What an amazing five days I have had at the Observatory. Located within the grounds of Winchester Science Centre, facing south and overlooking the rolling landscape of the South Downs National Park, the Observatory buildings occupied a quiet oasis of calm away from the exuberant business and noise of the Science Centre, full of young, excited children [and adults] learning about the world around them on the centre’s displays and interactive installations and gadgets. The acoustics within the Science Centre were akin to that of a huge swimming pool filled with voices, laughter, shouts and hyperactivity; all this contained within the huge pyramidal building and separated from the Observatory by glass and aluminium doors. To the south of the Observatory were a number of very busy main roads. These roads ran below [though out of sight] and across the hills within line-of-sight, contributing a continuous traffic hum that varied in intensity according to the time of day. At times it was so loud you could not hear the sounds of birds twittering from the neighbouring trees.
The Observatory buildings themselves are quite beautiful – not large, by any means, but intimate and intricate. I had the pleasure of sharing the space [whilst I was in the structure] with the very lovely artist in residence, Isabella Martin who’s conversation enriched my experience a great deal as we shared ideas and experiences.
One of the joys of this residency is its openness to allow the artist to develop work without a preconceived idea of particular outcomes. This lack of pressure to ‘deliver’ to a plan enables a genuine relationship with the environment to grow so that the artist, me in this case, can luxuriate in the opportunity to wander around, look and listen, explore and research all manner of things related to the experience and location. By implication, all sensate experiences and thought are game for inclusion in a finished piece of work. The challenge, among others, is to experience, distill and make choices about what to include and what to exclude from any finished work, a difficult process when there is just so much, so many perspectives to choose from – I knew I was going to write a string quartet [the first of four, one from each of the residencies] and a series of paintings, all site-specifically informed but the rest was a mystery.
Day 1 saw me spending most of my time in the Observatory building, acclimating myself to the surroundings and going on a few very close by walks. The weather was not good – cold and showery and very windy. I spent some time talking to Isabella about her working process and planning where to walk on day 2. Isabella had commented on how dangerous it was to walk from the Science Centre onto the footpaths south into the countryside because of the very fast and noisy traffic and because the footpaths had no access without walking along and crossing these very busy roads. I decided to avoid this and drive a little way south, park the car and then walk, avoiding the trauma of the traffic and the noise and getting to experience what I wanted to see – the chalk plateau and download. I only had five days on location so my time was precious. I needed to focus on what was important for my research and go do it!
By the end of Day 1 had had made a few pencil sketches to capture thoughts, sights and sounds on paper as spontaneously as I could.
and a picture of some of Isabella’s work in the Observatory:
And my drawings:
I had managed to find cheap overnight accommodation at the ‘Days Inn’, a motel in the Winchester North Services area, southbound M3. It was clean, I had a family room to myself [3 beds; 1 double and 2 singles], my own bath and toilet, tea and coffee making facilities and a flat screen TV. One minute from the motel was the food mall. Mercifully there was an M&S on the premises so I could get decent fresh food to eat. This would become my ‘home’ for the next 5 days.
Walkies time. I drove to a carpark about 4 minutes south from the Science Centre to explore Fawley Down.
The walk was magnificent. The panoramas wide. From here I could see southwest across to the Solent, the Isle of White and the New Forest. The weather was turbulent, heavy and frequent showers blown along by a keen, cool northwesterly gale.
I was very lucky, the showers passed to the north and south of where I was walking. They passed in bands creating amazing, atmospheric and rapidly changing plays of light on the land.
I eventually found a path that turned down into a small valley, away from the high plateau. There were trees and shelter. I could hear the birds; the sun was out and it felt warm and protected. This was a great spot to make my first iPhone video diary:
Upon my return to the Observatory I decided to make some more sketches to capture the day’s experiences as spontaneously as possible, almost without any thought at all. I knew these sketches would inform later work with painting and of course, composition:
More walking, this time a little further afield. I wanted to experience some of the more immediately dramatic chalk landscapes Hampshire had to offer, the wild chalk escarpments. After looking at the map and studying contours to find where the best confluence of escarpments could be found, I settled for the area around Old Winchester Hill, south east of the Science Centre. The weather was still showery but the wind had dropped somewhat. I walked around Old Winchester Hill National Nature Reserve and further south and east into the chalk valleys.
After walking through an enchanting [and enchanted] woodland full of Cow Parsley magically illuminated by dappled sunlight, I moved from the higher plateau area to an escarpment edge that overlooked a magnificent vista with a view of the opposite escarpments stretching away towards Petersfield and as far as the eye could see into the high ground of Sussex. I sat and looked out from this majestic vantage point, had my lunch, smoked a rollie, gathered my thoughts and made my iPhone video diary for Day 3 , then completed some sketching.
I also visited the very characterful old village of East Meon and walked around some of the voluptuous hills there. The weather had improved and it became quite warm.
Day 4 saw yet more walking. I returned to an area closer to the Science Centre, Ovington Down and Gander down to the south east not far beyond day two’s walks but bearing south east as opposed to south west – a very different prospect for topography, light and vista. I also walked to the village of Cheriton, near the source of the luminous, trout-filled Itchen, then, following the Itchen way to Tichborne and back in a large circular route. I was back on the chalk’s open, rolling plateau and its gentle valleys and streams.
These days of walking were long but so enjoyable. The luxury of being able to explore with nothing but the land and one’s thoughts for company gave time to connect to the area, to absorb its ambience and structures, sights, smells and sounds. I haven’t before been on any kind of residency and certainly not one as a composer where I have the time to just be, to think without pressure. I found it most therapeutic, as if with each passing day the ‘compressions’ of daily life were slowly lifted and I could expand into the space around me. I write so much music from week to week – every day, and have frenetic spells of painting, too; I’m always doing and making, always thinking about the next project, the next piece of music, organising, planning and thinking ahead. I felt truly in the moment here, perhaps for the first time since I was last in Suffolk on holiday with my partner, staying with composer Gordon Crosse in August 2014. Only there, across a week of slow paced living have I felt that same sense of growth and freedom. I love it!
Having said that, I was aware that there was much effort and consolidation to follow with regard to creating new work and that my time here was spent like a sponge, absorbing everything, thinking about it but allowing myself not to draw any conclusion or more to the point, race to any conclusion. I could feel myself filling up with ideas, impressions and glimpses almost as if what I was aiming for; the paintings and the string quartet could be seen and heard from afar, like a shimira, almost within touching distance, but not quite. Tantalising!
I summarise my feelings in the Day 4 iPhone video diary – rounding things up on my penultimate day. I ask myself some big questions to which, as yet, I have no answers.
After making the video diary I distilled my thoughts in the now familiar way; through sketches that were this time, unconsciously more heavily landscape influenced than before – perhaps. I allowed myself no more than 30 seconds for each scribble – I was after what was essential, what was immediate in the hope I would capture something more elusive:
Consolidation. I chatted to Isabella at the Observatory about my walks and recommended places for her to go. I thought. I thought a lot, with a few cups of coffee, about the past few days and just how full my head head was of stuff – emotional, observational, experiential stuff – and I was excited, too, thinking ahead to the time this experience would settle, consolidate and result in new work. And remarkably, I still didn’t feel pressured about coming up with anything. I knew I would – I always do, but just letting this gestate, ferment away quietly out of consciousness was a strangely enjoyable and confident experience.
I want the work I produce from this first residency to surprise me. I want to develop my practice, my expression in both art forms in some way. I feel that the residency has been deeply enriching.
It is now just a matter of time 🙂