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Musical Narratives Derived from and Returned to Landscapes.



Initial Ideas

The overarching intention of this work is to encapsulate elements of place and translate them into sonic and musical forms then ‘given’ back to the originating location. It is built on the coalescence of several separate concepts. Composers of pastural symphonies for example contemplated the aesthetic importance of place. Among them, Vaughn Williams, who also took a literal, ethnographic approach, fastidiously recorded the locations of traditional songs he collected, ‘ensuring they would always be identified with the site of their discovery’ (King, 2019, p. iv). To create the most literal association with place possible, I include graphical scores derived from source locations and, following those scores, constructed sonic works with sounds recorded in or conceptually linked to those locations. These scores were inspired by those in John Cage’s Notations (1969), Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Music (1972) and Treatise (1967), as explored in Unit 15, Section 4.3.

Image 1: Philip Corner's Mississippi River South of Memphis (Cage, 1969, p. 77).

Furthermore, to create a single coherent work, a theme was developed to both include contrasting locations and link the pieces, so that when reproduced in the originating location they created a ‘circular narrative’. Finally, it was further developed to assume a purpose and so it is also a description of a journey from organic origins, through natural and human hybridity to destruction, in a description of and proposed advocacy against climate change.


In this way, the project is divided into three ‘Elements’:


  1. Organic Matter. Natural independence described by only natural (but edited) sounds derived from the image of the landscape itself.

  2. Hybrid Systems. Interaction of man and nature described by environmental sounds and synthesizers.

  3. Invasive Synthetics. The polluted environment of human invasiveness and organic collapse.


These Elements give back to the location a transformed reflection of themselves with intentionally varying degrees of sensitivity to the sonic ecology. I.e.  the less processed sounds of Element 1 cooperate, while the contrasting sounds of Element 3 interrupts. Playing them back in their originating location while recording the result at a distance intertwines the music with its ambient sonic identity just as David Toop describes Louis Sarno doing when recording Ba-Benjelle music in the African rainforest (1995, p.130).


This project was inspired by the conceptual principles of sound and place embodied by ‘soundscapes’. The idea of a circular narrative is reinforced in Grove, ‘While the sounds of an environment give its inhabitants a socially defined, meaningful “sense of place,” the place’s audible features also promote certain kinds of behavior by the inhabitants, whose activities then help shape the place’s sonic identity’ (Hill, 2014). However, the constructed musical response and narrative theme also fulfils a definition of Ecomusicology, ‘Ecomusicological approaches to considering human musical systems, traditions, perceptions, and compositions include studies of influence, mimesis, and/or reference of the natural environment using textual, sound, and/or extra-musical means’ (Allen, 2014)


Expected Outcomes

The result was intended to be three separate videos relating to a location but together presenting a narrative. The music itself was to provide the description of place with the associated videos simply being a means by which to present the observation of music in place. Ideally, the Elements would be experienced in person, human presence being relevant to the narrative and providing a surrounding ambient sound and a deliberate, single-source sonic intrusion. In practice there were broader, unexpected outcomes as described below in ACTUAL OUTCOMES.



During the research of climate data to inform the content of Element 3, I encountered the work of Duncan Geere and Mirian Quick. They are a designer and musician respectively who perform and consult on ‘sonifications’ under the label of Loud Numbers[1]. Put simply, their work transforms data into relatively conventional music. While this was an interesting inspiration, I feel that the translation should be as literal as possible. Without a current ability to produce an algorithm for translation myself, I had to rely on a publicly available system. This came in the form of Two Tone[2] which translated my data set for Element 3 into a predetermined scale and range, played via MIDI from the web browser directly to synthesizers. Sonification returned during research for Element 2 (they were not created in order) with NASA’s own audio products that transform astronomical images into sound for the benefit of the visually impaired,[3] reinforcing the functionality of more literal sonification.







[Timings refer to videos]


Element 1: Organic Matter

High Robins wood, Catmore, Berkshire

ORGANIC MATTER original audio
00:00 / 03:49

Image 2: Photographed location of Element 1

Image 3: Element 1 notation sketch

This graphic score is derived from the view of the landscape with no translation toward typical musical notational conventions and no mechanical intervention less the pencil and paper used to sketch it.


