Living Symphonies: an interview to Daniel Jones and James Bulley

by Abu Lido


OR Not magazine has interviewed sound artists Daniel Jones and James Bulley creators of Living Symphonies a sound installation based on the forest ecosystem. The piece took place in four of England’s forests last year.

1. What is Living Symphonies and which is the path that lead to ecosystem symphonies?
Living Symphonies is a landscape sound work that grows in the same way as a forest ecosystem. It portrays the thriving activity of the forest’s wildlife, plants and atmospheric conditions, creating an ever-changing symphony heard amongst the forest itself. The work is very site specific – its musical form reflects the exact ecological make up of the forest site it is based within.

2. How do you create or re create the “music of the ecosystem”? I mean which are the tools you use to create your artwork?
As with much of our artistic practice, the range of tools we use to create the works is very broad. With Living Symphonies, firstly we spatially survey each forest site, working with ecologists and wildlife specialists to create a detailed real-time simulation of the ecosystem using custom software designed byus. As an installation unfolds, live weather data is then sensed and fed into this ecosystem model, with the behaviours of the plants, animals and microorganisms changing based on this weather data and the time of day. All of his software has been created by us as part of the piece’s development.

The activity of each species is portrayed by a series of musical motifs, mapped to their position in the forest which start life as thousands of notated musical motifs, which are recorded with acoustic musicians in the months leading up to an installation. The piece is then heard back over a 24-channel array of speakers concealed amongst the undergrowth and canopy. Visitors can explore the whole site unimpeded, hearing different aspects of the ecosystem unfolding and interacting with each other.

3. How Living Symphonies change in time and space?
Unlike a conventional, linear piece of music, Living Symphonies is ever-changing. It is conducted by a sophisticated software model of the ecosystem that is continually growing and evolving, responding to the real-time weather conditions within the forest. This model is used as the seed to create new musical forms, reflecting the ecological world that it inhabits.
As well as the compositional aspect of the work growing and changing over time, the spatial aspect of the work changes as well. Individual moving organisms within the composition move within the forest space exactly as their counterparts would be expected to in real-life – the motif for a songbird might be heard flitting about in the canopy, a bird of prey circling overhead.

4. Could you explain briefly how the partnership with Forestry Commission England made possible the tour?
We were very fortunate to be given the time to develop, conceptualise and compose Living Symphonies as a result of a joint commission from Forestry Commission England and Sound and Music. This allowed us to explore many forest sites across England for the piece, researching and surveying the flora and fauna with the invaluable assistance of ecologists and wildlife specialists to decide the locations for the 2014 tour of the work. Without the partnership of Forestry Commission England and Sound and Music, a work of this scale would take decades to complete, so we are very grateful to them.

5. Did you have created sound installation about the weather, or the ocean or other geophysical elements?
Yes the weather is something we’ve been exploring over the course of many years with a work of ours called Variable 4. It’s a sculptural site specific land work that harnesses real-time weather conditions in remote and exposed locations to conduct a 24 movement composition which is then heard back in real-time over a speaker system embedded in the landscape.
Variable 4 is a piece that we have shown quite regularly over the last few years, and is endlessly fascinating to work on given its particularly tangible site-specificity and the incredible locations we have had the opportunity to install it in. In terms of other natural systems (such as the ocean and other geophysical elements), We’re in the studio over the next couple of months working on a few ideas around this area, so we’ll have to see what comes out of them.

6. Do think that your artwork could be an example of how to mingling art and science?
The boundaries of what can be described as scientific, artistic, or both are constantly varying. In the case of Living Symphonies it was interesting to note that the methodology behind the piece (particularly the indepth surveys of each forest location as a whole system rather than individual elements), was of interest to the scientific world, and across the course of the tour we were visited by many ecologists and scientific researchers who engaged deeply in the project. We hadn’t expected that, and it is never at the forefront of our minds to create work that it necessarily a mingling of both art and science. It’s likely that this element to our work is a reflection of our mutual appreciation of the systems and patterns in the natural world that surround us.


Credits: Daniel Jones e James Bulley

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