by Steven Matthews and Paul Whitty
Steven Matthews, poet, and Paul Whitty, composer, share some insight into their exhibition ‘Sounds of Wordsworth’, which was on display at the Wordsworth Trust throughout June 2017.
This exhibition presented work from an on-going and evolving project to ‘map’ sounds in the landscape, as they continue at the sites where we know that Wordsworth was inspired to write poems. The shapes of the hills and mountains on the skyline in the Lake District continue to be very close to those which Wordsworth saw; similarly, the environmental sounds in the places he loved bear some proximity to the sounds he heard – sounds then registered in his poetry.
The items included in the exhibition concentrated on the sounds of the rivers and streams around Grasmere with which Wordsworth was familiar. This booklet provides some reflection by the composer Paul Whitty, upon the experience of capturing these sounds at particular Wordsworthian locations. Part of our project is for both Paul and the poet Steven Matthews to create new work from their engagement with Wordsworth, sound, and the Lake District. The booklet also contains reflection upon Steven’s sequence made in response to Wordsworth, ‘The Stepping-Stones’.
If you would like to source some of the Exhibition materials you can do so via the following links…
Two of the films referred to in Paul’s and Steven’s pieces below can be accessed:
Duddon Valley, ‘The Stepping-Stones’:
A free-to-access Aporee sound map has been established for the project, which includes sounds not included in the Exhibition:
This website will be updated in future, with material from other important places relating to Wordsworth and sound.
Listening to the sounds of the Wordsworth’s rural everyday
Investigating everyday or quotidian sound has been an important part of my engagement with the sounding world since I began exploring ways in which it was possible to document everyday sounds through the Sound Diaries project – a long-term collaboration with artist Felicity Ford.
As part of this project I have explored the sounds of my kitchen; the sounding life of vending machines, airport luggage carousels and escalators. More recently I have been investigating the sounds of grassroots football and a field in the parish of Netherexe in Devon.
When Steven Matthews invited me to collaborate with him on a project exploring the soundscapes of the Wordsworth’s I was immediately fascinated at the prospect. On our first visit to Grasmere I spent time in the garden of Dove Cottage trying to capture the unique sounds of that space – as you would imagine many of the sounds that I heard were of the contemporary world – tyres on asphalt, mobile phones and the vibrations of passing air traffic. However, when we re-traced Wordsworth’s steps on the short walk to Easedale Tarn and as we left the world of the internal combustion engine behind there was a palpable sense of walking into a past soundscape – of walking into the soundscape of the Wordsworth’s.
The wind at Easedale Tarn
As part of this project I have so far visited Easedale Tarn on two occasions. On the first occasion the wind was creating ripples on the surface of the Tarn and these ripples made a delicate snapping sound as they came into contact with the rocks and pebbles on the shore. I made a recording of this with a hydrophone – an underwater microphone – and an ambient microphone so that I could capture, simultaneously, the uderwater sounds of the rippling surface of the Tarn and the calls of sheep on the surrounding hillside. On our second visit it was blustery and there was a storm approaching from the North. I could hear the fronds of some of the longer grasses brushing and tapping against each other in the wind and so I attached two small contact microphones to two grass stems and recorded the sound of the wind rushing through the grass.
Tumultuous waters at Greenhead Gill
The resounding tumult of the waters at Greenhead Gill creates a palpable physical space with a clearly defined boundary – defined by the presence and absence of the white noise of the fast moving waters. Standing on the edge of that boundary the listener is still aware of the sound of traffic on the A591 in the valley below and of sheep calling to each other across the hillside but once the threshold has been crossed all sound is set in relief against the relentless white noise of the waters. Stepping closer to the water I can hear a complexity in the sound. The ear seeks out the individual sounding moments that when combined create this resounding valley of noise. The composer Gyorgy Ligeti imagined and composed a music of micropolyphony in which each instrument in the orchestra sounded an individual part thereby creating a cloud of sounding activity. As you head further up the valley the micropolyphony of the rushing water becomes ever denser and more complex. I wonder if I could stay in this place for as long as it took to index every possible sounding event caused by water on stone. I make a series of recordings – some up close to an individual sounding event and others seeking to capture the resonance of the site.
Lost in the Duddon Valley
The Duddon Valley will not give up its secrets easily. It seems that the path we are seeking to follow has been washed away or covered by fallen trees. I listen to the water as it is channeled between the sheer granite of a gorge. I hear the wind in the trees as we move away from the river. The forest around us deadens the sound and silence becomes palapable – the air is still – vibration has ceased. We walk again towards the river through a landscape of felled trees. We find stepping stones thrown here by a storm perhaps or a surge upstream. I listen to the sound of the riverbank as grasses become sound-making objects activated by the wind and perhaps if I put my ear close enough I can hear the sound of water being absorbed by the moss that thrives and coats the rocks above the water line.
To find out more you can visit:
Paul Whitty is a founder member of the SARU (Sonic Art Research Unit) at Oxford Brookes University who have generously supported the production of this exhibition.
