Kathy Hinde: ‘I’m really interested in combining visual art and music’
The audiovisual artist and composer talks about mixing up sound and art, working with a glassblower, a software programmer and scientists, and mapping bird flight and hidden Scottish burns
by ANNA McNAY
Kathy Hinde (b1975) is an audiovisual artist and composer based in Bristol. Her works bring together art, music, science and nature in an enticing, curious and educational way. Her Bird Step Sequencer video, in which the arrangement of birds sitting on a telegraph wire is used as a score for a broken piano, became a YouTube sensation, and, as an associate artist with the Glasgow-based company Cryptic, she recently had two pieces included in its biannual sonic art festival, Sonica.
Hinde spoke to Studio International at her Tipping Point installation at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow.
Anna McNay: We are standing here in a dark room, filled with glowing glass vessels, passing water from one to the other, and a cacophony of eerie sounds. Can you tell me a bit about the work and the ideas behind it?
Kathy Hinde: I wanted to make a work that used changing water levels to change sound. It seemed personal at the time because of climate change and water-level change, and where I come from, in Somerset, there was a lot of flooding. That was an initial stimulus. I decided I wanted to work with a glassblower, so I found one in Bristol University. His name is John Rowden and I kind of plonked myself on his doorstep and said: “Hello, would you be interested in working with me?”
Kathy Hinde. Tipping Point.
The piece consists of 12 custom-made, hand-blown glass vessels. They’re in pairs on these stands, are connected by a flexible tube and actually share a body of water. I’m interested in the changing water level and this idea of balance and cause and effect, so I’ve created a mechanised system whereby each glass vessel is hanging from a mechanised arm. The arm moves really, really slowly on a motor and as one gets lower, the water pours into the other one, because of gravity. So, as the motor moves, the water levels within each vessel change very gradually. I have a microphone inside each glass vessel and a speaker down below and they create audio feedback, which you can hear around the installation. I’m not initiating the sound; it’s just happening due to the resonant frequency of the glass vessel. When the water level changes, it changes the note. As it fills up, the note gets higher and, as it drains out, it gets lower.
It’s a constantly shifting environment and it’s one of those things where you know it could quite easily spiral out of control. It’s on a tipping point. I’m working with a programmer who has created some software that turns the microphone up and down to balance the feedback so it doesn’t spiral out of control. If you get two frequencies that are quite similar, they interfere with each other and it pulses a little bit. The lights respond to the sound. The brightness of the light is based on the volume of the sound, all accentuating the pulsing quality. I give the installation a set of parameters that have got probabilities on them, such as how many microphones will be live and how many motors are going to be on at any one time. So it varies between just one or two being on, with really distinctive intervals between the notes, and them all being on and you get this total mess of sound, where it is really difficult to distinguish which one’s doing what. When the motors are on, the tones are shifting and when the motors are off, you get a static chord. The installation is not a fixed sequence. Then I do a live performance with it, too. I use guitar pedals and EQ [equalisation, where you boost or reduce the levels of frequencies] and reverb so I can tonally play a little bit more with the sound that’s happening naturally. So, that’s basically the piece.
Kathy Hinde. Tipping Point - Live performance (extract).
AMc: It’s visually quite beautiful as well.
KH: Well, yes, the thing is, I’m really interested in combining visual art and music. For me, the visual of it is really, really, important. It’s like a sculptural piece as well as a sound-making instrument. The other interesting thing about playing it live is that sometimes I can’t really predict exactly what’s going to happen when I do something, which is quite interesting. It’s like a dialogue. I’ve got a background in classical piano, but I’m quite interested in creating different ways of performing with sound that have a completely different mindset. Because the pitch of the feedback is based on a water level that’s shifting and changing and flowing slowly between one vessel and the other, you can shape it and work with it, but you can’t just decide to have, say, an E-flat here or there. It has its own behaviour. And when you start to bring in reverbs and other resonances, the feedback starts to get a different harmonic. For example, it might shift a fifth or an octave, based on whether it’s picking up something else in the room. So it’s not totally uncontrollable, but it’s got an interesting dynamic that means I approach performing with it differently.
