Listening to the landscape

· culture · life ·

At the weekend, we got back from a week away in our favourite holiday spot: North Norfolk. As ever, it was wonderfully peaceful and laid-back, but we also got nearly a full week of bright sunshine with almost no rain (which was unexpected). I had a lot of fun with my Fujifilm X100T, particularly as the weather was so co-operative. I’m starting to settle in with the focal length, and I’m finding that the creative constraint of having a fixed lens is making me see some interesting compositions, often before I’ve brought the viewfinder to my eyes. I certainly took a lot more photos than I have on recent visits, and you can see some of the best shots on Flickr here (the first 10 or so are from the same location this April and are with my Sony, but the rest are taken with the Fujifilm).

We managed a nice mixture of doing things and doing nothing1. On one of the doing things days, we re-visited a National Trust property called Felbrigg Hall. We’ve been there a few times now, and have enjoyed wandering around the extensive gardens and parklands, as well as seeing inside the house. This time, we noted that an event (the artists, Strijbos & Van Rijswijk, call it ‘physical cinema’) was happening at Felbrigg called Walk With Me. The idea is that you walk around the parklands and gardens wearing headphones connected to an iPad. The artists have planted geotagged sound beacons around the area, so that as you walk, you hear sound effects, music and dialogue, triggered when you enter the radius of one or more of the beacons. These overlap in quite an artful way, so the effect is usually natural and seamless.

I’m not normally very keen on mixing the digital and the natural worlds. I like both a lot, but if, for example, I’m outdoors in a natural environment, I prefer to experience it as it is, and soak myself in the natural sounds. I rarely listen to music while walking, for example, and my mobile listening tends to be restricted to being on trains or buses, or waiting at stations. So I wasn’t sure how much I was going to enjoy wandering around like a dork, encumbered by technology, when I could just be listening to real birds, and real wind through the trees. However, something about the idea intrigued me, and I persuaded Mr. Bsag that we should give it a try.

I’m really glad we tried it, because I found it an interesting, haunting, and often strangely moving experience. There is a broad but fragmented story to be discovered, but of course the order in which you encounter the various elements depends entirely upon where you wander, and that is up to you and what paths you find interesting or attractive. The elements of the story wander through time, and the sound effects are recorded in the spot where you hear them, but are sometimes slightly processed to sound a bit odd. It feels a bit like slipping through parallel worlds, finding yourself in another time, or brushing up against ghosts and hearing their thoughts. You hear footsteps at various points, or children laughing in the distance, and look around to try to find the source of the sound. Again, because the sounds were recorded in your current location, it can blur the boundaries between what is in the real world right now, and what is within the recording2.

We both love radio, and particularly radio drama. There’s something very intimate and vivid about having stories spoken directly into your ears, and even better when you have the best cinema image ever (the real world) right in front of you at the same time. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I’m easily moved (often by really stupid or weird things), and while I don’t want to offer any spoilers in case you want to do the walk yourself, there were a few points when I found myself unexpectedly welling up over a particular line of dialogue or a sound, and had to pretend to passing walkers that I had got some dust in my eyes. It’s also quite scary in places, and confirmed my previous impression that icehouses are creepy places. There were also some beautiful and uplifting moments. I’m not sure if it was intentional (I suspect it was), but as we left the relative darkness and quiet of a section of woodland into the open parkland, into the sunlight, the music simultaneously swelled and opened out into exactly the kind of theme you’d want to represent that experience. Lovely.

The event continues until the 30th October, and if you’re in the area, I highly recommend it.

  1. Well, not exactly nothing — productive loafing. I spent some wonderful times sitting in the shade of an arch in a Medieval friary wall, knitting socks or reading, and looking up at intervals to gaze out over the marshes towards the sea. Sigh. ↩︎

  2. Or indeed, your own head. ↩︎