Being Part of the Orchestra
In September 2019, I was invited by the artist Simon Voigt to be one of the co-facilitators on his series of Lydvandringer or ‘Sound Wanderings’ on the island of Fanø in southwestern Denmark, where he currently resides. These walks came about as a result of Simon’s interest in the field of acoustic ecology, a movement that has recently been publicized through the work of acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton. It is an environmental concern, because in his own words, Hempton ‘cares very deeply about quiet’. Incentivised by the worrying decrease of places in the world free from human-made sounds, his aim is to preserve the remaining ‘sound reserves’ by acknowledging their value and in doing so, fostering respect towards our natural acoustic environments. The Lydvandring aims to do just that, it is an open call to the public to enjoy nature from an acoustic perspective.
As a musician, a large part of my practice is within the field of free improvisation. A key feature of this art form is ‘acceptance’. To varying degrees of abstraction, whatever sounds are created within the context of free improvisation are accepted, no matter what form they take. In our everyday lives, we habitually do the opposite, subconsciously filtering out many sounds in our environment, in order to focus on what we deem to be important or relevant. By doing this, we create a sound hierarchy and often start forgetting that there are many non-human sounds that make up a large part of our sound landscape. Bearing this in mind, it can be a very interesting and rewarding exercise to practice free improvisation in the outdoors, because we suddenly find ourselves reintroducing these filtered sounds back into the realm of acceptance once again.
In 2018, I undertook a month-long residency at a community arts centre in Cuba. In collaboration with two musicians, a dancer and visual artist, we undertook a daily practice in a park in the suburban neighbourhood of San Augustin, 16 kilometres outside Havana. We began each meeting with a collective listening session, where we noted the surrounding sounds such as dogs barking, birds singing and the sound of the wind rustling through the abundant poinciana trees. We followed this with structured improvisation exercises, where we interacted with one another, while maintaining awareness of the previously acknowledged environmental sounds that formed the acoustic landscape. Our listening and improvisation exercises were influenced in part by the work of the late musician and composer Pauline Oliveros, whose concept of ‘deep listening’ is a huge inspiration to musicians in the field of improvised music. Oliveros describes deep listening as ‘a practice that is intended to heighten and expand consciousness of sound in as many dimensions of awareness and attentional dynamics as humanly possible’. She maintained that if one is too narrow in their awareness of sounds, they are likely to be disconnected from their environment.
With regards to musicianship, I consider it important to integrate this type of focused and attentive listening into my ear-training practice along with more conventionally accepted methods, in order to be fully receptive and responsive to the various musical settings I find myself in. With this in mind, I consider both acoustic ecology and deep listening to be naturally symbiotic and of equal significance to me as a musician. I was subsequently delighted to be asked to facilitate these walks with Simon and saw it as an opportunity to share my insights from a musical perspective, and a way to reflect on how others might respond to these practices.
Apart from the beautiful nature that exists there, one of the many interesting features on Fanø is the presence of man-made underground bunkers, surviving from the German occupation during World War 2. Simon and I decided from the beginning that we would like to integrate a visit to a bunker into the walk, although to what capacity we were as yet unsure. It was therefore important that we carried out a ’test walk’, (or what I will hereby refer to as the ’preamble’) in advance of our public walk, Consequently, I visited Simon on the island in the preceding week in order to map out the course we would take, noting any considerations or points of interest we should include. Simon suggested that the initial meeting point be at the school that lies at the boundary of the town of Nordby and the wilder surroundings that encompass the ground under which the series of bunkers lie. He chose for us to visit one of the larger bunkers, partly because of its accessibility, and also because of its various chambers within that would give more chance of a larger acoustic and reverb. Luckily the distance between the school and the bunker allowed us to incorporate a large variety of acoustic terrains en route, and these we explored during the course of the preamble, taking notes that would later inform the structure of the trip.
On the day of the official walk, we met with those who had responded to the open invitation outside the school in the afternoon. We were six in all including Simon and myself, a priest from the local church, a musician who had recently moved to the area, and a schoolteacher and her dog. Simon first welcomed everybody, outlining that the focus during the walk would be on listening to the natural sound environment. Afterwards, I introduced myself to the group, explaining that I would be sharing my thoughts on listening from a musician’s perspective.
Our first stop was about a ten-minute walk away, and so we set out against the wind, crossing the school’s football field towards the highest point on the island, Kikkebjerg, which, as Simon explained, was used as a viewing point to observe returning ships in days of old. I have to admit that I was somewhat conflicted in the initial five minutes of the walk, torn between the urge to already transition into the silent state of awareness that I felt our Lydvandring called for, and the need to participate in the general chit-chat that began between the members of our party. In hindsight, I think these pleasantries were necessary in the initial part of our walk, in order to break the ice in preparation for what was to follow.
On reaching the modest summit of Kikkebjerg, we stood around the circumference of a plinth upon which a stone compass showed north, south, east and west. Here Simon introduced the first listening exercise, inviting the participants to close their eyes and slowly immerse themselves in the sounds that surrounded us, noting the direction from which they came and their proximity. The start and end of the three-minute listening was indicated by the sounding of a bell.
