Thursday, 19 December 2013

Wind, willow, water

Increasingly, students of the Open College of the Arts meet up amongst themselves locally. It may be difficult to find students studying the same art form locally, and some of us may find this disappointing. Meeting up with students of other disciplines, however, also has its advantages in that it allows for debate between different art forms and draws attention to the overall debate  that is shared by drawing, painting, photography, creative writing and music students alike. Yiannitsa Cegarra and Petra Vergunst, a photography and music composition student from Aberdeen, decided to take their discussions a step further and set up a small collaborative project in which they would work together on a video.

The video Wind, Willow, Water combines photographs by Yiannitsa Cegarra with words and sounds by Petra Vergunst. It is the product of a collaborative project that started with a morning of fieldwork in the floodplains of the river Dee at Newton Dee, Bieldside. The video expresses the shared experiences and feelings about the place and reflections on doing fieldwork together. What struck Yiannitsa and Petra was the contrast in expressive opportunities of their media as photography produces still images whilst poetry and music are time-based media that can communicate movement and change. They found this contrast between stillness and movement reflected in the landscape. To communicate the calmness of the river landscape, they chose to work with a limited number of images, words and types of sounds and develop these organically.

Yiann says: Wind, Willow, Water has been my first project in collaboration with another OCA student. I must say that it has been invaluable to have worked with Petra. It has reinforced the importance of communication and engagement with another student face-to-face and in particular how the flow of ideas and experiences are shared. Also, I have realised that a higher level of commitment is needed as I haven’t experienced working with another artist before; it was something I was prepared – and needed – to do, and I found it very exciting. I came to know how different disciplines work and I was amazed at how Petra was able to create such pieces – both the poem and the soundtrack – by remembering her experiences from Newton Dee and the feelings gathered through my images. At the start I got to feel the place, which was new to me, and then set out to gather evidence of everything I saw while pre-visualising how I would process the images. I gave Petra sets of colour and black and white versions of the photographs to choose from to see if it was in accordance to our shared experiences of the place. The best bit for me was listening to her poem for the first time, absolutely magical; and then work with my images in harmony – which was tricky. The soundtrack came in last and it wraps up the project entirely; it reflects our experience of the land in nearly all senses – visual, feeling and sound. I cannot emphasise enough how important it has been for me to work with Petra, it has given me the strength to be confident as an artist and it has opened new ways of engaging and creating work that takes me out of a limited comfort zone. I think that our project Wind, Willow, Water is a good starting point for collaboration across disciplines in our studies and I hope that there will be many to come in the future, and I also hope that it will inspire other OCA students to work in partnership.
Petra says: This collaborative project with Yiannitsa has been very exciting. What we aimed for was an integration of art forms, not one of us responding to the work of the other. We did fieldwork together and discussed our ideas on a regular basis. Doing fieldwork together was a real eye-opener. Yiannitsa took out her camera and started taking photographs while I was not sure what to do. This made us realise how a photographer needs a landscape to produce his or her art while a composer is looking for remembered feeling, that is, the experience of a place, something that not necessarily has to be recorded whilst out there. In the end, Yiannitsa sent me several photographs that I took as a starting point for my poem, a recording of which Yiannitsa then used to create a first video. Following a discussion she decided to make several alterations, after which I eventually added sound effects (using a treble recorder). In a way, the project was as much about the process of collaborating as producing an actual video. What helped us a lot was sending each other links to work that we felt was relevant to our joint project – more than once a WeAreOCA blog. We even went to the premiere of Chris Dooks’ Tiny Geographies, a film based on still images of landscape with a soundtrack consisting of found poetry. This shared frame of reference helped us look critically on what we were doing ourselves. Collaborating with Yiannitsa has been important for my development as an artist. Not only has it made me do things that were out of my comfort zone and reflect on things I take for granted as a composer of music, it also revealed the kind of questions artists – irrespective of the art form they are working in - are dealing with. I very much hope that this project has been a first step in a longer process of collaboration – with Yiannitsa and others.

