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  • Composer Benjamin Mawson
  • Jubilee Gardens, London, redesigned by West 8, was the site of one of Mawson’s compositions when it reopened last April.
  • Mawson’s ‘circles’ for a project surrounding St Paul’s in London.
  • The different strands of a Mawson composition
  • Visitors access the music through an android phone.

Music and movement

BY ALASTAIR McCAPRA
Composer Ben Mawson has created a musical response to landscapes which gives listeners a unique and unrepeatable immersive experience — and he is eager to collaborate with landscape architects.

Composer Ben Mawson creates musical landscapes, what he calls ‘music you can walk inside, like an invisible sculpture’. Of course the first thing I want to know when I meet him is whether he is a relative of Thomas Mawson who founded the Landscape Institute. Unfortunately not, though that probably would have been too good to be true.

Many people have linked music to a landscape before, but not in the way Mawson does. ‘We normally hear in time only,’ he says. ‘I wanted to create space as a layer of musical experience.’ Everyone who walks through his musical landscape hears the same piece of music, but no two people have exactly the same experience. What you hear and how you experience it depends on where you are, how you move through the space, and how long you spend in each place.

Mawson makes recordings, usually of the sung or spoken word. He then manipulates the sound to different degrees so that some of it is clearly intelligible, some of it is blurred, and some of it is just ‘pure’ sound. Next he uses this material to create 51 distinct tracks of sound. From these tracks material is extracted in different ways to form the content of each of the dozens of circles that make up a whole composition of this kind. Circles vary from a single voice to a block of densely layered sounds, or short independent events. Some repeat while others play only once, all are different lengths and in different sized areas.

He then looks at his chosen landscape and chooses points to which each of these tracks will be linked by GPS. The idea is that within a given space there will be ripples of sound emanating from particular points. Some are independent, some overlap, and some have gaps of silence between them. The result is that from a multi-layered but fixed digital output you can get an infinite number of unique experiences.

To experience the music you need an android phone and software called NoTours — you download a file, connect your headphones, and then just walk as you like through the landscape. (For technical reasons this won’t work with iphones).

The experience is incredible. This is the first time I have felt totally ‘immersed’ in a piece of music. You are in the music and not passing by it. The most fascinating places for me were the ‘sweet spots’ where the sound from two or more points in the piece mixes together, and incredible harmonic textures flow over each other until you decide to move on. It sounds completely natural and spontaneous when it is of course the most carefully composed part of the whole experience.

Mawson’s recent projects are a piece called ‘Take Me By The Hand’ which was installed at the newly reopened Jubilee Gardens in London in April 2012, and a music and landscape project in Southampton in October, which was visited by Akash Wadhawan, landscape architect at Hyland Edgar Driver. ‘Listening to a musical composition which responded to the surrounding space was unique,’ said Wadhawan. ‘As I walked, the music changed. Walking next to a brook, I could hear an amplified sound of running water. Coming down the hill, the steps were the predominant sound. This adds another layer of experience in getting to know a place, whether a geographical, historical or cultural landscape.’

One of the figures who inspired Mawson was architect and composer Iannis Xenakis, who both worked in Le Corbusier’s studio and studied music with Olivier Messaien. Xenakis was fascinated by the interplay between the visual and the musical. In the 1970s he devised a computer system called UPIC, which could translate graphical images into musical results. One of the pieces he created this way is Mycenae-Alpha which is earsplitting at thebeginning and pretty abstruse throughout. Mawson’s music is completely different in tone and texture — warm, intriguing and compelling.

When I ask Mawson whether he would like to work with landscape architects, he is immediately enthusiastic. ‘The GPS technology won’t work indoors’ he confesses ‘so what I do has to be an outdoors experience. I really like the idea of working with a landscape designer to create a total experience for the visitor, both visual and acoustic. Do you know any landscape architects who might be interested?’

Find out more
Visit Ben’s website www.benjaminmawson.com
Alastair McCapra is chief executive of the Landscape Institute.

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