Sanctuary is a smartphone audio installation commissioned by the Amble Bird Sculpture Trail. The work draws connections between the avian and the human by transforming people’s singing voices into ‘birdcalls’ and birdcalls into human-like vocalisations. Scored for a hybrid ensemble of singers, musical instruments, digital sounds and an unlikely chorus of people and birds, the work encourages reflection on the intersections between bird and human life in terms of how each has a common need for a safe haven. I think of Sanctuary as a kind of meditation, offering bird trail walkers the opportunity to pause for fifteen minutes or so and experience Little Shore as an al fresco concert hall. This small beach close to Amble harbour is frequented by seabirds, and I like to think that people listening to Sanctuary might interpret the displays of bird flight there as part of the piece’s overall drama.

Sounds for Sanctuary were gathered from a variety of sources, including recordings of local people and members of Harbour Lights choir whose ‘birdified’ voices form part of the work’s sonic texture. Along with soprano Alison McNeil’s wordless singing (listen out for her brief duet with a skylark), and a hybrid score of orchestral and electronic instruments, these elements combine to treat human and bird utterances as interchangeable: transposing, juxtaposing and intermingling their ‘voices’.

My research involved observing and listening to birds, and reading various articles about bird flight, habits and habitats. I found migration a particularly telling metaphor for the contested ethics of human exodus and resettlement, and this guided me in sculpting the sometimes plaintive, sometimes playful music. As did stories about birds: in particular, The Origin of the Birds by the Italian author Italo Calvino. Calvino’s short tale highlights the sheer otherness of birds, and I was especially drawn to one scene where the central character, Qwfwq, takes refuge from a flock of attacking birds by hiding under the wing of a giant bird. I equate this idea of a safe haven to the stretch of coastline that plays host to the Amble bird sculpture trail, and which provides a habitat and a shelter for birds and people alike.

Sanctuary formed the soundtrack for the 2022 Amble Festival.

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