An extended interview with Paul Devereux and Jon Wozencroft by Mark Pilkington, for the Bite in The Wire 339. By Mark Pilkington.
The tiny village of Maenclochog in Pembrokeshire, Wales, is an unassuming place, but its name, and its folklore, provide clues to the remarkable landscape that it inhabits. It's said that alongside Ffynnon Fair, a nearby holy well, were rocks that rang like bells and these may have given the town its name: maen (stone) and clochog (bells). The rocks, the story goes, were broken up by locals who thought that their hollow tones suggested treasure, and in a way they were right.
North east of here atop the Preseli Hills is Carn Menyn, a ridge of dolerite, known as Preseli Bluestone, which forms the basis for neolithic tools found all over the UK. It's thought that 80 large bluestones from the region once made up two concentric rings of Stonehenge, 200 miles to the east.
Around Carn Menyn are flat, fallen stones – like huge xylophones or, more correctly, lithophones. Grab a smaller rock and start banging on the larger ones and you will discover that these stones, and many others in the area, ring with rich, resonant tones that sound startlingly musical to modern ears. One has to wonder what ears 4300 years ago would have made of them.
It's a question we can probably never answer, but clues can be found at Landscape And Perception, launched in March of this year by Touch founder and Royal College of Art tutor Jon Wozencroft, and Paul Devereux, author, researcher and editor of archaeological journal Time And Mind. Devereux is a longtime champion of archaeo-acoustics, the study of sound at ancient sites, as part of a wider mission to explore the archaeology of mind. Wozencroft first heard of Devereux's work in the early 1980s via Chris Watson and Andrew McKenzie of the Hafler Trio, but they wouldn't meet until 2006. The website is the result of that encounter.
How did the two of you meet and decide to collaborate?
JW: I’d known about Paul’s work since the 1980s when, working with The Hafler Trio, we became aware of the Dragon Project via an article in New Scientist. One of the intentions of this project was to test the stones at Rollright for ultrasonic activity. The very idea that a standing stone could emit sonic phenomena was intriguing in itself. But I was not aware of the full history of his work – Chris Watson and Andrew McKenzie were more 'in touch' than I was.
A few years later, I had been running a course at the RCA called Acoustic Images in the School of Communication (and still am) – the premise being that sound was as important an element in moving image as the visual. As senior members of staff we were encouraged to develop research projects as a response to the changing modes of governmental, and higher educational funding. I was being persuaded to do something along the lines of 5.1 surround sound and how digital media might enhance the cinematic experience, but I didn’t want to do anything that was wedded to new technologies and equipment upgrades.
I’d been contacted by Martyn Ware of Human League and Heaven 17, who had this project called The Future of Sound, and he was putting on this rather eclectic collection of presentations at the BFI for his first conference, and he asked me to do one. There I met Paul. We got talking. He said he had this research project that needed an academic home and we put two and three together.
PD: We both appreciated that students’ attention spans were getting shorter, and that our culture is generally abstracting itself from the natural environment by increasing and sometimes almost constant immersion in digital technology, so we felt that it would be good to take that technology and use it to study a landscape in sound and vision at as basic a level as possible – to root digital recording in place. We felt that a prehistoric landscape would offer the best opportunity to do that, and we chose a relatively unspoilt one – the Carn Menyn ridge on Preseli in south west Wales, the source area of the Stonehenge bluestones.
Our idea was to approach it as closely as possible as if with Stone Age eyes and ears but carrying digital devices – the direct sensory perception first, as conceptually unpolluted as possible, and the digital technology second, rather than the other way around. We wanted to keep the collected digital material raw, without adding overlays, artistic licence, and to collect an archive of sights and sounds that maybe later, in quiet recollection, could be used as a basis for creative development by ourselves and other audiovisual practitioners, especially students.
We have made a detailed visual and acoustic study of the rock outcrops on the Carn Menyn ridge, and have travelled further afield to prehistoric sites in the region around Carn Menyn. We also, very much as a second string, started to look at the Avebury complex in Wiltshire, another fairly well preserved Neolithic landscape retaining a measure of its prehistoric integrity in which monuments and topography are closely related. But Avebury is impinged upon by the modern environment in a way that the Preseli location is not.
In what ways do you think this kind of direct sensory
the sites, formed millennia after they were
originally built and used,
helps people today to understand them?
PD: Carn Menyn is a natural landscape so this question doesn’t really apply. But in general, natural places of sanctity came first, and monuments were erected later, usually visually acknowledging the original natural places of veneration – at least initially – and sometimes using the rocks, soils or clays from those locations. I go into all this in The Sacred Place, and Sacred Geography. In the case of Landscape And Perception we noted that monumental sites around the Preseli massif were located with some precision to have sightlines to Carn Menyn, even at distances of many miles, and in some cases also to other natural landmarks.
