Regarding Soil (by Ross Whyte)

It’s been over a week since Imogene and I performed Earth Sounds at RGU.  Last night I watched the short promo video that was filmed by Corina Andrian, Adam Johnston and David Newland and was, in the best possible way, gobsmacked.  For the first time I had been able to see the performance from the audience’s perspective – something that had been impossible from my desk in the corner.

Thinking back to the performance, I recall a level of intensity that had not been present during our residency.  There was, I believe, a kind of release for both of us.  After days of rehearsing in a public space – a university building, no less – where we encountered (entirely reasonable) scrutiny and (entirely unreasonable) testosterone-fuelled remarks, the result from both of us was a passionate one.

One thing in particular that has stayed with me was the process of burying Imogene before each run-through and, of course, the performance.  While Imogene appeared to be relatively at ease with this, I on the other hand was disturbed by this necessary preparation.  The burial itself was not part of the performance – the audience were brought into the space afterwards – but, the act became something like a ritual, and for those who were present, I imagine, a wholly different dimension of the performance.

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Image by Sid Scott @ See Imagine Define 2016 (www.facebook.com/seeimaginedefine)

Before we had installed a breathing tube for Imogene, I would race to the desk after burying her and start producing sounds as quickly as possible so that she could emerge from the soil.  [That’s possibly the strangest sentence I’ve ever written!]  When I eventually felt reassured that we could both take longer over this introduction, I think we ended up with something pretty special – something perhaps closer to butoh.

Watching the video, I was particularly pleased to see those butoh elements vividly enhanced – especially, the sharp, jerking emergence of Imogene’s shoulder blades and mantis-like position of her arms.  In rehearsals, that moment had reminded me of the horrific resurrection of Frank in Hellraiser – which Imogene has yet to watch!  See below (not for the squeamish!)

From a sound and technology point of view, the residency was a great learning curve for me.  I quickly learned that geophones – or at least the ones we had – are incredibly temperamental.  The results were different each day we rehearsed.  Additionally, the building’s often deafening acoustics – it lies on the flight path of Aberdeen airport – meant that it was sometimes difficult to discern what was being picked up by the various devices and what was a passing plane, rain on the glass roof or the noisy air conditioning system.  Yet, there’s a lot to be said for that kind of acoustic ambiguity, and I enjoyed exploring that side of things.

We fully intend to develop Earth Sounds further and perform it again.  We’ve gathered a considerable amount of material – both in terms of movement and sound.  What might a different space contribute to this growing project?  It’s an exciting thought.

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Regarding Soil (by Ross Whyte)

As the dust settles…

One week on from our Earth Sounds performance, the remnants of earth are almost gone from my fingernails and my nostrils for the most part have stopped bleeding. Yet it is the way that performance leaves an invisible embodied trace – not only in the body of the performer but also in the body of the observer – that Earth Sounds will leave its legacy. I remember reading in Dee Reynold’s and Matthews Reasons’s seminal work Kinaesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices that as spectators there is a shared sense of ‘going through something together’; an experience that may create very real physical, mental and emotional changes in the body of the observer. It is this kind of substitution between performer and audience, and the sense of immersion and envelopment that results, which can lead to feelings of catharsis. This interplay of self and other is a ‘strange system of exchanges’ in which ‘between my body looked at and my body looking, my body touched and my body touching, there is an overlapping or encroachment, so we must say that things pass into us as well as we into the things’ (Merleau-Ponty 1968: 123).

It is this sense that Earth Sounds constructed its own narrative, becoming more than the sum of its parts. One of the mysterious things about the artistic process is that we often don’t unearth what the crux of our research is until we start acting it out in all its raw and abiding energy. As part of this process, we are expected to be able to articulate what we are doing, and while it might be easy to pinpoint what the origins or influences of our work are, it is much harder to say why it is that we are doing it. Art making is invariably an intuitive, subconscious process, one that we cannot necessarily immediately grasp or put into words (for a more lengthy discussion see Navigating the Unknown by Christopher Bannerman et al.). During our rehearsal process at The Sir Ian Wood Building leading up to our performance, this was invariably the question that we were asked time and time again: why? And it has taken me until now to really get to the bottom of that question.

