• Gail Tasker

Lockdown Listening: how artists have been creating ecology-inspired music

Updated: Apr 26

Radio makes a captive listener out of you. There’s a playlist, there’s commentary, and you can listen, change the station, or turn it off. But, through lockdown, some channels have started to look at new ways of sharing music. Gail Tasker explores the ‘new normal’ for musicians who are looking to the great outdoors in order to continue creating.


Ambient Flo presents two 24-hour channels. The first is a dedicated stream of curated ambient music from a global range of artists. The second plays field recordings of birdsong, captured by Finnish sound recordist Lauri Hallikeinin in the forests of Eastern Finland.


While the first stream plays, the listener can start the second stream, which slowly brings in Hallikeinin’s recordings until they’re gently present, high-pitched calls and witterings coming through intermittently. Mixing naturally-occurring sounds with ambient music is something quite novel for the casual radio listener. The effect can be simultaneously meditative and consciousness-raising. It increases our appreciation of the outside world, which, with our access to the urban norm during lockdown, has become all the more present.


Ambient Flo is the brainchild of Scottish producer Auntie Flo (aka Brian d’Souza), inspired by a set of weekly livestreams held in his garden. During the first lockdown, d’Souza had begun to livestream DJ sets from outside, playing two hours of music every Saturday morning. This shift from club to garden has gone as far as to transform his music-making. ‘The longer I stay away from clubs, the more I appreciate quiet subtle sounds, away from the tyranny of kick drums and hi-hats,’ d’Souza says. His garden gigs have increased his awareness of nature, leading him to download an app called Warbler, ‘like the Shazam for birds. I’ve been using it to identify the birds and their different calls.’


The longer I stay away from clubs, the more I appreciate quiet subtle sounds, away from the tyranny of kick drums and hi-hats

This shift of environment and musical content has left musicians isolated at home, forced to experiment with new methods. Similarly, the daily soundscape has taken a different form. Through limits to our movement and lack of stimuli, there have been moments of stillness, of reflection. It’s musicians like d’Souza who have been affected by these shifts, and have used the unexpected circumstances to create art that captures and explores our renewed connection to the natural world.


Yet this approach isn’t a first. Sounds of the natural world have served as a key source of inspiration for musicians throughout history. John Cage, for example, was influential in his exploration of ‘naturally-occurring’ environmental sounds. His famous composition 4'33 was an attempt to mirror the indeterminacy of nature. However, with our concern towards climate change growing, and within the strange circumstances of our current reality, nature-informed music, for lack of a better term, has arguably developed an inevitable new resonance.


Welsh multi-instrumentalist Toby Hay is another artist who began recording and performing outside during last year’s lockdown, having had to cancel a tour and two album recordings. With the Cambrian mountains as his venue, Toby had the idea to film nine one-take performances at sunrise and sunset. The recordings eventually morphed into an album, Morning/Evening Ragas, released in the summer of 2020. ‘Track III’ sees Hay sitting on a blanket in a field, hat pulled low over his eyes, picking at his guitar with the sound of the Black Brook running in the background. Soulful passages are played, repeated, developed and varied, soundtracking the surroundings, gradually slowing to silence except for the sounds of birds and wind.


When asked how much of his playing was a response to his environment, Hay replied with ‘All of it. They are all first takes. I would just sit in the location for a few minutes and start playing. The only decision I would make before pressing record was to choose the instrument and the tuning.’ The guitarist describes it as ‘a very “true” recording’ when referencing the production. The technical set-up was minimal, with just two recording tracks, and little mixing needed in post-production. It’s almost the opposite of a studio album. What we’re given is an untampered, unfiltered, organic soundscape.


What we’re given is an untampered, unfiltered, organic soundscape

While the first stream plays, the listener can start the second stream, which slowly brings in Hallikeinin’s recordings until they’re gently present, high-pitched calls and witterings coming through intermittently. Mixing naturally-occurring sounds with ambient music is something quite novel for the casual radio listener. The effect can be simultaneously meditative and consciousness-raising. It increases our appreciation of the outside world, which, with our access to the urban norm during lockdown, has become all the more present.


Mixing naturally-occurring sounds with ambient music is something quite novel for the casual radio listener

Curious, exploratory minds exist everywhere, and Auntie Flo and Toby Hay’s musical creations are just two homegrown examples. Last November, a concert took place in the Lake Yamanaka forest of Japan, organised by the intrepid DJ, curator and field recordist Nick Luscombe, in collaboration with the University of Tokyo. The poster for the event, titled ‘OTOCARE Fuji Iyashi no Mori’, proclaims:


As the world is experiencing an unprecedented global pandemic, we are increasingly exploring a new normal to build our everyday life. The role is to unravel how sound and music can enrich our experience of the forest, and how, in turn, the natural environment can inspire the way we listen to and appreciate sound in nature.


The event was experimental, with the participants offering a broad range of genres; pianist Emiko Miura on melodica, saxophonist Masanori Oishi, local choir Chor Fujimarimo, and Indigenous Japanese music and dance duo Nobuhiko Chiba and Mari Ono. When asked about the concert programme, Luscombe explains ‘the idea was that we would work with mostly acoustic performers for the event in part to see how each artist would respond to the forest as opposed to a concert hall or gig venue.’

The concert was filmed and live-streamed. When you watch, you’re struck by how Miura’s breath control seems to mirror the wind. The chords start quietly as she creates a slow vibrato, the music rising and falling away into the trees. Luscombe’s take adds context. ‘There was a great deal of improvisation. Emiko Miura’s set was almost entirely a response to the forest. It was quite magical hearing how each artist worked with the sounds of birdsong… the gentle rushing of leaves and the wind in the trees.’


You’re struck by how Miura’s breath control seems to mirror the wind

‘The music helped me to focus more on the movement in the forest. I can vividly recall watching a long-legged spider cutting across a pile of twigs close to my feet during Masanori’s set, and leaves falling from the trees slowly to the ground. My senses were really heightened. When I listen to the recordings I can sense all these almost cinematic occurrences.’


These heightened senses are perhaps now more important than ever, a form of deep listening that rarely occurs in ‘normal times,’ gradually having been lost over the centuries, especially in Western culture. In an unconventional venue, we become aware of the unpredictable movements of a spider crawling across a pile of twigs. We might be locked down, but we are free to feel the wind and see the sunlight change throughout the afternoon. What does playing music outside give us? A greater awareness and a reawakening to the outside world, as our music trickles away to intermingle with the calls of birds and the rustle of leaves.

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