Afterwards I presented the idea of sound mapping to the group, aided by an example of an orchestral score. I explained how musicians and composers are quite used to categorizing sounds according to their various characteristics, such as pitch, velocity and length. The score demonstrated how instruments were grouped according to their timbre, as well as how patterns of rhythm take on a visual element, based on the various densities of note lengths inhabiting the page. I invited the participants to attempt a similar organization of the sounds they heard in a follow-up listening, taking into account their volume, their pitch from high to low, and their frequency, either constant, or sporadic, isolated or in rhythmic succession, mentally mapping and grouping them in the same way the composer does on the score.
The second stop in our walk took us down the hill into the birch forest that lies below. In our preamble, Simon and I had noted the huge contrast in acoustic between the exposed hilltop of Kikkebjerg and the dampened ‘room’ sound that the shelter of the trees produced. This was even more apparent today, as strong gusts of wind had dominated the soundscape on the hill above. We started our listening here with a physical exercise led by Simon, bringing awareness to the body and the breath. After another listening, I talked about the importance of the acoustic quality in a musical playing space and how we go to huge lengths to dampen natural acoustics of a room when recording music for example. This serves to enhance the sounds we make on our instrument, allowing us to experience them in their purist and least compromised form. Dynamics can be more sensitive and subtle as we become aware that all the nuances of the sound are captured. I noted that in this forest environment there is the same feeling of intimacy, even causing us to change the way we use our voices. We repeated the listening with all of this in mind, noting how the natural environment of deciduous trees amplified the soothing yet relentless sounds of our inhalations and exhalations, and observing which sounds were now coming from outside of our enclosed, yet still al fresco space.
From here we made our way through some scrub into a clearing of pine trees, each one some metres tall and spaced at a distance of three or four metres apart. After our now established routine of an introductory listening, Simon told the story of the goddess Echo from Greek mythology who was cursed by Hera to forever use her voice only to repeat what she heard, which led eventually to the unrequited love of Narcissus. We noted the reflection of sound in this new landscape and I introduced a listening game. It began w
ith everybody finding their own space amongst the trees, creating a distance between us that contrasted with our tightly spaced cluster amongst the birches. I then invited everyone to interrupt the acoustic landscape when ‘triggered’ by a sound that they observed around them, either by a natural phenomenon, or upon hearing their neighbour. This was effective in that it allowed us to gently break the ‘silence’, but only through mindful observance of the sounds around us. It also served as a great ice breaker, as the claps, stomps and shouts from everyone elicited calls and responses, and eventually laughter and discussion amongst the group.
We were now about 40 minutes in, and ready to embark on the final chapter of our walk towards our penultimate stop, just outside the bunker. Gathered outside the entrance, Simon first introduced some housekeeping rules to ensure everyone’s safety and feeling of well-being upon entering the darkness underground. Here one could sense the tentative atmosphere within the group, as none of the participants had ventured inside one of these bunkers before, and were a little unsure of what to expect. During our preamble, Simon and I noticed what a stark contrast the bunker sound environment was in comparison to the one over ground. All natural sounds completely disappeared and our footsteps and breath became almost overwhelmingly loud. In order to engage with this, I invited the participants to try out a vocal improvisation piece I call Lyttestykke or ‘Listening Piece’. This time I explained the composition to the group with the aid of a graphic score, indicating improvised sounds being introduced one by one at a soft dynamic, gradually layering on top of one another to create a dense wall of sound that increases in volume, before gradually diminishing back to silence.
Though slightly unnerving, the darkness of the bunker helped curb inhibition, and when we finally took our places in one of the many pitch black chambers of the bunker, everyone committed themselves fully to the improvisation. Each sound, from the scraping of feet on the ground, to various shrieks and vocalisations, as well as the more conventional use of the voice to create chords and melodic phrases, was incorporated into a five-minute rendition of Lyttestykke. You could sense the curiosity within the group as each person began, with a growing sense of confidence, to experiment with the various sounds that the remarkable acoustic inspired, so much so, that it had all the spirit and execution of a public performance, had we a listening audience (apart from our canine companion!).
After about fifteen subterraneous minutes, we emerged in the daylight, squinting at the muted light of a Nordic afternoon and feeling somewhat reborn, as all of the sounds of the island came back to us once more, this time taking on a new significance. We were grateful for their reassuring comfort after the eerie setting of the bunker, where a somewhat artificial ‘silence’ is amplified to the point of distortion. Gathering around a picnic table at a nearby camping shelter, we shared some snacks and drank from warm flasks of coffee with a tangible feeling of togetherness. The participants enthused about their experience in the bunker, admitting that they wouldn’t have dared venturing into alone. Despite the cold, everyone was warmly positive about their experiences during our Lydvandring. Those new to the island were even more enchanted by its variety of birdsong, and the schoolteacher said that her future dog walks would take on a new perspective. The priest reflected on the nature of deep listening as a way to connect with the divine, and the musician said that it was a thought-provoking approach to sound awareness that she had not considered before. Everyone agreed that it was the shared experience that made the day special and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to take part, as they were more likely to engage in this kind of listening walk in a group setting.
Moving forward, I would hope that those who did take part will spread the word, or even incorporate some of the principles of deep listening and acoustic ecology into their work with others. Thank you, Simon, for involving me in something truly unique and special. I look forward to the next one.
Carolyn Goodwin is an Irish woodwind player, composer and improviser, based in Copenhagen.