Q&A with Jones/Bulley

Published Mon 29 Jul by Owen

From 20-28 July 2019, Living Symphonies transformed part of Epping Forest with an ever-changing musical soundscape inspired by the flora, fauna and weather. We spoke to artists Jones/Bulley about how they created this magical installation. 

Where did the inspiration for Living Symphonies come from and how did the project begin?

Our previous works translate weather systems (Variable 4, 2010), radio broadcasts (Radio Reconstructions, 2012) and internet conversations (Vespers, 2015) into autonomous musical compositions, taking the complexity and dynamics of each of these systems and turning them into pieces of music that evolve over time.

The forest ecosystem is one of the archetypal examples of a complex system. It’s particularly interesting because there are ecologies within ecologies - for example, a population of insects living within the slow-changing structure of a growing tree. We wanted to express these multi-layered dynamics within Living Symphonies.

The work was first commissioned by Sound and Music and Forestry Commission England back in 2013. We were delighted to be invited to bring the piece to Epping Forest in 2019 by curators Kirsteen McNish and Luke Turner, as part of Waltham Forest Borough of Culture and London National Park City. It’s a radical reinvention of the piece, as it’s quite unlike any forest that Living Symphonies has taken place in before.

Has working in Epping Forest offered any interesting or unusual findings?

Epping Forest is very much the product of humans and nature working together. It is the subject of careful management by the forest keepers, who continually thin out the forest and pollard the trees: lopping off branches at head height, giving them a distinctive sprouting structure. Because of this, the forest has very distinct ecological characteristics: a thinned-out canopy means that more sunlight reaches the forest floor, and deadwood is left to decay, giving rise to a diverse and thriving ecology on the ground. We’ve foregrounded this in this iteration of the piece, giving prominence to the oft-overlooked species that thrive on the forest floor: beetles, fungi, lichens and mosses, the unheralded champions of the forest ecosystem.

Once you have an understanding of the ecosystem in the forest how do you go about transforming that information into musical sounds?

The composition of the numerous species within the piece is a process that takes place in parallel with the surveying and research that underpins our understanding of the ecosystem. Factors like bioacoustics, our human cultural understanding of species, and the roles that each species plays within the ecosystem inform the writing and conception of the notated scores for each organism. Each score detail hundreds of motifs and sounds to be performed and recorded for the species, and they are written for specific instrumentation. Within the work, each organism has around 4 different ‘movements’ or ‘activity states,’ which are heard dependent on the behaviour of the organism at any given time.

We then work with musicians to record the scores in the studio. In the case of this Epping Forest installation of Living Symphonies we have been fortunate to work with a number of extraordinary musicians who live locally, giving the piece an additional layer of resonance to its site. After these sessions, the recorded material is then edited and woven into the overall sound score of the piece, ready to be called upon whenever the species becomes present and active within the piece.

What has been your personal highlight from the project so far?

We’ve made some big compositional breakthroughs on the work this time around, particularly in the ways in which the motifs of the ecology collectively interact and evolve. Introducing some of these new mechanisms instantly produced a new level of sophistication and diversity in the work, which was a creative transformation for us.

But the biggest highlight always comes when we first switch on the piece in the forest. It’s the culmination of days of work by a brilliant and dedicated team of people: our audio technicians, the arborists who install the speakers high up in the canopy, and the install team who painstakingly hide kilometres of speaker cable beneath the ground. It’s always a great moment.

What do you hope listeners will take away from experiencing Living Symphonies?

The core idea behind the piece is to draw the listener’s focus to the interrelated set of forces that take place within the forest, and the hidden and beautiful complexity of the ecosystem all around us. We hope that visitors will use it as a platform to understand the forest in greater depth, and perhaps to experience things that previously went unnoticed.

What projects are next for Jones/Bulley?

We are working on various new projects involving natural systems, but in quite different environments than the forest. We’ll be posting some previews on our Instagram and Twitter feeds in the next few months: