17 Aug 23

Recording the Forest

A photo of artist Jez riley French standing in the Forest of Dean. He is a white man, wearing glasses and a flat cap, and wearing headphones, listening to sounds he is recording in the forest. He is surrounded by trees.

In September 2023 we invite audiences to step into the Forest of Dean and explore the inner world of the trees in a new audio-visual experience, The Secret Sounds of Trees.

This month we caught up with sound artist Jez riley French to learn about his creative process, find out about some of the sounds he has recorded for this installation and how he is working with composer Lau Nau on this soundscape.

Can you tell us about your creative process for this new soundscape and your time capturing sounds at Beechenhurst?

My practice involves working with what I tend to refer to as sound outside of our attention and a key part of this is developing specialist microphones and techniques for listening in different ways, for example to the internal sounds of plants.

My interest is in the listening itself, and how accessing these sounds allows us to re-think the narratives around our perception of place.

When I’m able to spend some time in a specific location, such as at Beechenhurst, I’m not interested in ‘sound collecting’ as a flat, technical process. Instead I spend the time engrossed in the listening itself, including through the microphones I build, and every now and then, if it feels right, I’ll press record.

I think you have to be happy to let sounds go, to not always try to document them as it can, if that is the only motivation, interrupt the listening. It’s perhaps subtle, but for me that is how I keep a creative connection to the act of listening. It’s an intuitive process, guided of course by research and creative impulses, but the personal, moment to moment experience is what has allowed me to question standard ways of both listening and recording, and in so doing, extend the practice.

A photo of Jez riley French recording sounds of the trees in the Forest of Dean.

For Feathered Pink Botanic, the sound piece that is part of The Secret Sound of Trees, I focused on the internal sounds of trees, moss, ferns and in soil horizons beneath the forest floor.

The material itself then takes time to reflect on, re-listen to and start to gain a sense of how a piece might form from it.

When I do record something it tends to be a durational process, often spending several hours listening to a single sound or a wider location as it evolves. So listening back can also take a long time. It’s a gradual process; some days you have to step back, wait, and come back to a recording with fresh ears, find new ways for it to work in a piece.

As the installation for Beechenhurst is multi-channel, involving spatialisation, it’s only completed when we’re back there, working with speaker placement and the environment itself of course.

How have you collaborated with Lau Nau to create this soundscape?

I’ve known Laura (Lau Nau) for many years now and one thing that I find interesting about her work is that it uses melodic material in ways that pull you in to the music with apparent ease but without compromising its strength.

As with any collaboration there’s an important element of trust involved of course, and I think that’s been there since the first time we worked together. This means we can each connect to the material being shared with more of the ‘space’ that is needed.

Laura is based in Finland so we’ve been sending each other recordings and talking through ways to maintain the central point of the piece, which is to reveal the forest in a way that invites as wide an audience as possible to listen differently, connecting in new ways to the other species around them.

A photo of Jez riley French recording the sounds of the trees in the Forest of Dean. Photo by Camilla Adams.

Can you tell us about some of the sounds of nature that we will hear within your new soundscape?

Describing the sounds in the piece is difficult, partly because many of them have not been recorded before.

The wider research is still catching up with these forms of listening and recording, and, to be honest, it’s not always clear what process is making the sounds. The cellular processes as plants draw in nutrients, or the microscopic signals in mycorrhizal / mycelium networks are all part of the work.

I think we’re also at a point now where we need to think carefully about how the language we use when talking about non-human life carries with it a degree of imposition, often unintentional but with some weight. That might seem overly senstive to some, but considering these questions is part of the responsibility we have when, in effect, we are using the sounds of other species as creative material.

What I can say though is that audiences will hear root systems taking in moisture, bark crackling as sap rises, the intricate sound of water storage in the moss blanketing the forest floor, insect activity and other vibrations in soil horizons (different layers of soil).

Is there a sound you captured that has really surprised you?

I’m always surprised, which is why I’m still finding new ways to listen, still fascinated.

Sometimes I might have a basic idea of the possible sounds from specific sources. For example the resonance of a building vibrating in its locale, or the root systems of plants early in the morning, but the point really is that these sounds never repeat and every inch of every environment is different, if you listen at the micro-level, even to vast landscapes.

The myriad combinations of sounds are always new, always evolving, so I’m constantly surprised. Constantly realising how much we can get from listening, and how much we still have to learn about what we hear, and how we translate the experiences.

A photo of Jez riley French recording the sounds of the soil in the Forest of Dean. Photo by Camilla Adams.

Part two of our interview with Jez riley French will be published on our website in early September. Sign up to our mailing list here to be the first to know.

The Secret Sounds of Trees is a new audio-visual installation taking place at Beechenhurst in the Forest of Dean from Friday 22 - Sunday 24 September. To find out more and to book tickets, visit the event page here.

Mailing List

We send monthly updates about our projects. We will not share your details with any other parties.