The water is wide, I cannot get o’er
STEP: weight moving
feet evenly down
like a bird
wild on the wing
a mind fulcrums:
the sky, the hills, the
rushing speaking waters
the body offering from
itself poised piercing into
STEP: right knee bent,
left foot held in air
trying to reach ahead
the interspace spanned
left to right
the body flirts
with shrill space
air’s kiss over
the thrilling clamouring
STEP: the mechanism exposed
hammers to pluck
as they articulate
don’t say intervals
don’t do transitions
don’t move me through space so
I can’t see the bottom
no Delian diver
STEP: the next interspace greater,
the arms raised higher
the whole body from the ground
leaps still gliding
until the next rock
gives itself to the forefoot
the boy toddles towards
the zone of stones
and takes his leave
the old man totters,
arcing his stick across
the vocal torrential space
and onto the far bank
STEP: step step
the arms smooth bows
eyes held at
the near stones tick tack
clatter-roll of stone into
Bye Baby Bunting
STEP: as you step, pause,
arms as wings
what you do not look to
is the future arriving
back to you
from the other bank
waters chanting athwart,
before you set out
from your past
REFLECTIONS ON ‘THE STEPPING-STONES’
My six 14 line poems present a set of variations on the theme of Wordsworth’s 34 poems known as the ‘River Duddon Sonnets’. In particular, they respond to Wordsworth’s two sonnets in that sequence, themselves about stepping-stones which cross that river.
Wordsworth’s two ‘stepping-stones’ poems, like the rest of his sequence, meditate upon the course of our lives, from childhood to old age. The second poem enacts a kind of courting ritual dance. We watch two lovers playing back and forth, as they offer and withdraw their hands to their partner between the stones. These two Wordsworth sonnets, in other words, think about the passage across the river as a kind of passage through lived time. We are given a sense of these events happening in a specific place, with its specific sounds and sights, in words that suggest often a mixture of the two senses. The Duddon is ‘loud’, ‘fierce’, ‘wild’ ‘dizzy’; we hear ‘utterances’, the noise of a ‘clap’.
In fact, a key aspect of the ‘River Duddon Sonnets’ is how their liveliness – the energy of the river and so of the poems – depends on sound. There are roughly 60 ‘sound words’ in the 34 poems, and part of the way Wordsworth connects the poems, beyond their repeated pentameter rhyming form, is through the recurrence of the same ‘sound word’ from poem to poem. ‘Blast’, ‘hum’ roar’, ‘chant’, ‘voice’, even ‘silence’, come back across the sequence.
My variation on the Wordsworth sonnets absorbs some of these words about the Duddon, as well as other words spurred in him by this special place. But it also responds to the fact that our contemporary sense of time is very different from his. His swirling but regular rhymed lines reflect the continuity and brevity of life. Our sense of time is more complex and precarious and vulnerable, and my poems, although they retain the ’14 line’ structure of Wordsworth’s, also include that idea of the uncertainty we now all feel in time and across our lives.
Poetry itself plays variations with time and timing. Poetry can slow the world down, accelerate it. My idea is that stepping-stones, where we feel exposed, in danger of toppling, unclear as to the strength of our foot-hold, offer a good image (as they did differently to Wordsworth), for our relation to the world. Everything is slowed, we become more aware of our movements, of the need to balance, of the physical forces in the world which both support us, but threaten to tip us over.
When writing the 6 poems, I had in mind those sequences of photos of people moving, by the nineteenth-century Anglo-American photographer Eadward Muybridge. These are photo sequences where we watch, as, from frame to frame, slight progression is mapped. In fact Muybridge has a sequence of 36 pictures showing a model ‘Jumping from stone to stone across a brook’. When writing these poems, and thinking about movement in time, I also had in mind recent science, which has altered our perception of who we are: the idea that any movement, even that of a thrown ball, always has its destination ‘in mind’. Objects, atoms, like humans, have a destination as they move, their future is already paradoxically a part of their past.
My variations on Wordsworth’s sonnets are aimed, then, to lay bare these issues, to expose the mechanisms within and behind our stepping across our lives. They also take into themselves a further aspect of Wordsworth’s poetic ideas. In Book One of his autobiographical epic, The Prelude, the poet tells how his inspiration to write is derived from the sounds of the river he heard as a young child, and how those sounds ‘loved | To blend…with my nurse’s song.’ These new poems in response to Wordsworth take up that strain, themselves blending lines from lullabies which Wordsworth’s nurse might well have sung him into their texture.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who famously told us that we could not step into the same river twice, was also famously cryptic. When Socrates was handed the work of Heraclitus he said that ‘it would take a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it’ – divers from Delos being well known for their risk-taking and underwater stamina. These new poems try to take on the enigmas we are faced with, drawing on Wordsworth’s inspiration to do so.
Steven Matthews is a poet, and Professor in English Literature at the University of Reading.