percussive coast

Percussive Coast
March 17 2011

I recently facilitated a two-day workshop named ‘Percussive Coast’ for PVA MediaLab as part of Big Picture’s [Ex-Lab] programme of events, Exploratory Laboratory.


The workshop took place across two days in November 2010 and was an examination of landscape, place and how features could be captured and used to develop a musical score for new compositions.

On our first day we worked on location at Charmouth beach where we used the mapping techniques of artists previously shown in the EX-LAB exhibition at Bridport Arts Centre as the starting point for our own investigations and research.


We began by mapping a small area of shoreline to examine its content and features – rocks, pebbles, sand and shingle, litter and all manner of objects, and where these were placed in relation to one-another. The mapped area of beach needed to correspond to the scaled down matrix we had drawn on paper. This matrix contained the same number of boxes as the large matrix demarked on the beach. The next step was to capture the relative positions of the objects on the beach and plot their position onto the matrix using pencil. As facilitator of the workshops I guided the participants through this process making it clear that the act of mapping, of capturing, was not a scientific method, nor would it hold the accuracy of measuring or recording using digital technologies. The mapping was observational and responsive and could be expressive too. Some participants choose to reflect what they saw as accurately as possible on their matrixes; others took a more flexible approach and drew very fluidly across their area. Some physically traced out the matrix area in the sand whilst others used a few strong visible markers as general guide to positioning. Either way, the group mapped what they saw in the most appropriate manner for them.

Mapping over, the second part of the experience was to find materials on the beach that could be used to produce sounds. Anything would do so long as it had an audible quality. The group found stones, paper, seaweed, dried plants, plastic bottles, shingle, wood and an assortment of flotsam and jetsam. This bizarre collection of found objects would become the instruments of our orchestra.

We returned to PVA MediaLab where I explained to the group how to turn their mapped out drawings into scores and how to ‘extract’ parts from these scores.


The group as a whole would perform each person’s composition. To do this, each member of the group had to be assigned an instrument or sound as well as a notated part, extracted from the score, that would give instructions for when and how to play their instruments in the same manner as a conventional musical score and parts functions.

As ‘homework’, the participants had to make their individual parts from the scores. This involved creating, as many parts as there were players and making sure that all the mapped events on the score were located into the parts in the correct place. For instance, all the small red pebbles that occurred on the mapped area of beach were extracted, located and mapped into the new, just red pebbles matrix (this would become the red pebbles part). Other objects would be singularly extracted into other parts.

Within the red pebbles only part, the pebbles would become the initiators for a musical event fixed in time – like notes on a stave that would initiate a sound response at a given point in time.


In its initial form, the score matrix was laid out in two dimensions, perhaps 6 boxes high by 18 boxes long into which drawn objects were mapped and positioned. To transform this matrix into a linear form so it could be read like a time-line, the participants had to decide how to navigate the matrix and lay it out in the musical part, presenting one row of the matrix, from left to right at a time. A matrix 6 boxes high (rows) and 18 columns in length would be laid out thus: row 1, columns 1-18; row 2, columns 1-18; row 3, columns 1-18; and so on until the matrix was transformed into a linear format one row deep. This became our time-line and custom stave.

And there’s more. Like a musical part, indications of volume, performance style and rhythm had to be clear and understandable. To gauge these properties the participants referred back to their original mapped scores to see how they had captured the objects. Their size, tonal quality (light and darkness on paper) and manner of mark-making all influenced the instructions and information these bespoke scores and parts were conveying for performance.


The second aspect of homework was for each participant to investigate the sound making objects they had found and explore how they could be played, what sounds they could make and what instructions and indications were necessary to realise these sounds when other people were playing them. They also needed to consider how the ‘instruments’ would be positioned for a group performance; if they could be hand-held, positioned on the floor for striking or hitting or suspended from a frame for best resonance qualities.


This concluded day one of the experience.



Day two was based at PVA MediaLab. The day was broken into two halves; shared learning, instruction and rehearsals and recording.

All of our previous work had involved analogue (as opposed to digital) techniques. Today was to be a combination of the two. We would perform the work (an analogue activity), but the sounds would be recorded through digital media, be edited and then distributed through on-line digital hosting.

3 ivon by PVA MediaLab

The participants shared their learning, instructing each other in the use of their instruments, performance and interpretive techniques and how all of these related to the score and parts.

1 carol by PVA MediaLab

Each score and part had a notated time-line. The grid demarcations of the time-line were given a time value, rather like SMPTE time code values operating in a sequencer. So, for instance, each matrix square (box) may take 1 second of time to traverse. Where objects are placed within this box, top, middle, edge, will determine when the instrument is struck in the same way as the position of a note in a bar tells the musician when to play it and any additional markings (in this case large or small markings, long or short markings going across several boxes) how long to make the sound for and whether it should be loud or soft. Reading the part involved moving from box to box, left to right, the lines dividing each box acting as a bar lines in conventional notation, moving second by second and responding as accurately as possible to the content within the boxes.

4 francesca by PVA MediaLab

2 eva by PVA MediaLab

As with all ensembles, it is useful to have a conductor to measure the time and ascribe the time-line a common value everyone can adhere to (the beat). I took the role of conductor and each piece was initially rehearsed and then captured through digital recording.

Percussive Coast – The Real Time Laboratory from PVA MediaLab on Vimeo.
‘symphony’ by PVA MediaLab

The levels of interpretive control and expectation were very sophisticated with each person representing personal interpretations of the original mapped experience. The work produced was abstract percussive music. These were genuine compositions. The participants had become composers and transformed visual information from the beach, through mapping exercises into notation and then performance.

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