VAN September/October 2013: Desend, Bold Traveller | Fergus Kelly Workshop Report

Arctic Terns at Arnastapi, image by Fergus Kelly



From the 13 – 20 of June 2013, I took part in a sound recording workshop in Iceland with Chris Watson and Jez Riley French. This was run by UK company Wildeye who specialise in wildlife film-making, and sound recording workshops.

Field recording is a core part of my practice, and this workshop was a unique opportunity to extend and develop my practice in a sonically fascinating environment, learn from two practitioners whose work I greatly admire, and mix with others from different backgrounds, such as film, radio and games (a burgeoning industry).

Chris Watson has been one of the most highly regarded recordists of wildlife and natural phenomena for over 30 years, and has worked closely with two of the most high-profile natural history presenters in the business, David Attenborough and Bill Oddie. As a freelance recordist for film, TV and radio, he specialises in natural history and documentary location sound together with track assembly and sound design in post production. He also creates multi-channel sound installations and releases his work on CD through UK publishers Touch.

Prior to his wildlife career, Chris was part of a Sheffield electronics outfit I was especially keen on, Cabaret Voltaire, who had been active since the early 70s, were championed by John Peel, and started releasing records with Rough Trade in the late 70s. After leaving Cabaret Voltaire in the early 80s, Chris went on to form electronics / field recording / scientific research project The Hafler Trio with Andrew McKenzie. Their obtuse, intriguing and magnificently presented albums (often accompanied by lengthy texts) were published by Touch.

Jez Riley French, is a composer, artist and audio specialist whose output involves field recording and improvisation. He has performed, exhibited, published internationally and also lectures in both field recording and intuitive composition. Recently he has been artist in residence with organisations in Japan, Italy, Korea, Australia, Belgium and the UK, including a site specific commission from Tate Modern. Jez also makes and sells his own hydrophones and contact mics ( and runs the ‘in place’ project with a website exploring various aspects of field recording and related work.

Our base was Lysuholl in the west of Iceland on the south coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. There were 15 participants occupying two houses. Our delightful host Johanna provided a breakfast buffet and hearty evening meal in a separate house. Lunch consisted of what ever people packed for the day’s travels.

Two vans were hired for the duration, with Chris and Jez doing the driving. Each day was a series of excursions to key locations. We encountered Valavatn lake completely still and shrouded in mist and, apart from the odd car, exceptionally quiet. So when a Red Throated Diver alighted on the lake, there was an almost dream-like clarity to it. In terms of recording opportunities, locations can vary significantly from day to day, depending on weather and wildlife activity. We were on our way elsewhere when we first visited the lake. When we returned to record, some of the birdlife was making alarm sounds that spoilt the other, more subtle bird calls.

One of the important factors of recording wildlife is patience. You might have to wait for as much as 20 minutes for the birdlife to settle after the human intrusion into their habitat. It’s also worth recording for extended periods in order to fully capture a true reflection of the locale in all its particularity. Some aspects only reveal themselves very occasionally and fleetingly.

The ideal way to capture wildlife is without human presence, or by minimising human presence as much as possible, so that the wildlife behaves as it would without our intrusion. This is done by setting up microphones and cabling back about 100 metres to a hide.

Another aspect of field recording is the magic of unplanned encounters that reveal something fascinating in the landscape. This happened when we came across a very large radio mast with colossal support wires spread across a large area. Jez honed in on this as he had experience of recording these kinds of wires elsewhere. By a combination of strong sunlight creating a slight stretch on the wires, and a good wind, a fascinating new world is opened up by attaching contact mics to the wire. The resulting sounds were a series of subtly shifting drones and clangs, with some significant bass response. It’s whole new way of listening to the landscape. One day when we were out recording birdlife in a marshland area, I came across a long boundary fence which yielded some wonderful mid-range buzzing drones when the contact mics were fixed to them.

It was spring in Iceland, so still quite chilly at times. We were advised to bring layers of clothing, which was just as well when we descended via a seemingly endless spiral staircase into Vatnshellir cave. This was located in Snæfellsjökull National Park, and went down about 300 metres. Big temperature drop. Equipped with helmets and flashlights, we reached a large central area and set up to record the water dripping in a unique ambience – more of a challenge than you’d imagine for a large group as there’s always a rustle of clothing, a shifting of weight or an item dropped.

The cliffs and harbour at Arnarstapi were a good location for birdlife. There are large colonies of very vocal Kittiwakes. In the fields above the cliffs is the nesting area for Arctic Terns. These are particularly aggressive birds which attack you as soon as you’re anywhere near them. They go for the tallest object, into which they jab their sharp beaks, and can draw blood. The trick is to hold the microphone on a boom pole above your head, so they go for that. Walking across the nesting area they became extremely agitated. Being careful not to tread on any eggs, I netted terrific recordings, even though my jacket looked like it was designed by Jackson Pollock by the end.

Another good location for birdlife was back at base in the evening, where Redshank, Golden Plover, Whimbrel and Snipe were all in evidence. Being a volcanic landscape, Iceland is devoid of trees, so certain locations can be very exposed, with nothing to baffle sounds from far away. Consequently the birdlife at base always had the sea in the background, even though it was a few miles away.

One particularly fascinating recording method is the use of hydrophones to record underwater. Again, a whole other world opens up. Some great recordings were made in the rockpools and the shoreline of the lava beach. By burying the hydrophones a few inches into the sand where the waves break, and standing a couple of metres back, the wash of the sea as it rushes over the mics, then pulls back is powerful. The hydrophones can also be used to record melting ice, which we did in Snæfellsjökull glacier, though the results were very subtle. This volcano and glacier is the snow mountain where Jules Verne set his book Journey To The Centre Of The Earth.

“Descend, bold traveler, into the crater of the jökull of Snæfell, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the Kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth.”

Hydrophones reveal an intriguing microworld of underwater activity. In the harbour at Keflavik I recorded the distinctive sounds of Pistol Shrimp, so-called as they emit loud pops, not unlike someone bursting bubblewrap.

Amongst the more memorable locations was the ‘hidden’ waterfall at Gullfoss – a colossal and breathtaking experience. Nature’s solemn majesty reducing humanity to a speck. Also the hot springs with bubbling mud which it was possible to record very close up, with very visceral results.

The workshop was a great opportunity to spend a concentrated period of time, free from the daily travails, focussing exclusively on recording in unique environments. Helpful tips and suggestions occurred in the field as issues arose, with Chris and Jez on hand to help. So any tech talk happened in a largely informal way, rather than in a structured situation – apart from one evening when we were introduced to surround sound recording techniques and software.

Otherwise we were on the road from first thing in the morning till late into the evening. It was also really useful to be able to try some of the kit that Chris and Jez brought, and get a proper sense of what’s necessary in certain situations and why. I’ll be making some additions to my kit as a result. The learning continues after the workshop with email exchanges. Working as part of a large group was a lot of fun and a very interesting and beneficial experience – being able to compare notes and learn from each other.

With 15 hours of recordings to review, it’s going to take some time to assimilate proceedings. It may be a long time before any recordings get stitched into new work. Not that it matters – the fact is that it’s all archived for future retrieval.

Fergus Kelly is a sound artist from Dublin who has exhibited internationally and won many Arts Council awards. His work is published via his Room Temperature label.


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