How the iForest began

I have spent a great deal of my life trying to reconstruct a moment from adolescence. I was around 16 or 17 and had stayed up all night with friends. We’d climbed the steep green slopes of Cleeve Hill before dawn to see the rolling panorama of Gloucestershire spread before us at sunrise then returned hungry in the early light to the village of Bishop’s Cleeve. 

I arrived back at perhaps 5.00am to a perfect dawn. I was now alone and walked along empty streets where, instead of people I was greeted by extraordinary birdsong that came from every tree and rooftop, from every direction. It was spectacular, something so miraculous that it was hard to believe I had slept through it most days of my life – each bird had its own song, unique, equal and beautiful, forming part of a greater whole that was constantly, endlessly reinventing itself. As I walked I was immersed in the sound, the detail of one song emerging as another faded, occasionally a bird flying right overhead. The familiar landscape of the village seemed magically redrawn by it. I simply listened and admired. In some deeper as yet unarticulated way I felt connected to the song in a way that was wholly different from the music I had been listening to as a teenager, I had an intuitive feeling that my own ‘song’ was somehow a small part in this mighty chorus.

Back then there was no way to link this experience to the Led Zeppelin inspired music I was playing in bands but the idea of equal individual voices each with their own rhythm and melody led me towards the counterpoint of Bach and later on to the structured improvisations of Charles Mingus and to free improvisers such as Ornette Coleman. I wrote a series of ‘Dawn Choruses for woodwind’ that sought to evoke the experience. I developed a ‘time-structured mapping’ system to allow musicians to bring their ‘own equal song’ within an integrated structure, but it was only when, over twenty years later, I began creating ‘immersive scores’ for sounds that were in different spatial locations and making ‘simultaneity’ recordings (made simultaneously in different locations then played back together to give a ‘God’s ear perspective’ of the world) that I began to feel closer to that fleeting experience of my teens. I was striving to create works that combined the spontaneous energy of improvisation, the equality of voices and the structural logic of storytelling. 

Finally, more than thirty years later, my journey has brought me back quite literally to where I began, to those rolling Gloucestershire hills at dawn but this time armed with numerous field recording devices. I record simultaneously at sixteen or more locations within a defined area in order to re-create that dawn chorus at the winter garden in New York via what I call the ‘iForest’: an array of independent speakers dispersed through the space that enable me to move and control sound above, below and around the space as part of a larger 24 hour work.

My thirty year journey from that original experience has led me to include my own species; the song of the human: I’m drawn to explore the nature of being human alongside humanity as part of nature. To do this I’ve found it necessary to create a physically dispersed sound world that may be experienced by walking within it, where equal parts may be considered in support of a whole rather than the convention of a melody supported by harmony, where each person’s experience is individual depending on the path and time they choose.

As an artist all one can ever do is to say ‘this is how I see things’ and offer that vision back to the world. My hope with this piece is that, in whatever ways, small or large, it inspires deeper appreciation and connection to nature and to our part within it.

What’s the Point of Art? (And: Shouldn’t We Rebrand the Species?)

What’s the Point of Art? (And: Shouldn’t We Rebrand the Species?)

“For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole first.” 
Immanuel Kant

When you go to bed at night you go there to be transported to a strange, unknown land where you speak a different language: the language of symbolism and metaphor. It’s a language that all homo sapiens speak and because we all speak this language we frequently use it in our creative works.

We are using symbolism right now, of course. These squiggly patterns on a page have no intrinsic meaning, if you doubt that cast your eye over a page of Sumerian script, it will only have meaning if you have learnt what each hieroglyph symbolises.

Why is symbolism important?

Symbolism allows us to convey large amounts of understanding with small units of information. If I say to another English speaker ‘kitchen’, ‘mother’, ‘climate’, ‘driving’ these arbitrary sounds represent concepts. This makes a huge difference because, while we may have massive storage room in our brains, our consciousness is tiny and typically has room for only a few items at a time. If we think of the brain being like a building the size of the British Museum, then consciousness is a little like the light from a pencil torch inside that building with the rest of it dark.