It was amazing working with the glassblower, too, because I just moved into his workshop and, at the beginning, I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I wanted to experiment. I just used stuff that he had in his workshop, such as siphons and glass vessels, and made different kinds of microphones and underwater microphones and transducers and started playing with what would happen with a glass vessel with water in it and how could you change sound. I went through all kinds of different processes before coming up with this one. I had to decide all the dimensions before John made them because they’re quite specific and it takes time. I wanted the glass to be really thin and so it was quite a process coming up with how to do it.
After that, I worked with a software programmer, Matthew Olden, and then, basically, it was a case of testing things out and seeing how they behaved and then customising and changing them. It’s quite a time-consuming process working like this because everything’s completely bespoke.
AMc: You mentioned that you have a background in classical piano. Do you come more from a musical upbringing than a visual-arts one?
KH: No, it’s more visual arts than music, actually. But I’ve always done both and I’ve always wanted to mix the two. I studied visual arts and music as a joint degree, although it wasn’t really very joint in the end, to be honest. On the course I did, they were quite separate, but I found lots of different ways of combining them. To start with, there were a lot of collaborations where I’d do the visuals for live music, but always thinking about them in a music-based way rather than a film-making way. More recently, I’ve been trying to make installations that are both visual and sonic as one thing. I don’t want to prioritise one over the other, although I think, with some installations, one does become more forefronted than the other. I learned classical piano and I have studied composition, too.
AMc: It would take someone who had studied music to be able to look up at birds sitting on telegraph wires and see a musical score, I think.
KH: Oh, you mean my piece Piano Migrations?
AMc: Yes, that and Bird Step Sequencer. I don’t think your average person on the street would look up and have that thought.
KH: No, I suppose, not. I’ve always been really interested in John Cage and other composers who are working in a more conceptual or visual arts kind of way, with graphic scores. So, yes, the birds on the line look like a musical score to me. I went on to use that video in a different way with an actual broken piano. I took the piano apart to reveal the strings inside and then projected the video directly on to them. Using tracking software, again by Matthew Olden, the movements of the birds are translated into physical actions of small motors and tappers rigged on to the piano strings. The overall effect is that the wings of the birds feel like they are playing the piano strings as they fly past. This installation was quite interesting because I had this broken, unplayable piano and obviously I’ve got a background as a pianist. I don’t really have a place in my artistic practice for playing the piano – it’s something that I just do to relax. But this broken piano being played by birds was a really nice way of bringing it into my practice in a way that felt more my own. I also totally modified the piano so it doesn’t really sound like a piano any more. When I tour the piece abroad, I don’t take that piano with me, I have to build it again, so it sounds different each time.
Kathy Hinde. Piano Migrations.
The piece is called Piano Migrations on the one hand because it’s using these images of migrating birds, but it also grew out of some research I did into my family history. My grandmother came from Lithuania and her Jewish family moved to Wigan. She worked in a shop that sold pianos and I learned to play the piano in her shop. It’s all very convoluted and you don’t necessarily have to know about it to appreciate the piece but, basically, I noticed there was a bird migration route from Lithuania to England and so I was just playing with how I could map these patterns into piano music. It was, in some way, about my not knowing much about the background of my family. I wanted to work with that absence, the little voids and missing points. So I wanted to play piano with a pianola, which uses little puffs of air going through holes to play. And all of these things came together to make that piece.
Kathy Hinde and Ivan Franco. Bird Sequencer.
I do it as an installation and as a performance, similar to Tipping Point. As a video, it runs for about six minutes and loops. It’s long enough to not really notice that it’s repeating and so it runs as an installation for the whole day. But, again, I also work with Matthew and we do a duo live performance. His software can play the piano with any video of birds on a wire – it just looks for movement. I’m quite into bird watching and I’m gathering loads of videos of different birds. The software creates different sonic textures based on where the birds fly. Then Matt samples it live and changes the sound a bit and I work with lots of other parts of broken pianos and we build an extended, improvised performance.
AMc: Tell me about Submerge, the other work of yours that is being shown in Glasgow as part of the Sonica festival.
