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Cave-based performance uses field recordings and bat sounds

August 2016

Stefhan Caddick and Farm Hand's Noctule creates an environment incorporating the sounds of cavers, bats and echoes in a Welsh cave. The Wire's Deputy Editor Emily Bick talks to them in advance of their appearance at the Green Man Festival

Artists Stefhan Caddick and Farm Hand have spent the last month underground in Wales gathering field recordings in the Black Mountains cave system for their project Noctule, commissioned by Peak. The caves are home to the protected horseshoe bat, whose ultrasound noises the duo have recorded and translated into sounds that can be heard by human ears. These treated bat signals are mixed with the sounds of water, rocks, cavers and the natural amplification and echoes of the cave itself. Combined with Caddick’s lighting effects, they’ve created a suite of music with reverent, almost religious overtones.

Noctule took place on 16 August at the Eglwys Faen cave in a former limestone quarry beneath Llangattock Escarpement. A group of 15 people followed Caddick and Farm Hand underground amid the colony of bats that provided the sources of the treated sounds about to be projected back to where they came from. A film of the performance will be shown at the Green Man Festival this weekend.

What made you interested in working with horseshoe bats?

Stefhan Caddick: As a visual artist who’s interested in sound, I’ve long been fascinated with bats, particularly in that they navigate their environment ‘blind’ in our sense of the word but ‘seeing’ in sound, or rather ultrasound. Talking to a conservationist in relation to this project, and discussing the Lesser Horseshoe, which is present in the cave, he told me that this particular species use a unique frequency of ultrasound (110hz) – a much higher range of ultrasound than most bat species who are using frequencies around 35–55hz. The conservationist explained that this gives the Lesser Horseshoe a very short range of ‘sight’ but in intense detail – so much so that they fly perfectly happily in dense foliage and as a hunting technique will often pick insects from the underside of leaves as they fly past.

How did you find the original sites to make the field recordings? What were you looking for when finding sources for your field recordings of water and rocks?

SC: The site for the performance is called Eglwys Faen – Welsh for Stone Church. I think both Farm Hand and I were drawn to the sense of the cave as a place of worship and contemplation. There’s no evidence that Eglwys Faen was used for worship, but many other caves around the world certainly have been – predating churches by many thousands of years. There’s also a good link in terms of acoustics and sound between the cave and the church – both tend to be made from rock or stone and therefore bounce sound around rather than absorbing it, so they’re both sites which lend themselves to music based on long, drawn out tones rather than percussive music. I think Farm Hand’s approach to the music he’s making for the piece, which also draws on the Chapel tradition of South Wales feels very rich and engaging in this context.

Farm Hand: The field recordings are all taken in the cave. My favourite recording is of some cavers emerging from within the cave. We didn’t know they were down there or how far they had come from. We could hear them for a long time before we could see their headlamps… it sounded and felt like they could be from any point in history and made us think about how the cave has been used over the years.

How did you capture the bat conversations and looped bat noises? What did you have to do to treat the bat sounds to make them audible to humans?

FH: I used a bat detector which translates the bats’ echolocation ultrasound signals to audible frequencies by pitching them down. The sound output has this unreal natural oscillation and it is a fascinating noise. I decided to talk back to the bats in my performance by mirroring their manipulated noise with my manipulated voice.

Some of the audio samples on your SoundCloud seem to use chanting and organ sounds – there is an obvious gothic link to bats. What was your thinking when you chose the instrumentation for the melodic sections of this work?

FH: I grew up on a farm in rural mid-Wales, and churches and chapels were a big part of my life. I wrote a lot of the organ drones and melodic sections on the pump action organ in the church in the village I live in. I wanted some of it to be almost hymn-like.

When you perform this live in the caves, how do you make sure the bats are not disturbed? And how do the acoustics of the space change when an audience is incorporated into the work?

SC: Not disturbing the bats is a prerequisite for the performance and important to us as artists. From discussions with conservationists, our understanding is that the bats tend to roost well away from daylight – so they’ll mainly be in cracks and crevices in the side chambers and more inaccessible areas of the cave rather than in the main part of the cave. Our understanding is that as long as what we do is kept relatively near the entrance and that we don’t stray into the side chambers, that should ensure that the bats are left in peace. The cave system stretches a long way underground – one of the caves nearby is 29km long, so there’s lots of places where there aren’t performances going on!

These are intimate performances – what do you hope audiences will take away from the experience?

SC: Yes, the audience in the cave will be quite small, again to ensure minimal disturbance of the site, but we’ll also be streaming the piece online. The audience who are there on the day will also be walking through the nature reserve, across a raised bog (with carnivorous plants) and up through an old oak forest, so it will be interesting to gauge their reaction to their experience of being above ground in Craig y Cilau, as opposed to below it during the performance.

My role during the performance will be to provide some of the visual elements. I see this as trying to dramatise the cave in a couple of ways, mainly by using intermittent lighting devices I’ve been building and programming, which will illuminate aspects of the cave – both its physical form and elements of its history as a post-industrial site (the caves were only opened up as a result of quarrying activities in the 18th and 19th centuries). I don’t want to banish the darkness in there though – I think that’s what keeps these places so evocative, hence using intermittent lighting rather than constant. So, in a way I would hope that the audience go away with an afterimage of the event – glimpses of the space and what might have occurred, rather than something seen in daylight.

FH: The performance is more than just the bit where we perform. There is no way of getting to it without a 25 minute hike across rugged ground. It takes in the area’s natural/industrial crossover of the area. It is beautiful but has been hugely interfered with by humans. We also want to change the perceptions of what rural art can be – it’s not all flowers and folk music.

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