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  • Matthew Shenton

Listening to the Landscape 3 - the rural soundscape

Updated: 20 hours ago

In this blog series I have discussed in part one how relocating to Suffolk inspired me to investigate how other artists have responded to the county, and in part two how rural language and place names became entwined in my sound work. In part three I will look at how I became aware of my local soundscape after experiencing an underwhelming dawn chorus in 2019.

Digital time stamps on Apple’s Voice Memo app shows that I began recording the everyday sounds around me in early 2018. I can’t really remember why I started recording or pinpoint if there was a trigger for becoming interested in sound; other than to assume that this coincided with reducing my working hours to look after my eldest daughter. We often had ten hours together which would be broken up with dog walks and exploring everything that was around us.

The first few recorded files archived on the app are of my daughter singing and chatting away to herself, and were probably made to share with family. But within a month the file names show that I had moved on to record other sounds around the house such as the rhythms created by cd skipping, the hum of our electric oven and the bubbling sound of a vegetable lasagne. So far, so mundane. But then recordings of more natural sounds start appearing: birdsong in the garden at twilight, wind on the waves of a tidal river and the satisfying drips of water from leaves after a heavy downpour of rain. These lo-fi recordings were not for sharing with others but instead became a personal archive of treasured experiences to listen to again.

Having children makes you no stranger to early mornings, and we had listened to the dawn chorus in our back garden on a couple of occasions. We were not really interested in being able to identify the individual species, but just to enjoy the varied songs close to home. In April 2019 I decided that I wanted to hear the dawn chorus in a different location; surely the glorious sounds heard in my garden would be exponentially amplified and enriched in our local woodland? I woke at four am, walked for a few miles until deep inside the woods, hit record on my phone and waited for the sun to rouse the birds. After a few hours I left disappointed.

It was a classic case of expectation not matching experience. The woodland did not sing for me as I thought it should, and I began to question why. Was it my presence? Just a random non-event? I returned to the same spot on other occasions and struggled to find much bird life in the woodland. I began to wonder if maybe that it was managed woodland with regular timber harvesting and pheasant shooting was the cause. And if so, how did human interaction and influence affect the wider soundscape?

I started to throw my sonic net further afield and found the sounds of drone and agribusiness. My field recordings were now capturing where human and rural landscape intersect. I discovered huge irrigation pumps rhythmically clanking as they pumped and sprayed water: their trailing pipes sliding, crawling and squelching across fields through the newly soaked earth. Electric fences hummed as they encircled mute sheep. The A14 and other smaller roads droned with car and lorry tyres. Industrial clangs and clanks from harbours and ports drifted across the rivers. Commercial shipping containers crashing down intruded into my senses. Halyards clanking and tap, tap, tapping like a tell-tale heart. Lampposts strung with internet fibre cables became transformed into aeolian harps when the wind was right. The rustle of reed beds hid a warbler. Buzzards crying, swifts shrieking and jays croaking pierced the background sounds before Apache and Chinook ripped the sky apart.

My soundwork drew upon all of this. Synth drone textures were modulated to move around the head and quiet sections of compositions would be violently intruded upon by clashing frequencies. Natural and manufactured items from the earth were recorded with contact mics. Field recordings were manipulated, used in ‘ghost side-chaining’ to draw attention to what they could not capture or looped to reveal their monotonous nature.

For me, the rural soundscape is not a natural soundscape. It is scarred and blighted by our thoughtless intrusions. And I find this fascinating and worthy of continual investigation. How did we get here, and where will we end up?


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