See also:
The music of poetry

Copyright text and video Yiannitsa Cegarra and Petra Vergunst

Friday, 22 November 2013

Kenn and the salmon

Performed at the banks of Dunbeath Water, the chamber opera Highland River, based on Neil Gunn’s novel of the same name, portrays the young boy Kenn’s relation to the river of his childhood. As a young boy, he prevails after a long struggle with a salmon and his parents use the fish to pay off the family’s debts with the local grocer. A few years later, his older brother Angus invites him to poach salmon further upstream, an illegal act that could lead to repercussions from the gamekeeper. As an adult, Kenn returns to the river of his childhood to reflect on his childhood memories and the sense of place and time these embody. The site-specific chamber opera Highland River touches upon themes of physical and spiritual growth and a deeply felt sense of place and time that Kenn’s childhood experiences of salmon, the river and the wider landscape conjure up. Performed in the open air, the voice of the baritone, clarinet, violin and cello will merge with the rushing of the river and the whisper of the wind.

The video beneath contains an extract from the opera from the first act. The young boy Kenn’s mood changes abruptly when he spots a salmon in the river. For a moment he is paralysed by fear of the gamekeeper, but soon his mind turns to killing the fish and finding a stone. His confidence soon grows as he throws stones at the salmon to disturb and catch it. The fish responds furiously and, in first instance, Kenn dashes back. In a moment of reflection, he considers how the salmon must have swum up the river. Kenn throws another stone at the fish and manages to pull it on the grass. Using the full weight of his body, Kenn eventually masters the fish and kills it. As the salmon dies, Kenn’s body comes to a rest and he looks in wonder at the hands with which he managed to land and kill the salmon.

Copyright text and music Petra Vergunst

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Remembered feeling

Remembered feeling, a term used by visual artist Marian Leven, describes the feelings a place evokes in one’s memory. Pitcowdens, a composition for brass quintet, is about the feelings and imaginations a forest croft in the northeast of Scotland elicits for composer Petra Vergunst. For years she has visited the croft - as a destination of walks, to plant trees and to study and share its history. Though abandoned since the mid 20th century, the contours of the house, the byre, the fields and the well are still visible in the landscape. For centuries the farmer and his family and farmhands worked the land in daytime and played the fiddle and sang bothy ballads at night. Pitcowdens is based on one of those bothy ballads, The Dying Ploughboy. In this song, one of the farm workers feels his end is near and says farewell to his master and the land he used to work. In a way, he bid farewell to a way of life and working the land as farming retreated to the more fertile lower-lying grounds along the river Dee half a century ago. To express her remembered feelings and imaginations of the forest croft Petra Vergunst has taken the first four notes of this ballad – the sequence of the tonic, mediant, subdominant and dominant – as a motif to create a sense of longing, the rhythm of working the fields, and more lyrical passages that allude to the bothy ballad.

Alongside her work as a freelance community musician, Petra Vergunst has studied music composition with Patric Standford at the Open College of the Arts. Inspired by theatre, performance art and poetry, her compositions often combine music with narrated or sung texts. To reinforce the narrative character of her music she likes to resemble musical utterances with spoken ones. Like thoughts, these utterances then develop organically and are arranged in the form of monologue or dialogue. A number of her compositions have been successful in competitions and were performed professionally. Three (for alto flute), inspired by Elizabeth Blackadder’s painting Still Life, January 1972, has been performed in Aberdeen Art Gallery by Richard Craig during sound 2013. Pitcowdens (in an arrangement for flute, oboe, bassoon, horn in F and cello) was shortlisted in a competition by the St. Andrews New Music Ensemble and subsequently played by the ensemble in a workshop led by Sally Beamish. Frozen River (flute, trumpet, cello) was played by The Red Note Ensemble during Noisy Nights in Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Pitcowdens, in an arrangement for flute, oboe, horn in F, bassoon and cello, can be listened to here.