As our creative process unfolded under the passing gaze of students and staff entering and exiting lecture halls, several recurrent themes from previous projects began to re-emerge. The first of these was driven by the context and initial reactions we had to our work: the engineering department in which we found ourselves is male dominated, the underlying pretext of which seems to be that engineering is not women’s work and that women shouldn’t get their hands dirty or undertake heavy manual labour. Even before entering the soil I was surprised to learn that it had been assumed that a man would be dancing in the soil and not a woman. This seems to be typical of an underlying endemic assumption permeating public consciousness borne out of an expectation for little girls to play with dolls while boys can get their hands grubby and play in the garden. Certainly, the aesthetic of Earth Sounds is the antithesis of this, and perhaps that is why the images created from our performance are uncomfortable to look at because they do not adhere to the visions of cleanliness and fragility that we have become so accustomed to expecting the white female dancer to conform to.

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Photograph from the opening sequence of Earth Sounds, taken by Sid Scott @ See Imagine Define 2016 (www.facebook.com/seeimaginedefine), 5 February 2016, The Sir Wood Building, Robert Gordon University. Pictured: Imogene Newland

The relationship between femininity and cleanliness has been a theme emerging within my practice in two previous projects: Blood Piano and The Point is This. Reflecting on the idea of abjection as theorised by the French feminist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, I had been considering the relationship between self and other and the ways in which this division is challenged when confronted with certain discretionary substances such as blood and dirt. Earth Sounds has emerged as an extension of this research into challenging this relationship of self and other through a confrontation with the earth, not as an imposition onto the body, but as a product from which the body is born and to which it returns. This was a subject that was reflected in our audience feedback where people described the trauma and shame associated with child birth. Further associations referred to traditional mythologies such as the tale of John Barleycorn, while sandbags placed around the soil gave the appearance of a war bunker, bringing to mind the poetry of Wilfred Owen and the poignant images of war conjured up in Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields.

Earth Sounds received an exceptional response from onlookers, both in rehearsal and performance. We were lucky enough to have two film students from Gray’s School of Art, Corina Andrian and Adam Johnston, taking video footage throughout the project. On the third day of our residency, first year drawing students arrived from Gray’s to draw the space in which we were working, and, being confronted with the Earth Sounds project, hastened to sketch the choreography as it unfolded, which in one instance may be used as the basis for a larger scale painting. During the performance itself, poet Angela Margaret Main produced a stunning and beautifully moving interpretation of Earth Sounds, which you can read below. From our audience evaluation sheets, we received numerous and eloquent accounts of our work:

Powerful, compelling & challenging movement delivered with complete commitment.’  – Hugh Wallace

@imogene_newlandBeautifully moving, thought provoking performance – very memorable’ – Tanya Dixon (stay-at-home Mum)

Courage, resonance without literality and risk-taking‘ – John Mackie (poet)

Excellent – pure and from your heart. Show again in other areas and cities; this piece needs to be shared‘ – Fran Scott (retired teacher)

Returning to our question why?, it became apparent that the resulting performance of Earth Sounds not only revealed itself as a choreosonic realisation of shifting landforms, feminist body action and Butohesque ambiguity, but also as a rebirth and subsequent confrontation with death. And it was not until I really began to dance Earth Sounds that I connected to the deep subconscious and hidden reason as to why. This idea has to do with a personal journey from illness and disability back to good health. Following a significant neurological complication in 2009, I have spent the last seven years in rehabilitation. I have had to relearn certain basic functions: how to walk properly, how to move my eyes in certain ways, how to retrain my balance and how to strengthen left-sided weakness and lack of coordination. Earth Sounds seemed to somehow have become an enactment of this process, including the very dark days in which we all feared I would never recover, or at the very worst, die. Death is a taboo subject in western culture and yet it is something that will happen to every single one of us. The ending sequence of Earth Sounds became a reliving of that death-defying moment in which we will all experience some degree of fear at the thought of self-loss only to yield to acceptance as life itself is extinguished.