The brain does most of its work in this dark and, aside from having to manage bodily machinery such as intestines, hormone levels and the like, its day job also includes instincts, emotions and intuitions (the last one happens when stimulus queues up for the attention in the torch light of consciousness and doesn’t quite make it, giving us an ‘intuitive feeling’ about something. Hence it’s always a good idea to have a dialogue with your intuition since it’s telling you things you have unconsciously picked up, but not to assume it knows best; it’s as prone to mistakes as any conscious information).

Rebranding the species

Homo sapiens means ‘wise human’ – this is a terrible name for our species, firstly, because the most intelligent humans were probably homo neanderthalensis, the so called ‘Neanderthals’ whose brains were ten to twelve percent larger than ours, but more importantly our intelligence is not our most defining feature and, funnily enough, it may be that symbolism is. For example, homo erectus walked the earth for well over a million years, at least ten times longer than us, and was smart enough to develop tools, learn to make fire and to cook, so, where is the homo erectus cookbook? Or any book? When we study ancient humans we find homo sapiens are the first hominids to create ‘art’ and that is very telling.

Of course, art isn’t the reason for the ‘success’ of the species (‘success’ is a matter of perspective here) it’s a product of it. Symbolism allows us to create language, and language allows us to know each other’s ‘inwardness’; our thoughts, ideas, emotions. In other words it allows us to network and it’s this which defines our species. Any human-made object you encounter is likely to be the product of an unimaginable number of human interactions. Take the pen on my desk as I write this; were I to tell the story of this pen it would need to include its designers, manufacturers, the people who promoted the product, the ones who transported it, the retailers, but, of course, that would be the tip of the iceberg: each of these stories is a small part of a whole series of other stories: who the designers each studied design with, who developed the complex polymers that made the plastics possible, who financed them… then there’s story of the ink, the paper.. let alone the vast web of infrastructure that meant that all of the people in these stories could be who they were in the first place; providing them food, water, medicine, shelter, transport, schooling, parenting and so on. The accomplishments of any single human, no matter how brilliant, are nothing without our ability to form these networks, to exchange and build on each other’s ideas. Our image of ourselves is misleading. Take a look at a picture of a feral child or adult; that’s you or I without the network.

If intelligence was the reason societies developed then not only homo neanderthalensis but squirrels, cats, badgers, monkeys would all have evolving societies too, even if they developed more slowly.

Rebranding exercise: homo sapiens

So, while I’m here to talk about art, along the way I’m going to audaciously rebrand our species, I hope you don’t mind: we are not homo sapiens we are homo communicare, communicating humans. If we one day learn to overcome the evolutionary programming in our brains that gives rise to that great deceiver who masquerades as an angel of light, the ego, we will have done what the philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed when he said: “For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole”.

About Art

Enough about the species and its new brand name, back to art:

We all speak the language of symbolism and metaphor in our dreams and so we use that language in ‘art’, but why do we then get into such confusion about it? I’ve seen people get red-faced and yell “is this art?”, with undisguised contempt. This is silly and many people are robbed of the enjoyment or experience of art because of it.

Here’s the root of the the problem: the word ‘art’ has two meanings and both are in common use, worse, both regularly find themselves side by side in the same sentence and sit there in sullen, silent conflict, refusing to admit their differences.

So, let’s deal with the first: ‘Art’ is originally a 13th century word that means “skill as a result of learning or practice,” – this is still its meaning in, for example, a ‘Bachelor of Arts’ degree, but then in the 19th century, a French writer, Théophile Gautier, came up with the phrase ‘l’art pour l’art’: which became in English ‘art for art’s sake’. This was part of a movement against the idea that creativity should serve some didactic or moral purpose and it was the philosophical fork in the road from which a tangle of misunderstanding ensues to this day.

‘Art for art’s sake’ has come to be a euphemism for self-indulgence and pointlessness, but in fact it’s a good philosophical definition of the thing we’re seeking to describe: our motivation, art as our creative response to the ‘universe’. When we make things for this reason, we make ‘art’. Whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art is a completely different question.