Copyright text and music Petra Vergunst

Monday, 28 October 2013

Highland River

Highland River is Neil Gunn’s famous 1937 novel about Kenn who makes a pilgrimage to the source of Dunbeath Water, the river that shaped his childhood, and, in a way, to the sourse of himself and his cultural heritage. For my level three composition course with the Open College of the Arts, I have developed this novel into a site-specific chamber opera for baritone, clarinet, violin and cello. The composition of this opera has been an exciting process that involved a iterative rounds of interpretation of the original novel.

Along Dunbeath Water
Composers of opera have diverging ideas on whether or not to write their own librettos, Benjamin Britten, for example, insisted on collaborating with librettists. Wagner, on the other hand, wrote his own librettos as he felt that the development of a libretto goes hand in hand with the composition of the music and decisions about staging. Whatever stance is taken, the libretto for an opera  necessarily is a simplification of the original text, and therefore highly subjective. That is, developing an existing work into a libretto for an opera involves interpretation.

For reasons similar to those of Wagner, I have written the libretto for my chamber opera Highland River myself. The guidance from OCA stipulated that the opera was to last around twenty minutes. As a result, I would only be able to include a limited number of passages from the novel. For me, Kenn’s intimate relationship with place, time and community is central in Gunn’s book. I thus selected passages from the novel that expressed this theme convincingly and that, together, would present a coherent storyline. The coherence of the storyline was enhanced by choosing only a small number of dramatic themes that would recur in different scenes and were given distinctive thematic material. One of these is the fear for the gamekeeper, a fear embodying a sense of community based on a fear for the laird and his gamekeeper in the wake of the Clearances. When in the first act the young boy Kenn catches a sizeable salmon, the heroic act had to be kept quiet for the community for fear of repercussions from the gamekeeper. In the second act this fear is made explicit in the story of Lachie-the-Fish, the older brother of Kenn’s friend Beel who only narrowly escaped being caught poaching red-handed, a story shared by Kenn and his older brother Angus when they themselves are on a poaching trip.   
'Kenn and the Salmon' in the harbour of Dunbeath

Yet, the selection of passages from the novel to include in the libretto represents but one level of interpretation in the composition of an opera. Equally important are the musical ideas and staging considerations that necessitate the inclusion of certain passages of the book to the exclusion of others. The part of the novel that moved me most is when the young boy Kenn, annoyed that his mother has woken him up to fetch water, arrives at the river and spots a large salmon. After a lengthy struggle he manages to land and kill the fish. In the opera this scene features prominently in the first act and is regularly referred to in subsequent acts. Though this scene is treated at length in Gunn’s novel, it does not recur as emphatically later on in the novel. Compositional considerations thus altered the relative importance of scenes in the opera.

Perhaps surprisingly, writing the synopsis and programme notes – and this blog – involved yet another cycle of interpretation, this time involving reflections on my interpretation of Gunn’s novel. Without giving too much away the programme notes had to capture the essence of the opera in just a few lines. The development of the libretto and score seemed to involve the divergence of ideas, which had to be made convergent in the synopsis and programme notes. Ultimately, the synopsis and programme notes helped to tie up loose ends and re-assemble the jigsaw.  

From the above it would not come as a surprise that my opera, though based on Neil Gunn’s novel, tells a distinctly different story. At times verging into an arts-led inquiry on Gunn's treatment of the idea of embeddedness in place, time and community, the process of interpreting the novel has been an exciting, iterative process of creating narrative and meaning. Naturally, the question arises whether it is legitimate to interpret the novel in such a way – a question quite similar to whether a performer is allowed to interpret the work of a composer freely. For The Turn of the Screw, Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper tried to recreate rather than interpret the novel by Henry James, yet they did decide to write a new prologue for the opera to make it work on stage. I reject the idea that it is possible to stay true to the original novel. In reworking a novel for the stage one necessarily engages in a subjective process. What I’ve tried to do is make explicit how this process of interpretation unfolds and what the interpretation consists of. When writing an opera based on an existing novel interpretation is inevitable. Whether such interpretation is legitimate is not a valid question. A more valid question, however, is whether such interpretation, and the degree to which the original novel and opera deviate, is justified by conceptual and creative decisions.

