftsperson. It is 30 inches long so that the music rolls can stay in the box once they’ve passed through the machine.
One of the challenges of working here is how to write music without a piano. To help me out, fellow artist Lorna Rees has made me a piano out of a piece of driftwood. I have nick-named the resulting series of photos ‘all at sea’ which is what I thought I would feel like without a piano. Actually being forced to write differently is proving stimulating.
I have decided to try writing music in the sand. To this end I have doctored a rake so that I can draw the five lines of the music stave in one sweep. I will make several pieces of sand music during the remainder of the residency, documenting the process with photograph and video. The first experiment this afternoon showed that the waves rub out what I’ve written very quickly indeed, so the activity of writing this music will quickly become a piece of endurance performance art. On a serious note this will be a reflection on how hard it is to stand against the power of the sea. Some of my fellow artists have agreed to attempt to sing what I write before it is erased by the next big wave.
Small collaborations are flourishing and Lorna and I went off to the jungle last week to do some recording. It’s quieter there and very nice to escape the sound of the waves for a while. Lorna’s lovely voice will appear in the soundscape I’m making.
There will be two showings of the work we are all making on the residency, first in Hikkaduwa where we are based and then as part of an exhibition in the capital, Colombo on 10th December. My contribution will be the soundscape, played in the corridoor of the hotel in Hikkaduwa and a staircase in the gallery in Colombo as well as a demonstration of the musical box playing the new hand punched rolls.
As well as this blog, I am also (internet permitting) posting images on instagram @hkottaway and tweeting at @artmusicuk.
A week ago I was waking up in Frome and getting ready to make the journey to Sri Lanka. Now, only one week later, that feels like a world away. Although I felt a bit lost and jet lagged in the first few days, I think I’m beginning to find a kind of balance and a new way of working in a new place.
My aim during this residency is 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. At the moment I’m thinking of it as a kind of requiem. My hope is that, like my work with Alastair Goolden for In the Field (Artmusic, Wadhurst 2014-15), it will result in both a choral work and a sound installation.
The first few days in Hikkaduwa were spent aclimatising and making preliminary visits to places and institutions that we might want to explore further or work with during our stay. We visited the Tsunami Museum in Peraliya, a village just to the north of Hikkaduwa. The museum is in a private house with several rooms full of photos documenting the chain of events of 26th December 2004 starting with the earthquake under the Indian Ocean near the West coast of Sumatra. The numbers of people who lost their lives here is shocking. The catastrophic train accident where more than 1500 passengers lost their lives (considered the most ttragic train accident in world history) also happened very near the Tsunami Museum.
There are two physical memorials to the Tsunami near the museum. At the site af a mass grave is a carved relief showing the devastation, including images of the train crash and along the road is a massive standing Buddha donated by the people of Japan. The Buddha is 18 metres high – the height of the tsunami wave that hit this part of the coast.
Since that first day in Hikkaduwa several people I have met in shops have offered their tsunami stories, so although it was 13 years ago and lives and businesses have been rebuilt the memory is not far from the surface. I want to interview local people about how they and their families were affected but it’s hard to know what kind of questions are acceptable to ask.
Also on that first tour around the area our tuk-tuk driver pointed out white flags and banners above the street and outside a house. These mark the route to the house of someone who has recently died and will also mark the route of the funeral procession. The banners over the road bear the words ‘All conditioned things have the nature of decay’ White is worn for funerals : white sarongs and shirts for men and white sarees for women. White features in other funeral rituals too – a white cloth is presented to the monks who officiate; presents of milk powder and sugar are offered; a white parasol is carried over the coffin during the procession and grains of puffed rice are thrown.
Impermanent are conditioned things; it is their nature to arise and fall; having arisen they cease; their complete stilling is happiness.
The following day we were at the corner of the same street when the funeral procession came past. Drums and horanawa (sri lankan oboe) accommpanied the procession and the mourners formed a wailing chain holding on to the white funeral car and each other.
The task of composing without a piano was always going to be the biggest challenge of my residency. I have brought a selection of things with me to allow alternative ways of assembling, devising and playing back sound – my Zoom H4n hendheld recorder, a stereo pair of hydrophones and some miniature loudspeakers. I’ve also brought a make-your-own musical box roll device. I ordered this online about ten years ago and haven’t so far found the opportunity to use it. I think it is going to be just the thing for composing miniature wave pieces. Since arriving in Hikkaduwa I’ve also aquired a traditional wooden flute and a bell from Lal at the Elephant Foot drum shop.
Yesterday I recorded the sound of the waves crashing on the beach a few yards from the hotel and today I took my hydrophones for their first outing and recorded the sounds under the waves. Thanks to Lorna Rees and Kyna Hodges for their photographs.
On 29th October 2017 I will be flying out to Sri Lanka as one of a group of artists taking part in the Sura Medura artists residency in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. I’m excited and nervous, wondering what it will be like, hoping I get lots of inspiration and can make good use of the amazing opportunity.