In conversation with: David de la Haye

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David de la Haye’s work on the Composer-Curator strand of Sound and Music’s artist development programme started with freshwater recordings of local ponds. He crossed paths with scientists, artists and musicians to produce a variety of outcomes that explored, developed and contextualised these mysterious recordings of the underwater world. He has interests in free improv, glitch and field recording and has worked with folk musicians amongst others, recording them playing in the landscape. His plurality of approach and openness to collaboration has led to engaging and sumptuous outcomes that draw on his work in the field and thoughtfulness as a musician, composer, collaborator, technician, teacher and recordist.

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How did you feel about being selected for Composer-Curator 2021?

When you apply for these things, you’re always surprised when anyone actually gets back to you – let alone sending you a message saying that you’ve been accepted.  I was over the moon about being selected! Composer-Curator gave me a real focus because it allowed me to block out a pathway over a course of eight or nine months to the delivery date. Having the resources and time to focus was exciting and it was useful because there’s always lots of small projects when you’re working as a freelancer – but nothing you can get your nails dug into – so that’s what it allowed.

What was your plan for Composer Curator – and did that plan evolve?

The starting point was my underwater recordings – exploring some of the underwater soundscapes that were local to me. It was a good opportunity to go out and do more field recordings. I’d put in the application to do an event for World Water Day, which was a good chunk of time away at that time, so I knew that was the fixed point and coordinating everything was in the middle.

Years ago, I built my own hydrophones (underwater microphones) using little piezo electric discs in epoxy so you can submerge them. It’s funny because I’ve been out and recorded – and heard other people doing those kinds of recordings before – and I never actually questioned what the sounds were. I thought there’s some pretty cool material there, then went away and then years later thought ‘what the hell was that stuff?’ The fascinating thing is that there’s not very much research about what those sounds actually are and that made me want to go out more.

My plan was to use those underwater recordings, interpreting those sounds and involving other musicians in the process. I had some people in mind that I’d worked with in various guises in the past. It was great that I could get them on board, send them some files and see how they responded to them.

Originally the idea was to raise awareness of aquatic lifeforms by listening but as with most things, it grew into something else. There was to be a sound installation based on all the recordings and the interpretations of those recordings. But the sounds are abstract – cracks and clicks and pops – so then I wanted to provide some extra context. So I collaborated with a graphic artist to make a document which explained what the sounds were and gave a bit of context in a family friendly, accessible way.

With interest from researchers at Sunderland and Newcastle Universities I decided that maybe it would be a good idea to do a conference-style hybrid zoom event so that people could share some of their environmental or eco-acoustic works (the study of sounds in the environment). It grew quite a lot and afterwards I was contacted by a representative from the UN Water Group.

I also made a documentary video so people could understand and make a connection between what they were listening to and where the sounds were coming from – these are real sounds, not processed materials!

What changed for you or happened as a result of being on the Composer Curator programme?

I realised that people do seem genuinely interested in the work I’m doing, which is exciting, especially when you work doing something – listening to ponds – that might be considered a niche field! It encouraged me to continue doing what I do and now it’s forming a part of my research programme on the PhD I’ve started.

Part of my research is about encouraging water-awareness through artistic practice so it was again really encouraging when Sound and Music approached me with the chance to work with Guildhall School of Music as part of the Creative Orchestra project. Working with Sage Gateshead Young Sinfonia we interpreted underwater sounds and created new repertoire based on it. I love sharing the sounds and different ways of approaching making music.

How do you think about your music, your field recording and interest in water and all the other work you do? Does it link together?

I think it’s a focus on the small things. I’ve also just always been interested in working with sound. Interestingly, I think the connecting point always comes back to microsound – very small, granular sounds, tiny little fragments that get put together to make larger sounds. Glitch music explores audio fragments that are imperceptible to humans, the clicks and pops of digital technology. Strangely, it links into the underwater stuff. The timbre of sound that you hear in the water is very similar, so there’s this link between things that are very small. Small sounds, fine editing, and detailed focus.

