Acting as a welcome green lung for the city and a sanctuary from commerce and exhaust fumes, Campbell Park unites the modernist architecture and frantic activity of the shopping district to the south-west with the peaceful Grand Union Canal on the north-eastern edge; in between lie rolling hills, sculpted plantings, wending pathways, areas for grazing sheep and a faux burial mound connecting the park to the druidic concepts that informed the city and its main boulevards.
Campbell Park is also home to one of the largest public art collections in Milton Keynes. Dotted around the park, one will encounter sculptures made of stone, metal and wood; in keeping with the works of landscape artists like Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, these artworks reveal themselves delicately, allowing visitors to alight upon these forms unexpectedly, creating focal points and thought-provoking reflection.
Or perhaps you don’t see them at all. Perhaps you find yourself walking the pathways of Campbell Park engrossed in a podcast or conversation with a friend, or chasing your toddler’s scooter, or jog past these artworks on your daily route without paying them a second glance. Dan Davies’ commission for the 2021 IF: Milton Keynes International Festival, Truth, Beauty And Goodness – named after a quote from Jock Campbell emphasising the primacy of these values over money, profit and greed – seeks to redress that.
Davies is a Bristol-based artist working across the mediums of sound and visual art. For his sound work, his practice uses field recordings as a central feature of compositions that are informed by encounters with specific locations or objects. “My interest in field recording really started around 17 when I first had access to a 4-track cassette recorder," he says. “My friend and long-time collaborator Louis Gilbert and I would always half-joke about the household objects we could sample for our music. He was, and is, far more knowledgeable about experimental music than me, so he’d tell me about John Cage or musique concrète and I’d smile and nod and say, 'Yeah, let’s do that!’. We weren’t mobile yet, as the 4-track needed mains power, so all the sounds we could record were domestic by default, like fridge doors and Pyrex bowls.”
A later shift to using his phone to record voice memos and sampling with Ableton Live proved to be a liberating experience, suddenly allowing Davies the ability to record sounds well beyond the distance that his four-track power cord would extend. “It’s not as romantic as tape,” he sighs, “but it meant that I could make more complex compositions from field recordings with more spontaneity." A walk with some friends down the Welsh Cader Idris mountain provided the first opportunity to use that spontaneity in a composition, through alighting on some large slate slabs used as a fence next to the information centre. Davies discovered that drumming on the slate created deeply variable, resonant sounds, which he then recorded and used in a composition. It was a chance encounter, but one which then became a component of a considered, composed sonic response to what he’d recorded. “We all felt excited by the discovery of the sound, and by that feeling of capturing something of that beautiful environment,” he reflects. "Since then, I’ve slowly learned that any field recording can provide interesting results. It depends more on context and how you approach combining them. In my case, I try to remember to have a sense of humour about it all. It does feel like an inherently silly thing to do.”
Over time, as Davies’ interest in processed field recordings developed, he began to make his own equipment, effectively making this part of the process as much as capturing sounds or composing with them. “I’m definitely drawn to a more DIY approach,” he says. “I like new shiny equipment as much as the next person, but I’ve learnt that doesn’t always translate into having better ideas or even the ability to express them. I think it’s true that having limitations can be helpful when it comes to creativity. I’m in awe of people who have built up huge modular synths and know how to use them, for instance. I’m not sure I’ll ever get there. In the mean-time, I think I’d rather be the sort of person who can make a passable pop tune from recording a squeaky gate or something.”
Through an occasionally frustrating process of “coffee, cursing and solder fumes”, Davies has built devices such as a stereo hydrophone – a recording device used to capture underwater sounds – and an elektrosluch, which Davies used as part of Truth, Beauty And Goodness to capture electromagnetic sounds around David Batchelor’s circular Chromocochere artwork.
Truth, Beauty And Goodness takes the form of a soundwalk, taking you from Middleton Hall in Centre:MK, to the theatre, gallery and on through Campbell Park to the canal; from there you cross over, walk behind Gulliver’s Land and arrive, finally, at The Tree Cathedral. At prescribed points along the walk – be it a structure, a sculpture or the carefully-planned rows of trees at its conclusion – you play an accompanying piece made by Davies, each one lasting anywhere between a minute and five.
