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Archive for August, 2013

It’s been a while since I last revisited the ‘God’s Bridge‘ project. That’s part of the problem with long-term projects – other things come along and take over your brain space. With a shed-load more in-depth projects lurking on the horizon, I thought I’d get in quick and do a bit more before my brain gets swamped with engineering calculations and complicated maths again.

I last left the ideas looking at the underground nature of this geological anomaly in the North Pennines. It’s been an unusually dry summer here and tracing the route of the water isn’t going to happen if there’s just no water around. However, what it did do was allow me to get to bits that are normally inaccessible and have a poke around.

Gods Bridge over dry river

Last month I visited again with some proper kit to experiment with photos of those underground passages. This is what one of the tunnels looks like lit just with what little daylight gets down there. That’s one of the joys of digital photography. The Nikon sensors in particular are quite incredible in low light. In fact the light levels here were so low I couldn’t really see very far, yet with a few seconds exposure it has a whole new life.

River Greta underground

The colours are fairly natural, although I did process them through DxO to look like I shot them on Fuji Velvia – which I would have done back in the day. It has a lovely punch to the colours without being over saturated and is particularly flattering for UK landscapes – makes the blue sky a bit bluer and the green fields a little more lush.

Anyway, much as I love exploring the North Pennines through photography – I’ve got a whole chunk here on Flickr – I was looking for something else from this.

While following the riverbed back upstream to see if I could actually find some water, the air was suddenly full of birds. Not the sparrows and starlings of towns and villages, but Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Lapwings and Curlews:

The North Pennines are a lonely landscape – big swathes of nothing. A great place for solitude. Only remote places are rarely empty and certainly never silent. Birdsong has a strange way of summoning up landscapes. Take the distant call of peacocks:

Peacock

To me that’s all lawn and topiary.

In mid-spring a deciduous forest in Sweden sounded like this:

An nightingales are an incredible sound. They only sing for two weeks every year:

Birdsong is a fascinating thing. To start with, birds don’t whistle – they sing. The shape of their beak doesn’t come into it. It comes from the throat like us. Humans have a larynx – a bit of flappy tissue and muscle which vibrates in airflow and creates all the basic sounds we make. We further adapt them with our lips to form words for instance, but the singy bit is all voice-box. Birds on the other-hand have a syrinx. It’s a bit like a larynx, only it can make sound with air flowing in both directions – so birds don’t need to stop to take a breath. Many birds have a syrinx with two bits so they can effectively sing two different sounds at the same time. In a way they are the ultimate singing machine.

zebra finch syrinx

syrinx of a Zebra Finch

Recent research in the States have created an artificial syrinx and can emulate complex songs. There’s a bit on the BBC site here

Birdsong has been a primary source of influence to artists and composers for centuries with countless compositions based on familiar bird calls. From the 17th Century Athanasius Kircher who first transcribed the song of a nightingale into musical notation to the 20th Century French composer Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Catalogue d’Oiseaux’.

By far my favourite artworks on birdsong are ‘Dawn Chorus’ by Marcus Coates – where birdsongs were slowed down and mimed to by people in ordinary morning locations with the video finally sped back up to pitch:

and ‘Syrinx’ by Pamela Z – again the bird songs were slowed right down to a lower pitch and replicated by her voice, and then raised back up to the original pitch and speed.

However, that’s great for traditional song birds, but the sounds that fill my landscape are very different and more complex in different ways.

Oystercatchers and Redshanks are fairly straight forward. Lapwings are ubiquitous – also known as Peewits due to their mating call. However, their vocabulary is extremely varied and almost alien at times:

(the beating sound in that clip is a Snipe – it makes that sound with its tail)

By far the sound that best sums up the vast open landscapes of the North Pennines for me is the whirl of the Curlew. The sound comes from way up above and bubbles across vast distances. It trails off in a descending tone, a built in dopplar effect which seems to accentuate the vastness of the landscape.

This clip has been filtered to remove lots of the background noise and other birds. It’s really difficult to just get the pure sound of a Curlew.

Messiaen captured the call of the Curlew and its sorrowful loneliness over the fells like this:

messiaen-curlew

It’s still got that trill element and the rising tone – represented as glissandos over a decaying drone chord. It’s got a melancholy about it that feels right and is a beautiful invocation, but it’s not the sound of a Curlew.

To figure out how the real sound is made I slowed the filtered recording right down to a manageable pitch and speed:

You get an idea of its construction from this sonogram of one of the repeated call sections:

curlew call spectrogram

From that I transcribed a basic score. I’ve done it in 3/4, but on reflection it’s probably 6/8. and an alto flute I figure is fairly close.

curlew-song2-1

so, I got the software to play it, sped it back up and it sounds like this:

Terrible.

So unbelievably bad. Though not really surprising – art is never simple. Making good art is hard work. OK, so it wasn’t a real flute playing in the first place – just a sequenced sample so lacks that natural element. Even so, this emulation of upland birdsong is far more complicated than I thought. Yet fascinating all the same. It’s going to take quite some time to get this right. I’m still not fixed on the idea of a perfect replication. I quite like Messiaen’s feeling for the bird and may yet go down that route, but there’s still something about challenging yourself and pursuing it until you get it just right and until I really have to dedicate my brain space to engineering calculations, I think that’s what I’ll do for now.

