Return to Looe Island

Back in 1995, I spent several exhilarating and highly creative months living on Looe (or St. George’s) Island and in Looe itself, where I composed Island Symphony (the story is told here). I also wrote ‘Les Origines humaines’ during the same period.

Island Symphony was written at the request of Babs and Evelyn (Attie) Atkins, who owned the island at that time. They invited me to live in Smuggler’s Cottage while I created the piece. They wanted a proper Symphony, with an orchestra, but this could never be played on the island (not enough room!) so I made the work using orchestral samples, mixed with synthesised and recorded sounds. I also used the internet to gather sounds (this was before the World Wide Web!). It was a bit like gathering virtual driftwood.

Revisiting the island today has therefore been quite an emotional experience, filled with memories of the place and the late sisters who were its spirit. I am delighted to report that the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, in the persons of John and Claire Ross, have done a brilliant job of making the island into exactly what Babs and Attie wanted: a nature reserve.

Here are some of the photos I took during today’s visit:

East Looe Quayside
The island from the boat
View up the path from the beach
View back across to Hannafore and Looe
Smuggler’s Cottage

John was kind enough to show me inside my old dwelling. It was very damp when I lived there. They’ve now had to take up the floor completely and are trying to make it habitable once more.

John Ross

These next three photos show the location of Babs’ grave and memorial stone. Despite the sadness, it is good to know she is at rest on her beloved island.

View up to the door of the old craft centre, now a private dwelling.
Island House, also privately owned.

After all this time, I have still never seen inside the house!

The new craft centre, next to the generator shed.

To my great surprise, they are still selling CDs of Island Symphony! A snip at £5.

Island Symphony!
Claire, with a bottle of island apple juice.

Moon raker returning to pick us up.

Farewell, Looe Island…until the next time.

After such an enjoyable but emotional trip, there was only one place to go for lunch: the Salutation Inn. Also full of memories: Dick Butters sat at the bar; the long games of chess with Peter Warden…

Reflecting on the whole experience, I would like to return one day and make another Island Symphony. This one would eschew the orchestra and concentrate instead on field recordings. The use of the internet would change too: it would become the location of the piece. The new Island Symphony would be an ever-evolving web installation, a site that is always there and can be visited at any time, just like the island itself.

In the meantime, here is the Virtual Tour I made back in 1996.



Aural Diversity


Most music is made and reproduced on the assumption that all listeners hear in the same way. Psychologists generally write about aural perception as though it is a single standardised thing. Acousticians normally design the sonic environment using uniform measures. Musicologists typically discuss music at it is meant to be heard, not as it actually is heard.

The reality, of course, is that almost all people hear differently from one another. BS ISO 226:2003 is the standard for otological normality and is taken to be the hearing of an 18-25 year old. After this age, presbycusis (age-related hearing loss) usually sets in, at rates that vary from person to person. On top of this comes a range of other potential losses, from noise-induced hearing loss to sensorineural disorders, from genetic problems to losses caused by trauma or medication. In other words, every single person is likely to have at least some hearing loss after the age of 25 and very many people have significant hearing difficulties. I am  willing to bet that a substantial number of 18-25 year olds also have hearing problems!

Given this state of affairs, it is surprising that more is not spoken about aural diversity. In an era when diversity is such a hot topic in so many aspects of society and life in general, why is aural diversity so neglected? My friend Professor John Levack Drever has written about it quite a lot, but otherwise there seems to be a dearth of discussion of the subject. There is plenty on disability, of course, which is great, but for those who would not classify as disabled but nevertheless are aurally diverse: not so much. This affects musicians as much as anyone else. I am aware of many musicians and composers (myself included) who struggle with their hearing, but who nevertheless continue to make music that sounds as it should to “normal” ears. Perhaps it is time that we started to reflect more honestly on our own limitations and present these in our music?

