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Considering ‘Musician’ as ‘Magician’ and ‘Sound’ as ‘Spell’

through site-specific, spontaneous sounding on the Dartington Estate

Exploring 'sacred space' + sound boundaries through community resonance,

culminating in a piece made for the Redwoods, inviting members of the Dartington Learning Community to partake in building a COCOON from improvised sound, with cello and voices, trees, birds, fire-from-scratch and the Schumacher dinner gong…
























          photo - 'Activation' (mine) /// sound - early improvisation with bamboo, both in in Studio 20


In our private Arts & Place studio sharing on 24th May, I invited my course mates and tutors to join me in making sounds of our inner fires in a DIY 'ACTIVATION' ceremony, with a piece of dried bamboo as a rudimentary rattle picked up in the Schumacher College Forest Garden, and shared the following words:


To light a fire is to activate something -

the divine spark of life,

to mark a threshold,

to hold a space in warmth and light,

to summon pure creative potential...

Here we are going to see if it is possible to

light a fire with sound, and honour the 

reawakening of the Spirit of Art at Dartington...

I then performed a new song, one that had started to emerge whilst improvising in the Great Hall here on the old and resonant Elmhirst Cello, a longtime resident of Dartington, gratefully borrowed during my time here. I love imagining that the vibrations of the wood remember the instrument's previous players, and even its life as a tree or trees... The activation happens on many levels...

When I first went into Dartington's Great Hall to play cello this Spring, I was struck by the ENORMOUS stone fireplace, with giant logs of woods just waiting... waiting for a song, perhaps, to bring them back to life!  

The song, 'Light a Fire in your Hearth' felt like a spark connecting this very physical fireplace with my personal inner fire. On discovering that real wood fires are not now allowed in that magnificent fireplace, it seemed to me, whilst playing and singing on that day, that, as one of the very first new Arts students since the closure of Dartington College of Arts many years ago, and after over a year of barely any music events due to the coronavirus pandemic, I was part of a group whose role it was to light this fire on a different level, and in doing so to somehow reactivate the spirit of Art here at Dartington! 

[video in Dartington Great Hall, filmed by Patrick Collins, May 2021]

In Soundaries I am exploring the re-framing of performances as 'sound portals' in which myself and others present are active participants, whether listening to or making sound.  In the project I am seeking to shift away from the divide of performer/audience, this invitation hovering over thresholds into a space of ritual sound-making together, as well as a movement towards prioritising self-care within (un)performance practice.  The project title has multiple connotations, 'sound' alluding to both vibration and a sense of safety, of being 'held' and retaining a sense of personal space in community.

I have recently been inspired by the work of Robert MacFarlane in his poetry collections 'The Lost Words' and 'The Lost Spells', which aim to bring alive through utterance words that are disappearing from the natural world.  Also playing on this word, David Abram says in The Spell of the Sensuous: "Perhaps the most succinct evidence for the potent magic of written letters to be found in the ambiguous meaning of our common English word 'spell'" (p133).  In Soundaries, I want to extend this idea of 'casting spells' with the written and spoken word to doing so with song.  


My research has included informal chats with friends and students at Dartington about sacredness, sacred space and sound, as well as lengthy talks with my MA Arts and Place coursemate Anne-Marte Rygh, and Dartington lecturer Emma Bush with both of whom I share an interest in improvised vocal practice.  A request to have a short interview on ritual with Andy Letcher, the MA Engaged Ecology lead at Schumacher College, turned into co-organiser a whole lecture on the subject, which was incredible rich, especially with regards to his own experience as a professional musician and how performance and ritual are inherently linked.


'Ritual is about play, and we forget how to play' 

(Andy Letcher, lecture on Ritual, Schumacher College, May 25th 2021)
















COCOON fireside cello, voice & communal

During Soundaries I have developed a site-specific piece for the magnificent Redwoods on the Estate called COCOON, inviting members of the learning community at Dartington and Schumacher to weave a cocoon of sound with our improvised voices.


opening words, May 26th 2021, The Redwoods 

COCOON NOTES, after May 26th 2021

Exploring Co-coonity…

How do we find our own space whilst living in community?


Around 15 people came to weave their voices this full moon night in the Redwoods.  A perfect number, anyway, for a sense of intimacy and spaciousness.  We gathered fire-wood and two Engaged Ecology students - Rosemary and Jan - from Schumacher College joined who had responded to my call-out for anyone interested in kindling the night’s fire from scratch - i.e. with a bow drill, which I knew they had been learning to do in class over the last weeks.  



(photo: Emily Ashworth)




                                                                                                              bow drill with cello

Their bow drills moving rhythmically to create the friction to make the first ember, after a little while I instinctively synchronised my cello bowing with their wooden bows, deep tones mixing with the squeaks of wood and string… and almost instantly, as though by magic, a spark ignited! 

The fire-lighter commented on how this was the music helping - and it certainly felt to me that there was something in the power of the sound vibration as well as the unified intention that brought this glowing ember alight.  We had a few more attempts to really get it going - adding other participants spontaneous ‘fire sounds’  as they gathered - the same happened again, music seeming to magic the spark into life, but in the end we used matches to really get the fire going. 



                                                                                whispers of our inner fire

I had assured my fire assistants that there was no pressure to be ‘successful’ - they had only just started learning how to do this - and it was such a wonderful display for us all to observe this ancient process in the opening of the event.  When I got home, this suddenly occurred to me: the song lyrics that I was singing, from ‘Light a Fire in your Hearth’ - ‘just a spark, just a spark, just a spark’… perhaps, whilst helping the fire, my music had also hindered it somehow, limiting the spell to creating only a spark.  Just maybe the power of words and music is more important than I had consciously realised?