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Photograph from the ending sequence of Earth Sounds, taken by Sid Scott @ See Imagine Define 2016 (www.facebook.com/seeimaginedefine), 5 February 2016, The Sir Wood Building, Robert Gordon University. Pictured: Imogene Newland

Earth Sounds, by Angela Margaret Main

I gasp for you.

You struggle,
I forget to breathe.

For you know me, I am here,
Your friend your subject your world.
A candid light from above shoots you down.
You rise on.
Incarcerated by your own physical boundaries,

Still attempting to transcend and flex.

Balancing in the pit.
Unable to fly but certain to roll, you discover a wrought-ness,

Rub it out of your eyes for your mother is watching.
Foreign body.

Your still, cast shadow upon yourself,
Considered and limited as life.
Determined.
Your eyes inhabiting me.
The night becomes unimportant and the rain has dried up.
Surrender, cradle.
For then your hands will no longer be idle,
Writhing beings of existence.
Pierce again with that one coincidence,

Then I can be innocent,
Lord knows it has been a long time coming.

Moving the most reveals the reward.
But it is not what you seek, rather roots.
Sharp, strong, pixelated roots,
Deep, thrusting, forgiving roots.
Roots with intention of glowing red,

Scalding your feet and entering your skelth.

Not tempting a deviation from journey,
The one that you verge on, perch on, submit on.

The fight is over.
The earth plentiful and consoling.

When the air is thin,
You weep again, you sigh again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the dust settles…

Choreographic Processes

Choreography is a journey – whether through the observation of somebody else’s movements or an exploration of our own bodies. Not only this, but choreography is a also distinctive way to articulate space, a mode that redevelops and redefines our relationship with the world. This is an exploration that is both internal (a journey inwards, or folding in on oneself) and an expansion outwards (reaching out into improbable places) that, rather than creating contradictions in our movements, envelops us within a kind of symbiotic immersion. Our focus on movement is always in relation to another, whether this ‘other’ is an imagined yet absent audience or the very real and palpable presence of a crowd of onlookers. We sense this invisible / silenced / immobile / watching presence as a ‘feeder’ for creative energy; a kind of ‘edge’ that is difficult to recreate without somehow augmenting our own experience as enacted. This ‘feeder’ characterises performance as something that is ‘more than […]’, a Gestalt (or whole that is more than the sum of its parts) that carries both performer and audience into an embodied and kinaesthetic (read, physiological) dialogue of flowing gestures, disrupted glances and muted stillness.

During my own choreographic journey into landscapes and geological shifting for our Earth Sounds performance, I became rather preoccupied with the idea of contrasting tempos. Tempo has been a major theme emerging within my practice in the last year, with an emphasis on slowness and repetition (of which we will see more of later in 2016). I came to slowness rather early on in my choreographic research during an intensive two-week voice and movement workshop at Dartington College of Arts in 2002. The workshop introduced the teachings of Tadashi Suzuki, a method for actors that trains participants to use physical movements to achieve effective vocal projection. The disciplinarian style of Suzuki’s teachings involves the banging of a stick upon the floor and shouting of numbers by an instructor, who guides the participant through a series of movements, including some specifically designed to throw the body off balance. Core strength is integral to developing the first stage of Suzuki training, where the simple actions of standing, sitting and lying are executed in graded tempos ranging from a duration of 1-30 seconds.

