Walking to the Sounds: Background

This is a third chapter of the unfolding development of Contención Island (Contención – ‘containment’ in Esperanto – an international language for an international disease). During the first English lockdown I defined this imaginary island by my walking from my home writing the island onto the ground with my steps. During the second lockdown I walked the shoreline of the island – an imagined coastline along the edge of the imagined sea. So … in this, the third English national lockdown, I am populating the island with sound – and will continue to do so as long as the lockdown continues.

During the first four days of this lockdown I experimented with different combinations and placements of microphones; I also experimented with having a “stream of consciousness” recording element, though decided not to do this. I settled on having a hat mounted quad array of DPA4060 microphones running into a MixPre6 recorder. Therefore the process described below, was resolved on the fifth day of the lockdown period and so, for the first four days, the locations recorded (four quadrants and one zone) don’t match those identified by chance.

Where to go: octants and zones

During the first two national lockdowns I had walked to, and recorded the sounds of, most of the island. It did not feel interesting to record only at “my favourite” places and, given that I didn’t know how long the lockdown would last, it was possible that such recordings would become repetitive as I returned to a small number of places. Also, such an approach would not give a voice to the sounds of much of the island. So I returned to the process that I had used in previous works – determining locations by chance shaped by the methods John Cage used for ’49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs’. On previous occasions I had generated quite specific locations but on this occasion the difference was that I was going to generate zones and then choose the specific site myself on the day.

I divided the island into eight octants (an octant is one eight of a circle, based on 45 degrees), based on points of the compass (N, NE, E SE, S, SW, W, NW) and centred on my house, the point from which all walks have started. Each octant is centred on one of the eight radian lines of the compass. Thus the North octant is centred on North and bounded by the compass bearing of north-northwest, through north, to north-northeast; similarly the Southeast octant is centred on southeast and bounded by east-southeast through southeast to south-southeast. The octants on Contención Island are marked as the first point at which the octant boundaries cross the shore of the island (with a small amount of my taking account of the island topography – rail lines, roads, bridges, private property etc.). I then divided each octant into an inner (1) and an outer (2) zone (aiming for two zones of roughly equal area) producing a total of 16 zones.

I then used ‘chance procedures’ (a random number generator for those of you with a quantitative bent) to sequence the octants and zones. I sequenced each separately, so for octant I generated a list numbers ranging from 1 to 8; for zones from 1 to 2. I used the same process for duration of recording choosing a range from 1 to 16 minutes (the maximum of 16 chosen to reflect the total number of zones). Unlike the pre-defined 28-day lockdown in November, as I write this I have no idea how long this will last – I have been doing this for all of this lockdown – 45 days and counting – and have sufficient numbers for almost 14 weeks – I hope that I do not need them all!

The resulting map is below (and the number table at the bottom of the page – for the interested).

Choosing a site within a zone

Each day I walk the island to that day’s zone, and I record the sounds of the island. The choice of place within a zone is shaped by a number of things.

I do not record on the shore of the island – this being the subject of the second lockdown.

With 16 zones then I will be recording in each zone on more than one occasion and so the site of previous recordings influences where I go on a subsequent visit though it is the case that some of the zones have few options containing only one or two streets of (large) houses (for example the outer west; W2 on the map).

I pay some heed to the potential for sonic variety – some zones appear to have almost endless possibilities – such as the inner south (S1) or the outer southwest (SW2) – yet the reality is that sonically they are very homogenous and dominated by anthropogenic sounds of fast-moving motor vehicles on the adjacent roads. It is often the small streets, back alleys, cemeteries and out of the way places that produce a range of sounds within a zone.

The weather is also a factor. In general, I am happy to take the weather as it comes and during this lockdown I have made a number of recordings in sleet or snow whilst sheltering under an umbrella. However, the combination of sub-zero temperatures and strong wind has meant that on occasion, particularly if I am making a longer recording, say, over 10 minutes, I have chosen specific locations that offer shelter.


I record the sites in three ways. I make the sound recording as detailed above.

I take four photographs – one pointing at the centre of the island, one pointing in directly the opposite direction, on pointing at the ground and one pointing at the sky. From these I produce a single layered composite image.

Finally, I write a poem about the experience of being in the place.

and finally … for the very interested … 

Here is the table that determines a day’s destination.