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst

Monday, 9 September 2013


Mauve, green, grey poems
Perform a conversation
In a theatre of movement

The Japanese influences that run through Elizabeth Blackadder’s (born 1931) Still Life, January 1972 resonate at various levels in Petra Vergunst’s composition Three. Throughout a large part of her career as a painter and printmaker, Blackadder has drawn on the composition and imagery characteristic for Japanese paintings. This culminates in her still lives, painted throughout her career, in which objects are scattered over a surface that is viewed from above. Still Life, January 1972 is no exception. In the composition Three, for solo alto flute, this image is compared with an amicable conversation between three friends, whose ideas deviate initially, but converge after a heated debate. In the conversation the three friends listen to each other, hesitate, interrupt, and finish each others sentences, all the time acknowledging differences whilst looking for - what artist Chu Chu Yuan calls - fields of convergence. To capture the essence of the artistic vision, the composer wrote the haiku-inspired poem quoted above to guide the process of musical composition. The flute is commonly used in Japanese music, and the dark mysterious tone colour of the lower ranges of the alto flute contribute to the atmosphere of the conversation. Three is based on the pentatonic Japanese mode, transposed at times, that consists of a major second, minor second, major third, minor second and major third.

The number three combines the elements of the creative process expressed in Three: the conversation between three friends portrayed in Blackadder’s still life, the three lines of the poem, and the three notes that constitute the field around which the conversation ultimately converges.

Alongside her work as a freelance community artist, Petra Vergunst studies advanced music composition with Patric Standford at the Open College of the Arts. Inspired by theatre, performance art and poetry, her compositions often combine music with narrated or sung texts to make the programme more explicit. To reinforce the narrative character of her music she likes to resemble musical utterances with spoken ones. Like thoughts, these utterances then develop organically and are arranged in the form of monologue or dialogue. Her composition Frozen River (for flute, trumpet and cello) was played by The Red Note Ensemble at Noisy Nights in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and came (in an arrangement for glockenspiel, piano and cello) runner-up in a competition by the Open College of the Arts Student Association. Her composition Pitcowdens (for flute, oboe, bassoon, horn in F and cello) was shortlisted in a competition by the St. Andrews New Music Ensemble and subsequently played by the ensemble in a workshop with Sally Beamish. 

Three will be performed by flautist Richard Craig during sound 2013, the festival of new music in Northeast Scotland. The performance will be part of Painting with Sound, that is to take place in Aberdeen Art Gallery on Tuesday 29 October at 1 pm.

Copyright words and music Petra Vergunst

Friday, 30 August 2013

Embracing a community narrative

The following is a script for the documentary Embracing a Community Narrative which is yet to be made. Through interviews with myself as a community musician and myself as a researcher specialised in community relations this documentary teases out how the community dialogue encouraged through my community music work enhances the participants’ sense of community.

Two museum staff are in a conversation with an older men who holds a tool in his hands.

Narrator (voiceover)
This is a memory-sharing weekend at Verdant Works, Dundee’s museum about the town’s jute industry, housed in a former mill. John Duncan, now in his nineties, tells the museum’s education and community outreach officer Brian Kelly and his colleague about his experiences as a millworker.


A woman sits at a desk writing a text with notes from the memory-sharing weekend scattered around her.

Narrator (voiceover)
And this is the office of community musician Petra Vergunst, who carries out the community music project at Verdant Works of which the memory-sharing event is but the start. I’m here to ask her how she thinks her community music projects influence communities. First, though, we need to find out how she develops her projects.


A copy of an A4-sized songbooklet lies open on the table and an anonymous hand turns to pages to reveal a series of songs.

Community musician Petra Vergunst (voiceover)
Songs play a central role in my community music projects. I compose the words and music for these songs myself and try to capture the memories, experiences and reflections of participants in them. Here at Verdant Works, for example, we’re looking at the experiences of people who’ve worked in Dundee’s jute industry.



