Bowing the Stream: Artistic Research Using Violins in the Natural Environment.

Conference paper given at MuSA 2018 Conference, Musikhochschule, Karlsruhe, 28.06.2018-01.07.2018

In 1992, while working at EMS in Stockholm for the first time, I hit on a realisation that violins used to be trees. I had been working with recordings of "natural" objects - pine cones, stones, grasses, dry seeds - with a view to writing a piece for string quartet and tape. The realisation that the instruments of the string quartet had, in a different incarnation, been living, natural beings, had photosynthesised, drawn water and silicates from deep in the earth, had grown grown leaves, produced seeds, responded to changes in the weather, and reproduced themselves, quite dramatically shifted my perspective on the ideas I had for the piece. Working through the implications of this realisation has informed - on and off - much of my work since then.

The realisation is not, of course, new. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was quite common for wooden musical instruments to carry a written inscription such as

Arbor eram vilis quondam sed viva tacebam.

Nunc bene si tangor mortua dulce sono.

[Once I was a worthless tree, but in life I was silent.

Now in death, if I am played well, I sound sweet].

Viva fui in sylvis sum dura occisa securi

Dum vixi tacui mortua dulce cano.

[I was alive in the woods.
I was cut down by a hard axe.

While I lived I was silent;
Now dead I sing sweetly].



Virginals made by Adlam Burnett of Finchcocks in Goudhurst, Kent in 1972. This is a replica of a 17th-century instrument made by Johannes Couchet in Antwerp around 1650. It is part of the Christopher Hogwood Instrument Collection, accessible online via

My earliest attempts to realise this insight always left me, somehow, dissatisfied, for reasons I could not quite put my finger on. It took twenty years to realise that the problem lay in the fact that I still saw the natural world - the world I was looking to connect the violin to - as something that existed outside of the violin. The crux of the matter came down to the fact that the only way I knew - or the only way that I thought I knew - of engaging with the natural environment - at least as a composer - was through representations, either through field recordings, or through amplifying "natural" objects - like leaves and pine cones. These representations, of course, are always to some extent incomplete, and, as Salome Voegelin suggests, they make it easy for us to ". . . mistake the reduced sonic data [of the field recording] for the sensorial complexity of the contingent encounter". If I was really honest with myself, the "contingent encounters" I had making field recordings were hardly "encounters" at all, and studio recordings of natural objects always seemed to be more about the microphone placement, eliminating background "hum", and signal-to-noise ratios.


The first steps towards the project I will be discussing in more depth in just a moment came when I was first working with Sabine Vogel, the Berlin-based flautist and sound artist, at Howick on the Northumberland coast. We were experimenting with making field recordings from the inside of Sabine's flutes with a view to making some kind of collaborative electroacoustic piece. The DPA460 microphones are small enough to be placed inside the flute, and they pick up the flute's distinctive "sonic signature", the way that it resonates the wider soundworld outside of itself, its inner acoustic space. Sabine, as you will hear, was also able to "play" the soundscape by opening and closing the finger holes and the embouchure.

Because it has no fingerholes, the violin does not afford such an interaction with the soundscape. Nevertheless I decided to make some field recordings from inside of the instrument. In doing this, it became clear that one way to interact with the environment would be to bring the violin into physical contact with things. There is a wood near where I live that, as a child, I visited every weekend with my grandfather, who was the local gamekeeper. The path that we walked every Saturday is still there, and as he was both a keen naturalist, and played the fiddle, this seemed like a meaningful place to explore.

At first I had the idea of dragging the violin behind me as I walked the path which I had last walked on perhaps thirty years ago. I think I was fantasizing that the path was like the groove in an LP, and the violin a needle; I know that I almost expected to bring some dead voices back to life.

I tied a length of string to the violin tailpiece and, monitoring the internal microphones over headphones, I started to walk. What I heard were generic thuds and crashes, most of which were badly clipped on the recording, and which could easily have been someone moving furniture rather than someone trying to reconnect to their lost childhood! Abandoning this approach I went to the opposite extreme - how might it sound if I were to drag the violin extremely slowly along the path? This got interesting, because there was something in the resistance of the violin as I tried to pull it over obstacles and through the undergrowth that reminded me of bowing; something about how, as a violinist, one has to work with the resistance of the bowhair against the strings to produce sound. You can perhaps hear something of the tension and release in the slow creaking sounds as the violin scrapes against stones and pieces of fallen branches, and the pacing of the sparse "pizzicati" as strings get tangled in, and then released from, brambles and grasses growing along the path. I often felt that I was able to engage with and sculpt the sound, even though I was not able to predict what was coming next. In other words, I was able - to a limited extent - to improvise.