The process of recording, editing, and playing back introduces man-made elements into the narrative but this was unavoidable. That human and machine interaction also interestingly reflected the ubiquitous intrusion of man-made sound into this sonic ecology. The process of actively listening to the environment made me aware of the total lack of uninterrupted natural sound. In every location there was a constant drone of aircraft, distant roads and on one occasion, a very low fly-over of a Chinook helicopter.


Early in this process I had hoped to avoid any composition or recognisable music within this Element to preserve ecological authenticity. Following the environmental sounds captured by video recording Element 1 playback begins with environmental sound recorded a day earlier, primarily birdsong [00:00 to 00:09]. This is accompanied by cracking wood [00:13] and rustling branches [00:50]; all my own intentional sound-generating intrusions into the environment. On reflection, having intervened to create the original sounds rather than collecting incidental sound only, I had already strayed into a simulacrum of performance. I was then digitising those sounds with an audio workstation where I considered the production of music as either already happening or at least inevitable.


Apparent also was the abstraction of sounds that were intended to pursue authenticity. The unedited birdsong at the start of Element 1 playback is, though unedited, processed and affected by complex equipment used in its materialisation. This ‘natural’ sound has been selected and presented as ‘organised noises’, already achieving Edgard Varése’s admittedly low bar for the definition of music (Varése & Wen-chung, 1966, p. 18). Therefore, there is nothing natural presented in these Elements and the ambition of presenting an ‘honest’ sonic ecology is already flawed albeit coherent with the narrative of human interference. Having abandoned unachievable notions of authenticity, an initial bird call is repeated later in the piece where it produces a counterpoint to the rhythm [01:11 – 01:12] and thereafter became a ‘permission’ for more musical editing. Continuing, the sounds fill the frequency spectrum in response to the filled page at the left of the score. The weight of sonic content then follows the treeline and becomes more artificial as it does so until it reaches the larger mass of foliage at the right of the score [03:53].

Element 2: Hybrid Systems
Harwell Science Campus, Oxfordshire

Hybrid Bounce Stereo
00:00 / 03:04

Image 4: Element 2's three-layer notation

The challenge for scoring this location was translating a complex topography into a musically translatable image. To apply sonification to the Harwell building layout would have been excessively complex and with little narrative meaning. Instead, I attempted to represent the history of the location. Harwell Campus was originally the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE), housed in former RAF Harwell. The black and white outer edge of the notation is the underlying ariel map of the base at the end of WWII[1]. Superimposed onto this is the current campus brochure map. Further applied on top of both is a diagram of the result of a particle collision as might be produced by the torus-shaped particle accelerator facility on which that diagram is centred. These images tonally interact and represent the Campus’s past, present, and future respectively.


Included within the music are environmental sounds captured from the location. The sound of the wind through fencing, recorded by a contact microphone provides a metallic rattle [00:16 – 00:21]. But most prominent are the resonant gong-like sounds of a large, spherical, bronze sculpture at the campus headquarters being lightly struck with a felt mallet [00:13]. The particle accelerator itself is also represented by a ball spinning in a metal bowl [01:18].




Image 5: The highly resonant 'Mantle' by David Harber

Within the music the ‘gong’ represents the arrival of atomic science at the location and each layer of history is subsequently described musically. For example. all the melodies are in the key of F major. This is the final chord of Sir Henry Walford Davies’ RAF March Past as an echo of the layout and ground that the campus is built upon. Subsequently, the first minute of music incorporates a Moog Model 15 (an emulation of the 1973 instrument for reasons of astronomical cost), based on technology available at the founding of the AERE. The second minute uses digital synthesizers in a more complex rhythm to describe the modern, extensively developed campus and its technology. The final minute steps into an uncertain future with sounds taken from medical and NASA equipment or ‘Quindar Tones’. (The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine was developed here, and the European Space Agency has a large building at the entrance). The final glitter-like sound is the NASA sonification of the Bullet System of stars processed through a granular synthesiser. This represents the campus’s extensive involvement in space exploration and exploitation as a representation of the furthest future. The video displays a coincidental flyover of the International Space Station[1] a few moments before recording the location sound.


