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A World Of Interactions: The Evolving Sound Of Living Symphonies
Rory Gibb , May 23rd, 2014 03:30

With Daniel Jones and James Bulley's new sound installation Living Symphonies opening this weekend in Thetford Forest, Rory Gibb traveled to the duo's studio to discover how they're translating the dynamics of a woodland ecosystem into self-generating orchestral music

Photos by Frankie Pike

This place is teeming with life. Listen for a moment and its sonic footprints are everywhere, as the local inhabitants go about their activities. Leaves rustle and foraging birds flit about the canopy and undergrowth. Spiders, beetles and rodents scrape and rattle around at ground level. Sycamore and scots pine trees creak and hum gently, as if caught in a breeze. But we're not outside the city, alone in a wooded glade somewhere - in fact, we're not even outside. We're actually sitting in a white-walled studio in South London, surrounded by a 24-channel speaker system that's producing an ever-shifting, immersive world of musical interactions: flutes that flutter like birds' wings, staccato swipes of violin, percussion that clunks and scuttles, lovely melodic phrases that pirouette around the room.

Each of these many individually composed and recorded motifs, explains Daniel Jones, gesturing to a computer monitor in the centre of the array, corresponds to a single organism within a local forest ecosystem. Using a specially written modeling program that simulates the activities of the forest's inhabitants and their interactions with others around them in real-time, they're woven together - 'conducted' by software, if you like - into a continually evolving, three-dimensional musical environment. Even if you were barely aware of the complexity underpinning the music it would still be a fascinating listen - its unpredictable ebb and flow and spatialised nature tempt you to try and isolate a single sliver of sound and follow it as it wanders around your field of hearing. Knowing that each of these fragments represents an individual organism - that scratchy, scuttling percussion to my far left, I'm told, is a hedgehog in the undergrowth - makes it still more remarkable: a dynamic, ever-changing symphony that aims to capture the complexity of the ecosystems that surround us.

This project is called Living Symphonies, and in its finished form it will be taken out of the studio and set up directly within the particular forest environment it portrays. For now, however, it's assembled indoors for testing and tweaking, while Jones and co-creator James Bulley work around the clock to put the finishing touches to the installation before its debut public showing in Thetford Forest, Suffolk, which starts this weekend and runs from 24th to 30th May. Throughout the early summer the duo will then take it to three other forests in England - Fineshade Woods in Northamptonshire, Chase Forest in Staffordshire, and Bedgebury Pinetum in Kent - for a tour produced in collaboration with the Forestry Commission and Sound & Music. Each forest has its own particular set of local species interactions and environmental condition - and consequently its own distinct set of musical parameters, creating a different Living Symphony for each location.

"The idea of the piece is that it portrays the entire activity of a forest ecosystem in real-time," explains Jones over coffee in the kitchen of the duo's current working space - an entire flat, each of its rooms filled with equipment related to the project. The door to the bathroom is ajar as we walk through the building, and the bathtub is filled to the brim with thick cables - a kilometer in total, he says with a laugh - used for the duo's ongoing installation based around weather patterns, Variable 4. "The way that we've achieved this is by, firstly, going out and selecting a site within the forest which is particularly ecologically diverse and rich, where you get interesting interactions between species. We then go out there with a team of people and survey in-depth the metre-by-metre ecology of the site. We look at what flora and fauna inhabit it and map it out spatially, so we have a complete understanding of what creatures live in the space and what is likely to occur over a 24-hour period. All of this is done in conjunction with Forestry Commission ecologists and wildlife rangers, who can give us insights into what is likely to travel through that area, through dawn, through dusk, and all the way through the night."

This information is then used to build a detailed computer model of the ecosystem, which simulates the activities of its inhabitants as they unfold: resting, foraging, searching for a mate, hunting prey, being eaten, sheltering from the weather. These, along with the weather conditions of the site, are in turn used to conduct the species-specific musical motifs written by the duo and pre-recorded by musicians. They're all played back through the speaker system, distributed horizontally and vertically throughout the forest location. "As you walk through the site, you can hear spatially located musical fragments corresponding to the species that you find within it. So if you're listening to a speaker embedded in some gorse beneath a sycamore tree, you'll hear some fragments and refrains depicting the current state of the sycamore tree, interlocking with musical elements depicting the gorse and the bramble, and potentially the beetles and woodlice and worms and whatever other creatures might be resident there at that time of day."

