Each month a member of the art.earth Board of Directors selects a member to feature, to become our Artist of the Month. What follows is a response from that artist to some questions and a discussion, together with some examples of their work.
This month (August 2021) our featured artist is Emma Welton, selected by Minou Polleros.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a new piece for listening and playing with the music of a habitat. The idea grew out of the interruption of my performing life as a classical musician due to lockdowns in spring 2020. My violin was hanging on the wall, and instead of playing I found myself listening to my habitat. I started composing Exeter Sound Walks a collection of short walks shaping a particular experience and focusing on some of the sounds that can be found in my suburban neighbourhood. The walks explore the sounds of different places, and the changes that the seasons bring. I am making two each month from June 2020 – May 2021.
Here’s one from August 2020 ‘BONHAY ROAD to WATER’S EDGE, Exeter, August 2020′.
Exeter Sound Walks are for people who are open to a different kind of walk, and perhaps to experiencing a familiar place in a new way. The walks are drawn in pencil as illustrated maps designed to download as a pdf and print on one sheet of A4. I’m a musician, not a writer or illustrator, so like many people in lockdown I had the chance to develop new skills. I walk, listening as I go, seeking out sounds, allowing sounds to find me, exploring unlikely places, and just pausing for a while to hear what’s there. When I close my eyes I hear a lot more. From my position at the bottom of the Exe valley in Exeter, I can usually hear further than I can see, because sound travels round or through obstacles that get in the way of the sightline. Some of the sounds I notice are specific to this time and place, such the great-crested grebe family on the flood channel who join us each spring and then leave, or a metal sign that has come loose from its fixings and clangs in the breeze – one day it might get fixed and the sound will be gone. Other sounds are more-or-less continuous like those of a weir or car tyres on asphalt. Still further, there is the fundamental sound character of a space, which is affected by the texture of the objects the sounds bounce off and the intimacy or expanse of the space. My sound walks are musical compositions: the choices I make shape a particular listening experience for somebody else.
People started suggesting that I share Sound Walks, together with groups. This I have found to be extremely rewarding in all sorts of respects. In particular I have learned from my Sound Walking companions about hyperacuity in people with dementia, and hypersensitivity in autistic people. I composed a Sound Walk (‘Up Barley Mount, Exeter, November 2020’) in consultation with autistic people in my community, and created a podcast about the process. I conclude that if we compose our habitats more for people with these sensitivities, it could be better for all of us.
During autumn 2020 I started to wonder what place my violin playing has within my new listening practice. Sound Artist Tony Whitehead and I run a music night in Exeter called A Quiet Night In in which we explore the creative possibilities in quiet/silence. Until now we have always performed indoors. This summer we have been working with five other musicians Dan Cray (amplified glass), Roz Harding (alto saxophone), Ruth Molins (flute), Hugh Nankivell (accordion & electronic device) and Sarah Owen (voice) to compose a score to play with any habitat. I attach the score, which is still a bit of work in progress. In the evening of July 27th we performed this piece, called at the end of the day in Exwick Mill Field, near my house in Exeter. We started the evening all together, attuning our listening, then A Quiet Night In performed the score (see photo, by Jenny Steer), and then we invited the ‘audience’ to perform it with us as darkness fell. We are still working out what we are doing, but performing with a habitat challenges how we normally play music outside, which is by plonking our human music on top of everything that is already sounding – usually without even realising that there is already music going on. We are attempting to relate what we play to what is already sounding, and also to cohere with each other. We already have an invitation to play the score on the mud flats of the Exe Estuary! I expect the piece to sound completely different, there. Ultimately I would like us to make synchronous performances of the piece by different groups in different habitats all around the world. At the end of the dayhas received ‘cultivator’ funding from Exeter University’s ‘Outside the Box – Open Air Performance as Pandemic Response’.
I think the work goes far beyond pandemic response into disrupting our usual modes of performance and assumptions about what is music and performance. It also allows us to focus on making work that negates the need to travel, including inviting musicians and an audience to a familiar local place, and discouraging people from using a car to attend (both to keep the neighbourhood quiet and address the climate emergency).
What would you say are the primary motivations for your work?
Listening, loving to listen, loving to make music with and for other people. The Climate Emergency – I have declared a Climate Emergency and am exploring the implications for my practice. I am hugely motivated by the quiet of the first lockdown the subsequent loss of that quiet. I experienced rage and despair at the return of the cars and the loss of the incredible clarity of our new sound world – it seemed that we had been offered a chance to make the massive changes necessary to avoid biodiversity collapse and climate disasters, but we couldn’t grasp it. I felt, though, that we had experienced a collective amazement at what the world is like when we stay still and the economic driver is slowed. Many people I spoke to liked this qualitative change. I decided during that time that I needed to hold the space for listening – this means listening honestly to the sounds of the habitats we co-create with our fellow-creatures and our geology and weather. It’s about how we live in and with the world. I’m not interested in seeking out sonic ‘beauty spots’ in my work. It’s more about cultivating a sense that music is unfolding around us all the time, and that we are part of the composition. It can be difficult to hear this music, and difficult to recognise how it is music, but I think we can do this when we bring in our imagination and a sense of time and place that stretch the limits of human perception. This I think helps is to learn how we might compose the music around us differently. I am trying to find ways of relating to these issues through listening, sound and music.
I’m also interested in authentic live listening with our own ears to our own space rather than listening to recordings and via screens, although I do use these from time to time as well. There is so much we don’t hear in our own habitats, or that we filter out. I think it’s important to learn to hear again. I’m constantly surprised by how valuable people find the experience of Sound Walks, together. It seems that people want to be shown how to listen, and to have their hand held. Listening together draws us together in powerful ways. There’s something vulnerable and intimate in it. When you are listening to something you are fully attending to it. There’s something in the directness of this connection: it’s the actual thing, not a representation of the thing, and we are attending to it together.
Are there any particular artists / others who have had a profound effect on you?
Ivor Cutler, whose song ‘I am going in a field’ I just discovered!
And all the musicians I work with who are in their different ways constantly provoking, offering insights, challenges and inspirations.
205 Exwick Road, Exeter EX4 2AU
01392 257066 / 07791 161050