Category Archives: listening

Skylark

The sun is out, and I am walking behind the dunes at Holkham with no coat on. After all the recent rain spring seems to have finally arrived and there is no better reminder than hearing the skylarks sing high in the sky above the marsh.

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The skylark, Alauda arvensis, is a small, non-descript brown bird, but its song is a complete joy. Rising from the ground it flaps its wings faster and faster to gain height, and as it flies upwards it sings. Its song goes on and on and on without a pause. If you stop and listen, it is more likely that you will give up listening before it stops singing. What is more astounding is that it doesn’t seem to stop for a breath.

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Being a flautist, I’m interested in breathing and I wondered if, like didgeridoo players, oboeists, and other wind players they could do circular breathing. Circular breathing allows for continuous sound. It is a technique where you breath in and fill your cheeks with air and then with the next breath, simultaneously squeeze out air from your mouth and breath in through your nose. It’s horrendously difficult and I never mastered the procedure.

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However, skylarks and indeed all birds can do it. Their respiration system is different to ours and their circular breaths allow for their song to continue almost endlessly.

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On Holkham beach, with the dunes and the sea beyond to my left and the skylarks singing above I am reminded of one of my favourite poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins, The Sea and the Skylark. In the first two verses he compares the sound of the sea, both low and high tides, and the musical sound of the skylark. Here they are:

On ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.

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I’m sorry not to have been able to take a sound recording for you, but have a listen to the skylark’s music pelting down from the sky here.

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Walking without seeing

It’s freezing in Wells at the moment, but a sunny morning has enticed me out of the house for a brisk walk. The tide is up and the easterly wind is bitter. As I head, north, up the beach bank I pull the hood of my coat up to try and get a bit more protection. It is one of those deep hoods that have a furry edge and it comes right down to almost cover my eyes. My vision is severely restricted with it up but today I can’t do without it.

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As I walk my hood forces me to look down at the ground. If I try to peep up the furry bit goes into my eyes. I try pulling it back but it slips forward immediately. I resign myself to looking at the ground.

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The ground is not very interesting – black tarmac with puddles, but with my sense of sight essentially disabled the other senses kick in. It’s very cold. I feel my right side getting colder and even with a long coat the side of my leg starts to ache. My fingers are freezing in their gloves and I slip them out of the woolly fingers so I can form a fist and get a bit more warmth from my palm. I step briskly out hoping to heat up with the exercise.

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The wind blowing over me is the loudest, most continuous sound I can hear, but underneath this other sounds appear. A car on the other side of the bank, and in the far distance the dredger is at the never-ending task of keeping the channel clear. Occasionally a seagull flies over – squawking.

A low, pitched moan comes to my attention. It is coming from the air so must be either a plane or a helicopter – the moan gets louder and I hum its pitch. Middle C I think. I don’t have perfect pitch but I can often accurately pitch a note if it is in my vocal range. This note is four notes higher than my lowest sung note – the G below middle C (I have quite a low voice and always sing alto in the choir). I pull back my hood and peer out to try and fix it with my eyes but I can’t see it. Throbbing blades get louder  – so it’s a helicopter – and as it gets nearer and passes overhead the pitch drops down a third to A ands as it moves away it drops still lower – the doppler effect in action.

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Eyes down I hurry on. I’m not really looking at what is happening around me but I pull back my hood at the end of the bank and look around. Over in the east, towards Blakeney, the low lying land is completely concealed by grey cloud and the sun has gone in. Rain, or possibly snow is coming towards me. I take a quick look to see if there are any seals about (there aren’t) and put my hood up and hurry back to try and beat the cloud burst. The wind strengthens and the snow hits. Driving onto me from the east it is now hitting my left side. My coat is soon covered – white. It’s freezing and all I can think about is the cold and getting back home quickly. I pass a few other people and we grin and comment on the cold.

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And then, as quickly as it started it’s over. I’m wet and cold and by the time I get back to the quay the clouds have passed and the sun is threatening to come out again. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen much on this walk but I have felt and heard quite a lot and that highlights the fact that deadening one sense brings the other, equally important,  senses to the fore.

Drawing music

In a couple of weeks time I’m doing a 2 day workshop at Art Van Go – Drawing to Music. I can’t ignore music and if I have it playing whilst I’m working I can’t help but respond to its rhythm and atmosphere. My body wants to move and before I know it my foot starts tapping …. I might even sing!

This morning I got out paper and paint, put on some music and let myself go, responding solely to what I could hear and what was appearing on the page in front of me. I did four large pages of drawing, each with three or four small sketches on each. I did them very quickly. I wonder if you can tell which bits of music were fast / slow / reflective / melodic/ rhythmic?