Living Symphonies from Jones/Bulley on Vimeo.

Daniel Jones and James Bulley have been working together for several years, having met while students at Goldsmiths in London. Jones has studied computer science and ecology, while Bulley comes from a classical music background. Having met at an art prize where both were showing work, Jones recalls, "we started talking about shared interests - patterns, nature and society and the natural world." They began discussing whether they could "create a piece of work that would have a lot of the same compositional goals as a traditional piece of music, but can constantly grow, regenerate and alter."

The result was Variable 4, an eight-speaker sound installation controlled by the weather, where a series of sensors recorded atmospheric conditions in real-time; these changing conditions then conducted the music, with parameters like rainfall and wind speed changing the harmonic and timbral qualities of the piece. "As a spectator you can come along to this place, and as you're being buffeted by the wind and the rain, you're hearing the real time sonic translation of these same processes," says Jones. So far it's been shown at various locations with wild, changeable weather - including the shingle beach at Dungeness in Kent, and Snape Maltings in Suffolk for Faster Than Sound. Its next showing is in Dorset this coming September.

The duo's subsequent works since Variable 4 premiered in 2010 have included Radio Reconstructions, which uses local radio broadcasts as raw material to construct a musical score, and Maelstrom, which plays a score constructed with thousands of tiny fragments of internet-sourced audio, captured in real-time, through a spiral speaker system - a reflection on the glut of information we're exposed to in our daily online lives. Living Symphonies, however, in exploring and reacting to the natural processes of the environment around us, feels like a logical extension of the ideas Jones and Bulley were starting to explore with Variable 4. Only this time, with many more musical motifs, a larger speaker system and multi-organism ecosystems to model, it seems a far more complex prospect.

"We have a massive shared interest in this principle of emergence," says Jones of the origins of Living Symphonies. "The idea that you can get a unified, co-ordinated whole which emerges from the interactions of a lot of very simple entities. The most wonderful example of this is in ecosystems in biology, in which you have a relatively stable equilibrium of organisms residing at all different levels of an ecosystem - so a tree can act as a shelter for one kind of animal, or as a home to a kind of insect, or as a food source to a bird, and as a growth substrate for mosses and lichens and fungi. What you get is this interlocking, hugely complex world in which individuals play a quite well defined role, but as a collective it's constantly shifting and altering based on these quite local interactions. What you see as a whole is something which seems very cohesive and synchronised, in the same way that you look at a flock of birds or a colony of ants and it appears there is some overriding intelligence. When in fact there isn't - it's just a lot of individuals acting in their own interests.

"So we started to think about whether we could create a symphony, a piece of orchestral symphonic form, which acts in the same way," he continues. "So just as you have a collective of musicians that are playing together, could each individual in an ecosystem be represented as an instrumentalist, with its own characteristic melody and rhythm and counterpoint? Except, unlike in a traditional orchestra, you don't have a conductor within the ecosystem. That's the crux of the matter I think; the symphony in effect is a self-organised whole which comes from all of these individuals, which may come to the fore and play different roles at different times."

A few weeks ago I traveled out to Thetford Forest to help Jones and Bulley with the initial ecological survey for the first iteration of Living Symphonies. The site is beautiful, a quiet green hollow that forms a shallow natural amphitheatre, peppered with hawthorn bushes, Scots pine and ash trees, with small songbirds flitting through the canopy and the occasional buzzard circling overhead. It's easy to imagine how the place's atmosphere will shift once the full installation is assembled and operational. But somehow being outdoors, in an unpredictable environment, is a reminder of how ambitious the project is. In melding practices from leading edge computer science and biology with traditional composition, isn't it - by its very nature - adding some degree of anthropomorphism to a natural system that can't be understood via the application of human narratives?

