CNMN > Projects > Finding Folk for Music

Jeff Morton

See profile

  • Open (def: scores for unspecified instrumentation)
  • Found objects or art supplies
  • Acoustic instruments
  • Digital devices
  • 13 to 18 years of age
  • Adults

2 one-hour sessions

  • Education
  • Community associations
  • Ecology

Finding Folk for Music


Find­ing Folk for Music is a way to share con­cepts and strate­gies for a kind of exper­i­men­tal folk music. The series engages peo­ple in hands-on cre­ation regard­less of anyone’s lev­el of pre­vi­ous musi­cal expe­ri­ence. Work­shops pro­vide an oppor­tu­ni­ty for impro­vi­sa­tion, explo­ration, sound mak­ing, and audio record­ing in response to the envi­ron­ment. They are a chance to prac­tice deep lis­ten­ing, a phi­los­o­phy and approach to music and sound devel­oped by com­pos­er Pauline Oliv­eros. Deep lis­ten­ing helps us under­stand and per­ceive our­selves in the world, and whether through envi­ron­men­tal, social, or polit­i­cal impacts, our sound­scape is always in a state of change. Doc­u­ment­ing sound is an impor­tant aspect of Find­ing Folk for Music. The work­shop and per­for­mance record­ings are like tran­scrip­tions of the acoustic spaces and the par­tic­i­pants’ musi­cal engage­ment. The record­ings have archival and doc­u­men­ta­tion val­ue, and I find them pleas­ant to lis­ten to. Through these work­shops I am find­ing new strate­gies to bring peo­ple togeth­er to make exper­i­men­tal music, and in this way, the series is an exten­sion of my com­po­si­tion and sound art practice.

In Octo­ber of 2019 I was invit­ed to present Find­ing Folk for Music at the Sounds Like Fes­ti­val in Saska­toon. The two-hour ses­sion involved eight peo­ple and explored tran­scrip­tion and com­po­si­tion strate­gies with a vari­able set of instru­ments. The sam­ple work­shop strat­e­gy found below this text was used for one of the activities.

It is inter­est­ing to hear the dif­fer­ent results from the two groups who were fol­low­ing the same set of instruc­tions and lis­ten­ing to the same loop­ing audio sam­ple, and to note how quick­ly the par­tic­i­pants found a shared musi­cal­i­ty in their playing.

One year ear­li­er in Read­ing, UK, I had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to present a longer-form ver­sion of Find­ing Folk for Music, as a four-day work­shop with an ad hoc ensem­ble lead­ing to pub­lic performance.

Over the four days, our group explored field record­ing, tran­scrip­tion, and impro­vi­sa­tion, with the goal of mak­ing music that com­pli­ment­ed and respond­ed to the envi­ron­ment. We went into wood­ed areas near cam­pus and lis­tened to the trees, city nois­es, and Heathrow air traf­fic above us. With an array of micro­phones and instru­ments in our hands, we set up in iso­lat­ed as well as busy pub­lic spaces, mak­ing music that tran­scribed and com­pli­ment­ed the sound­scape. In the qui­etest places, we found a world of sound already present, and for the per­for­mance at the muse­um, the large audi­ence and their chat­ter, clink­ing glass­es, and shuf­fling feet became anoth­er sound­scape to which we respond­ed. Through­out the process, we asked our­selves the ques­tions: Is there already enough to lis­ten to? Why am I adding anoth­er sound? When I do, how can it be already part of the sound­scape or how can it stand out through inten­tion, rep­e­ti­tion, or expression? 

On the first day of the work­shop, par­tic­i­pants bor­rowed portable record­ing units and set out to mon­i­tor and record the most qui­et places they could find on campus.