Art is not Science

In science we seek empirical understanding of the universe, in art (as used in the later meaning) we make a creative response to it. Science deals in universal laws and provable theories which have to be tested beyond doubt. Art is anything but universal, every day in galleries around the world people stand side by side in front of paintings and have entirely different responses to them.

In the fog of different meanings we often conflate ‘art’ into both meanings: Our highest skills of craftsmanship married to our most profound and imaginative creative visions, we step back and say, in appropriately awed tones; ‘it’s a work of art!’. What we really mean is that we consider it a great work of art.

But there’s a problem; there is no universal definition of the experience of art – just ask the two people standing side by side in front of the painting: One of them may be transported to heavenly realms by it while the other may be utterly indifferent.

The answer is easy. We should use the word ‘art’ in the same way we use the word architecture. Architecture is ‘the complex or carefully designed structure of something.’ – the word doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the buildings or other structures but it groups things within a useful category so that we’re talking about the same thing: we can decide later whether it’s good, bad, unusual or common architecture but we can agree: it’s architecture.

Of course, it gets still more confusing because ‘art’ is regularly lumped in with ‘entertainment’, the dictionary definition of which is ‘effortless engagement’ and the ‘performing arts’? That’s just asking for trouble; the performers are regularly described as ‘artists’ in the 13th century meaning of the word whereas the work they are performing may be considered ‘art’ in the 19th century sense. Let alone the fact that still others try to measure art by its commercial value but its financial value is merely what someone will or has paid for it, and yet more by it’s popularity, but popularity fluctuates and is strongly tied to exposure.

It’s not surprising that we end up with red faced people who can’t agree because they are using the same word to talk about different things and trying to evaluate them by using different criteria.

It’s ok

You don’t owe art anything and art doesn’t owe you anything. You can live a happy, wonderful, fulfilled life without ever engaging with art, and many millions of people have done so, so don’t feel obliged, some of my fellow artists may scream ‘heresy!’ but if you opt out the world doesn’t end. However, before opting out, consider that art is the place we share our wildest creativity, our highest and our most extraordinary visions, and this is a party you’re invited to. It really can move, inspire and inform and it really does transform lives. Many people are passionate about art not out of pretension but because they love the world that it invites them into and it brings them enormous joy. Some would claim it deepens their experience of being alive.

When you go to bed at night you go there to be transported to a strange, unknown land where you speak a different language: the language of symbolism and metaphor, its a language that all homo sapiens speak and because we all speak it we frequently use it in our creative works. Hence, when Marcel Duchamp produces a urinal and puts it in a a gallery (‘Fountain’, 1917) or John Cage produces a work that invites us to contemplate four minutes thirty three seconds of silence (4’33”, 1952) then we accept these as art because they are invitations to explore Duchamp and Cage’s creative responses to the universe – whether they are ‘good art’ or ‘bad art’ is up to you and to each person who encounters them.

However, while there’s no single definitive experience of a work of art I believe there are helpful ways to approach it. I’ve met people who are baffled and put off by art and who can blame them with all the confusion about it? (I’ve also met people who feel obliged to experience art and wondered what on earth they get out of it). So, in hopes it may be of help to someone somewhere, here’s my personal rule of thumb for considering any work of art (I call them the ‘Four E’s’):

  • Express: What is the artist seeking to say? Emotionally, philosophically etc
  • Explore: Are they doing anything new or just regurgitating old ideas?
  • Engage: Does it ‘resonate’ with the human experience? Or are the ideas so niche that only a few can connect to it?
  • Execute: So much for the ideas, were they able to pull them off?

If Art has anything to recommend it….

Art invites us on a journey and some journeys will mean more to one person than to another. One journey may be more demanding than another but you may find when you get to the pinnacle that the view is breathtaking and unforgettable. Others may make you smile but quickly be forgotten.

