Written in Water: Portrait of a Town

Final year PhD composer Ben Mawson tells us about his project ‘Written in Water: Portrait of a Town’, which allows listeners to explore Gosport in a new and exciting way:


After receiving the first prize at the SXSC3 Dragons’ Den competition (November 2013) to develop 3DBARE (software to allow listeners to walk inside a piece of music), I have just completed a commission from New Dimensions, portraying the maritime history and contemporary character of the town of Gosport – using virtual sound spread across the landscape.

I have been working over the past two years with software called ‘noTours’ for Android, to paint landscapes with sound, using GPS connections and a composition made of overlapping virtual circles, hung invisibly in the air above wide open spaces.

Locative media (placed in a specific location using digital technology) has now been in existence for over a decade since the US military released the GPS system for public use. Still little known by the wider public, locative media is a rapidly growing field of artistic practice drawing on many disciplines.apg_imagemap

An exciting aspect of locative media and of geo-located music in particular is that, as a nascent art form, it has little precedent and no agreed common practice: the artist must invent, almost from first principles, the parameters and scope of each new work, adapting to the topography, function and ‘personality’ of a location.

Painting landscape with sound involves superimposing the virtual upon a place with its own, continually shifting sonic character. Unpredictability characterises the experience, but the composer must create an outcome for the user, no matter how they engage with it, that has meaning and a satisfying resonance.

Ben (centre) with Mayor John Beavis and Mayoress Christine Beavis of Gosport

With ninety-one separate compositions or audio productions placed across a wide area of urban streets, parks and a busy waterfront, listeners were invited at the launch (23 April 2014) to walk in any direction from Gosport Discovery Centre.

The audio portrait of the town combines found objects such as ancient industrial machinery and ambient field recordings – re-appropriated, transformed and combined with musical performance and spoken word. Walking down the high street one moves from recent events such as the parade to welcome troops home from Afghanistan to political speeches, music and propaganda of WW2, through reminiscences and reflections of local residents of all ages.

The incredibly rich musical life of the town is represented from Samba drumming and Big Band to the wonderful local brass band and the town’s unique 1930s cinema organ with its 900 pipes and automated percussion section (which fills one of the three back-stage rooms housing the machine’s working parts!).

Holy Trinity Church’s resonant acoustics and the powerful performances captured at recitals were brought out onto the church’s peaceful Green and coupled with speech about the church’s three and a half centuries of continuous use and memories of the twentieth century as told by some of the town’s oldest residents.

gosport-from-the-harbour2There are many surprises too, captured as I wandered around the town’s harbour front, marinas and ancient alleys, interviewing, finding unusual and strange sounds in the town’s ever-shifting auditory pulse.

The outcome is an enormous tapestry encompassing centuries of endeavour, suffering and joy, from the inception of the town as a naval and maritime centre in the fifteenth century through the death of Queen Victoria at Osborne House, Isle of Wight and her last journey by train from Royal Clarence Yard, through preparations for the D-Day landings at Priddy’s Hard to random encounters in the streets in 2013.

Placing the town’s heritage and its vibrant contemporary character alongside each other, spread across hundreds of acres of park, streets and harbour has been an exhilarating challenge and it is now complete and free for users to visit and experience for themselves.


Either visit the Google Play Store and download the whole project to your Android phoneor visit Gosport Discovery Centre and ask to borrow a free handset, walk in the landscape to immerse in a virtual soundscape that changes on every audition.