As a strat­e­gy to encour­age deep lis­ten­ing, the field record­ing exer­cise con­tributed to the cre­ative process. When mak­ing field record­ings, par­tic­i­pants wore head­phones and expe­ri­enced the sound­scape in a close-up and immer­sive way, hear­ing the small­est details and encoun­ter­ing the back­ground noise in even the qui­etest places. This aware­ness of the sound­scape informed the group’s abil­i­ty to impro­vise togeth­er, and parts of the field record­ings were inte­grat­ed into the performance.

Our per­for­mance was well-received, with hun­dreds of peo­ple stand­ing, sit­ting, and walk­ing through the muse­um to lis­ten. Audi­ence mem­bers com­ment­ed on the focused and immer­sive qual­i­ty of the music we played, and after­wards group mem­bers were inter­viewed about their expe­ri­ence in the workshop:

“The sound is sup­posed to react to the envi­ron­ment but not over­pow­er it. We also record­ed some silence and played along with those record­ings. It feels very calm in our cor­ner; the exhi­bi­tion is very hec­tic otherwise.”

“I learned about sound com­po­si­tion, how to use instru­ments in dif­fer­ent ways, cre­at­ing sounds with record­ings from nature.”

“We were work­ing with sounds, with dif­fer­ent ways to record sound, to doc­u­ment it. It was a group project, four of us and Jeff as well. We were all there, work­ing togeth­er dur­ing the work­shops, mak­ing indi­vid­ual record­ings, and putting it all together.”

Fol­low­ing the work­shop and per­for­mance in Read­ing, I had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to present a stand-alone ver­sion of the field record­ing exer­cise in Win­nipeg, on a very cold day in March in the office space of Cre­ative Manitoba.

Par­tic­i­pants were giv­en a set of instruc­tions dur­ing a short 20-minute session: 

(1) Bor­row a sound recorder and toy xylo­phone; (2) as a soli­tary activ­i­ty, move through the build­ing to find a silent or near-silent space; (3) record the sound­scape; (4) speak qui­et­ly and describe where you are and what you hear; (5) make sounds with the xylo­phone; (6) after a few min­utes, stop and return.

This exer­cise invit­ed par­tic­i­pants to lis­ten to the acoustic envi­ron­ment, and to hear them­selves and their actions in rela­tion to the sound that was already there. The hall­ways and stair­wells were filled with ambi­ent office back­ground noise, with machines hum­ming and the sound of icy wind out­side. The xylo­phones inter­ject­ed a play­ful ele­ment and a kind of sound impulse that acousti­cal­ly mapped the spaces through echo and reverberation.

Lat­er the same year, I had a chance to present Find­ing Folk for Music at the Regi­na Pub­lic Library. As in ear­li­er pre­sen­ta­tions, the work­shop includ­ed field record­ing exer­cis­es, group impro­vi­sa­tion, and deep lis­ten­ing. We found sounds in and around the build­ing, and we used these record­ings as bed tracks and as a kind of acoustic score. Play­ing in the open area of the library beside a rum­bling esca­la­tor and with sounds of peo­ple all around us, we respond­ed to the sound­scape, imi­tat­ing what we heard, mix­ing back­ground and foreground.

Through all of the pre­sen­ta­tions of Find­ing Folk for Music, the series has grown and has been adapt­ed for dif­fer­ent con­texts. I have learned more about ways that deep lis­ten­ing, cre­ative music mak­ing, impro­vi­sa­tion, and com­po­si­tion can be engaged with by peo­ple with any lev­el of musi­cal train­ing or expe­ri­ence. Results vary, and while I am moved by all the music we have made, appre­ci­at­ing this is a mat­ter of taste.  The process, how­ev­er, is most impor­tant, and the strate­gies I am work­ing with play­ful­ly reveal musi­cal rela­tion­ships, artis­tic choic­es, and col­lec­tive efforts by peo­ple in the cre­ation of a work of art. For me that’s the point of Find­ing Folk for Music.

* * *

Jeff Mor­ton is a com­pos­er, musi­cian, and media artist based in rur­al south­east Saskatchewan.

Read More +



Image Gallery