The extreme hyper-controlled movements required to perform actions in slow motion is an aesthetic most widely associated with the practice of Japanese Butoh – a postwar dance form emerging from a dialogue between the two legendary practitioners Hijikata Tatsumi and Kazuo Ohno. Butoh, otherwise known as the ‘dance of darkness’ was a reaction against the dance forms proliferating Japan during the late 1950s; a combination of Westernised hybrids and influences taken from the ancient Noh Theatre (Nogaku). I was first introduced to Butoh during NIM (Nordic Improvisation Meeting) in 2005 when a group of contact improvisers commandeered an old sugar factory in Porvoo, Finland. Within one of the factory’s vast industrial rooms we were invited to cross the expanse as a group, shifting as slowly as possible, a task that took in excess of 30 minutes (I imagine that the space may have measured 15 metres from one end to the other). I had little idea of what Butoh was at the time and was struck by the hugely emotive use of facial expressions employed by some of the other participants. This first experience was enhanced by a two-day workshop taken with Shinonome in 2006, when I rediscovered the art of slow walking and dug into the depths of my own soul through movement only to discover that there was nothing there. Since discovering Butoh, you can often find me glued to youtube videos of Carlotta Ikeda, Kazuo Ohno, or the great British dance-artist Marie-Gabrielle Rotie.

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Original Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno, who died in 2010 at the age of 103

The choreography for Earth Sounds has been inspired by a range of influences including Japanese Butoh and tribal dance. One of the obvious connections that came to mind when I considered the relationship between the female body and the earth were particular fertility rituals designed to bring about a good harvest. For example, a short film of the rain fertility dance of the Venda people in Zimbabwe is characterised by the speech of the traditional healer Neluvola, punctuated by short ritual dances executed by women. The final dance, performed by a young girl, consists of a series of fast stepping movements with a low posture and straight back with her gaze trained forwards. These steps occasionally become more energetic as she turns repeatedly, raising her arms and suddenly rushes forwards toward her audience. These forms of movement have been the inspiration for the final section of our Earth Sounds performance, which will be partially improvised.

For the opening of the Earth Sounds performance, I plan to be buried (hopefully completely submerged) in soil. The idea of being buried does not terrify me, but rather seems kind of inviting, an almost warm place in which to hide. The act of being buried, for me, has to do with ideas surrounding growth, cleansing and renewal. Some years ago a friend of mine related how she had taken part in a Shamanic retreat in South America that had included a birth and death ritual. The death ritual, if I remember correctly, involved lying alone in an open grave (a trench cut six feet into the earth) for the duration of an entire night. This image has stayed with me and has somehow redistributed itself during the rehearsal stage for the choreographic components of Earth Sounds. As we have a limited time with our soil, this aspect of our research will be conducted during our residency in The Sir Ian Wood Building from 1-5 February 2016 via tentative experimentation and, if necessary, a breathing tube.

One cannot of course talk about red dresses and soil without acknowledging the hugely successful and widely acclaimed production of The Rite of Spring by Pina Bausch. I went to see the film Pina, a beautiful account of her life and work, shortly after her death in 2009. It was only a few weeks ago that I re-watched the opening and realised that I had a similar setting to Bausch’s Rite. In the intervening years I had forgotten how Bausch had employed these elements in view of the deep impression her choreography had left on me. Sometimes, as artists, even when we don’t explicitly recall an influence on our work, it can help to shape the final product. I consider my own choreographic work to be distinctly different from Bausch, so the fact that Earth Sounds and Bausch’s Rite share a red dress and some soil shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Perhaps the idea of a red dress had lodged subconsciously in my mind as a nice visual contrast – and certainly the expressionist element of Bausch’s work is not a million miles away from what we might see in modern day Butoh.

