A few days ago a friend of mine got in contact about doing ‘some sound stuff’ at an event she was organising in the woods above Betws-Y-Coed in North Wales. Over the course of several conversations it transpired that it was to be themed around the senses and the woodland space.
After a bit of thinking I came up with the idea of doing a sound-walk through the woods which I could guide people on, and having an interactive digital version (note the funding words!) in a tent at the start of the walk so that the folk who were not able to walk or were not around at the start of the tour could still get the idea and have fun.
So we would have a form of bifurcated experience; the walk which I had yet to work out, and/or the ability to synthesize it. This I planned to make with a set off faders people could use to turn up or down my (as yet to be recorded) pristine 3D audio field recordings of ‘a stream’ for instance or on another fader ‘birds in the canopy’ etc…
Now, it must be said at this juncture that I had never organized a sound-walk, but I felt reasonably confident, and anyway how hard could it be. It turns out that it was not all that difficult to do in itself, after all, the topography is there; but what was really, really complicated to do was to disentangle the concepts and preconceptions I brought into the woods with me.
So 2 weeks before the day I first took the drive down the A470 and A5 (two roads loved and hated by tourists and locals in almost equal measure) with a view to mapping out a route and doing some recording. I planned to make interesting way-points to punctuate the walk, make something of them, and get a good recording to link it thematically into the digital version. If I could work out a set of paths through the woods that could string these together I would be home and dry. I should have guessed it is hubris to try to curate nature.
Unsurprisingly waterfalls, squeaky gates, caves and obligingly vocal jackdaws do not fall into an evenly spaced set of locations now matter much I contrived to organise a route. In addition to this it was a real issue getting ‘clean’ recordings of the various phenomena. The birdsong reverberated around the open space of the car park, but the moment I tried to record it I heard a group of walkers with children approaching. No problem I thought, I’ll give it five minutes and they will have passed by. Just then another car pulled in. Not to worry it’s a Sunday, I’ll be patient I thought. Twenty five minutes later I gave up as I still had not got more than eight feet from the car.
So, feeling slightly chastened about the idea of recording I decided that it may be better to come back on a weekday… possibly at night.
I decided to map out the route and record what I could along the way. I found a lot of wonderful ‘sound objects’; birds, shale, creaking trees, humming pylons, a small waterfall, an even smaller but echo-y cave and a wonderfully squeaky gate but these all began to feel slightly superficial. Rather than for a trail between various interesting things, it emerged that the route itself formed the arc and structure of what I was hearing. I had just spent 1 hour and 49 minutes (according to my stupidly over-the-top phone app) walking a loop of just under two miles. It formed roughly an oval, starting at the bottom of a hill, going up the escarpment, doubling back along the contours of the rise and around and down to the start. This had inadvertently formed a structural sweep that almost any composer would be proud of.
There is an ambient, evolving, ecology to the woodland soundscape where elements move in and out of perception and focus. Some are fixed in the landscape like rivers or roads (the latter of which make very little noise by themselves) others are not so locked in place. As you move through the space the recurrence and subsidence of these different elements roll through the ears in way which is in many ways very similar to the repetition and development of themes and tunes in opera or film music. I found that as I moved through the landscape the underlying sounds became more and more noticeable, as I stopped looking for an instant experience from AN identifiable object it became possible to comprehend more of the unfolding immensity of the everyday sonic environment.
There is a saying amongst sound engineers that ‘your ears are always on’, generally in the context of avoiding hearing loss, however, while you can’t mechanically disengage your ears, the perception of their input is a far more movable feast. I found as I walked that the sections where apparently not much happened were in fact the most interesting. Rather than going ‘ooh a squeaky gate’ the emergent detail of soundscape through which I was moving was held in greater contrast. Just by turning your head you can perceive the world in a subtly different way. Birdsong hits you are rays of light punctate through the trees and the rustling leaves close in and muffle as the smell of the damp earth comes up to meet your nostrils.
After a time even the road noise became simply part of the experience. As the sound of the cars became brighter it meant I was descending back towards my own car, closing the loop on my own experience and recapitulating the start of the walk.
So I sit here on the tailgate of the car, trying to organize my thoughts, plan a route and figure out how convey some of this experience to the people who may (or may not) turn up in two weeks’ time. I’m slightly concerned that if I turn on the engine and the radio I may lose some of the insight I have gained. Given it seems to be more to do with noticing detail than excluding material which is arbitrarily valuable I hope the detail stays.
Cae’n Y Coed