Caught by the River

On Location: Writers, Sounds and Places

Cheryl Tipp | 20th July 2012

A review by Cheryl Tipp:

On Tuesday 10th July the British Library hosted a special evening dedicated to the multilayered relationship between the landscape and the writer. ‘On Location: Writers, Sounds and Places’, held in association with The Guardian and In The Dark, used sound recordings, live readings and an in depth panel discussion to explore this complex subject. The event was just one part of a much larger programme surrounding the Library’s current exhibition ‘Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands’ which examines how the many landscapes of Britain have influenced literary works over the years.

To set the scene, the auditorium was filled with the sounds of field recordings representing a range of British landscapes. A spring dawn chorus, a flowing woodland river, Crows calling in the wind, and the gentle lapping of waves on a shingle beach drifted over the audience as they took their seats and waited in anticipation for the main event to begin.

With the lights down except for a solitary podium lamp, a series of 4 sound pieces created by Nina Garthwaite and Ed Prosser, two of the people behind the brilliant In The Dark, were played. Each composition was designed to compliment a particular piece of work and speaker. First to take to the stage was much acclaimed poet Alice Oswald who read her wonderful ‘Sea Poem’. This was followed by a mix featuring the voice of Ted Hughes reading ‘Wild Rock’. Now what event of this ilk would be complete without something from Ted Hughes I ask you? The writer Rachel Lichtenstein then read a piece describing her relationship with the East London area of Whitechapel before Alice returned to close the section with another of her poems, ‘Epileptic’. I’m obviously biased, given my personal and professional obsession with sound, but this part of the evening was absolutely amazing. The calibre of both the writers and the sound designers is undeniably high and, when brought together, the end result was a triumph.

The majority of the evening was then taken up with a panel discussion, chaired by Guardian columnist and author Madeleine Bunting. Marina Warner, writer and Professor of Literature at the University of Essex, joined Alice Oswald and Rachel Lichenstein, and together, the four women combined their wealth of knowledge and experience to provide a fascinating look at the writer and the landscape.

Throughout the discussion I was struck but the many similarities between how writers and field recordists approach and develop their relationship with a landscape. Both are trying to capture the essence of a place, whether it be with the written word or with sound. Both methods require a deeper awareness and level of attention than one usually uses when visiting a place. I know for a fact that many field recordists will visit a place several times before even switching on their recorder and this is also true for the writer. To just listen and let the spirit of a landscape wash over and hopefully inspire you to pick up a pen or turn on the microphone.

Marina Warner spoke about re-stitching the fabric of the past so that it becomes the face of the present. This also linked in with a passage from Rachel Lichtenstein’s ‘A Whitechapel Walk’ which spoke about the changing soundscape of the area. The key to successful landscape writing seems to be a recipe that combines the past history with the present state. It involves the weaving together of the many social, cultural, historical and natural elements that give a place a sense of heritage and character. Again, the same can be said of field recording when trying to document a landscape by taking in the past as well as the present.

Another aspect of writing about and indeed recording a landscape is to try and make somewhere familiar fresh again. To be able to look at or experience a place in a new way. Sound can certainly help with that. Sound helps us rediscover a place, whether it be rural or urban. By taking the time to listen to rather than just hear a place, we are able to tap into another facet of a landscape and this in consequence enriches the final work for both the creator and the consumer.

‘Notes on Orford Ness’ offered a brief interlude to the panel discussion. This short film, created by Francesca Panetta and Shehani Fernando, was presented by Caught by the River favourite, Robert Macfarlane, and showcased his recently commissioned work ‘Untrue Island’. This little gem was the icing on the cake for an event that brought together three of my greatest loves: sound, writing and the landscape of Britain. I couldn’t have asked for more really.