Researcher Petra Vergunst
You can think of this music, based on the memories and experiences of people who have worked on the mill floor, as capturing a community narrative, a popular discourse that tells the story of the jute mills in Dundee and that many Dundonians feel describes their heritage and determines who they are now.


Petra Vergunst is leading a choir of twenty to thirty people who sing from the songbooklet.

Investigator (voiceover)
You rehearse the music you’ve written in public workshops. Who are your participants and how do they react to your music?



Community musician Petra Vergunst
The participants for this public workshop at Verdant Works were recruited through press releases, emails to community organisations and word of mouth. I won’t say that recruitment isn’t hard work, but those people who do come forward tend to be very enthusiastic about being part of the project.

Investigator (voiceover)
What impact do you feel your projects have on communities?


Community musician Petra Vergunst
It is hard to lay your finger on how exactly community music projects influence communities, as the number of people participating is low as compared to the number of inhabitants of Dundee. But projects are important to those people who participate. In this project at Verdant Works, for example, The Dundee Free Voice Singers, led by Margaret Mathers, asked whether they could round off the public workshop by singing a few traditional Dundee mill songs. Such initiatives can really bring a project to life, and are an example of how this project was embraced by participants.


A brief continuation of Petra Vergunst leading the choir who are singing the songs written specifically for the project.


Researcher Petra Vergunst
This community music project revives the popular story of Dundee’s jute industry. To continue to be meaningful a narrative needs to be reinforced regularly so that people reconnect to it and re-evaluate the meaning of it to them personally. The community dialogue created through this community music project helps people to do so. This narrative, together with the experience of participating in a project that reinforces this discourse, heightens the sense of community participants experience.

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

A tale of intervention

As an artist and community musician with a background in rural community  development I regularly reflect on the impact of my work on communities. Last June I rounded up some of those reflections in a paper that I presenred at the seminar meaning(less)meanings at Gray's School of Art, Robert Gordon University, in Aberdeen. Here is slightly shortened version of the paper. The full paper will be published online some time this autumn.

Community music, and community arts in general, has been on the scene since the 1960s (Lacy, 1995; Crehan, 2011; Rooke and Garrido Sanchez, 2011). Artists may add some form of community engagement to their projects to justify their work and/or to respond to calls from funding organisations to include an element of outreach work in project applications (Kester, 1999). Others do so because they want to contribute to social change. This raises questions as to what is understood to be a community, the communities that are engaged, the objectives of such community engagement, and the extent to which such engagement is meaningful. Here, I’ll use the example of my own community music work to discuss how one can intervene in, and influence, communities through the arts. 

Community music 
Rather than defining community music I tend to describe my own approach through a number of characteristics. To me, community music is based on the premise that music is a means to intervene in communities and bring them together. This is grounded in ideas of social activism in which projects are relevant to communities, and audiences are seen as active participants rather than passive receivers (Lacy, 1995). My projects emphasise process rather than outcome, and the experience of participation rather than quality of performance (cf. Small, 1999). To allow people with varying musical backgrounds to participate, all projects include an element of song, whilst many are stratified to provide opportunities for people with more musical experience to shine as well. Many of my projects use folksong or folksong-inspired music as participants are likely to be familiar with this. To offer participants with limited singing and instrumental experience a chance to participate I often include unison choruses and an element of creative writing.

Community music projects often last three to five months. Though each project is different, they usually start with a phase in which I engage with communities to gather their memories and reflections. On basis of this, I tend to compose a piece of music which is subsequently rehearsed in one or more community workshops. In some projects I work with pre-formed groups like schools and community groups, in other projects I recruit participants from the wider public who participate in one or more events.

The themes of my projects usually relate to the everyday life experiences of participants (Lacy, 1995) and deal with heritage or social history (rather than national history) or social issues like migration and gender. In doing so, the projects aim to reinvigorate the bond participants feel with community, place and time, in turn strengthening their sense of identity (Lacy, 1995). My musical compositions tell stories based on the memories and reflections shared by the participants in the first phase of the project. To do so, words play a central role in my musical compositions, and are usually included as song lyrics or poetry.

