Introducing Site Singing…
Site Singing evolves from an idea I had years ago about having a ‘polyphonic’ solo practice. So, layering my vocal field recordings from each site, and also considering that a ruin itself has a voice / voices. So Site Singing is techincally a solo project but for me its about many voices… the many voices of me and the many voices of each site, all combining, and being offered out anew.
In the summer of 2014 I returned to Bristol after fourteen years away, and began the Site Singing project as a way to both re-engage with the South West, and explore my voice in new ways.
In this ongoing project, I venture out to conduct solo vocal experiments at a selection of lesser-visited ruins and heritage sites in the region, working directly with the acoustics to ‘vocalise’ the site. Using a hand-held field-recorder, I craft the resulting voice-based field recordings into evocative ‘sound sketches’, which are the basic elements of my live performances.
The project also manifests in exhibitions, residencies, workshops and collaborations. The audio, photographs and sketchbook drawings – impressions of my experiences often created on the journey home – are documented here, on my project blog.
This independent project was initiated with the blessing of English Heritage, and has emerged from my ongoing work around voice, performance, visual art, and composition. I have since recieved ongoing support from the Churches Conservation Trust, and the location of As Above, So Below, the collaboratove artist residency with Berlin-based artist Markus Feiler at St John on the Wall, Bristol, 7-11th October 2018, reflects this. ”
More about the project:
In what ways do heritage sites have ‘many voices’?
Can vocal encounters with such sites produce new forms of ‘polyphonic’ response, even when working solo?
How can such responses be used to share, and contribute to, our understanding, experience and interpretation of historical sites?
How can each site be embodied or conveyed through live performance in completley different places? In what way does the presence, atmosphere or ‘voice(s)’ of each site make itself felt?
I am a Bristol-based artist, and my work spans the mediums of voice and live performance, drawing, sound art, video and artistic direction. This blog was originally created to document my development of site-specific sound works at a selection of English Heritage sites in South West England. Through the work, I intended to use my voice to explore, and reflect on the significance, of historical sites, with the initial aim of creating downloadable sound works for visitors as a form of alternative interpretation.
The parameters of the project have since expanded beyond this into live performance, events, exhibitions, collaborations and residency projects. Having spent much of my childhood being physically in and around ancient sites like castle ruins, I hope to draw attention to the sensory nature of visiting and spending time at such sites, and relate this to their overall significance.
I started by selecting some of the less frequented sites in the English Heritage guide book (and beyond), which can be reached by foot and public transport within a day from Bristol. At these initial sites (and at several more since), I began to conduct sonic explorations of each site, working directly with the acoustics, and responding to the existing sounds of each site.
Using a simple hand held recorder, I create field recordings of this process, which can then be used to create inital vocal ‘sound sketches’: multi-layered sonic drawings using the voice (click on the ‘audio’ tab at the top of this page to hear some of these). I originally aimed for these to be interpretative audio works / downloadable podcasts for English Heritage which could be listened to at each site. English Heritage gave blessing and support to my attempts at getting funding for this, but it was not succesful. This was disheartening after so much effort, but it made me stop and think – shall I continue in that direction, or shall I just take this project down a different path, a wilder path where it becomes the heart of my solo practice, where it is free to evolve creatively without needing ‘approval’ by a panel. It turns out this approach has been succesful, and the work continues to develop and reach people in a variety of ways including exhibitions, workshops, residencies and collaborations. And I do like to think that the sound-sketches and growing body of live work I am now creating do serve this initial purpose in an ‘unofficial’ capacity, encouraging and enhancing any visit to these very special places.
I continue to make field recordings, which now form the starting point for developing new compositional possibilities for the singing voice. Site Singing is building a body of unique auditory responses which through live performance and collaborations will hopefully inspire individuals to experience of the sites themselves, and in some way may bring the sites to audiences in completley different places. This process, of conveying or embodying a kind of acoustic essence of the sites through performance, fascinates me.
I see the historical story and significance of an individual site as being tangible in its current physical presence, and for me, that means in experiencing its acoustics. Every site as has its own sonic language or ‘sound-world’, with its latent resonances, or ‘voices’, waiting to be found. In this way, heritage sites offer and enable sensory experiences which hover between past, present and future.
My blog entries document the work in progress, through which I will further develop my approach of ‘vocalising site’ – using my own voice to give voice, or a polyphony of voices, to site. This will in turn wides my concepts of what voice, and working with voice as a compositional tool, can be. I will not be aiming to necessarily make flawless ‘choral’ sounds, but rather to use my voice as openly as I can to respond to each site, thereby also challenging and augmenting my own relationship with my voice. Through this, an inter-related site, sound and vocal practice, I aim to reflect each site individually, including its relationship with its surroundings, and the conditions of the time spent there.
Ellen Southern, July 2014 (updated June 2020)
For more on my work see:
Works archive – www.ellensouthern.co.uk