KH: Interestingly, Submerge grew from Tipping Point. Cryptic commissioned Tipping Point a year ago and we’ve been touring it before premiering it at the festival. Anyway, I’m really into field recording and I’ve made quite a few sound maps. I got really into hydrophone recording – underwater sound recording – and I began thinking that it would be interesting, when I go to different locations with Tipping Point, to take underwater recordings, maybe with local people, and to build an online sound map of those recordings. During the tour, it ended up being a really hectic schedule so there wasn’t an opportunity to build that in, but these conversations had started and it turned into a bigger project.
The idea was to go out in combination with Glasgow Year of Green 2015 and City of Science, and another organisation called Velocity. We had this conversation about the fact that Glasgow has all these hidden streams, or “burns” in Scottish. Medieval Glasgow grew up on the mills of the Molendinar Burn. There are all these photos of the burn and people think it’s the River Clyde, but it’s not. Nowadays, it’s mostly all underground so you can’t see it in the city – it’s become invisible. I got hold of a map from the waterways of where all these burns were, and loads of them just disappear down a drain. The map shows where they are underground and where they are overground. So I went out with different groups of people and we tracked different burns on each session. It was a really interesting way to navigate the city and think about the history of these streams and how people settled near areas of water.
With the underwater recordings, rather than make an online sound map, the idea was to bring an interactive sound map installation to Sonica. It’s a bit difficult to describe, but, basically, it’s a projection in a circle at the bottom of a water tower at the Lighthouse [Scotland’s national centre for design and architecture]. There’s a thin surface of water on the projection and when you use this specific kind of pen that I’ve made, you can draw on to it and it starts to reveal a video of the water underneath. On the headphones, you can then hear the underwater recordings of those exact locations. You can also erase them and cover them up, so you can build your own soundscape with Glasgow’s underwater sounds, or you can specifically go and listen to sounds from certain parts of the city. At the top of the water tower, whatever’s happening on the map at the bottom is on speakers and you can look out at the whole city and hear this underwater soundtrack.
After I’d done the workshops [going out with people to track down the burns], I needed to get a few more recordings to really have a spread of geographical locations. I was out there doing stealth recording and, leaping out of my van and jumping and scrambling through hedges to find the streams, I would meet such incredibly interesting people. It was quite an adventure. I think it would be really exciting to redo the project somewhere else. Then you’d end up with all these interesting sound banks of different cities.
Another really important element with that piece was that I worked with community scientists. When we did the workshops, we also tested the water for things such as pH and oxygen content and looked for different organisms in it. This was part of a nationwide citizens’ science project where you can download the information from Open Air Laboratories. You can test the pond in your local park and upload the information, and then scientists use it to gather information about what the quality of the water is like all over the country.
So we did that in the workshop, but then, to take it to another level, we took samples of all of the different places I’d done recordings and sent them to Glasgow Scientific Services, which did full-on water quality testing on all of it. I got presented with this huge amount of data. It was quite overwhelming, to be honest. I wanted to find a way of making it all readable by the people, so, not only can you listen to the water from the different parts of the city and think about these underwater channels, but you can also get some indications as to how they vary in quality. It’s quite subjective, because the data means different things in different contexts, but I refined it a bit and slightly changed the sound recordings from the different locations based on their pH. I use various different parameters. I mark pH by shifting the pitch very slightly. I’ve also changed the underlying video by tinting it in different shades so that you can see where the pH is higher and lower and I’ve put a few different indicators and numbers in as to where exactly we did the test. It’s interesting when you try to translate data into a visual sound. It’s an artistic interpretation with added information.
We also made a book that goes with the installation because I think it’s important that people have some kind of insight into the process. There are lots of pictures of us all recording and doing pond-dipping and testing pH, but it also shows the different parts of Glasgow. Some of the burns are really unkempt. They have shopping trolleys dumped in them and it’s sad. In places, the Molendinar Burn is just a tiny trickle, but it’s full of rubbish. Elsewhere, it’s really loved and looked after, like the Tollcross Burn at Early Braes Park. It’s almost like a nature reserve there, with meadow grass and butterflies and bees and people walking their dogs.
I think it’s nice to draw people’s attention to the burns, point out that they are here in the city and let them know how it is to follow them and listen to them and pay them attention – and what the consequences of that might be.
