Flight of the Monarch on BBC Radio 3

Over the past couple of years I’ve been putting together a Radio programme for Between the Ears with producer Andy King inspired by the project Following the Flight of the Monarchs.

I’m happy to announce the 30 min feature will be aired on BBC Radio 3 on 3rd January 2021 at 6:45pm GMT.

I’ve just heard it’s Pick of the Day in the Radio Times!

Check it out here!

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Garden to Garden

I’ve been working with artist Feral Practice to produce sound for her film made for Invisible Dust as part of the project Garden to Garden.

In partnership with Scarborough’s Victorian-era South Cliff Gardens, ‘Garden to Garden‘, explored the changing ways we see, hear and experience nature; all through the lens of bees

Feral Practice – Looking at bees from Invisible Dust on Vimeo.

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ECOde Finished

We’ve now completed the ECOde project in Scarborough with Invisible Dust.

Here’s a lovely video about the sound component that I worked on with local kids from the Library’s Code Club.

ECOde from Invisible Dust on Vimeo.

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ECOde – Phase 1 complete!

It’s been a real joy to work on the first phase of the ECOde project run by Invisible Dust in collaboration with Scarborough Library’s Code Club.

ECOde introduces children and young people to the natural world, inspiring them to investigate local biodiversity and understand that human activity can affect nature in negative ways. It helps them to join the dots, ask questions and find creative ways to inform the wider public about climate change and environmental issues closer to home.

We’ve gone out on a couple of field recording sessions to engage with our local environment through listening. The participants recorded contrasting sounds in different parts of Scarborough near to the library including waves on the shore, traffic, and underwater recordings in the duck pond on Valley Road. We’ve also recorded ‘hidden’ sounds around us such as sonifying electromagnetic interference.

We then reviewed and edited these sounds, and learned some creative coding in Sonic Pi in order to start sculpting the sounds we recorded into a sound collage. Then we uploaded the sounds to a soundmap we made in Google maps, starting to make up a sound picture of the different sonic elements of Scarborough, including the creative sonic collage of the workshop participants’ work.

We also installed a streambox on the roof of Scarborough Library, thanks to SoundCamp. You can listen to it streaming the soundscape in real-time on the Locus Sonus Soundmap. We intend to keep this streambox running so anyone can listen in at any time to hear how the soundscape changes throughout the seasons, including the sounds of migrating birds, as well as seagulls who are nesting on the roof.

Here’s the ECOde Google soundmap with all of the workshop participant’s sounds.

And here’s the sound collage we made:

Huge thanks to all of the team in making it happen!

Stuart Norton-Drew, Rachael Norton-Drew, Shauna Concannon, Dorcas Taylor, Lee Taylor, Angela Kale and the Code Club volunteers, Invisible Dust, Scarborough Library

Photos by Esme Mai Photography

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ECOde – Scarborough

ECOde is a project run by Invisible Dust with kids from Scarborough Library’s Code Club.
The aim of the project is to help the code club kids to become more aware of their environment and changes in it through coding and technology. I’m the artistic lead for the first part of the project, working with sound to get the participants to gain a wider awareness through listening, and starting to look at things we can tell about an environment simply by listening to the soundscape. We’ve gone out on two field recording trips where the participants have recorded contrasting sounds in different parts of Scarborough near to the library including waves on the shore, traffic, and underwater recordings in the duck pond on Valley Road. We’ve also recorded ‘hidden’ sounds around us such as sonifying electromagnetic interference. The next step is to make an soundmap of the area, uploading their recordings to Google Maps, and then finally creating their own creative response through a sonic postcard made by layering and manipulating the sounds in the coding language Sonic Pi.
I’ll also be running a workshop on the 1st March in live-streaming, where we’ll install a streambox on the roof of the library which will stream the soundscape in real-time on the locus sonus soundmap (http://locusonus.org/soundmap/051/). We intend to keep this streambox running so anyone can listen in at any time to hear how the soundscape changes throughout the seasons, including the sounds of migrating birds, as well as seagulls who are nesting on the roof.


Check out the soundmap with sounds recorded by the ECOde participants here:


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Following the Flight of the Monarchs Exhibit at the British Science Festival and Australian Radio

I presented a mini exhibition at the British Science Festival in September which was hosted at the University of Hull this year. This was a collection of presentations, including our touring, immersive hide, as well as a fantastic documentary on Monarch butterfly migration from Anna Chahuneau, a sound and video collaboration between sound artist Vaughan Garland, video artist Jessica Rodríguez, and myself, a live audio stream from the Cerro Pelón UNESCO Monarch butterfly reserve in Mexico, and a touchscreen allowing people to learn more about our ‘Following the Flight of the Monarchs’ project.

I was interviewed by the amazing Robyn Williams for ABC’s Science Show. You can catch the 8 minute radio feature here.