On Carn Menyn itself, we have noted short standing stones that seem to mark routes off the ridge, perhaps for those who quarried and carried away the bluestones, and, more generally in Preseli, major megalithic sites like the Pentre Ifan dolmen that has its capstone sloping to mimic the slope of a skyline hill, Carn Ingli. The nearest stone circle to Carn Menyn in the surrounding countryside is Gors Fawr, from which the Carn Menyn ridge forms the northern skyline. In short, we are stepping into a sacred geography, and that is akin to stepping into the perceptions of Stone Age people. We will never know their gods, precise beliefs or special rituals, but we can at least get some idea as to what their spirituality was about.
Is this sense of the sacred something that you think is
required to fully
appreciate these sites (perhaps in the way that
neo-pagan community often interacts with them) or can they be
meaningfully understood and appreciated from a contemporary secular
PD: It is a big question... neopaganism is just that, neo: the modern westernised mind can never be truly pagan again. Secularism doesn’t really come into it. All that is needed is an understanding of human spiritual motives and behaviour down the ages. Secularists and religionists have the same model of ears and eyes. It is only interpretations that differ.
You note that there may well be a direct connection between ancient art and markings and the acoustic properties of specific rocks and locations – that some markings may even illustrate the sounds produced at certain spots (e.g. rumbling herds) – this represents these ancient artworks as immersive sensorial experiences akin to our theatres, concert halls, cinemas or theme parks. Such parallels re-emphasise the sacred and ritual origins of our own entertainment and art forms. How important are ideas of the sacred to you?
PD: You’ll have to wait for the book I am working on, Drums Of Stone. We do know that in some places lithophonic rocks were used in temples to produce sacred music, while in some American Indian tribal societies they were used in rites of passage celebrations. In Africa lithophones had various uses ranging from conjuring spirits, to signalling, to musical entertainment. And, yes, there is a suggestion that some sounds were produced to mimic animal sounds, or to give voice to prehistoric rock paintings.
Rock art is known to have sometimes marked musical rocks in Britain and Scandinavia, but that is ongoing research. We discovered on Carn Menyn that a rare piece of rock art there is on a lithophone.
Based on similarities of effects at sites around the UK, and around the world, is it possible to tentatively chart a timeline of the development of the increasing complexity and sophistication of archaeo-acoustic effects?
PD: Yes and no. In crude terms, in the UK it is an acoustic technology belonging to prehistory, probably the New Stone Age, the Neolithic period; in Continental Europe from the Old Stone Age, the Palaeolithic painted caves; in Africa we don’t really have dates, but the use of lithophones goes back into prehistory for sure and continues in a few isolated cases up to the present day, and in Asia from the Neolithic through to the Medieval era, and in a few cases to the present. We are researching it.
One theory I read some time ago that has always struck me as both elegant and romantic, is that some of the markings inside larger burial chambers are direct representations of sound waves made visible by standing waves in smokey spaces. Has there been any further research along these lines?
PD: No, not really. It was the work I was involved with back in the 1990s that you read. My colleagues and I were working as part of the Princeton-based ICRL group in scanning the acoustic resonances of chambers inside Stone Age monumental mounds when we found a recurring pattern of 110 Hz primary resonances. We were able to measure the standing waves involved, and at Newgrange, Ireland, we found the numbers of wave peaks did match the zigzag and waviform markings of rock art within the chamber there. It could have been coincidence, but maybe not. What we at ICRL did discover later was that the 110 Hz audio frequency could cause distinctive regional brain effects in later laboratory tests. If someone will give us the financial resources, we can investigate that further, but it all takes resources of a kind we do not currently have.
The Landscape And Perception project strikes me as a near perfect hybrid of art and science – it contains aspects of both disciplines and encourages participants to develop skills and sensitivities that will ultimately benefit both artists and scientists. How do you see the exploratory, investigative and experiential approach of Landscape And Perception in the context of both art and archaeology?
PD: Well, right from the start we realised that if we really did try to use our eyes and ears at and around Carn Menyn, the same equipment as operated in prehistory, after all, we might start seeing and hearing the land in ways similar to those of its ancient inhabitants or users. This in turn might yield some insights of archaeological interest. That is why we asked archaeologists like Professor Timothy Darvill to give us a basic on site grounding on what is known about the archaeology of the place. As it has turned out, we observed some important sightlines between monumental and natural places that tell us something about the net of awareness that existed across the north Pembrokeshire landscape in prehistory [material yet to be written up] and perhaps more spectacularly we discovered that the very rocks of Carn Menyn were musical, were lithophones, and that the fact was embedded in the Welsh language and in local place names.
This has not only added to an already growing dimension of archaeology called archaeoacoustics – the study of sound at archaeological sites – it offers another potential explanation of the mystery as to why the bluestones were transported 200km from Preseli to Salisbury Plain. It is a fact that numerous indigenous and ancient cultures worldwide felt that rocks and cliff faces contained spirits, and exceptional sounds coming from them, as echoes or as a result of percussion, were seen as evidence of that.