AMc: I wonder how many people go out looking for the burns after seeing your work.
KH: Yes. I think I would. There’s lots of interesting potential to go further with this and maybe have downloadable maps where you can actually listen to the recordings on your phone in the locations.
AMc: How did you become so interested in working with nature as a source of inspiration in the first place?
KH: It was quite a gradual thing. I can’t really say why. I think as you keep making work and develop your practice, these things emerge. When I was making Tipping Point, I spent a lot of time working in a lab, trying different voltages and so on, and sometimes I just want to make projects where I have to go out into the environment. So I might go photographing and filming and field recording when I’m in different places just for inspiration, not specifically to make a piece. But going out recording can put you in a state of mind where you’re really focused and you’re listening on a microphone and you’re really still. This creates a different space for you to be creative.
There’s another sound map that I made, called Twitchr – again, it’s a bird thing. I got quite into filming flocks of birds and going bird-watching and I was thinking how I didn’t really get enough time to do this. I asked myself how I could sneakily find a way of making it into a project. So Twitchr was a bit of a pet project because I made a sound map to upload birdsong to. And you can play it like a musical score. Again, I worked with a web programme and uploaded lots of recordings and now it’s like an open score. I’ve tried to get it out there and get other people to put their own recordings on the site. Gradually, it starts to populate and you get this soundscape made by loads of different people.
I started to organise walks with an ornithologist through the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds because I’m not an expert in these things and I want to learn. So I’d organise these walks and we’d take half a day to go out into the middle of nowhere and then we’d have an expert on birdsong telling us what the birds were and what they were calling about. It’s totally amazing. I’m interested in that being a way of getting people away from their busy lives, whereas the actual sound map is one of those instant playback, online things.
AMc: What else are you working on at the moment?
KH: I have quite a lot of pieces now that are to do with birds and birdsong, as you might have noticed, and a couple more to do with water as well.
I got invited to make a new piece for Kidderminster Arts Festival this year, too. Again, there’s a river that’s totally concreted and not very visible. They’re redesigning part of the town centre to try to emphasise the river specifically, but also the nature that is there but hidden. The theme of the festival was transformation, so I wanted to create a big flock of birds flying down the street. It was called Luminous Birds and consisted of hundreds of origami-style birds made out of waterproof paper, with an LED inside each that illuminated the whole bird. Again, together with Matthew, I created a piece where they were all in lines and they lit up in sequence and I’d placed the wings at different angles. It was like a stop-motion animation, but with real objects lighting up in turn. We sequenced it to create these flight paths going down the street. It was one of those ideas that led to my being on a cherry picker for a week fiddling with little wires in the rain. I did that piece in August and it survived for a whole month outside in Kidderminster, at eight metres high, running every night, with these flocks of birds flying down the street. Cryptic is arranging a short tour of that in Scotland next year in the autumn. So, at the moment, I’m scouting for locations and thinking about how to remount it.
I’m also part of a show called For the Birds, with two other artists, Jony Easterby and Mark Anderson. All the installations are to do with birds, in celebration of birds. They are light, sound and kinetic pieces and the audience goes out at night and does a two-mile walk around an estuary. We did it in Wales last year and I had about eight installations in that – between us, there were 20-odd installations – and they were situated all around the estuary. So people just come across them as they walk. Some are really flashy and loud and some are really subtle and tiny. It’s all about navigating the landscape at an unusual time of day with these different encounters. We’re taking that piece to New Zealand next year, so there’s quite a bit of preparation for that. When I get there, I’m taking a bit of time off, which will be nice – as well as, hopefully, inspiring.
AMc: Who knows what you’ll come up with while you’re there?
KH: Exactly. I could do something really urban, although probably not!
• Piano Migrations and related works are showing at Enlighten Manchester, Manchester Central Library, 10-12 December 2015. Submerge will be showing at the Lighthouse, Glasgow, until 10 January 2016. Tipping Point was at the Centre for Contemporary Arts Glasgow, 29 October – 8 November 2015. It will be showing at Kings Place, London, from 5-6 February 2016. For more information, and to book tickets, see sonic-a.co.uk.
• To upload recordings of birdsong to the soundmap, go to twitchr.co.uk.