I started this entry by talking about the choreographic process as a journey, so I cannot leave you without discussing how my research has helped to shape a particular type of dialogue with my own body. I initially approached this project as a director, with the view of working with somebody else’s body for the performance. Various constraints (both financial and temporal) have resulted in an invitation for me to perform the piece myself. I have felt rather at sea with the idea of working with my own body again having recently come to the end of eight months of physiotherapy and several preceding years of chronic illness and disability. My body is not returned to its former self, but rather, reshaped anew, bringing with it new embodied dispositions and re-imagined experiences. This is a body, I admit, that I am still not yet quite sure how it functions. So the themes of renewal, growth and change in the work are not only symbolised in the materials themselves – the soil as well as the revelation of sounds that are always present in our lives yet which we rarely tune into to hear – but also in the ever-evolving conversation between body and environment that can be as much collective as it can be personal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choreographic Processes

Cartography and conceptual research

Some years ago, while I was studying the relationship between sound and femininity, I stumbled across a book that explored the female body as a map. The book, entitled Imperial Leather: Race Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest by Anne McClintock, outlines the conflict between Victorian England and South Africa during the time of British Imperialism. McClintock opens her book with a discussion of Henry Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, a best-selling novel written in 1885. The tale traces the journey of three Englishmen across Kakunaland in search of the elusive diamond mines using an ancient map drawn up by a Portuguese tradesman called Jose da Silvestre. As the story goes, da Silvestre inscribed the map on a piece of torn linen with a ‘cleft bone’ using his own blood – a gesture that McClintock identifies as defining the map as a mode of patriarchal inscription.

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Map of journey taken to discover King Solomon’s Mines, taken from a book of the same name by Henry Rider Haggard (1885)

McClintock suggests that this map conveys a literal marking out of the female body as a territory to not only be discovered, but also owned and controlled. The fact that the map reads as a somewhat truncated view of the female body – with only the sexual features prominent as a pathway for the white men to take, is indicative of the sexual and labour-intensified subjection of colonised women. McClintock describes that in the map, the female head features as the ‘pan bed water’, a symbol that is minimised in order to restrict any association with female intelligence or creativity. At the centre of the map, ‘Sheba’s Breasts’ form mountain ranges stretching outwards into incomplete arms, while the navel, or koppie, leads into the pubic mound in which the treasure is to be found. McClintock goes on to describe how territories during this time were marked out by placing statues or images of women whenever the white men established a new border between one land and the next – a further mode in which McClinotck states that the British colonialists enforced their masculine presence.

Reading McClintock’s description left a clear and lasting image in my mind of the female body as a kind of cartography (or map). This has been an interesting consideration in developing the choreographic component of Earth Sounds where I have been exploring my own body as a landscape; scapulae that rise to form mountains, elbows and knees that break apart the earth to form valleys, and a head that acts as both a pivot for and weight against which the soil shifts and transforms. In consideration of Haggard’s map, I was reminded of the seminal Earth and Body sculptures by performance artist Ana Mendieta. Mendieta created a range of sculptural interactions with natural elements using her body, including soil, between 1972 and 1985. In her Sileunta series, Mendieta shaped the earth with her bare hands, digging, manipulating and reforming, finally lying within the trenches that she created. These performative actions resulted in a sharp feminist aesthetic that laid testament to the powerful connections between the female body and the non-urban landscape through her use of fire, grasses, flowers, gunpowder, twigs and blood. Mainly documented through photography, these body art interventions with the natural environment were fleeting gashes that figured as representations of female anatomy and in particular the sexual reproductive organs. Mendieta describes how these female silhouettes were about ‘developing a dialogue between her own body and the earth in order to come to terms with being torn from her home country of Cuba during adolescence’. She continues: ‘I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe. It is a return to the maternal source’.

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Earth Body action by performance artist Ana Mendieta, Totem Grove Series (1984-85)

Mendieta’s testament for returning to a maternal source is reminiscent of the Greek mythological Gaia, a female Goddess believed to have given birth to the universe, as typified in the more widely used term ‘Mother Nature’. Gaia is used as a synonym for the planet’s ecosystem and the way in which nature is believed to create its own balance and sense of wholeness, a concept adopted by James Lovelock in his thesis on the regulatory forces of the earth. Lovelock’s theory, also known as the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’, maintains that the co-existence of life and environment are dependent upon one another in order for the Earth to reach homeostasis, thereby regulating weather systems, surface temperature, ocean salinity and so on. Lovelock’s thesis has been somewhat of an inspiration for the development of our research during Earth Sounds, in which a kind of symbiosis between body and environment and mutual dependency between these two elements has been investigated. These ideas have been augmented by a study of Mendieta’s work with the hope of establishing her performative actions, frozen in time as photographs, into a final choreographic event.