This tension, says Jones, is part of the intrigue of the work, but he emphasises that the focus of the project is the music itself, rather than the technology used to create it, which is "very much an means to an end, a way to achieve this sort of self-generating composition. For us, we think of it almost more as creating a landscape, a depiction of a landscape, something that's a little more impressionistic and subjective. For us the human nuance is very much the core to the piece. We're not pretending to create this uncoloured sonification of the ecology. We're trying to create something which is a lot more impressionistic and symbolic, and has a lot of the same dynamics I suppose, but whilst creating something that is very much a human composition."

How did that impressionistic sensibility translate into the practicality of composing individual motifs for each type of creature - was the aim to capture something of a species' character in sound? "We spent a lot of time looking at the folklore and narratives within the heritage of the species - the superstition that might be attached to owls, or the dusty, fluttery nature of a moth and its wings - and we try to represent those in a slightly unconventional way," explains Jones. "So not too literal a translation, but something [from which] a human listener might potentially be able to pick out some elements of the characteristics of that creature, purely through listening. We've also been thinking a lot about the bioacoustics of these creatures. So a smaller animal would generate higher pitched calls and sounds, deer and badgers and heavier kinds of mammals will be much lower in the acoustic spectrum than songbirds, and they themselves will be lower in the acoustic spectrum than bats and insects in general. So you'll also be able to pick out acoustic ecology which is resident within the space."

Listening to the sounds of Living Symphonies piping through from the studio into the kitchen, as the piece happily meanders around its own self-generated routes, I'm struck by Jones and Bulley's decision to work with orchestral players and composed musical motifs. The actual sound of a great deal of contemporary sound art and generative music tends towards the use of electronic tones and textures, often in line with the computer-based overall aesthetic of the work. The duo's decision to create tonal music is in fact vital to their approach, says Jones, citing as inspirations works like Jem Finer's Longplayer and John Matthias, Jane Grant and Nick Ryan's The Fragmented Orchestra.

"For us it's almost more of an exciting challenge to work in a tonal tradition, because it's sort of been overlooked. It was seen as almost a rude word to create something which is not atonal in the post-Schoenberg era, and what we're trying to do is rehabilitate the kind of tonality that people like Ravel and Debussy, and in the modern age people like John Cage and Howard Skempton have been exploring. It's tonality, not with a heavily Western bent, but it is tonal nonetheless. We're trying to create work which sits within that framework, but also has these elements of autonomy and generativity. [Elements] of new computer music, I suppose, electronic music. And it's something that's just not been possible for very long. I think it's almost part of your job description as an artist, to somehow be exploring elements of the unknown. We're interested in treading new compositional and sonic ground, but which has close ties with these great traditions."

With the relative accessibility of tonal music in mind, I ask, does Jones see projects like Living Symphonies and Variable 4 as means of focusing general audiences on the science underlying a space - heightening the awareness of natural processes by adding an aesthetic and emotional element? And if so, how does he hope audiences will react? "I think creating a new lens onto the world and refocusing people's attention via sound is one of the most exciting things," he replies. "For us, what's been particularly interesting about working in an outdoor environment is that it completely changes the parameters and boundaries of accessibility. In a way, people are much more receptive to unusual sonic experiences when you're outside the formality of a concert hall. It's a much less daunting environment to be in. During the prototype of the piece, we found that children and families with no prior interest or engagement with avant garde or experimental or electronic music were engaging for very long periods with it, and it becomes a very physical, exploratory thing.

"I am interested to see how people react," he reflects. "Honestly, though, it's never at the very forefront of our minds. We're just focusing on making the composition as thorough and detailed and having as much fidelity to the concept as we can, and the interactions come afterwards. But we do have the listener in mind, that's for sure. I think both of us are very tired of this kind of fetishisation of alienation, and the arms race of complexity and noise and atonality. We're looking for ways out of this trap that I think the contemporary classical world has got itself into, which can kind of rehabilitate tonality, but not sacrifice any of the complexity and ambition of the work."

Living Symphonies opens at Thetford Forest, Suffolk, this Saturday 24th May, and runs until the 30th. It then tours three more forests over the course of the summer. For the full set of dates, click here to visit the Living Symphonies website. And for more on the work of Daniel Jones and James Bulley, click here to visit their site.

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