Pointillist and Shifting — Thoughts on Living Symphonies

Writing from Dan Richards, who visited Living Symphonies at Thetford and Cannock Chase during the summer 2014 tour.

The first time I worked with James Bulley, we recorded a holloway; arriving in the Dorset hills in gold light, setting up the Stereo Shotgun Microphone (wide-field), the Soundman Binaurals — super cardioid. The figure 8 devices to log the green tree tunnel: Zoom H4, Zoom H2 — engaged and visited at intervals that night, crawling out our Jerry-built bivvy — half-cock, half sleeping, piled in a tent slumped down in the burrow, steeped in the sounds of the wind’s play above and the bird fuss, unseen, deep cow sounds — rumpled murmurs, distant bells. The chuff and whir of a tractor’s chug, gruff throb in the valley behind us… every few hours we’d rouse and sift for sounds, resetting, saving, muttering as we moved along the ancient sunken road, spun round with trees.

Next morning, we woke to a silvered world as the slow sun spun every spiderweb zinc and the frost fallen over the field in the night crunched under our bleary feet like so many Visa-cards swiping on windscreens. Wrapped Jodrell Bankers, we paced and listened, the far bells again, the cows stirring, cars on the A35 — all arrived sharp on the red eared air. Breath steaming, we stomped and hugged ourselves in the cold, as the day flamed and swelled about us burning off the rime and hush … but all that first fidelity, mussed and vivid, abides in the recordings James made and perhaps one day we’ll press them onto record — Transitions: A. Dusk to Night / B. Dawn to Day.
That would be a good thing.


That was how it began with James and I. I’d written and he arrived to record the space I’d writ. Now, early summer, the roles were reversed as I walked into his forest world and work — into The Brecks to immerse myself in a bowl of hawthorn and papery ash, Scots pine, elm and sycamore. The day was wet beneath a low and spongy sky. The grasses in the dell weighed with raindrops, drip and patter on the rot-wood humus sprung beneath my feet.
Woven amidst the arbor, James, Daniel Jones and their unseen team had hidden a gauze of compositions drawn and entwined with the ecosystem here present — meshed sympathetic with the life of the place, spun from its nature — referential; referring back to the flora and fauna abiding about this Thetford jorum. The first of four ancient silvan sites with Fineshade, Cannock, Bedgebury to come.
Seven days at each.
Cannock Chase Installation Site

Cannock Chase Installation Site

Far away, months before, James had been recording violinists — smithereen arachnid  flinders — transcribing beasties as free-jazz note fits, brain spread thin with things to do; throwing weird compositional shapes to make a sense of myriad lifeforms: how should Sycamore go?

All this to be knitted so the music — pointillist and shifting — sits harmonious within a scape; drawing on and out the wonder already extant. So as to be sap not sapping: of a piece with the microcosmos — sapped as James sounds on the phone… bled by the deadlines bearing down: ‘weeks scoring all night, sessions all day and then a few days editing…’

Later on, in a Midlands dusk, sat beside a foil lake with cross geese, I listen to Daniel and James attempt to get ‘Owl’ working. Hearing them walkie talkie in the gloaming — panning Owl to left and right, running Owl schematics, hammering it out — I wonder whether anybody else is up to something similar… anywhere. At all.

Of all the woods in all the world, these doings must stand unique.
Clipboard. Photgraph: Dan Richards

Clipboard. Photograph: Dan Richards

Next day the audience walk up the stone path from the lodge. In twilight, they enter the woods to stand or sit about the trees in various postures of contemplation. Some lean on trunks, some slump, some kneel… a child in a purple jacket runs round and round the silvered paths, flattened by innumerable feet over the days of the LS residency… the patter of her scampering feet of a piece with the myriad sounds scattered, thrown and sown in the mulch, wood, moss and canopy capillary space.

Some of the music is Eno Apollo, other parts remind me of somnolent Four Tet, found sounds ‘becoming‘ — cotyledon variegation, half-heard voices, mechanical compost; a sonic cloud soup in the woodlot — hovering, knocking, passing, resolving, rolling, nagging, skulking unnoticed.


Sudden alteration, a resonant presence — spectral as chill air pooled on a path.

Hive reverberations; ants, mites, spiders. Soft moths, sharp wasps, low worm squirm.

We spoke about it, of course; James, Dan and I. I’ve hours of conversation taped — all that work, the thought behind it. The build up, surveys, set up, breakdown, repetition, rubbed temples, madness, doubt and joy… but all of it is summed up in that night at Cannock Chase. Those people in that forest, engaged, engrossed, some visibly moved, stood about trees as if for the first time — the people opened out, the forest opened up anew, afresh. Afresh.


Dan Richards, 2014

Dan Richards was born in Wales in 1982.
He received a BA from The University of East Anglia and an MA from Norwich Arts School.
He is co-author of HOLLOWAY with Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood, published by Faber & Faber in 2013.
THE BEECHWOOD AIRSHIP INTERVIEWS, an investigation into the working methods and spaces of some of the greatest artists working today is set to be published by The Friday Project in 2015.

Long-form interviews with Jenny Saville, Stewart Lee, Dame Judi Dench, Manic Street Preachers, and Jane Bown and many others inform the book’s central manifesto about the importance of art for art’s sake, of learning and honing a craft, and getting your hands dirty.
CLIMBING DAYS, an exploration of the writing and climbing lives of his great great aunt and uncle Dorothy Pilley and I.A. Richards, is set to be published by Faber & Faber in 2016.
Dan has written for The Times, The Quietus, and Caught By The River.
He lives and works in Bath.