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Review in 5:4 Blog for Electric Spring Performance

My recent performance of ‘Flight of the Monarchs’ received a really nice review in the 5:4 blog. It was in the Ambient@40 conference at the University of Huddersfield, involving a live audio stream from the Cerro Pelón Monarch butterfly reserve:

Rob Mackay‘s Flight of the Monarchs went further, offering cinematic insights into the migration of monarch butterflies from Canada to Mexico. These insights were more than just artistic: in addition to film of the butterflies’ movements in conjunction with Mackay’s restrained and inviting music, the work incorporated a live audio stream from the forest in Mexico where the filming had taken place. What this added to the experience is hard to articulate, but the knowledge that we were, at that very moment, connected to a place over 6,000 miles away said something of the deeper connection Mackay was seeking to make between the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it. The combined effect was lovely: sometimes the only way to respond to beauty is with beauty.’

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Eavesdropping on Monarch Butterflies

In January and March this year, I returned to Mexico to visit the Cerro Pelón Monarch butterfly reserve. Working with an interdisciplinary team of artists and scientists, including Monarch expert Dr Pablo Jaramillo, we’ve been exploring the reserve. This has included the installation of a streambox, designed and made by SoundCamp which broadcasts the sounds of the reserve over the internet in real-time. Already we’ve had good interest from Monarch Watch, and other people around the globe. The stream forms part of the the UNESCO Biosphere Soundscapes project, led by Leah Barclay.

Monika Maeckle at the Texas Butterfly Ranch has written a nice blog post about our recent trip, complete with photo documentation and a link to the live stream on the Locus Sonus Soundmap.



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Recording the Stalacpipe Organ – Composer Residency at the University of Virginia

I’ve just returned from an inspiring visit to Charlottesville, where I’ve been hosted by the amazing music department at the University of Virginia. Whilst I was there, I continued my research into ringing stones and lithophones. Virginia is home to the Stalacpipe Organ, which was designed and built by Leland Sprinkle between 1954 – 1957. It’s the world’s largest instrument, spanning over 3.5 acres underground in the Luray Caverns very near to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The stalactites in the caverns ring when struck, and Sprinkle spent 3 years choosing a number of them, and tuning them to a chromatic scale. He then linked them to an organ console via copper wires. Each key on the console is linked to a different wire, which in turn is linked to a solenoid attached to each chosen stalactite. The result is a beautiful, spacious sound with stalactites being spaced all around the listener. You literally play the cavern.


I spent a day there playing and recording the instrument in ambisonics, along with Matthew Burtner, in order to capture the sound in 3D. These recordings are being worked into a new composition inspired by the instrument and the different geological processes which have made it. Many thanks to John Shaffer and his team at the Luray caverns for allowing us to record, and many thanks to Matthew Burtner for inviting me, as well as putting me up in his home. Thanks also to Noel Lobley for letting me speak to his undergraduate students, and to Travis Thatcher for having me as a guest artist, performing two of my compositions, as well as putting on my interactive lithophone installation at his Telemetry night in downtown Charlottesville.


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Flight of the Monarchs tours to the Eden Project, Shambala, and Musicport

This summer I and my partner Stella Darby took ‘Flight of the Monarchs’ on the road. It’s an immersive audiovisual installation inspired by the incredible 3,000 mile journey that the Monarch butterfly takes each year from Canada to Mexico, finding warmer climes during the winter in order to roost. There have been several theories as to how these tiny creatures navigate, including magnetism and celestial mapping. The most recent research shows that they have an in-built sun compass and chronometer which allows them to migrate in swarms of millions. Amazingly, they fly to the same roosts each year, often to the exact same trees. Their children make the journey back north in the spring, and their great-grandchildren return to Mexico the following year. In Mexican tradition, there is a belief that the butterflies are the souls of the dead, returning to visit each year.

I recorded video and sound footage at the El Rosario reserve in Michoacan in 2015, trying to capture the beauty of these delicate butterflies and their surroundings. Video footage from Manuel Zirate is also featured in the top panel, and video editing was done by Jessica Rodriguez. The sound for the installation is comprised of three elements: Field recordings which capture the rushing sound of millions of tiny wings (as well as one or two tourists); a specially commissioned poem from Mexican poet Rolando Rodriguez (La Marcha de las Mariposas); and a recording of an improvisation session between myself (flute, ocarina), and musicians David Blink (hang), and John Sanders (accordion) which we conducted in the open air in Michaocan (this has been processed to create a dreamlike quality, reflecting the words of Rolando’s poetry).

In recent years, the Monarchs’ numbers have declined steeply. Several factors may be causing this: logging of their roosting grounds, crop spraying, and climate change.

The installation is set up to resemble a hide in the forest from which the viewer can look out at these beautiful creatures.

Just before the tour, Verity Sharp featured the soundtrack to the installation on BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction. So thanks to her for spreading the word!

Tweet Flight of the Monarchs on BBC Radio 3 Verity Sharp tweet

Our first port of call was the Eden Project. After an adventurous journey which involved a wheel completely falling off our trailer, and several friends coming to our rescue, we set-up in the Education Hub for 5 days, with over 10,000 visitors, and some lovely comments in our visitors book. The presentation was part of the Balance/UnBalance Conference, hosted by Plymouth University.



We then went straight to Shambala and set-up outside in the woods. I think this was my favourite presentation of the work, transporting people from the woods in the English countryside to the forests of Mexico.


And finally, we had a great weekend at the Musicport world music festival in Whitby, sharing our wonder of the Monarch butterflies.

Short documentary clip from the first showing at the Amy Johnson Festival in Hull:


4 screen render with better quality sound:


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