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.


Linear thinking

SAM_1097  SAM_1177

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.

pulling in the nets

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.

‘All at Sea’, photo Lorna Rees


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.




Sura Medura – the first week

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.

photo Lorna Rees
photo Lorna Rees







Getting ready for take off

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.