I certainly find myself at a compositional crossroads. If I continue to create normal music, I will have to revert to writing dots on paper because I can no longer hear digital sound accurately enough. At least my aural imagination is intact. If, on the other hand, I want my music to reflect my own experiences, then I have to start engaging with my aural limitations by introducing into my sound world those elements that I actually hear (including such disturbing things as diplacusis and tinnitus). How to do this yet still create beautiful music is a real challenge.

In the meantime, I can envisage a series of musical events that celebrate aural diversity. Surely there are composers and musicians out there (including those with normal hearing!) who would wish to make music that reflects on or addresses itself to a range of hearing types? Perhaps this opens up a new possibility of bespoke music that is more than just the result of users fiddling with EQ and is intrinsically designed for the individual listener’s hearing abilities.

Jean-Claude Risset vs. Jean-Pierre Brisset

risset brisset

Several years ago, I gave a paper about Jean-Pierre Brisset and music. I was asked to do so because of my compositions based on his work and ideas: Catalogue de grenouilles, Brisset Rhymes and Les origines humaines.

Some of the audience came along, it emerged, because they thought I was going to talk about the music of Jean-Claude Risset. It was an understandable error. Apart from the similar-sounding surnames, there is a section in my book The Digital Musician devoted to Risset’s piece ‘Sud’, and I was speaking in the context of an electroacoustic music research group. I’m not sure to what extent people were pleased to discover that my attentions were elsewhere!

Now, by a strange twist of fate, I find myself invited by the Collegium Musicae of the Sorbonne to speak at a two-day colloquium at IRCAM, Paris, devoted to Jean-Claude Risset. I am speaking about interdisciplinarity, of which Risset was a prime example.However, this coincidence has given me the opportunity to reflect in this blog on any potential connections between Risset’s music and Brisset’s works. Let’s call it a pataphysical mash-up.

At first glance, the differences are almost total. Brisset died in 1919, twenty years before Risset was born, and was an outsider: largely ignored or ridiculed. Risset, on the other hand, was very much the insider, leading the development of computer music through scientific discovery and collaborating in an open and mutually respectful manner with other pioneers. Risset was a composer and computer scientist working in universities. Brisset was a minor railway official and philologist/philosopher, propounding his eccentric theories that Man is descended from the Frog through a kind of linguistic evolution based in puns in French.

But, despite the unlikeliness of this collision, I detect two areas where they seem to share a common interest: the interior properties of sound; and the importance of meaning.

Risset made his reputation by entering within sounds to explore and exploit their characteristics (pitch, timbre/spectrum, rhythm, etc.) Most of his works are made from a drawing out of normally unnoticed sonic content. In particular, he was fond of aural illusions, such as glissandi which appear to continuously ascend or descend (they are the aural equivalent of the drawings of M. C. Escher). He uses these illusions to shape episodes in compositions in which sounds transform into one another. Bells become human voices which then transform again into percussion. As sounds mutate into one another, it is the closeness and detail of the listening that distinguishes his music. He had a delicate and sensitive ear and a certain lightness of touch in composition.

Brisset, too, entered into the detail of sound. For him, each human word contained a series of mutable components derived from the phonemic utterances of frogs. These utterances themselves were polysemic and polyvalent. They could be combined and modified over time to adapt to their new meanings, as the creatures (our ancestors) that produced them physically developed. In other words, as the frogs morphed into humans, so the cries they uttered morphed into longer words and phrases. For some examples, see some of my translations.

Which leads on to meaning. For Brisset, the entire universe was full of signification. Every frog call, indeed every sound, meant something (he was, after all, a religious man). Now, at first, what emerges from the colloquium is how little meaning Risset’s sounds possess. Bells, human voices, instruments, etc. are chosen not so much for their significance but rather purely for their sonic properties. Risset’s style is to process well-chosen sounds into even more well-chosen sounds.

But (and this is my main conclusion from the colloquium so far) Risset’s sounds have mathematical meaning. Where, for Brisset, the universal frame of reference is language, for Risset it is mathematics. That is why the computer is such an appropriate tool for him. It is not that Risset’s work is meaningless. It is rather that it’s meaning lies in an area outside normal language. And it’s the same with Brisset.