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It’s been so nice to have a real summer this year. Big chunks of blue sky, sunshine and even some heat to some of the days – a rare thing on Stainmore. Summers like this don’t happen too often, so I’ve made a point of getting out and taking advantage of it when I can.

Slate Quarry moss

A couple of weeks ago my Sunday afternoon walk took me up to Slate Quarry Moss. Anywhere with the word ‘Moss’ or ‘Bog’ is usually out of bounds on Stainmore and a real cert to getting wet feet. Knees and waist too most of the time. However, with this dry spell I thought it worth a punt. At least it would be quiet – no one goes walking on Stainmore! The Slate Quarry on Slate Quarry Moss isn’t really a slate quarry. There’s no slate up here. It’s a little sandstone seam that yielded nice clean flat flags that were used on all the buildings on this bleak moor – ordinary slates just blow away. How they ever managed to cart them away across the bog by horse and cart I have no idea! Still, it was good to see where bits of my house came from. The walk back took me further across the bog towards Iron Bland – a hill so entrenched in bog that few have ever managed, or bothered to get to it. It’s pretty bleak and featureless up there.

Boundary Stone, Cumbria

Yet, running across this vast nothingness was the Cumbria / County Durham border. Miles upon miles of unbroken post and wire fence in a dead straight line. There’s no mucking about. This is a real border. Like your back garden fence. You’re in no doubt that it’s the marking of a territory. As if that wasn’t enough, set every furlong (about 200 metres) there was a numbered stone marker. This is a very old border. Back in 1972 it was the Westmorland / Yorkshire border, but over the centuries, the names may have changed, but the border hasn’t.

Just down the road in the wonderful Bowes Museum, there’s currently an exhibition about the local astronomer and cartographer – Jeremiah Dixon. Just a bloke from the village up the road, but he became the Dixon in the Mason-Dixon line. A border between Pensylvania and Maryland in the US, his task was to plot a perfect line along the 39°43′ N lattitude for 5° longitude – or 244 miles, west from the Delaware River.

Mason Dixon Line

“A Plan of the West Line or Parallel of Latitude” by Charles Mason, 1768 via wikipedia

Like the Durham / Cumbria border, the line was marked with border stones known as ‘Crown Stones’ – each one shipped from England. Most of those stones survive today. Dixon and his team plotted 233 miles of the dead straight line before they hit land owned by the Lenape tribes and refused to cross. The line was completed by another team some years later.

Crown Stone

‘Crown Stone’ – Thompson, Morris M. Maps for America. Third edition. United States Geological Survey, Page 77. via wikipedia

The Mason-Dixon line wasn’t determined by natural boundaries, geology or even culture, but was just a nominal line on a map decided by two ‘landowners’. That the line is purely artificial adds a certain poignancy to its historical significance in later years – a defining point in the abolishment of slavery. It also gives us the term ‘Dixieland’, which is great for a bloke from the small village of Cockfield.

Borders are funny things. They’re really little more than lines on a map yet they’re a reminder of how rigourously people define and protect their property. The implications can be far wider reaching. Cultures, laws, communications, finance and transport are all bound by these simple lines on a map.

Here’s a part of a piece I did back in 2006 all along the eastern Cumbria borders.

here be dragons dragons5

It was a piece I did for the annual FRED festival (I’ll do a blog about that someday – promise!).  In 2008 an artists collective in Carlisle wondered if the city would be culturally better off if it were the other side of the Scottish border (a mere 7 miles away) and placed a (rather provocative) border sign some seven miles south of the city on the M6.

Unfortunately on that occasion the debate rarely elevated above tabloid racism in the local media and the sign was eventually destroyed – the supportive farmer whose land it was on was appalled that it had been cut down, exclaiming she was a “victim of knife crime!”

In a few weeks time I’m doing a project in Sweden that looks at the way forests are defined. On a map they have a definite line, but in reality the edge is often so blurred it’s hard to see how that line could have been drawn in the first place. Forests are unruly creatures – they are constantly trying to assimilate everything they come across and refuse to be tamed for any period of time. The project will in particular look at how communities which appear to be delineated from the forest actually exist as part of it. How forests create symbiotic relationships with anything they encounter.

Borders may be lines on maps, but imagination and innovation start when you colour over the lines.

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Inbetween Everywhere

Just a quick ranting post about the big art news today.

Art is good for you. I know the science is a bit flaky, but on the whole there’s enough evidence to at least make accept this to be true. Certainly there’s no flaky evidence that I know of to suggest it’s bad for you. So Art Everywhere is a great concept and one to be celebrated.

Only, is it really everywhere? or just in urban spaces? You decide:

art everywhere map

There’s some pretty big holes. It seems once again art isn’t for rural communities.

By comparison, here’s the interpretation of ‘everywhere’ in Cumbria according to FRED (2004 – 2008)

FRED everywhere

Or is this just an metro-centric art world trying to catch up with the progressive rural folk 10 years down the line?

rant over.

for now.

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