What distinguishes my work from that of many other community musicians is the kind of people I engage and my objectives for doing so. Community music organisations like Sistema Scotland train musicians, and aim at enhancing their participants’ musicianship skills. Their focus thus is on the personal development of participants. Community objectives may be achieved through this, but they are achieved through personal development in first instance. In contrast, my projects place the community objectives at the centre, aiming at a degree of transformation or socio-cultural change as a result of my projects (Lacy, 1995; Crehan, 2011). The focus hence is on the quality of participation rather than music-making. As a result, my emphasis in community music projects is in many ways closer to the ethos and ways of working of community artists (Lacy, 1995; Crehan, 2011) rather than other community musicians. 

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Celebrate summer singing

Celebrate summer singing out of doors! This spring and summer there will be a number of opportunities to sing in woods, parks and next to a burn in the company of others. Letting our voices blend in pretty harmonies or shouting it out loud, singing out of doors means that our voices blend with the song of birds, the soft breeze through trees or the gurgling of a stream. What’s more, the rounds to be sung will tell the stories of the natural world around us.

The singing workshops are part of the community music project Burn of Sound, commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage, that started with a series of creative experience workshops with schools and general public. The creative writing in these workshops has provided the words for the rounds.

Some of the singing workshops will be with schools or community groups, but there are also a number of public singing workshops:

  • Saturday 15 June, 10.30 and 2.30 pm: two hour-long singing workshops at the Burn o’Vat visitor centre at Muir of Dinnet.
  • Wednesday 3 July, 7 pm: an hour-long singing workshop at the stone circle in Aboyne as part of the Aboyne and Mid-Deeside Festival.

If you would like to participate in any of the public singing workshops, please register your interest at There is no need for singing experience or a good voice, only a willingness to share your voice with others. 

Copyright text, image and music Petra Vergunst

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Stifled flames


Stifled flames
At the side
Of a loch

Charcoaled twigs
The warm light of the flames after sunset
Turned the deepest black at sunrise

Tomorrow boys may come
Small boys
Sandals and swimming trunks
Their squealing voices conspiring
Balancing on the stones to dry themselves in sun and wind
Testing their strength when rolling the stones to the water
They may put a white feather in between the ashes
Extinguish their pretend fire with a bottle of muddy water
Hum London’s Burning
Whilst warblers spin their coins

Gathered from a field
Enclosing a fire
Scattered in play

The poem and music for Stifled Flames have been written as part of the project Said in Stone.
Copyright words, image and music Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

I felt moss, I held water

The creative experience workshops for the community music project Burn of Sound, commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage, have now taken place. Finzean, Logie Coldstone and Ballater primaries are rural schools and their pupils were clearly at home in the outdoors environment of Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve. The creative activities encouraged the pupils to observe, listen, feel, smell and imagine and write down their experiences in poetry and prose. In the end of the workshop each pupil was invited to write down their best writing on coloured pieces of paper that were collected in a sketchbook. The result has been an imaginative account of the children's nature experiences.

Reading through the pupils’ contributions to find material for the rounds, three things stood out. The children’s writing showed a wide vocabulary to describe their experiences. The ‘I spy’ activity generated long lists of words which were arranged in different combinations to make little sound pictures. The letter B, for example, allowed for the little poem ‘Burn, Bridge, Bank, Boulder’. At other times, pupils used simple words to capture evocative imagery. After looking for tadpoles in a boggy patch along Burn o’Vat one pupil wrote: ‘I felt moss, I held water’.

The writing also revealed unlimited imagination and ability to go beyond themselves. In one of the activities the children were asked to imagine they were the burn and describe their experiences. One pupil described the flow of the burn in the following manner: ‘Drifting downstream, turning, swirling, around and around, away in the blink of an eye’.  

During the workshops it tended to be sunny but blustery and this came through in much of the writing. The pupils were very attentive as to the effect of the wind on the trees and water and found a wide range of ways to describe this. I have included some of these observations in the round Wind Whispers (click here to listen to the tune:

Wind whispers
Leaves flutter, branches sway
I feel free, I feel free
Free when the wind blows down on me.

