Last month I visited the studio of James Bulley and Daniel Jones in southeast London. I’d heard about their Living Symphonies project and James had invited me to come and have a look behind the scenes.
Living Symphonies is an elaborate piece of acoustic ecology/data art/environmental installation that has been presented in three UK forests this summer, and completes its tour this week at the Bedgebury Pinetum in Kent.
Actually, the invitation came because after seeing the work’s promo video I’d posted a rather harsh reaction on Twitter; James, very kindly, approached me to set the record straight about what he and Dan were trying to do.
So I drove over to New Cross on a sweltering hot day, pushed the buzzer on the door and got given the tour of the Jones/Bulley studio, which doubles as their flat. Two rooms are completely given over to Living Symphonies: one is the studio itself, the second contains a mock-up of the 24-channel sound system that comprises the installation, and is used for testing and tweaking the model. Apart from a mixing desk and computer, and 24 speakers resting on the floor and hanging from the ceiling it is empty. The rest of the flat is full of remnants of the duo’s previous collaborations – I spotted the radios from Radio Reconstructions and the suspended speaker cones from Maelstrom.
There are two main components to Living Symphonies, which nicely complement the duo’s relative specialisms (James is a composer; Dan has a background in biology and data modelling). First is a data model of the woodland space in which the work is to be installed. This includes models for every species that lives within or passes through the space. All the different tree species are included. So are the birds, the hedgehogs, mice and squirrels. So are the moss and fungi. So are the worms, spiders and insects. Each species is assigned four different states – so a bird might be perching, flying, singing or feeding; a tree might be drawing up water, photosynthesising, etc. Each state is governed by probabilities relating to that species’ typical behaviour, which are themselves governed by data regarding the climate (rainfall, temperature, wind speed/direction, humidity) and time of day or night at that moment.
All of that creates a 3D virtual model of the woodland space itself. It’s not tracking what’s actually happening – although the climate and time data is fed live into the system – but it is generating a good approximation of what could happen in that spot at that time. It gets very detailed: the virtual squirrel, for example, is assigned a particular visual field. If it hasn’t eaten in a while, and in the course of its wandering around a pine tree comes into view, it will go over to the tree, climb it, and start to eat. When it rains, the mammals and birds head for shelter, and the moss, plants and worms become much more active.
There are hundreds of states in all, and each is composed as a short motif which is recorded and stored in Ableton. As life in the virtual forest unfolds, the relevant musical motifs are triggered. What’s more, they are distributed around the 3D space, so a bird can fly overhead from one corner to another, the trees sound from where they are standing, and so on. Listening to it in the imperfect space of Jones and Bulley’s front room it was still possible to get a strong sense of how the sounds model the physical presence and activity of the forest.
If it went this far, Living Symphonies would be an impressive bit of labour, but limited in its scope as an artwork, and dubious as a piece of acoustic ecology. Modelling a forest soundscape is not the same as modelling the interactions and interdependencies of the species within that space that make it what it is. Plonking a 24-channel sound system into a forest is not very environmentally senstive, or in itself aesthetically interesting.
So I was interested to hear more about the particularly compositional process behind the work. How had James come up with his materials? How did they relate to each other?
The compositional relationships reflect the ecological ones between species. Simply put, although each species state has its own motif, as it were, the presence of another species will alter that motif in a particular way. Partly this is to maintain musical order and balance (so the notes available to a particular motif might change to avoid dissonant clashes) and partly to mimic the behaviour of the natural world.
The motifs themselves are not meant to mimic the states or species that they are assigned to – no flutey twiddles for the finches, and how do you compose the sound of moss anyway. But they do reflect something of that species’ behaviour or significance to the environment, and at times the choices made have been guided by certain evocations; the use of harps for some species, for example.
Overall, the guiding principle is how well it sounds: is it balanced, is anything too dominant, is the mood right? On this last point, I was interested to know why is it basically all tonal and, well, nice? James’s answer was that part of what makes up the ecological space, as the listener perceives it, is the listener themselves, with their own collection of memories, associations, expectations, and tastes. By making the music more approachable – or stopping it from being too forbidding – it was possible to access that personal memory space and incorporate it within the overall ecology. To reinforce his point, he pointed to a copy of Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest, a beautiful travelogue/study/fiction of forests and fairytales. All of that is as much part of what forests are (and of how they sound to us) as the natural species that are living there. So while Jones and Bulley aren’t aiming to make something that sounds all gothic or fairy-like, our human associations with that are part of the soundscape.
It’s an interesting idea, although I’m not certain it’s not also a fudge. Another reason for making it sound approachable is that you want a non-specialist audience to come and stay to listen. Nevertheless, I listened to the mock-up for a while and it is clear that something sophisticated and multi-layered has been put together. I’ll be taking my toddler son to Bedgebury to hear what it all sounds like for real.