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Its a great way to free up – nothing matters, you can’t do it wrong as it’s totally subjective and it’s fun! Do join me at Art Van Go on 6 and 7 February if you’d like a go as well.

Brisons Veor – first thoughts

Wow! I’ve been back from Cornwall for a couple of days now and my mind is still buzzing with the many impressions and experiences of the past week.

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Of course, I went with expectations and pre-conceived ideas. Before I left, decisions had to be made about the materials to take and these were based on what I thought I would like to do and what I would like to investigate. Naturally, all expectations were confounded, but little glimmers of something new have been planted in my mind as a result.

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The sun came out on the last day but its was still cold and windy

The process of exploring a new place, I’ve discovered, can never be pre-judged. There can certainly be tried and tested methods of working, but you never know what the environment, the weather or your own physical and metal state will be at any fixed time. You can only deal with what is happening now.

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Out of the studio window

I went to Brisons Veor hoping to work with the sounds of that place. I wanted to listen actively and deeply so that I could understand it aurally. But that didn’t happen quite as I thought it would. Brisons Veor is at Cape Cornwall, a small headland that juts out into the Atlantic. The cottage is the most westerly residence in England. It perches on the edge of a granite cliff and at high tide it is only metres away from a boiling sea. We had ‘winter’ weather. The noise of the wind and the waves was constant. The howling, whistling and roaring virtually blocked out all other sounds. Only occasionally did a faint bird call penetrate the all-encompassing cacophony. I went hoping for a multi-coloured palette of sound but, if this existed, it was drowned out by the natural conditions at that particular time.

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There can be no sound without movement and sitting high on the cliff by the coastguard station or down on the beach in the cove there was wild movement everywhere. The wind, eddied and gusted. Heavier gusts buffeted me so that I was physically moved. It whistled through the gap between my head and my hat, it flapped at my my coat and froze my fingers. The act of hearing the wind became confused with being touched by the wind.

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Porth Ledden on the other side of the Cape

High on a cliff is, for me, an unfamiliar way of seeing the sea. In Norfolk I look at it from ground level and from that angle there is less sea and more sky. But at Cape Cornwall, from such an elevated position, the sea and sky are almost equal. Below me, the force of the waves is broken by the cliffs and the tall rocks that lie scattered all along the coast. Their crash and roar is a continuous white noise as they break and ebb. All around me is movement and noise, but far out across the waves on the horizon, is stillness and silence. The further the distance the calmer and quieter it gets.

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The weather conditions continued for the whole seven days. Each time I stepped out of the cottage I was confronted by the same symphony of wind and waves. Whilst I was there I was disappointed. I felt that this ‘noise’ blocked out the sound detail. But I was wrong. This wildness and movement and sheer, overwhelming sensation was the most important thing about the place at that point in time. The sound was uncontrollable and immense and the movement that produced it was ever-moving, ever-changing and multi-layered.

From my sketchbook:

There is no movement without sound.

There is no sound without movement.

All around me, extending outwards

the duet of sea and wind.

But out on the horizon is stillness.

No sound reaches me from there.

I’m not sure what will come out of these first thoughts. All week I wrote and drew and printed and made. I have collected a lot of data and documented it. Next time I’ll show you some of the things I did and give my thoughts on them ……

Contrasts

What a difference a couple of weeks can make! Two weeks ago I was in the far west of  Cornwall. After a fantastic first day everything rather went down hill. Firstly, I got a cold (the first for 2 years), and secondly the weather deteriorated into rain (heavy at times) and gales. It made for exciting conditions, standing on the top of cliffs, looking down at huge, rolling waves and being battered by force 8 winds. The conditions meant that I didn’t manage to do as much drawing as I had hoped, however, the rain did stop occasionally, the sun did make an appearance (rarely), I did manage a few walks and some sketching was done.

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Looking to Pendeen watch from east of Porthmeor Beach. Grey Granite. Green grass. Grey/blue sea. Grey/blue sky is lighter than the sea which has a softly edged dark stripe along the horizon.

The landscape in Cornwall is vibrant.  The colours are strong and the lines and forms of the land and water are dynamic. All around there is constant activity and movement. When I was there the noise of the wind and the waves was tremendous; it filled the ears and was a real presence. I draw fast, moving pencil, pen and paint over the paper at speed: look, scribble, look, scribble. It is an energetic response to a vigorous landscape.

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Looking down on a boiling sea and rock stack at Porthmeor Beach. Jade green/blue sea. White/jade waves froth around the rocks.

