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04 oktober 2018 | Bloggpost

Creating a Tactile Composition

By Alex Neilson

Alex Neilson is a composer, singer and drummer, living in Glasgow, Scotland. His practice fuses improvisation and folk music. He gains much inspiration from the landscapes of the places he has lived, particularly Glasgow and Yorkshire.


I was commissioned to create a sensory listening experience, or ‘tactile composition’ as part of SINNERLIGT exhibition (now showing in Halsinglands Museum until the 24th of November). Each accessible artwork in the exhibition has been designed to give visitors the sensations of walking through Greta MacMillan’s painting ‘Staffin Beach.’

Staffin beach


This beautiful landscape is located on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. The wildness and rich history of this place offered an evocative starting point for the composition. We explored traditional folk songs from the area, settling on ‘McCrimmon’s Lament’ (‘Cumha mhic Criomein’ in gaelic/local scots language). It is said to have been written during the Jacobite Uprising of 1745/46. The song is a lament for MacCrimmon, a clan leader who died in battle. The landscape itself is said to mourn the death of this great Scottish folk hero.

‘The tearful clouds the stars are veiling, 
The sails are spread, but the boat is not sailing,
The waves of the sea are moaning and mourning
For MacCrimmon that’s gone to find no returning!’

I have long been interested in songs that are rooted in a strong sense place. Many of my songs are inspired by locations which formed the backdrop to various personal revelations. The places themselves take on a romance and monumentality which often exceeds their reality. This grew out of a lifelong interest in traditional folk music, which glorifies the rituals and customs of various regions in ways that allow the universal experience to echo out of the everyday. The Isle of Skye is very much known for its folk music and singing so I wanted to re-situate a traditional song from Skye in an experimental vocal style which would reflect the intimacy of Greta’s painting in response to the rhythms and formations of the landscape.


Greta McMillan, painting ‘Staffin Beac’h while overlooking the landscape


Each installation was designed to have a contrasting atmosphere. Our sound installation feels as if you are standing on the cliffs of Skye in moonlight, hearing voices singing in the wind. The shapes of the platforms are based on the island’s rock formations. The colours from the heather that covers much of the land. Inside each platform was a speaker with one voice, so the visitor could feel very close to the singer. On standing back, you can hear all the voices singing in harmony. We played freely with the lament, fragmenting, extending and repeating lines in a kind of ritualized chant. We wanted to create a sensory impression of the song in a way that complimented Greta’s interpretation of Staffin Beach.

“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.” – Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

What particularly interested me is this project’s focus on the physical sensation of sound. Musical experiences can be highly multi-sensory, “Hearing is essentially, a specialised form of touch.” – Evelyn Glennie (Scottish percussionist, who is D/deaf).

The idea for this artwork originally came from observing young audiences who have autism pressing their whole body against a bass speaker during a theatre performance. This type of sensory seeking is only prohibited in the rest of us by social coding and inhibition.

“My perception is not a sum of visual, tactile and audible givens: I perceive in a total way with my whole being: I grasp a unique structure of a thing, a unique way of being, which speaks to all my senses at once” – Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Research has shown that female humming is one of the most accessible, universally enjoyable noises, probably as it is one of the earliest sounds most of us experience. It’s interesting to think about this when composing. We deliberately kept in details of human imperfection-  breath, small coughs and cracks in voice, so you can feel an authentic connection with the voices. This connects to a less obvious but vital aspect, that this piece provides human intimacy with no social interaction. This is particularly suited to people with autism and social anxiety.

I like that this installation, and the whole exhibition in fact, is not just engaging for people with additional support needs. What’s been really enjoyable is how many people have enjoyed this installation of all ages and needs. It’s satisfying to think we’ve created something intimate and universal.

Composing for SINNERLIGT was an exciting experiment, and my first foray into the world of sensory art and music. It encouraged me to reimagine the way an audience experiences my music on a fundamental level. It made me extra sensitive to the particular needs of this autistic community- with more acute focus on the physical and psychological properties of sound. It feels like the starting point to whole new approaches to composition that are underexplored – creating more all-encompassing  sensory listening experiences that are not simply limited to the auditory.

You can listen to some of the music here: https://vimeo.com/292973287

With special thanks to:

Co-composer/Vocal arranger/singer Rory Haye

Producer: Luigi Pasquini

Singers:  Jill O’Sullivan, Donald Lindsay, and Debbie Armour

Recorded at: Anchor Lane Studios: http://www.anchor-lane.co.uk/

Without whom the work wouldn’t have been possible.

Scense | info@scense.se
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