Duncan Speakman is a composer and sound artist who creates pieces using mobile audio media. Duncan collected all kinds of sounds with his microphone during his stay.

Hearing the music of sho bamboo pipes live for the first time was the experience which left the strongest impression

I'm an artist and composer based in Bristol. I create works which encourage people to see their immediate environments in different ways by sending them out into cities or the places they live and generating new experiences of those places and their everyday lives mainly through sounds.

At the moment, I am trying to explore how our perception of time is influenced by, and in turn influences, our understanding of current issues of climate collapse and dealing with the Anthropocene (the age of the human race). I feel as though the way we live at present is on multiple time scales at the same moment: our everyday, human lives, but also bigger time scales of changes on a global scale, as well as the tiny time scales of microscopic animals. If the world right now is formed by the impact of actions from the past, what traces might our current actions leave in the future? If we look at Japanese music from this perspective, it takes a very different approach to time than Western music does. At the same time as wanting to try and find out how a different approach to time might affect the compositions I make, I wanted to find out more about Shinto philosophy, which seemed to speak about humans as being part of nature in a way that was quite different to the human-nature divide that we have in Western culture.

In Ise, the traditions and history of Ise Jingu have had a strong influence on the cultural activities in the area. The Shinto rituals and traditions have been valued and passed down, and I felt that there is a different concept of time from the linear, progressive time which we know. Ise Jingu is rebuilt every twenty years. So you're always returning to one moment of time, in contrast to the concept of being with something that is decaying or growing or progressing. That sensibility was really interesting to me.

Another thing which surprised me was that if you walk across the city of Ise, you can go from a thousand year old shrine and a historic townscape to an American-style highway and shopping malls; then if you go a bit further, you come to rivers and mountains and the sea. Before visiting Ise, I thought that the whole city would be somehow like the shrine, but in fact, there are various textures and types of scenery in the city and environment, so I could see really rapid changes just by walking a little way.

Hearing the music of sho bamboo pipes live for the first time as part of a kagura performance at Naiku was the experience which left the strongest impression on me during this trip. According to what a sho player told me, the frequency range of that instrument is way beyond what our ears hear or what most equipment records, so it’s a musical experience in which you're actually sensing the music as much as you're hearing it. The performance at Naiku was an ensemble of several instruments including flutes, taiko drums, sho and shichiriki pipes. Of these, the sound of these two woodwind instruments, sho and shichiriki, was absolutely incredible. I could have listened to it for hours actually if I was able to kneel comfortably for that long. The rough texture of the shichiriki against the more pure tones of the sho instrument, the incredible sound of these two instruments creates a musical environment which is peculiar to gagaku court music.

During this stay, a succession of many different activities were lined up for us, so as an experience it was very rich, but for me, as an artist working with sound, it was a pity that I couldn’t stay in one place for a while and take enough time to listen to the surrounding sounds. However, I also made some unique discoveries. This kind of residency programme is meaningful in terms of having the opportunity to experience the way the music is performed or a way a ceremony happens, and to understand the meanings these have in people’s lives. This is where dialogue is very important.

During our stay, we spent a lot of time discussing what it means for kami to reside in things, beginning with what we were told about the kami being unseen but existing. An interesting thing which showed the relationship with the unseen happened when we were visiting the ama divers by the sea. When I attached a contact microphone to a very thin metal protective railing by the roadside, I could hear that it was resonating sympathetically with the sea. The sound waves from the sea were making this railing vibrate, and the contact microphone was picking up those vibrations. It suddenly struck me as an interesting approach to thinking about the relationships between the kami, who exist in things but are unseen, and sound. From that point, I recorded the internal resonances of various objects like the wind and cars using the contact microphone. On the day that the big typhoon passed by, it was as if the city itself was vibrating.

I am not sure what I’m going to do with the sounds I collected, but it reminds me of something that the sho performer told me. There is no conductor in a gagaku ensemble: they apparently set their tempo by each other’s breathing. The pace of the composition is left up to the relationship between the players. I’d like to think more about this. Gagaku was originally a way of people reporting their daily activities to the kami. These recordings of the sounds of daily life here may also be in order to tell someone about something.

Man holding microphone recording environmental sounds

Ise City, British Council Photo by Hakubun Sakamoto

Profile: Duncan Speakman

Artist and composer who trained as a sound engineer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and is now based at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol. Often working with mobile audio and locative media, he creates narrative experiences that engage audiences emotionally and physically in uncontrolled spaces.

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