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Rocks at Kynance Cove.

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Cliffs at Kynance Cove.

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Deep black gully looking back from Gurnard’s head.

Back here in Wells on the far east side of the country the contrast couldn’t have been more different this weekend as there were clear, bright days with hot sunshine. Sitting at the beachhut early in the morning, I watched the beach gradually fill with people coming to enjoy the summer sunshine. The long horizontal lines of the landscape languidly mingle and intertwine and although the light is brilliant there is still a subtle blue/grey cast to its colour. Everything appears calm.  Even the incoming tide, that creeps slowly over the sand, filling gullies and submerging exposed sandbanks, moves so slowly it is almost indiscernible. There is movement and change but, at the moment, it is a much quieter energy than that of the Cornish landscape. I draw a line, look and then draw another line. I smooth and gently wash the paint across the paper, filling the brush with colour and letting it drip and mingle as it will. It is a considered response to a contemplative landscape.

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The tide is coming in. The sun is bright with a westerly wind. The sky is cloudless and the sea is a shade darker. A dark line on the horizon.

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British Sharpie Championship lining up for the star of the race. The sound of the hooter carries (loudly) over the water.

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Bunched up before the race.

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A beautiful brown sail boat (runs) sails past the gap in the dunes.

Thankfully the cold has gone!

Cornwall walk – On Gurnard’s Head

About 1.30 pm. Brilliant sunshine with white/grey streaky clouds. A strong westerly wind.

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I have been walking along the SW coastal path all morning and have just arrived at Gurnard’s Head, a small headland on the North coast of Cornwall. With a tricky scramble over rocks I’ve managed to reach a rocky outcrop high above the sea. Exposed to the Atlantic I feel exhilarated.

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I’m facing into the wind and looking straight out to sea. Behind me are cliffs and at 10 o’clock, in the far distance on another jutting headland, is the Pendeen Watch lighthouse. The granite rocks at the bottom of the cliffs are brilliant with yellow lichen – they shine, slick with seawater, in the bright sun.

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In stark contrast, rising up behind the glassy rocks, are deep, dark fissures that have been worn into the cliffs by millennia of pounding seas. The shadows of these clefts are rendered so dark by the glaring sun that no detail can be seen within them. Small white seagulls wheel in and out of the black gullies, briefly showing in relief against the darkness before disappearing as they are backed by a white and blue sunlit sea. They glide round in slow, lazy loops, in turn emerging and vanishing.

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As I face directly into the wind, it roars uninterruptedly in both ears. I only have to turn my head slightly to the left or right and the sound fades. I like the slightly chilly wind on my face in the warm sun.

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Beneath me the sea boils. Waves constantly beat the rocks below; frothing up and pulling back. One rock slopes at 45 degrees into the sea. Pounded by waves, it is submerged in a coat of white sea spume before reappearing as the swell drags the beaten water back down again into the jade/blue translucent morass.

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The sea is rarely like this in Wells. There, its soft grey/blue flatness creeps slowly backwards and forwards tide after tide. Here, on this part of the Cornish coast, the sea is energetic, heaving, rolling and frothed. Each wave is dashed violently against the land, its energy exhausted as it is flung upwards and outwards.

My Place

After several weeks of intense teaching, making work and travelling I am back in Wells for a couple of weeks before putting up The Archive Project exhibition in London at the beginning of May. I went down to the beach this afternoon for a walk and it is really good to be back here.

I have just returned from Switzerland where I was teaching an ‘Exploring Place’ workshop and it was wonderful to explore and discover a new environment. The weather was as good as it could have been with sunshine and clear blue skies and the long reaching views of mountains weaving together into the far distance were beautiful …. but it’s not home. It’s not the place that calls and that feels right.

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This afternoon it was a bit grey, although blue patches (enough to make a sailor’s trousers) gave the promise of clearer skies. There was a cold westerly wind and the tide was out. First impressions were that it was rather bleak and there wouldn’t be much to see. But, as always, as I walked a story emerged.

At low tide the contours of the beach are revealed. These change frequently, often from tide to tide. Water is trapped in hollows and small channels, that I call ‘sea rivers’.

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Oystercatchers were stepping around and about the shallow water and as I approached they took off, flying further down the beach with their ‘peep, peep’ call.

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Footprints left in the sand show their frenetic activity.

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The gusting wind freckled the water on the sea rivers …..

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and blew dry sand across the wet beach.

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Wind and water combine to produce an ever-changing picture.

It’s lovely to go away and have new experiences but it’s even better to come back.