Scott McLaughlin – October Nocturns

Back in the summer of 2020, we commissioned 5 sound artists to respond sonically to our Tracks, Traces and Trails project themes: migration, climate, the nocturnal and the subterranean. The TTT project aims to make the invisible visible, and hopes to foster a multisensory appreciation of the natural world, to encourage us to care more for nature and our environment. This week, we’re delighted to share the results of the soundscape commissions with you! This diverse range of new works incorporates recordings of our natural and urban environments, birds, and animals, as well as sounds that cannot be discerned. The result is an exciting week of soundscapes, which will transport you underground to hear the sounds of roots growing and glaciers melting, through night time adventures of nocturnal creatures, off shore to explore how creatures in the ocean understand our land, and along the journey of a migratory path. We recommend using high quality headphones to best appreciate these works – so sit back, relax, and enjoy our beautiful planet through this sonic journey. Check back on the website for a new piece each night this week –from 16th to the 20th of November!

October Nocturns

The nocturnal is a musical genre of quiet, tranquil, and usual sombre pieces that evoke the night. Nowadays we know them best as Romantic-era piano pieces, most notably by Chopin and John Field, but the term derives from the old church hours that divided the day in prayer. The three nocturns were the prayers spoken throughout ‘matins’, the night, usually spoken alone, by guards, watchmen, and others keeping vigil. This ‘October Nocturns’ soundscape is a sequence of recordings from the evening, midnight, pre-dawn and dawn of many nights across October 2020 in an urban forest in Huddersfield. While this is a secular piece, it resonates with the prayers of vigilance and solitude, of casting out lines of hopeful listening. 

Photo by Scott McLaughlin

Standing in an urban forest late at night is an experience that juxtaposes an edgy and exposed sense of isolation with the teeming quiet of leaves, raindrops, grasses, water and wind. Each night I would stand as still as possible for a long time, headphones on, trying to hear the forest through the endless traffic and occasional airplane: somehow, even in the early hours the cars never stopped for long. The feeling of exposure was mitigated by knowing that my microphones would hear the stealthiest of human footfall from hundreds of yards away, yet amongst the bustle of tiny sounds I had to strain and imagine which rustles and crackles were made by moving animals, and which were simply being shoved by rain or wind or gravity. In truth, there are many sounds in this piece that I cannot readily identify, they remain in the mystery of the night.

Photo by Scott McLaughlin

Making a field recording is never ‘natural’, never a one-to-one transferal of the experience of being ‘in nature’, but also not wholly artificial. Some sounds here are completely man-made, such as the pure-tone sine-waves and pink-noise that superficially contrast with the lively forest ambience. Equally, the human sounds — the slow arcing drones of passing cars, the unpredictable slamming of distant doors — have a liveliness that while not natural is also not structured or ordered in any man-made way. The unruliness of the natural world that we cannot control is always present. The microphone is always moving, seeking interesting sounds, amplifying and selecting, but unable to determine what happens; serendipity abound. I hear a rustle and gently rotate in the hope of a fox or badger, and identifiable thing, but what I get is only the suggestion of animals in the rhythmic crunching and snapping that stands out momentarily from the un-patterned flotsam of one hundred thousand small things gently brushing against each other. I compose a sequence of accidents made happy by their new relationships to each other.

Some sounds of course are very obviously ‘natural’. My second nocturn (01:58) is dominated by the repetitive begging of a juvenile Tawny Owl. This segues into the third nocturn (02:50), in which a small animal crunches its way through some vegetation; a rabbit perhaps? The Owl returns with a distant sibling in the fourth nocturn (04:14), almost drowned out by high winds a driving rain. All of these figures were readily audible, if completely invisible, but the fifth nocturn (05:24) however takes a turn into the uncanny world of bat calls artificially transformed to be audible to humans (with thanks to Peter Brooks for the recordings). These rapid patterns of clicks have an entirely natural origin, but can only be presented in a haze of digital artifacts, of noisy hums and glitches. This unnatural capture of something that eludes us gives way to the office of ‘lauds’, the emerging dawn chorus of blackbirds, robins, wrens, hondas, kias, and other bustling commotives.

About the Artist

Scott McLaughlin (Photo Credit: Kerstin Schomburg)

Scott McLaughlin is a composer and improviser (cello, live electronics) based in Huddersfield, UK. Born in Ireland (Co. Clare) in 1975. He studied BMus (Uni of Ulster), MA/PhD Uni of Huddersfield (PA Tremblay, C Fox, J Saunders, B Harrison). Scott lectures in composition and music technology at the University of Leeds; leading the MMus Critical and Experimental Composition programme, and co-directing CePRA (Centre for Practice Research in the Arts). His research focuses on contingency and indeterminacy in the physical materiality of sound and performance, to explore material agency and recursive feedback systems in constraint-based open-form composition.

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