Alternative Monday 22 – Disgusting Sounds

This week’s Alternative Monday post is by musician, artist and educator Rebecca Lee. Rebecca produces audio works, performances, site-specific installations, film scores, broadcasts and publications. Rebecca has worked with Fermynwoods in various guises, including contributing to the early days and more recent work with students excluded from mainstream education.

This is just a short post from me, marking the 10 years since I first worked on the pilot workshops for what became Fermynwoods Alternative Provision programme. The programme not only imparts creative and adventurous thinking for the young people who come out for the workshops but also for those of us who deliver the workshops.

Editing sounds in Audacity, Rebecca Lee and students from The CE Academy, 2010
Editing sounds in Audacity, Rebecca Lee and students from The CE Academy, 2010

The first workshops I did really helped form the basis for how I work with sound in my ongoing workshop practice. I had two mini-disk recorders, taught myself Audacity especially to edit the sounds, and felt technically out of my depth. I’ve worked on this programme since then – in 2010 and again in 2019 and I’ve attempted to remain technically an enthusiastic amateur.

In all of the workshops I’ve done, the main thing I asked of the kids was that we found and recorded sounds in either the woods, the workshop room at Sudborough Green Lodge, or around the building. And by this I don’t mean tuning into the landscape or becoming mindful, silent or still. I mean finding out what sounds we can make in and with our surroundings and that usually involves lots of action.

It might involve different kinds of microphones – handmade or professional – and might involve looping the sounds we make. But after that, and apart from not breaking my equipment, there are few rules. I learnt early on that a pre-planned six-week workshop project arc has nothing to do with what someone decides to do when you give them headphones and a microphone that suddenly amplifies their voice and the sounds they make.

A note on these sounds: it’s usually assumed in schools and in society in general that loud, abrasive, unexpected, disgusting, over the top, unrelenting, inappropriate sounds (and the people that make them) should be quieted and that quietude and the stillness that is needed for it is what we should aspire to. A lot of art projects (some of mine included!) have a tendency to reinforce this by presenting listening as a form of getting in touch with something we are missing out on, especially as the woods can be thought of as a place to be quiet and reflective.

However, in no particular order, my workshops with Fermynwoods have been somewhere to:

  • Bang things (trees, fences, the ground, the wall, the water tank, the BBQ, the tumble down tree, slides, swings, the minibus) really hard
  • Play the logs on the timber pile like a huge dangerous xylophone
  • Make disgusting sounds by dragging contact mics though the mud
  • Make disgusting sounds by dragging contact mics though the stream
  • See how much your voice echoes when you shout as loud as possible
  • Make contact microphones
  • Practice your silly voices
  • Invent a ‘guess what the word is from the shape of the sound-wave’ game
  • Throw the hydrophone in the smelly, mosquito-ridden pond
  • Purposefully talk when someone else is trying to record
  • Record secret wishes, print out the sound waves, delete the recordings
  • Make disgusting sounds with mayonnaise
  • Make messy sounds with rice, pasta, water, the rest of the food cupboard
  • Endlessly listen back to recordings of your own voice on headphones
  • Make astonishingly good looped mixes of your recordings
  • Chase tractors (in exchange for making recordings of them)
  • Record the sound of an orange hitting someone’s head repeatedly
  • Make a surprisingly catchy track with the above sound

Rebecca Lee

Throwing a hydrophone in the smelly, mosquito-ridden pond, Rebecca Lee at students from The CE Academy, 2019
Throwing a hydrophone in the smelly, mosquito-ridden pond, Rebecca Lee and students from The CE Academy, 2019

Look out for more Alternative Monday posts every fortnight, looking back on some of our favourite alternative provision activities over the past 10 years.