There is a significant element of lithophonic and echo acoustics on Preseli that might have made Stonehenge people consider the area as sacred, as spirit-filled. Preseli is rich in hallucinogenic mushrooms, and we can only guess how the rock sounds seemed to any bemushroomed Stone Agers. In medieval times when there was traffic in the relics of saints, we know that there was also pieces of places traffic in Neolithic times. In recent decades, archaeologists have gradually taken on some of the visual awareness of landscape previously belonging to artists, and as audiovisual practitioners we can add to that process.
JW: Archaeology is an innately conservative area of study. It has been a useful bulwark to our project, in the sense that there is all this parallel talk of psychogeography and hauntology which we are sympathetic to, but it misses the main point of the art and archaeology configuration. We are trying to bring a fresh approach to a very stratified research environment.
There is all this talk about art and science hybridity, but if you interpret the possibilities in any original way, the funding bodies cry havoc and say you are being too speculative! What are your research methods? To look at a subject or landscape in a different way? "Not good enough, we want evidence!"
Evidence of what? Usually some article in the Guardian and a brief holiday in the sun that everyone quickly forgets. Such as this recent stuff about the sound configurations at Stonehenge, and how the spaces in the stones create different waveforms. Well so do the buildings around Canary Wharf when the wind is blowing!
Stonehenge has this amazing hold on people. We thought we could reveal more of its allure by working backwards from it.
You say that you hope the Landscape And Perception research will encourage people to experience these sites, and perhaps their own environments, in deeper ways. How do you hope that people will use the information on the website?
JW: As a stimulus – as a metaphor for the distance between prehistoric perception and the world of Google and smart phones. For me, it’s not just about students and attention spans… One of the buzzwords of the moment is mapping and a desire to classify everything into neat compartments, especially with regard to contemporary music.
The project is also a challenge to what we understand as being research. In the academic context, you are asked to map out your research outcomes before you have started a project, which is in itself ridiculous. So Landscape And Perception is a subversion of this expectation – you cannot possibly know the exact nature of this prehistorical site, you can only intuit.
So it is an appeal to the imagination, to intuition; it could never be a project that would deliver a fixed view of any situation or phenomenon, so in this sense it is in line with digital modes of working.
There is also the aspect of the design and presentation of the website. We are consciously using ancient subject matter twinned with the best programming for website design, done in collaboration with Philip Marshall, who works on all the Touch online activity. So it’s also a demonstration of what can be done with digital publishing and dissemination, and how digital aesthetics don’t have to be so clunky and unappealing.
Would you like to see people using these sounds, or even the locations in other ways – perhaps remixing them and incorporating them into their own sound, music and art?
JW: Personally, I’m not mad on the idea of the sounds being used as the icing on the cake of an electronica CD or a dance 12”, but Paul and I realised that as soon as we published any of the recordings online they were basically in the public domain where anything goes.
We hope they will be used as research materials as a trigger for further explorations, elsewhere, pure inspiration that people can connect to other sound related investigations. The work is not intended as further fodder for sampling. We claim no ownership of the sounds, and only hope that people will respect their provenance and the spirit in which we embarked upon the project.
I’m not sure how you can use the location in any other way than to respect it… Today it’s still one of the wild places. Preseli probably was more thought of as a sacred place rather than a prehistoric Disneyland. And the last thing we want to encourage is a stream of would-be drummers heading to the area on a hunt for lithophones. Thankfully the access is quite difficult, but you only need one coach trip to make a traffic jam!
Continuing on this line, could you imagine the relevant authorities allowing sound installations to be setup at some of these sites?
JW: This is a difficult one. At a certain point Stonehenge became a playground for such activities in the 1980s, which didn’t result in any further understanding of the site’s sonic properties, instead, it became simply a question of access, ownership and preservation. A fight for the right to party?
Connected to Stonehenge and Avebury is the business of how you run a heritage site. If you put fences around it, people then may treat it with less respect, and if you don’t…Tens of thousands could come to an event at any one of the sacred sites littered across the UK and it would only take one act of vandalism or careless behaviour to ruin the situation, which I imagine is the bottom line as far as an organization like English Heritage is concerned. In an ideal world, you could invite Steve Reich to do a new performance of Drumming in Preseli, or Chris Watson to create an echo-location installation at Carn Alw, so yes, there are fascinating possibilities, but the practicalities are a bit of a problem.
One part of me is all in favour of using wild and specific locations for performances or installations, but the main side of me says that certain places are best left alone for quiet visitation. So in the end analysis, the project is not an advertisement, but a metaphor for all the aspects we have yet to fully understand about how prehistoric social groups lived and experienced a pre-digital world.