[1] Checked with

Element 3: Invasive Synthetics
A barn destroyed by fire, East Hendred, Oxfordshire.

00:00 / 09:59

The final part of the narrative describes human damage to location both sonically and environmentally. No sound was taken from the location to compose the piece. Instead, data regarding this and the immediate climate (Southcentral England) was taken from the Met Office website[1]. The month-by-month data within the score was reduced to the mean annual temperature since records began in 1884. A chart depicting that temperature change is superimposed on top and clearly traces a record of climate change.


This was then ‘sonified’ into a simple musical representation with each datum conformed to A minor (a more literal chromatic setting was not available) and played alongside an artificial voice reading that data, generated for the purposes of this project. An arpeggio was added to one of the three musical layers to provide a sense of rhythm and a degree of musicality that I felt did not disrupt the basic representation of data.


The sonified and spoken data were then simply placed alongside each other within the DAW. However, to emphasise the escalation of the temperature data, the voice and music deteriorates and is ‘glitched’ with a cutting tool as it progresses to 2022, the hottest year on record. Particularly high temperature anomalies along the chart that far exceed averages are also glitched [00:46] to highlight the increasing frequency at which those anomalies happen. The Element ends with alarm sounds, with one library sound taken from an oil facility alarm as seemed appropriate to the narrative. The reproduction of an increasingly atonal piece was an intentional intrusion into the surrounding sonic ecology to mirror mankind’s intrusion into the environment.




While the process of this project was intended and remained relatively linear, the actual process of creating this music for these locations facilitated multiple unexpected experiences and observations.


As discussed with Element 1, the most noticeable realisation was during the process of focused, active listening. When expecting to hear woodland sound alone, setting about recording these sounds revealed layers of other sound in a repeat of the active listening of Unit 18, Section 3.2, listening to noise. The constant and ubiquitous sound of small aircraft became a considerable frustration. I could hear so much of it in my recordings that I removed it using a high pass filter to put a ‘cleaned’ version of the sonic ecology back into the sounding environment of Element 1; a further departure from authenticity but an interesting principle.


Travelling in the area while searching for places to record revealed an incredible absence of rural public access. The vast amount of denied and unenjoyed woodland is remarkable and the project nearly became a commentary on access rights as the restriction became as frustrating as intrusive sound and the act of pursuing this music became increasingly experiential. The act of travelling in the local area also created opportunities that existed only because of this act of making music. A very close and sustained stand-off with a doe in woodland and the capturing of the ISS passing overhead at the same moment I was recording a piece associated with space exploitation next to the ESA buildings were both genuinely moving experiences. (The doe’s bark-like call can be heard at 00:03 of Element 1 before the playback begins). While not directly created by the music these events existed only because of it, a consideration that speaks of far more to the experience of music making than producing sound alone.




Each Element improved as I worked through them, sometimes forcing me to return to previous material and make changes. That process of learning and improving reoccurred until the end of the project, suggesting that these Elements are in a sense, proof of concept of a project that could be refined and developed with wider implications. For example, a live performance of Element 2 would have been an excellent way to underline the narrative of human interaction and allow the environment to affect the music in real time. Automatic live instruments could also be created, such as live contact mics connected to the speaker. These could be attached to the steel structure in Element 3 and possibly produce a self-distorting and decaying feedback loop, again supporting the narrative and having the environment directly influence the playback in real-time with atmospheric conditions affecting that sound directly. Other uses for this could be developed. In the way NASA sonified their astronomical images, so could landscape be translated for the visually impaired more accurately than has been possible in these three Elements.


Overall, I believe that the original intention of the work has been met. However, there are many developments, augmentations, and improvements that could be made to this project to inform a process with greater authenticity and function. Nonetheless, landscape and sonic ecologies have proved to be fruitful, inspirational, educational and not least, enjoyable subjects for conceptual and musical development.



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