My intention to play with the edges of individual-communal space through sound, by first establishing our own personal ‘cocoons’ and then coming back to weave together into one, whilst retaining a sense of our own cocoon - through essentially a communal vocal experiment - seemed to play out reasonably well.  We began by the fire with some listening to the more-than-human sounds around us, the soundscape already in existence. 



         'Already' sounds of the woods

I led a short meditation, in which we visualised and embodied a sense of roots growing down from our feet/sitting bones and an invisible thread coming up from the crown of the head, making us bridges between the earth and sky. 




            humming and toning


Moving some gentle humming and toning with a cello drone, imagining the sound filling our bodies and then extending outwards to form a sphere of energy around us,  then I invited people to take their threads of sound, their personal cocoons, out into the redwoods, to place themselves with a tree they felt drawn to, and to have a personal dialogue of sound with that tree. 





                                                                                           The Redwoods (my photo)

The trees are perfectly spaced-out for this here - far enough away to feel a kind of solitude and safety to explore, but just within earshot of others, so there was still a sense of a connective web of sound threads…


















                                                                                             (photo: Emily Ashworth)

I moved in the space, weaving between the trees with my cello held on a strap, voicing prompts for vocal exploration, and for listening to the existent sounds.  At one point during this section we tried ‘human birdsong’, shape-shifting our boundaries through mimesis into the sounds of flying ones, ones high up in the trees under which we stood. 




              Human Birdsong


We did call-and-response in clusters with the other humans nearest us, then opening out the field to become more responsive as a whole collective, still standing or sitting with our trees.


I encouraged people to move their bodies as they felt to, throughout the session.  I began to move towards individual sounders, interacting with them with my cello and voice, exploring how I could gather together the threads, before ringing to gong (the borrowed Schumacher dinner bell!) to call people back to the fire, with a chant playing on the words ‘cocoon’ and ‘cuckoo’. 




Here, returned, I encouraged a few different improvisational structures that I hoped would nurture a sense of a collective sound cocoon, integrating the individual voices into a whole.  This went to places that verged on the liberatingly ridiculous,




         'Silly Song'

to the rather solemn, and ended on a freeform improvisation where I encouraged someone different, anyone, to dare to make the first sound, when they felt to do so, from a collective ‘silence’ .  I occasionally gave prompts, but largely this was woven communally from a very intuitive place.

            excerpt of final song

Gathering feedback at the end - inevitably I turned the recorder (a Zoom H5) off before the real conversation got going (a co-incidence?), but here are some fragments of things participants said:


“Really liberating”

that was really special.  Sometimes, amongst the trees, I just stopped to take it all in”

I loved taking my own cocoon out into the woods and then bringing it back to weave with the others as a whole” 

Someone commented on how they felt moments of flow-state (which Andy Letcher had spoken about in his lecture on Ritual I’d helped to organise the night before), which then got broken, in periods of lostness, as we tried to find our threads again.  This has been a very common experience in my vocal improv practice in general, and in COCOON, and I thanked everyone for their courage to show up with trust in the unknown journey of our voices.

I think we proved that fire can - at least almost - be lit by sound!



weaving the cocoon


I think that COCOON would potentially adapt well to other sites; I would also be interested to do it here again with different or the same members of the community.

Considerations for further work - 

>>>I would like to look into the effect of human sound on birdlife, whether it disrupts their ability to communicate etc.

>>>Learn how to hold ritual space really well.

>>>If I do COCOON again, or realise other 'Soundaries', I want to explore using binaural headsets for recording the results.

>>>A note and ongoing debate on recording… When I told people I was recording the event I may have imagined a shiver of fear move around the circle.  It’s such a difficult decision - recording really can affect (for some more than others) an ability to drop into a sense of safe space, but I think on the whole we managed to forget about the little red light! I would like to explore, research and discuss this some more, particularly looking to accounts of digital recording in ritual space.

BIRCH SCORES - potential the next 'Soundary' - involves making woven or sewn cloth scores with lines inspired by the markings on birch bark, to be hung between groups of 3 birch trees on the Dartington Estate (there are many, it seems!) and read like music from one side. whilst watched/listened to from the other.























INSPIRATION for Soundaries


Andy Letcher - Ritual lecture, May 25th 2021, Schumacher College

Conversation with Anne-Marte Rygh, May 2021 (online)

Interview with Emma Bush, May 2021 (online)

many students of the Dartington Learning Community

Trees and birds of the Estate

The River Dart

The Fireplace

TEXTS (in no particular order)

The Earth Path - Starhawk [on the creation of ritual space]

The Art of Mindful Singing - Jeremy Dion [mindful approaches to singing and improvising with the voice]

The Lost Spells - MacFarlane & Morris [poetry aiming to bring to life entities from the natural world]

The Great Animal Orchestra - Bernie Krause [more-than-human soundscape]

Anthology of Essays on Deep Listening (ed. Monique Buzzarté & Tom Bickley)[especially on the work of Pauline Oliveros]

The Spell of the Sensuous - David Abram [casting spells with language, parallels between oral culture, topography & more-than-human realms]

KITH - Jay Griffiths [on the sacred space of childhood freedom]

The Wisdom of the Wyrd - Brian Bates [ancient indigenous European lore, sacred song in Wyrd culture]

Arts in Place - Cara Courage

From Ritual to Theatre - Victor Turner 


word cloud - what 'sacred space' means to people I spoke to at Dartington

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