The process of fusing together sound art and a visual cue to create an immersive symbiosis brings Davies’ two principal artistic concerns together. “It’s taken me over a decade to realise that my visual art and work with sound could have an interface of any kind,” he admits. “They felt like parallel but very separate paths. However, a few years ago I started making interactive installations with animation, like Piano Teeth, which used a DIY MIDI interface consisting of some polystyrene pizza bases with piezo sensors inside so that audience members could ‘play’ the teeth. Essentially you’d hit a pad and you’d hear a sample and see a tooth light up or a visual effect."
The origins of what Davies developed for IF: Milton Keynes International Festival lie In Listening Landscapes, a project undertaken in partnership with the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust earlier in 2021. “I was tasked with creating soundscapes for the River Derwent. This meant travelling to specific locations on the Derwent and its tributaries to make field recordings before heading home to compose themes for each place.” The output took the form of two albums, one a collage of nothing more than river sounds and the other that took those recordings and used those as the foundation for a series of musical compositions. (Listening Landscapes is available at listeninglandscapes.bandcamp.com)
Davies’ approach to his Milton Keynes commission was nevertheless uniquely challenging. Firstly, with uncertainties over what form the festival might take in 2021, there was very little time to prepare and plan; secondly, the breadth of the project, and wanting to capture the unique essence of each of the chosen locations, was vastly different to recording nature sounds as he had done for Listening Landscapes. "I knew that the range of my responses to a shopping centre, a granite carving, a contemporary installation or a tree cathedral were going to be wildly different,” he reflects. “I wanted the whole trail to feel cohesive, but also to reflect that difference.”
For what became Truth, Beauty And Goodness, Davies spent as much time in Campbell Park as he could. He avidly studied all the artworks, took notes and photographs and made field recordings, either of the atmospheres or of himself ‘playing’ a sculpture. “At each artwork I spoke to people about what they meant to them,” he says. “That provided a real spectrum of responses, which was helpful in understanding the aspects of the public artworks those particular people could engage with, or were moved by. The overwhelming majority of the people I asked gave thoughtful and positive feedback about the artworks. Occasionally the responses were negative, but I feel that’s totally valid too.
“Artists should take risks,” he continues. “Not every artwork can chime with every person – it would be ridiculous if they did. I wanted to reflect some of those views, as I did with The Cave by Heather and Ivan Morison. With that piece, I wanted to acknowledge the negative, but use it as a positive somehow. In that instance, one person’s objection was that the sculpture been subverted through being used by teenagers for gatherings. I think that the way that street furniture, public artworks and public spaces are used in so-called subversive ways can be really revealing. So ultimately the conversation was a boon to tackling that soundscape.”
‘Gimme Shelter’, Davies’ piece to accompany The Cave, a stone shelter with a wooden stool that looks out across the Campbell Park grazing fields, provides a good illustration of his curatorial approach to sound art:
- Dan Davies, accompanying soundwalk notes for ‘Gimme Shelter’
Here, his approach was to take elements and recordings that could only exist by spending time with the artwork – the sound of its stone – and the visual stimuli and impressions it formed in his mind; to that he adds highly percussive elements that symbiotically gather together elements of sound meditation, ritualistic primitivism and a drum machine synonymous with the bass-heavy rhythmic dance music of the last 35 years.
The treatment for The Cave is vastly different to ‘Window Seat’, a piece to accompany the vastness of Middleton Hall using layered voices recalling fond memories of Christmas markets and a post-shopping sandwich; it is different again to ‘470 Million Years’ that accompanies Ronald Rae’s troubling Animals In War, which takes archive recordings of the Scottish artist talking evocatively about the challenges and rewards of carving stones, rhythms made from Rae’s chisel, or the atmospheric sounds that happened to exist around the statue when Davies was there recording.
One of his personal favourite pieces is ‘Spira Mirabilis’, which accompanies Gordon Young’s The Milton Keynes Rose.
“Visiting The Milton Keynes Rose on a rainy morning in half term, the artist found families using the space to play a game of their own making. A kind of hide and seek, but with the names of the days marked on the pillars. This soundscape is the response to the enjoyment of this artwork, simple, fun and playful. The notes of the saxophones spiral inwards and outwards in key, sometimes intersecting, like the lines of the spira mirabilis (logarithmic spirals) of the sculpture.”