During my initial research phase for Earth Sounds, when I was reading up on the local landscape of the Cairngorms National Park, I discovered a further connection between the female body and specific geological features. The Clach Ban, derived from the Gaelic for ‘stone’ and ‘woman’, is a chair-like structure excavated into a lonely outcrop overlooking the desolate shores of Loch Avon (pronounced A’arn), a structure dwarfed beneath the towering flanks of Scotland’s second highest mountain, Ben MacDui. The Clach was purportedly employed for pregnant women to sit upon during the gestation period with the hope of easing childbirth. One would expect that even in times of yore, a journey to Loch Avon when heavily pregnant would have been a major undertaking. I have visited it many times and even once danced upon its sandy beaches, and I can assure you that from whichever direction it is approached, the journey involves a hefty ascent and several miles of unforgiving terrain.

From this somewhat varied research, Earth Sounds has begun to emerge as part dance, part process-based art, a living sculpture in which female body and earth collide and converge. This is not, as one might be forgiven for suspecting, a New Age interpretation of what it might be like to embody Mother Earth, but rather, an action that is overshadowed by renewal and the deathly smell of decay, for: ‘we are born from dust and to dust we shall return’ (Genesis 3:19).

Coming soon: Choreographic processes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cartography and conceptual research

Sounding Earth (by Ross Whyte)

Earth Sounds will be the second time that I have done a residency at RGU’s Riverside East Building (recently renamed to something much less attractive).  In October 2014, Orphaned Limbs Collective (of which I’m one of the artistic directors) gave two performances of a work titled The Witching Hour, following a two week residency there.  Both the rehearsals and performance took place in full view of students and staff.  The perplexed looks and passing comments initially took me a bit of time to get used to.  However, the work quickly became the overriding focus and, strangely enough, those viewing the work’s development during their lunchbreaks or on their way to class, actually helped to shape the final piece.

I am anticipating that something similar will be the case with Earth Sounds.  With this project’s strong focus on sound, though, I am keen to see how much of the building’s acoustics will contribute to the work’s development (I vividly recall a day of heavy rain on the glass roof creating an oppressive, reverberant din that caused people to shout in order to be heard.)

I’m particularly excited about exploring the various devices – all but the contact mics, I’ve never used before.  Sometimes though, the most fruitful results come from a lack of familiarity with a software application or piece of hardware.  I’m hoping that this will be the case when I come to take the geophones and bass shaker out for a test run.  I’ll also be referring to Nicolas Collins’ wonderful book, Handmade Electronic Music for some extra inspiration.

This project offers a wealth of possibilities for a sound artist.  Beyond the “amplified soil” (as advertised in our promotional material) is a deeper world waiting to be explored: of fault lines, glaciers, shifting river beds… and a human figure emerging from the earth…

Very exciting!

Sounding Earth (by Ross Whyte)

On Amplification

I am not the most technologically minded of people. Yet, when it comes to working with the elements of sounds itself I often seem to have a clear idea of what I would like to hear. In the past, I have relied on collaborators to teach me about the more technical elements of sound production and develop a sonic layer to performance. These collaborations have been instrumental in progressing my creative practice by augmenting some initial ideas around sound and the body. One might be forgiven for wondering how I managed to get through a Ph.D. in Sonic Art without learning how to use sound equipment, and by way of explanation I want to offer a caveat: sound art might not always foreground sound as a primary element – at least not in an explicit sense. Sound art, rather than only sounding to our ears, can also be a representation for our eyes, a taste on the tip of our tongue, a tactile awakening of the skin, or a vibration through the soles of our feet. My interest in sound has therefore stemmed not from the technologies of sound production or from compositional processes, but rather, from the interactions between music and movement with an emphasis on the relationship between performer and instrument. Sound, for me, has become not only a starting point and stimulus for choreographic research, but also a place of sensations, empathetic response and shared corporeality with an audience.