In the end, ‘art’, the place where we share our creative response to the universe, is, I think, a healing place. It can draw our attention to amazing things we’d otherwise have overlooked, make us laugh, cry and share more deeply the experience of being human.

It’s the last one, the ability to share the experience of looking at ourselves and others, that to me is the richest thing that art has to offer. It’s uniquely human and something that great wealth and extraordinary technology don’t offer and while in theory religions and philosophies with noble ideas do, ideas are often doomed to the same fate: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Communism, Capitalism*, Nationalism and ping pong teams throughout history have hit the same problem: we attach our ego to each of them and out there in the darkness of the brain an unconscious primal mechanism becomes active that, if unchecked, quickly turns those teachings into ‘us and them’ (of course, there are many devotees of all these faiths and philosophies who adhere to them and do wonderful things, nonetheless, in each of them we can find people doing extraordinarily destructive things that seem contrary to the teachings). The same pattern plays out over and over again throughout human history: psychologically we never kill ‘us’ only ‘them’. Empathy helps us see that this is nonsense because ‘they’ are ‘us’.

Perhaps this is the point that underlies art: it helps us find our deeper connection to ourselves and each other. When we have a profound sense of connection and empathy we have the potential to break down the archaic barriers such as race, culture and gender that have haunted our species throughout its history, to one day become the ‘wise humans’ we thought we already were.


 * In Adam Smith’s 1776 ‘Wealth of Nations’, capitalism had noble ideas, capitalism is responsible for much initiative and advancement but anyone who trots these out as justification today needs to be confronted by a gigantic graph illustrating the narrowing fortunes of the 99% of people who actually live in capitalist societies and answer the question of who exactly the beneficiaries are. In 2nd Century Britain, in response to the rebelious Britons, the Romans created an aspirational system under Agricola, where a very few had the chance to escape penury and join an elite, ruling society. In the chronicles of that time (by Tacitus) it says “because they didn’t know better they called it civilisation when it was in fact their slavery”

Why I Love Cultural Appropriation and Why You Should Too

The title of this piece is not accidentally provocative, cultural appropriation is a hornet’s nest in the world of art, the title is like saying “come, sting me!”. I’m moved to write about it from my own experiences, particularly from the recent piece for my iForest “I Walk Towards Myself” which features a work for three choirs of 24 voices each (The Crossing) individually recorded and spread out across land at the Wild Center in the Adirondacks. It opened to the public  in 2017 and comes to Manhattan as part of Drums Along the Hudson in June 2018. Much of the text of “I Walk Towards Myself” is in the indigenous Mohawk language and this has drawn the attention of people who are sensitive to ‘cultural appropriation’.

If I pick up a guitar and strum a D major chord, I didn’t invent it, I appropriated it. Of course, it’s absurd to call it ‘appropriation’ because it’s in such common usage. I could equally write a blues or a jazz song using that chord and, even though they both have clear cultural origins that are not my own, I would be in no danger that this act of cultural appropriation would upset anyone.

Cultural appropriation is a sign of a healthy society. It means we’re listening to each other, inspiring and influencing each other. Cultural misappropriation is something entirely different, it means we are exploiting each other, using each other’s stories and sometimes our suffering to further our creative interests and ambitions without proper respect and consultation. Cultural misappropriation is something like discovering that the painful, awkward romance you had in your early twenties has been turned into a Broadway musical by a complete stranger.

When the Boomtown Rats wrote the song “I Don’t Like Mondays”, beside scoring a massive chart hit in the UK they also faced a lawsuit. The song was about the case of 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer, who fired at children in a school playground at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California, US on 29 January 1979, killing two adults and injuring eight children and one police officer. Spencer showed no remorse for her crime and her full explanation for her actions was “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day”. The Boomtown Rats song was first performed less than a month later. The courts did not block the song in the end. Whether that reflected an ethical conclusion or is simply what happens when a well financed record company are pitted against a family who’ve just been thrown into grief and shock is impossible to say. The song remains popular to this day.

