Yesterday I was taken on a bus to Thetford Forest in Norfolk to experience a newly launched musical composition and installation called Living Symphonies. The work is by Jones / Bulley, who have been composers in residence of forests, a residency project that is a partnership between Sound and Music, the agency for new music and sonic art and Forest Artworks, the contemporary arts initiative for the Forestry Commission. It’s funded by the ACE Strategic Touring programme. Thetford is the first of four installations, the others to come being Fineshade Woods, Cannock Chase and Bedgebury Pinetum.

James Bulley, a composer, and Dan Jones, a sonic programmer (not that these tags define all they are or are ones they use themselves) work as a duo on musical works that respond to weather and landscapes. This one is designed to grow like a forest ecosystem, as the system that determines which motifs play or dominate is driven by real time weather conditions monitored with a weather station. It has no centralised conductor, apart from climate. Speakers are hidden around a hollow, playing instrumental fragments that join together into a symphonic 3D experience. This was, for them, a new foray into forest ecologies. It was good to chat to James as we walked to the site and to hear about their creative research process. (As I’ve been developing learning programmes based on Creative Research principles for the past decade, I’m always looking for great models.)


They have been working intently for a year doing comprehensive multi-layered mapping of the ecologies of the four forest sites, helped by ecologist friends and the FC. Ecologists told them that nobody had really undertaken such multi-layered studies, nor used such methods of documentation. For example, James has made a massive stitched together photo of the forest floor of the installation site. We talked about whether they might make all this data and method available for others to use.

Another aspect of the work is using code to programme motifs or refrains for each species in each site (and there are tens of thousands of these motifs, as each species needed different qualities for different behaviours or conditions.) James said that they were basing these motifs or movements for each species on certain calls, actions or behaviours that are agreed as true by scientists (e.g. a wren hops in a certain way) but he was fascinated to see that species didn’t always behave as they were meant to. Individuals might differ from each other, or act slightly differently according to contingencies. This seemed to fit with the nature of this work as emergent and organic, stretching the responsiveness of data and programming.

I was really happy to find that they’d not focused on charismatic fauna but instead had become fascinated by the role played in forests of decay, fungi and moulds. These aspects all have sounds too – a deep bassy thrum for the decaying of wood, and another sound for the photosynthesis of leaves when the sun comes out.

We were also able to meet the FC ecologist for East Anglia, Neal Armour-Chelu. I was asking him about how the birds coped with singing over the music. They only listen out for the particular song of their competitors, and none of these motifs mimicked them. The work is only installed for a week in each site, so it can’t affect the inhabitants too much. I liked the sounds and found they kept me in the place, somehow waiting for some kind of cadence and yet appreciating the potential endlessness of the music and the emergent state of ecosystems. Adding rhythmic sounds to a green site seemed to speed it up, to make you aware of time. At one level this fast-feeling sound seemed an incursion of a register that didn’t quite belong. But because it was there in order to make you aware of what did actually belong, it was something you could accept rather like you might be drawn to a fairy door to another world. I felt that the music was marking time more meaningfully by pointing out the process of decay and growth, feeding and reproduction, than clock time can manage.

I really enjoyed the visit and meeting the artists, not least because I discovered that their studio is a few metres away from where I live, above the Hill Station cafe where I often sit to work. It was also interesting to take some time to experience Thetford Forest that I have rushed through many times going to and from family in Norfolk.

More photos here. 




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