When I started making music I used to just go into the rehearsal rooms at my school. I used to spend loads of time at the piano, to the point where I’d stay after school just to play with the sounds. It was the early days of scoring software as well, so I used to put notes on scores and listen back without any idea what I was doing. That then became an obsession, playing with sounds. Then I took up bass and I played all the time, learning through listening more than reading music. Later I did a jazz degree at Leeds Conservatoire and discovered electro-acoustic music, getting more involved in the studio side of things, learning about processing and sampling. I played in electro groups with early sampling technology before moving to Newcastle to study electronic music and studio composition based on glitch – this was 2003, long before Glitch became a genre in itself! The improvisatory nature of glitch performance led me into Free Improv – I started promoting improv and contemporary music in the region for a while – I organised gigs, getting people to come and play. It became quite a therapeutic way of making music. Music therapy was quite high on my agenda for quite a while.

I also linked up with traditional Folk musicians who had joined the newly formed Folk degree at Newcastle Uni – I got involved in jam sessions and was sort of adopted by the North East folk scene! Since then I’ve toured all over the world and continue to perform with notable folk acts. There’s a definite connection between folk music and environmental recording which kind of brings things full circle.

What are your plans for the next few months – and the future?

I’ve actually just left my job as a music technician because I want to spend more time on research. I’ll still be around, it’s a soft departure because I’m doing my PhD in the department. I’ve got a residency at the Sage Gateshead coming up in April. The aim is to spend the four days creating the basis for a new EP based on Romanticism and idea of finding awe and wonder in nature – and mythologies surrounding fresh water –like the lady of the lakes and water nymphs. I’ve got two violinists – an improviser and a classical violinist. We’ll be workshopping and then collecting materials culminating in a hopefully memorable 20 minute work-in-progress performance. I’m looking to release the EP sometime at the end of the year.

The Symposium of European Freshwater Sciences (SEFS13) is taking place in Newcastle this year. I’ve got some funding to put together an art exhibition based on the sounds of freshwater environments inside a geodesic dome of speakers. People can go in and have the experience of being under the water. It’s a massive science conference and it’s not my comfort zone at all but I’m also running one of the special sessions at that conference – some workshops.  I’ve done a version of that workshop for Composer-Curator.

I just did a gig at TUSK Festival and am looking at developing a live show for the future.    My live sets usually use a quadraphonic speaker setup around the audience to diffuse the sound, improvising with the underwater recordings. I try and not manipulate the sounds too much and usually leave the sounds in a relatively raw state. Sometimes I’ll move between types of sounds, like crustaceans then insects, and take different sounds from different locations – layering them but not processing them. Recording these sounds takes patience and there is a natural complexity which I think needs no emphasis.

I’m also doing a project exploring six Scottish lochs at the moment, a longer project that’s going on until the end of the year at least. We’re making a BBC Alba slow-documentary to accompany it, so keep an eye out for that. I’m also planning more listening workshops. Sonic Pond Dipping is a project where we go out, listen to the ponds and learn about their biodiversity through listening. When kids go sonic pond dipping, it’s a simple thing to do but it’s astonishing to them.

I recently organised an exhibition based on underwater soundscapes from County Durham. We’ve got some visual artists to contribute. I sent them the sounds – they then made some artwork, which we displayed in a gallery. I’m planning to work with more artists in County Durham, and create more of a collective in the area, especially in Durham City itself, There’s nowhere for creative people to hang out, meet or get inspiration from each other. There used to be, but it didn’t last the pandemic. I’m also doing some mentoring with some people at the moment about mixing and field recording, general help for people crossing from artist to more technical work.

I applied for the 2022 Ivor Novello awards and didn’t expect it to go anywhere – and then got a notification that I’d been nominated for the Jazz Award, which is amazing. It’s an improvisational album and is very much related to the jazz tradition, creating a space for interspecies musicality; the sense that the environment is improvising along. And if everything is in its right place, the world should sound harmonious.

It links into Bernie Krause’s niche hypothesis, that everything has its place in the acoustic spectrum. We need to work with that spectrum otherwise, we have communication and ecological breakdown.

In my head that all just basically relates back to sound – and eventually music.

RECENT NEWS – August 2023

David’s amazing progress continues – he was recently awarded the Ivan Juritz prize, which celebrates creative experiment and is open to creatives across Europe. He was awarded £1,000 and a two-week artistic residency at the Mahler & LeWitt Studios in Spoleto, Italy. David’s work was from the album ‘Ears Underwater’, made possible with Sound and Music’s support.

We look forward to seeing the results of this creative endeavour!


Keep up to date with David on Twitter

David’s website

Find David’s music on Bandcamp

Read about David’s work for World Water Day

Read about David’s residency at the Sage Gateshead

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