When I hear people get worked up about ‘cultural appropriation’ I can’t help but think of a phrase from Milan Kundera about being ‘The brilliant ally of your own gravedigger’. Their arguments come from a good place, I identify with them. They’re sometimes outraged and at times it feels right to be outraged, but these arguments too easily and invisibly become something that is no longer cultural appropriation, it’s cultural segregation. Follow them to their logical conclusion and you discover you can’t write a work from the point of view of a black woman because you’re a white man, and maybe that sounds fair enough, but try it the other way round: you can’t write from a white male point of view because you’re a black woman and immediately you see it for what it is: racial prejudice.

This goes against one of the most hopeful things humans possess: theory of mind, the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, it is the keystone of empathy. It sounds like a very grand statement but ‘civilised’ society rests on theory of mind: on the understanding that others equally feel pain and suffer and have hopes and ambitions. All of the great founding documents of nations from Magna Carta to the American Constitution have this at their bedrock.

Running a prototype iForest at the Wild Center, Tupper Lake.

One day when I was mixing my iForest onsite at The Wild Center, the director charged out to see me. She was worked up: “You didn’t tell me this piece was all in Mohawk, they’ll accuse you of cultural appropriation and you’ll get shut down!”. The iForest represented a significant investment for them and this scenario angered her. I told her I felt confident that nothing I had done could be interpreted as ‘cultural appropriation’. Firstly, it had seemed to me that since my work celebrated humans as a part of nature in the ancient history of the land, if it had not been in Mohawk it would have been an insult to the indigenous peoples of the area. I had been told about the Mohawk Thanksgiving Ceremony by someone who was herself Mohawk, I’d been introduced to a translator who taught Mohawk language at the Freedom School on the Akwesasne reservation, I’d met with the chief elder, Tom Porter, visited the Akwesasne museum and met other members of the Mohawk community, none of whom had ever suggested I was doing something that might be offensive or insensitive in some way. But more to the point, the piece I had written was a western choral work, strongly in the polyphonic tradition of my native Europe, it was clear that this was my own creative response to the land, that had been lent language and, to some degree, form, by the Mohawks. For me the key was that I strongly identified with and felt inspired by the Mohawk viewpoint; their Thanksgiving ceremony thanked each part of nature which was essentially what I wanted the iForest to do, as well as to include ‘human’ as part of the nature experienced on the site, making the point that we are part of nature and not external observers of it, which was again a part of the Mohawk viewpoint.

Even so, I felt a lurking unease. Cultural appropriation has something of the witch-hunt cry to it. It’s a dark accusation about murky  goings on, the mere suspicion is enough to doom some artists. And sometimes that doom is appropriate; art is our creative response to the universe, we may make it for good reasons, we may make something that engages people, but if we don’t first make enquiry as to whether the people whose story we seek to tell are ok with it we run the risk that we have committed ‘cultural misappropriation’.

In my case I got off lightly, a few interviewers asked about cultural appropriation but seemed satisfied with my answers. Only once did I receive a very angry email. It was from someone who hadn’t visited the iForest, but had contacted me asking if she could hear the music, I’d sent her a link. She replied with a tirade of insults which, since she wasn’t Mohawk herself, made me wonder what  motivated her. Clearly it hit a nerve and, as is often the case in areas that are vaguely defined, she felt ok to fill in gaps between what she understood and what she projected with a great deal of anger.

It’s a great thing for cultures to inspire and influence each other. Cultural appropriation, rather than misappropriation, is a good thing. It’s a sign of empathy, of reaching out with respect and sharing, whether from joy or sorrow  that helps us realise there’s no such thing as ‘us’ and ‘them’ because ‘they’ are ‘us’. There are plenty of people who do not agree with that view, they see the world as ‘us’ which includes themselves and people like them and some form of vaguely threatening and probably inferior ‘them’ people who are not ‘us’. Cultural appropriation helps us to take a step beyond that and understand that our different cultures are merely the outward flowerings of similar souls. When we see and understand such things, I like to believe that we live together in happier more fruitful ways.