SoundCamp on International Dawn Chorus Day

13 May 2016 // Field Recording

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Words: Emma Warren

This part of Rotherhithe looks like it was rebuilt from scratch in the 1980s with housing stock shipped in from middle Europe rather than dockside east London. As it transpires, that’s pretty much how the Stave Hill Ecology Park – where sound art collective Soundtent have decamped for a weekend celebration of International Dawn Chorus Day – came into being.

The 5.2 acre site was built on two vast drained docks that dominated the area until it was redeveloped in 1985. Down an avenue lined with poplar, there’s a huge artificial hill that rises nine metres into the atmosphere like a modernist burial ground designed by Terence Conran.

Doubled round the side of the park, past bramble and a small postage stamp of a field parcelled up into camping plots for the night, is base camp for Stave Hill’s volunteers. It’s a utopian corner of the world, where everything is hand-made by people who appear both practical and creative. There are beehives and sculptures, raised beds and wooden benches, and lairy, musical birdsong like a sonic canopy above the whole thing. This weekend the hut has become broadcast HQ for Reveil, Soundtent’s ambitious 24 hour live streaming of the dawn chorus as the sun moves across the planet.

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Soundtent’s Maria Papamanolaki is manning the stream, which is being broadcast on a bunch of radio stations worldwide including Resonance FM’s online platform. She’s listening intently to the sound of daybreak over the Pacific, which, it transpires, makes for tough listening. They’ve had emails from Resonance listeners complaining that the stream’s broken, but the hissing and the drones is just how daybreak translates into a bunch of hydrophones hanging off a research boat in the middle of the ocean. The listening will get easier when the sun reaches Japan, where they’ve got some artists ready to stream the infinitely more pastoral sound of bullfrogs waking up.

This is the third year that the collective (Grant Smith, Kirsty Collander Brown, Dawn Scarfe and Papadomanolaki) have run SoundCamp and they’re now attracting more than just friends and family. There are fashionable sound design students with microphones tucked behind their ears; stylish eccentrics wielding Tascam recorders; a group of Young Farmers from Surrey Quays City Farm and assorted nature geeks including a bird-watcher I bumped into once in Oxleas Woods. It’s a gathering of a very specific tribe – and they’re all having a lovely time making their own streaming devices and eating table-loads of vegan food in the Spring sunshine.

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It’s heading towards dusk when artist Sarah Angliss wheels in a pram containing an ancient gramophone and what looks like a homemade modular synthesiser. She performs Oh Danny Boy with a cello bow and the flat side of a saw, which in her hands sounds like an especially soulful theramin. The plan was to play along to a 1920s recording of birdsong by Ludwig Koch and she’s spent hours sharpening thorns to use as needles but something’s gone wrong with the gramophone so she plays solo, lost in the music and transporting us too.

Later, when it’s dark, there’s a bat walk. It really is amazing. Birds swoop but bats zig and zig, making them much harder to see as an entity. You’re more likely to map a quick horizontal of their path than the whole arc. Flash in, flash out. You you can hear their sonic clicks and clacks, though, translated down into sounds we can access, and it’s clear that they’re all around us. We’re in a sonic world we don’t normally have access to; a good reminder that we only experience what our bodies and brains are designed to experience rather than the sum total of what’s in the world. Iain Bolton from the London Bat Group is taking the walk and he’s leaning on the fence that surrounds the pond: “When smartphones get ultrasonic microphones it’ll change everything,” he says emphatically. “Everything!”

Many of SoundCamp’s devotees are camping over in anticipation of a 4.30am dawn chorus walk with pre-eminent birdsong recordist Geoff Sample, but we’re not. We walk up Stave Hill before heading home and find a different use of the ecology park: a gaggle of Rotherhithe teenagers huffing nitrous oxide and rolling off the bench they’re sitting on.

Early the following morning there’s a young boy and a girl excitedly scanning the grassy tops of the hill. “Who could have left such beautiful things?” says the boy, as he spies another tiny, shiny gas canister and adds it to the bulging collection he’s carrying in his upturned T-Shirt. “They could have made a fortune!”

This is what nature looks like in London: small spaces criss-crossed with individual pathways. Where space is limited we use it for a range of purposes. Your dog-walking zone is my nature ramble is your Friday night teenage pub.

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Towards the end of the weekend Geoff Sample sits behind a trestle table in the volunteers’ hut and plays out the sounds of the birds he heard on the dawn chorus walk. They didn’t hear the widest range of song – mostly blackbirds, wrens and chiffchaffs – but the birds, particularly Rotherhithe’s blackbirds, were full-throated and singing in a major key; proper London chirpers. Up where he lives in the Scottish borders, they sound more plaintive. There was an unexpected ‘star bird’ too, with the RSPB red-listed Grasshopper Warbler.

As Sample plays out the blackbird song, another unexpected thing happens: a blackbird outside sings back, repeating the phrase back into the hut. The wrens and chiff-chaffs do the same, echoing and looping the recorded versions of their sibling song back at us.

“It was like a concert,” Sample says afterwards, basking in the afternoon sunshine. “Usually I play birdsong in a room or a hall, disconnected from nature, but here we’re surrounded by birds and they responded. If I was being fanciful I’d say they were helping out – but of course they weren’t.”

SoundCamp will join Emma in conversation at Caught by the River Thames on Sunday 7 August. Emma is also appearing on our stage at Port Eliot Festival, 28-31 July.

Emma Warren on Caught by the River

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