I should make a confession. I first heard Shaw's soundscapes a year ago and immediately became a fan. In fact, I have barely listened to anything else since
Matthew Shaw is affable, artistic and environmentally friendly so when he confesses to having just returned from shooting nightingales in Basra I'm shocked. That is until the sound sculptor explains that he was actually after footage of the bird and its iconic song and that his 'Basra' was, in fact, a recreation of the notorious Iraqi city at a now-abandoned military base in Kent. Suddenly, I feel on much safer ground.
Shaw visited the site as part of a People Need Nature delegation of naturalists, ecologists, writers, poets, visual artists and musicians granted rare access to Lodge Hill in Medway to document how nature is quietly repossessing 815 acres that were once home to MOD barracks. His atmospheric sound and video recordings have evolved into Lodge Hill, a film and soundscape that poignantly celebrate how the blackthorn and bramble scrub is slowing elbowing aside the concrete in a precious and much-needed habitat for the owner of one of the world's most loved birdsongs.
At this point, I should make a confession. I first heard Shaw's soundscapes a year ago and immediately became a fan. In fact, I have barely listened to anything else since. His multi-levelled music is immersive and captures the ‘genius loci' or spirit of place with awe-inspiring sensitivity. Shaw explains: "I think of my music as primitive photography. It is a way of recording a sense of place that can never be repeated. I try to explore the atmosphere that is intrinsically present at each site I visit."
I am lucky enough to witness the artist in action as I join Shaw on a walk at one of his favourite spots near his Dorset home and on a glorious spring day at Hengistbury Head, a dominant and important prehistoric site where he carefully sets up a digital recorder and explains: "This exact scene will never be heard again. Where I position the recorder will catch the sound of the breeze, waves lapping the shore or fishermen unloading the catch from their boats and, if it were recorded again, it would inevitably be slightly different. In that way, it is naturally nostalgic, creating its own sonic footprint, constantly changing, evolving."
Shaw's modus operandi draws on his hard-earned experience as a musician. His first taste of the business was as a teenager in Cheshire when he was the drummer in a punk band. Eventually, he moved on to performing as Tex La Homa, a successful post-rock project formed in 2000.
Shaw wrote, played and produced four critically-acclaimed albums and toured most of Europe, Japan and the US during the next 10 years. But now his passion is ambient music.
On our walk, he records the pure sound of one environment, then a few hundred yards away, he uses a micro keyboard to introduce delicate washes of sound infused with background atmosphere, placing the emphasis on notes and harmonies that interest him. Back in his studio, he may layer a bird's song or melody with guitar or keyboard loops to sculpt the finished article.
He is also a painter and his textural canvases are equally atmospheric. He says, "Like with a sketch, you don't have to complete every form to see what it is. If you only draw two lines of a triangle your eye still sees it as a triangular shape. I try to do the same thing with my music. It's about getting the right balance of spontaneity with the overall intention for the music and then realising when it's done."
Producing and publishing his own downloads and delicately-crafted CDs gives him a good indication of when he has got the measure right: "Some completed pieces have had layers of work in them, while others, for example Venus Rosalia are sketches. I found that this track was particularly popular, which may be down to its spontaneity."
When Shaw performs his soundscapes in public, it only serves to enhance the work. "I enjoy playing live as it adds a creative tension," he says. "Subliminal decisions are made on stage about how long to leave a theme repeating or to layer more tones on top."
Choice of location is crucial to the equation. Shaw needs to feel an affinity with the place and often finds himself drawn to stone circles, natural springs and ancient religious sites. "In many spiritual traditions there is a sense of the sacred attached to a place, the home of a higher force. Exploring this has fueled my thinking." He continues, "It's about me being in the right place mentally to pick the right spot to absorb the sounds. I've often gone to a place specifically to record but somehow it doesn't work. It can't really be rushed. If I don't slow down and tune in, it just doesn't work."
He is so absorbed by his work that it is only after a full two hours of strenuous walking that we sit down to catch our breath. "After walking for a while, it feels good to rest." Shaw admits, "In this state, a natural meditation takes over and you are able to really focus on what is around you." I nod agreement, although my focus appears to be mainly on the blister developing on my right heel.
The Dorset headland with its fascinating archeological features, pounding waves and outrageously expensive beach huts (one recently sold for £400,000) provide an endless source of inspiration on Shaw's doorstep but the Mad-Max fantastical staging at the Medway military base presented him with a truly unique and unmissable opportunity. He explains, "The abandoned houses were a mix of replica streets from Ireland and re-purposed old-fashioned council houses now dressed to represent Basra for street-fight training. It felt like being on a silently sinister film set after all the crew and actors had long departed."
The chance to hear the nightingale's incredible tune was clearly tempting but accepting the invitation was not without its dangers. The site is still littered with explosives and Shaw vividly remembers the security briefing designed to discourage his group from venturing off the beaten track. The pep talk included a rundown of various devices that they might encounter should they be foolish or unlucky enough to stray off the official paths. It concluded with the comment: "And this is a tank mine. Don't bother trying to identify these. If you step on one, there'll be nothing left of you to worry about it."
Fortunately, Shaw was undaunted, accepted the challenge and found at the Lodge Hill site a schizophrenic treasure trove where open spaces and ancient woodlands were interspliced with disused buildings, crude razor wire, and danger signs but within it all, the subtle signs of nature reasserting its dominance are visible with grasses and trees fighting through chemical spills and discarded ammunition to bloom each spring, cheered on by a heartening soundtrack of birdsong.
It's not clear how long this state of play will be allowed to continue. There are plans for 5,000 houses to be built on the land, which would not only destroy the nightingale habitat but radically change the nature of the area which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Whether the next incarnation of this former military camp ends up being as a museum, a managed nature reserve, a park or a middle-class estate to meet the local authority's housing targets, at least the elusive and mesmerising spirit of place has been now lovingly captured for posterity in Shaw's work, without, thankfully, disturbing a landline in the process.
Mathhew Shaw's Lodge Hill film and soundscape: Lodge Hill
Matthew Shaw: http://www.texlahoma.com/
People Need Nature: https://peopleneednature.org.uk/
Gary Cook is a conservation artist and the Ecologist's Arts Editor. For more on his work or to contact him see below.
Latest coverage: zoomorphic.net
Society of Graphic Fine Art: sgfa.org.uk/members/gary-cook/
The Ecologist: tinyurl.com/zpkefjc