Sunday, 7 April 2013

Images, words and sounds

Many artists spend time in ‘the field’ to inspire their art. Be they painters, writers or musicians, the intimate experience and understanding of the place generated through spending time outdoors is essential for producing studio work. When the writer Robert Macfarlane and jazz musician Arnie Somogyi were asked to produce a performance piece for Orford Ness in Suffolk, the two artists spent days and nights in the nature reserve, keeping notes of images, phrases and other splinters of found language, jotting down sharts of melodies and half-heard harmonies. In doing so, they came to know the place by heart. As a result, the artists’s understanding of the nature reserve not only permeated the content of the performance piece but also informed its structure. What is interesting to me is that in their fieldwork Macfarlane and Somogyi tended to stick to their own medium, crossing the boundaries of their art forms primarily through collaboration. Though I am mainly a composer, I have a keen interest in writing and drawing. Producing images, words as well as sounds in fieldwork, I am currently exploring how doing fieldwork in more than one medium influences how I experience and understand a place.

Images, words and sounds help me to experience and understand a place in different ways. In his book The Perception of the Environment, anthropologist Tim Ingold argues that art gives form to human feeling. The way in which we express this human feeling is guided by our ‘specific orientations, dispositions and sensibilities that we have acquired through having had things pointed out to us’. From teachers and books, artists have learnt how to do fieldwork in their own discipline. I argue that our experience and understanding of the place is filtered through the medium we work in. When I did fieldwork at the ruined forest croft of Pitcowdens I not only tried to think in images, words and sounds, I also reflected on how each of these mediums influenced the way I came to experience and understand the place. 

I started my fieldwork at Pitcowdens with taking photographs that contained interesting movement and contrasting textures. There were also images that could serve as a peg through which I could tell the story of the forest croft – hollows in planks that shaped my view of the forest croft. Searching the site for interesting objects I realised that the objects I was looking for had to help me add a human dimensions to the generic story of a forest croft being abandoned. A twig structure resembling a washboard helped me conjure up images of women washing clothes. The stories, ideas and imaginations evoked through exploring images became the subject matter for some creative writing. In the process of finding the right words, the intangible amorphous images firmed up.  

There are composers who write music inspired by specific places, but fieldwork remains a less common phenomenon for musicians than it is for painters and writers. The routines for doing fieldwork are also less well established, leaving composers the opportunity to find out for themselves how they would like to develop their experience and understanding of place – and how this is to influence their music. For the performance piece for Orford Ness, jazz musician Arnie Somogyi wrote down snippets of melodies and harmonies that came to his mind whilst being in the reserve and produced music based on improvisation, composition and environmental sounds. On what he calls a song-walk along the river Deveron, musician Jake Williams collects images and songs native to the valley of the river Deveron, recording some of the songs on location. My own ideas for the composition Pitcowdens developed gradually, away from the ruined forest croft. The experiences and understandings generated through my fieldwork influence my musical ideas as well as the larger structure in which these were presented (compare the work of Sally Beamish). The images, words and sounds created during my fieldwork at the ruined forest croft, and the particular experiences and understandings of this place these brought about, have thus shaped my composition Pitcowdens.

As part of the community music project Burn of Sound  for Scottish Natural Heritage there will be an opportunity for people who enjoy the visual arts, writing and music to reflect on the kind of experiences and understandings of place they develop through fieldwork. The workshop,  a walk with creative writing exercises followed by a discussion, will take place on Saturday the 11th of May from 2 to 4 pm at the visitor centre in the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve. If you want to participate in this workshop, please send an email to Petra Vergunst at

Copyright words and images Petra Vergunst