It was my wife who suggested that if I really wanted to understand the violin as simply a piece of wood, then I should see if it would float. It did!




I took the violin to a small river near Penrith in Cumbria and, with the f-holes covered with electrician's waterproof tape to protect the microphones, floated it onto the river. Monitoring the microphones on headphones, what was most striking at first was simply the sound, the bright rippling of water against the violin body, captured from inside the instrument, the violin’s sonic signature and the faint resonance of the strings colouring the water sounds.

Even more striking was the responsivity of the violin to the dragging technique I'd developed in the woods.

By pulling the violin upstream, against the flow of the water, I found that the sound correlated strongly to the speed of dragging the violin. As with the violin drag in the woods, listening, resistance, and motion came together in ways strangely reminiscent of bowing; a fluid movement, but with a sense of resistance too. An extraordinary sense of interaction and involvement became apparent almost immediately, the slightest movement on my part registering immediately in the sound coming from the violin.

Three different interactions are possible between the river, the violin, and myself. Holding the violin steady records the sound of the water flowing over and around it. Pulling the violin against the current allows for a remarkable degree of control over the intensity and the density of sonic events. Letting the violin float at its own speed on a slack line eliminates the resistance between violin and river and results in a near silence in terms of water sounds, and reveals the external soundscape. The different currents, different depths of water, patterns of shifting turbulence, all affected the sound generated. It is more or less impossible to convey in words or recordings the extraordinary sense of unity between touch, muscular action, hearing, and vision that comes from improvising with a river like this.  

Pushing the metaphor of bowing further, I found that submerging the neck of a violin into the river would make it possible for the passing water to “bow” the strings, as it were, like the aquatic equivalent of an aeolian harp (I later discovered that Max Eastley had used this phenomenon in his hydrophone, featured on New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments, an album he made with David Toop in 1975).
















The violin strings behave differently in different currents - tightly tuned strings will only play if the current is fast enough, whereas slacker strings will be sounded by a slower current. In a real river, this means that higher frequencies tend to associated with water flowing at pressure - between rocks, for example - whereas only lower pitches are produced in the gentler currents. Moving a low-frequency string into a faster current will rapidly increase the presence of harmonics, and in this respect it behaves very much like an aeolian harp. Through trial and error "on site" the violin can be detuned in order to afford a useable range of sensitivities to the different currents in a particular stretch of water - one tunes the violin to the river, not an abstraction like 440Hz. The tuning is part of the exploration of the site. In terms of embodied eperience it often feels as though I am “chasing” a particular sound, even though the sound is not actually there but only arises through the interaction of the river, the violin, and myself.

Northumbrian rivers are almost never warm! I tried to find ways of playing the river/violin where I was on dry land, but somehow this never worked. There is something about the literal immersion in the dynamic flow of the river that informs and guides one's interactions. The river does not remain constant, it swerves around the violin, around one's body, diverting and shifting the current. The whole thing is shape-shifting, an intertwining, and drawing of oneself into a spontaneous improvisation, through the violin and the body, with the river. The violin, too, is not simply a passive recorder of the speed of currents. As with the violin dragged over the surface of the water, moving the instrument with the stream causes the strings to become silent; pushing against the stream affords crescendos, filter sweeps, and for multiple strings to sound. Within a few moments of entering a river, one is able to meaningfully interact with its many affordances. Most interesting for me is to improvise with a river and another human being, and in the following short video I will show you a performance that I did with Michael Bridgewater, and good friend, and improviser and composer from Tyneside. Each of us has two miked-up instruments (I have a viola and a violin), and we can hear our own instruments in the left side of the headphones, and what the other improviser is doing in the right, allowing us to improvise together with the river. The river is called The Devil's Water, and lies between Hexham and Corbridge where it flows eventually into the larger River Tyne.

To see and hear a performance of river violins see

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