Part of developing the Earth Sounds project was to create an opportunity where I could learn more about new and alternative sound technologies. I invited Glasgow-based composer and sound-artist Ross Whyte to participate in the Earth Sounds project as an expert pair of eyes through which to develop our sonic material. Having recently acquired our equipment, I imagine Ross heading out somewhere in Glasgow right now, trowel and geophones in hand, ready to bury them in the nearest park or woodland. I’m intrigued to know what sounds he will pick up. Neither of us has worked with geophones before and the potential for picking up low frequency sounds is a concept that excites us both.

So why amplify soil, I hear you ask. What will it sound like? Deadness? Nothingness? The sound of people’s feet treading softly on the soil?

Geophones are a special kind of very sensitive microphone that are usually used for picking up the sounds of earthquakes. The study of siesmology, or earthquakes, is focused upon picking up waves of energy produced when rocks suddenly break apart deep within the earth. Tectonic plates are the sub-layers of rock (lithosphere) covering the earth’s surface, layers that shift and rub together to form mountains and ocean trenches. When these plates shift more violently, dramatic events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur. Scientists use geophones to warn of impending disasters, with the hope of preserving life. Geophones are therefore particularly sensitive to lower frequencies, reaching a base level of 10 Herz. The meaning of Herz is a rather a complex subject, so I will settle here for saying that Herz is equal to the wave cycles per second that a sound creates. The higher the sound is, the more Herz or cycles per second there are that can be measured. Thus 10 Herz is equal to 10 cycles per second, a whole 10 Herz lower than can be reasonably heard by the human ear (20 Herz – although this varies quite considerably from individual to individual).

In answer to our question, what will it sound like? we have a range of rich possibilities. Being situated on the banks of the River Dee, The Sir Ian Wood Building at Robert Gordon University sits within the rural suburban landscape of Garthdee and the outer ranks of the city of Aberdeen. As a home to the university’s engineering department, this recently erected building contains several exciting prospects for our soundscape that require attention. The first is that underlying the ground close to the building are a series of boreholes – deep, narrow underground caves made in order to locate water or oil. Our geophones are sensitive enough not only to pick up the sounds of liquids churning within these boreholes, including any echo effect they might create, but also the sounds of rocks lolling along the bottom of the recently flooded River Dee. I am reliably informed that geophones are also sensitive enough to pick up any sound within a one mile radius, such as the rumbling of traffic. The stunning architectural scenery of The Sir Ian Wood Building itself, with the bass whoop of revolving doors and steam engine will provide further fodder for our sound research.

When I initially began to develop the idea of soil amplification back in August 2014, I was put in contact with one of the UK’s leading environmental sound experts, Coryn Smethurst. Coryn has been instrumental in informing our set up for the Earth Sounds performance, including advice on how we could use any bass frequencies to their fullest capacity by employing bass shakers (formerly known as tactile transducers). Looking back at my first diagrams of this set up based on Coryn’s description, I can see an almost pathological obsession on my part to understand how and why these particular technologies were needed and how they would interact:

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Amplification layout for the Earth Sounds performance (preliminary), August 2014

Mastering this equipment will be central to ensuring that our bass shaker, which will be attached to a small portion of the audience seating, will transmit lower frequencies as vibration. Many years ago I was struck by the visceral effect of sub-audible sound at a concert by the legendary Contra Bass Trio, featuring six foot instruments including a contra bass flute and clarinet. The effect of sound sensing in this space entered the body as a vibration before it reached the human ear, a kind of almost imperceptible inner quivering creeping into perception. I understood from this that during the Earth Sounds performance we will need bass shakers to bring these lower frequencies to life for our audience. These will be sounds that are felt before they are heard.