As part of the workshop, children were also asked to listen for the pitches and rhythms of the sounds in The Vat. In the round The Vat I’ve created a sound picture of the gorge (click here to listen to the tune:

Drip drop, drip drop
Echo, echo
Crashing down, crashing down.
Copyright text, images and music Petra Vergunst.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Images, words and sounds

Many artists spend time in ‘the field’ to inspire their art. Be they painters, writers or musicians, the intimate experience and understanding of the place generated through spending time outdoors is essential for producing studio work. When the writer Robert Macfarlane and jazz musician Arnie Somogyi were asked to produce a performance piece for Orford Ness in Suffolk, the two artists spent days and nights in the nature reserve, keeping notes of images, phrases and other splinters of found language, jotting down sharts of melodies and half-heard harmonies. In doing so, they came to know the place by heart. As a result, the artists’s understanding of the nature reserve not only permeated the content of the performance piece but also informed its structure. What is interesting to me is that in their fieldwork Macfarlane and Somogyi tended to stick to their own medium, crossing the boundaries of their art forms primarily through collaboration. Though I am mainly a composer, I have a keen interest in writing and drawing. Producing images, words as well as sounds in fieldwork, I am currently exploring how doing fieldwork in more than one medium influences how I experience and understand a place.

Images, words and sounds help me to experience and understand a place in different ways. In his book The Perception of the Environment, anthropologist Tim Ingold argues that art gives form to human feeling. The way in which we express this human feeling is guided by our ‘specific orientations, dispositions and sensibilities that we have acquired through having had things pointed out to us’. From teachers and books, artists have learnt how to do fieldwork in their own discipline. I argue that our experience and understanding of the place is filtered through the medium we work in. When I did fieldwork at the ruined forest croft of Pitcowdens I not only tried to think in images, words and sounds, I also reflected on how each of these mediums influenced the way I came to experience and understand the place. 

I started my fieldwork at Pitcowdens with taking photographs that contained interesting movement and contrasting textures. There were also images that could serve as a peg through which I could tell the story of the forest croft – hollows in planks that shaped my view of the forest croft. Searching the site for interesting objects I realised that the objects I was looking for had to help me add a human dimensions to the generic story of a forest croft being abandoned. A twig structure resembling a washboard helped me conjure up images of women washing clothes. The stories, ideas and imaginations evoked through exploring images became the subject matter for some creative writing. In the process of finding the right words, the intangible amorphous images firmed up.  

There are composers who write music inspired by specific places, but fieldwork remains a less common phenomenon for musicians than it is for painters and writers. The routines for doing fieldwork are also less well established, leaving composers the opportunity to find out for themselves how they would like to develop their experience and understanding of place – and how this is to influence their music. For the performance piece for Orford Ness, jazz musician Arnie Somogyi wrote down snippets of melodies and harmonies that came to his mind whilst being in the reserve and produced music based on improvisation, composition and environmental sounds. On what he calls a song-walk along the river Deveron, musician Jake Williams collects images and songs native to the valley of the river Deveron, recording some of the songs on location. My own ideas for the composition Pitcowdens developed gradually, away from the ruined forest croft. The experiences and understandings generated through my fieldwork influence my musical ideas as well as the larger structure in which these were presented (compare the work of Sally Beamish). The images, words and sounds created during my fieldwork at the ruined forest croft, and the particular experiences and understandings of this place these brought about, have thus shaped my composition Pitcowdens.

As part of the community music project Burn of Sound  for Scottish Natural Heritage there will be an opportunity for people who enjoy the visual arts, writing and music to reflect on the kind of experiences and understandings of place they develop through fieldwork. The workshop,  a walk with creative writing exercises followed by a discussion, will take place on Saturday the 11th of May from 2 to 4 pm at the visitor centre in the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve. If you want to participate in this workshop, please send an email to Petra Vergunst at

Copyright words and images Petra Vergunst