Time zones, comfort zones, tubes and tunnel hearing

Sura Medura is an international artist’s residency centre in Sri Lanka. I was invited on the six week residency programme in late 2018 as a sound artist and musician. This blog is an account of my experience.


I left for the residency with two loose ideas: Firstly, make field recordings exploring the sound-world I hear as a visitor compared to the one experienced by the local people. Secondly, compose a piece of music for electronics and Sri Lankan music in whatever form I encounter it (but preferably with some connection to the country’s musical traditions). I am also contributing to a collaborative, multidisciplinary production called The Snowball Effect.

20 hours of travelling with ideas and expectations pinballing around my head brought me dazed and sweaty to Sun Beach Hotel, Hikkaduwa, which is sandwiched between a ferocious road and an equally ferocious sea. My fellow artists arrived over the next few days as jetlag fogged names, times, itineraries and places.

After some orientation, settling in and fun (patchy sleep soundtracked by the hum of air conditioners, an affecting visit to the Tsunami Museum, lots of good curry, braving the waves at sunset, a lagoon trip…) work began in earnest with a weekend of devising for The Snowball Effect. We were joined by four Sri Lankan artists for group discussions, activities and games which I found both inspiring and challenging.

The ambitious production is exploring themes of identity, society, alienation, privilege, communication and belonging (amongst others!) Being an introspective artist I usually seek inspiration by looking inwards at my emotions and outwards at science and nature, so the political themes pushed me out of my comfort zone at times. So did the more theatrical games, the structure of which I was unfamiliar with. I did a lot of listening and observing over the weekend – as ever, working with artists from different disciplines was insightful, revealing new ways of creatively responding to a challenge.

Our Sri Lankan friends left, having brought warmth, perspective and expertise to our devising. They’ll re-join The Snowball Effect later, as will I. In the meantime, I work on my solo project. I spent the first day building a quick, interactive sound game. You can’t escape the noise of the road and the sea at Sun Beach. Being sensitive to sound and a light sleeper I thought it would be fun to try and control the sounds that dominated my first week (I also have a lot of recordings of seas and roads, so wanted to do something different).

I pointed one mic at the beach and another at the traffic and fed the sound through 16 band-pass filters tuned loosely to the Carnatic scale used in some traditional Sri Lankan music. The gain of each of the 16 frequencies, as well as that of the unprocessed road and sea, could be controlled via sliders. You could thus isolate specific parts of the sound and sculpt your own, tuned soundscape – a rumble of bass from the road, the sibilant hiss of the surf. Things got interesting when fellow artist Sita sang in front of the sea-facing mic – a mermaid’s serenade.

The official residency workspace is not quite finished but the building is beautiful, set in a village beside a lagoon in the jungle. I spent the next day exploring the site, wondering what I could work on that wouldn’t be disturbed by the sounds of the builders. I quickly realised that here, as well as at Sun Beach, I was bringing too many expectations to bear. The sounds around me were the sounds of Sri Lanka. How to augment the sound and keep it interesting for myself, though, given that I’ve also recorded many a building site before?

Building sites mean detritus, and atop a pile of rubble lay some lengths of pipe. I attached a mic to the end of one and moved around the site, recording the sound through the pipe. The natural comb-filtering effect adds strange tonalities and tunings. Suddenly a soundscape that could have been a thousand different places became unique and alien.

I continued the experiments back at Sun Beach, repeating the process with two different lengths of pipe pointing at the sea. I then played the live audio back through a small speaker which I placed inside one of the tubes, generating feedback effects by inserting the smaller tube into the larger one. I also thrust the pipe into the sand and surf which created some pleasing percussive and tinkling sounds.

My original idea to record soundscapes exotic to my ears and familiar to the locals was evolving into an idea of ‘tunnel hearing’: that which we want to hear dictating what we choose to listen to, plus the way sounds can be modified in situ to make genuinely new soundscapes. I have some ideas for audio installations taking shape, plus these themes also resonate with some of those developing for The Snowball Effect. But what of my second idea – to work with Sri Lankan musicians? That called for a trip to the city.