Coming soon: Cartography and conceptual research

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Amplification

From accidental beginnings…

The initial idea for the Earth Sounds project stemmed from a misunderstanding. Having been called to a meeting with the newly formed SonADA team, a network of experimental sound artists in Aberdeen, I was invited to make a new performance for the up-coming festival pilot in October 2014. As part of the pilot there was to be a roundtable discussion exploring issues around creating art in the North East of Scotland. Somewhere, I had got my wires crossed and misunderstood my brief as being to make a piece of work that was centred on the theme of the North East. I had spent the preceding weeks researching the local geology of the Cairngorms National Park and the ways in which I could accommodate the idea of shifting landforms into a new piece of choreography for what I had imagined at this point would be for a group of dancers under my direction.

Looking back to my first diary entries on the subject, it seems that the theme of using soil in the performance was one of the concepts that stuck with me right from the beginning.

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At this point I became preoccupied with particular land formations in Scotland and how their cartography, or mapping, might be used as a choreographic stimulus. The ways in which different weather systems or changes in surface temperature could affect the interaction of different elements, as for example seen in freeze thaw action, provided particular interest. It seemed that my challenge in interpreting these different layers of transformation would be to ensure that the choreographic realisation was not too literal, and that rather than giving a specific outline for movements would rather act as a starting point for the wider consideration of the relationship between body and earth. I also began to imagine the performance area as a kind of miniature map in which specific features, such as the fault lines that sweep across Scotland from North East to South West, might be physically sculpted into the soil.

As somebody who spent many childhood holidays walking in rural parts of Scotland, the majestic shapes of mountains such as Slioch (something of a fairytale castle of a mountain) or the looming presence of Stac Polliadh and Sulliven in the Assynt range, with their impossibly steep slopes disappearing into the clouds, invoked a sense of both closeness and nostalgia as I considered the project. When I had dwelt on the question of what it meant to me to be an artist working in the North East of Scotland, this connection with the land had been my first consideration, as if the mountains were somehow calling to me and asking me to acknowledge them for the old friends they were.

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Slicoh, with Loch Maree in front, Fishfield Forest

The language used to describe geological formations became another major preoccupation at this point. My journal entries around this time are littered with words like ‘lithography’ and ‘seismogram’. I watched videos of ancient practices such as old threshing methods used to mill barley, where the husks would be thrown up into the air by hand and then sieved through a wide flat colander. Peat cutting became another fascination, as if these very physical tasks could somehow be employed into the action I wished to create on stage. Having spent a long summer gardening, I was familiar with getting my hands in the earth and the more detailed gestures of tilling and uprooting. It was these physical gestures, directly derived from the manual labour of ancient practices and linked to the agricultural management of the earth as a vehicle for human sustenance, that originally spurred my interest in developing Earth Sounds.

During this time, I was in the midst of a major obsession with writing poetry and many of the short pieces I wrote centred around the connection between body and earth. An entry from my journal on 24/10/2014 reads:

The Frozen Horizon

Coolly, the sun rose, edge burnt to oblivion

By the white heat of ice, turquoise, illuminated

The crust cracks open, gaping a threat of bottomless crevasse.

The crunch of snow under bite of crampon

Punctuates my beating heart through nebulous inactivity

The frigid stillness permeates, blunt and untelling to the painless exertion

Underlying that rigid surface.

Meltwater rushes, silently gliding this unmoving plane

So as not to be perceived, or known.

No thickness of sludge borders a territory between upper and outer

And the subterranean surge carrying us unforeseen distances

While standing on the spot.

This basal sliding hums a faint beat to the rhythm of seismic events

The cadence jerking an unnatural termination

To the brooding shift of debris, drumlin forming amidst

The outer layer of retreat: A deformation, striated – amphitheatre of moraine

The mass balances, precarious, insecure, as a final toppling

Pushes into the sea.

Coming soon: On Amplification

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From accidental beginnings…