- Dan Davies, accompanying soundwalk notes for ‘Spira Mirabilis’
For ‘Spira Mirabilis’, Davies worked with saxophonist Dan McNamara, who plays beatific, gently circling, highly lyrical melodies that are then clustered and stacked atop one another, forming the perfect sonic embodiment of Young’s arresting, celebratory work. "Dan asked me about what I wanted to achieve and then we recorded his saxophone improvisations around these ideas,” explains Davies. “From there it was just a process of picking out little fragments of ascending or descending scales to mirror the logarithmic spirals of the original artwork, and layering them into a kind of one-person horn section.”
If Davies’ approach seems intuitive as you experience his trail, it was often anything but. “Honestly, some approaches took time to percolate,” he laughs. “Only three or four of the 15 appeared quickly; ‘The Object’, for example, which accompanies The Sentinel in the grounds of MK Gallery. As soon as I tapped on the stainless steel of the sculpture and heard the range of sounds it could produce, I felt there was potential to create something solely from those recordings. I set up some contact mics and then a stereo digital recorder to capture some drumming. I tend to carry an old bass drum beater, some brushes and drumsticks around when I know that I’ll be making field recordings, so for once they all got used! It must be said: I’m an inveterate over-packer.”
Davies singles out ‘Higher State Of Entropy’ as one of the more complicated responses. 'Higher State Of Entropy’ is a charming piece that accompanies Ray Smith’s Chain Reaction, a tower formed of gymnastic figures standing on each other's hands and feet. "That piece seemed much more intimidating to me. It took a few days to consider and find an approach that felt fitting. It was initially going to be made up of sounds from a gymnastics class – tumbling, specifically – to reflect the tower of figures in the sculpture, but there wasn’t a safe and timely way to get the recordings done in the end. I also tried some 90s-style dance music with disastrous results, which left me feeling a bit deflated. The approach finally came together when I realised how fun it could be to set up and record a physical chain reaction – ping pong balls and toy cars whizzing down ramps, bouncing off drums and into cymbals etc. That playfulness injected a bit of life back into proceedings.”
In 1966, percussionist and Karlheinz Stockhausen student Max Neuhaus began a series of works that were grouped under the name LISTEN. The premise was simple: the artist would silently guide a group of participants to a specific New York location – a Con Edison power station, a Puerto Rican neighbourhood, a freeway – and allow his ensemble to actively and consciously listen to their surroundings. It was an exercise in extreme awareness designed, according to Neuhaus, “to refocus people’s aural perspective.”
Neuhaus’ approach might sound like the polar opposite of the way that Dan Davies developed Truth, Beauty And Goodness, but there are parallels. For Neuhaus, his LISTEN pieces were compositions – the choice of locations and the order in which they were visited was his score, a conscious, deliberate sequence that just happened to use real life sounds instead of conventional instrumentation. And then there was chance; no two LISTEN pieces were ever the same. Variations in weather, time of day, whether it was a week day or the weekend, all had a bearing on how the piece would sound. Nevertheless, like Truth, Beauty And Goodness, the sound of those pieces was inseparable from visual stimuli, and both prompt reflection and heightened observations by forcing you to listen – and look – for a specific, deliberate, defined period of time.
Davies’ approach is also one of composition. Not for him the opportunistic aspects of some practitioners of field recording – his is a much more considered approach. "Although there were some serendipitous moments, like recording the cheers of a wicket being taken at a cricket match heard on ‘Cysgod’, the piece I did to accompany Peter Bowker’s Gnomon (Shadow Caster) soundscape, I tend not to rely on those moments heavily,” he says. “Part of relying on chance means accepting that something dramatic happening is unlikely. In a way that’s more relatable and truthful to our lived experience. Personally, I’d rather create the impression of the sculpture using the sound elements I have collected – the objective, namely the fragments of sound, supporting my subjective interpretation in the form of the soundscape.”
“Because of the temporal way we experience something like a song or a soundscape, duration also needs to be given some thought, I think,” he offers, in conclusion. “I don’t set out to make something that I think will please an audience, because I think that’s problematic. But I do think considering the listener’s time and attention is necessary if you want them to listen from beginning to end, unless the object of the artwork is to challenge the listener in that specific way.”
Read the accompanying notes for Truth, Beauty And Goodness at ifmiltonkeynes.org/sound-art-trail
Listen to Dan Davies’ soundscapes for Truth, Beauty And Goodness at dandavies.bandcamp.com