In Conversation with Mike Challis

Matthew Webb

(England)

In this interview, I speak with Mike Challis—an artist, maker and educator—who uses sound and digital technology to make sound compositions and soundscapes of the natural world.

Matthew Webb: Much of your work is based and shared in nature. Did you spend your youth with access to the countryside, natural parks, and appreciate these early in life or did you become more familiar with these later in life?

Mike Challis: My family moved from a small-town environment in Essex to a Suffolk village when I was 7 and I spent much of my time after that outdoors as a free-range child in the countryside who had to be home by dark – I was always late! At that time I was aware of wildlife but didn’t really become interested in its sonic details until much later. I started field recording initially as raw material for electroacoustic compositions but gradually began to frame the field recordings as material in their own right developing the practice I now have today. In 2008 I recorded a soundscape for the Ebb and Flow project on the Suffolk Coast. As part of this, I made a listening post to identify specific birds in this habitat. At this point I didn’t know many bird songs and calls and I had to get a bird specialist to confirm which sounds were which. Following this experience I vowed to learn them myself. I now know all the songs and calls in my own garden and most of the ones in other habitats but each year I add a few more; It gives me great joy to tell a mistle thrush from a song thrush and to recognise a nuthatch singing from a tree top. 

Many of us reside in cities with the humdrum noise of traffic, construction, etc. Which nature sounds can we hear in the built environment? How do we seek these out?

Gardens and green spaces in cities can be full of wildlife, especially in winter when food is scarce in the wild and the urban landscape can be warmer. For example, I have seen large numbers of pied wagtails roosting in a tree in a shopping centre landscape in Ipswich. Bird feeders are an important source of food in winter and attract birds to areas where people live. Jackdaws inhabit built spaces and their calls are wonderful echoing around the built environment.  Peregrine falcons are using high buildings as urban cliffs on which to nest. 

Much of observing wildlife by sound is actually noticing it rather than filtering it out. This takes practice in listening. Our minds are constantly monitoring the soundscape for the sounds that might threaten us but you can train your mind to pick up on sounds that you are interested in. 

You have led various nature and sound walks. Could you talk about what these involve, who comes to them, and what are the responses to these?

When leading nature walks I like to lead in silence and then stop from time to time to share what we have heard. Most people have never walked together with others in silence and this shared experience can be rewarding.

When leading the listening walks at Snape, Suffolk, it was wonderful to explore the sounds of different habitats and notice the differences between marsh, wood and heath. The contrasting sounds of the open space of a riverbank to the sounds of wind in the trees as you move into a wood. The distant sounds of a curlew and the close sounds of woodland birds. Listening and being present is everything and can turn an ordinary walk into a memorable experience. 

How do we become more attuned to the nature and sounds that surround us? Many excellent apps can identify birds closeby, plants, and trees planted. Could you recommend which ones readers should seek out?

I like to stand or sit still in nature. If you do this and truly stay still then nature will start to ignore you and go about its business again. My most memorable walk was along the Sailor’s Path at Aldeburgh when I stopped to record the habitats; heath, wood and marsh. I set up the microphones to record surround sound. I was in this habitat so had to stay very still to not appear in the recording. On the heath, after a while I was aware of lizards chasing each other around a post at my feet. In the wood, an adder slid past me from one pile of sticks to another and in the marsh a water vole appeared. 

Of all the apps my favourite is Merlin by The Cornell Lab. This wonderful app records your environment and shows a sonogram on screen in real-time. It scans this sound for birdsong and matches it with its database showing you what kind if bird it is hearing and listing them as it hears them. The database also then shows songs and calls of that species. Very comprehensive and free. So much fun to find out what might be around you. It does make some errors but it is learning all the time, so highly recommended.

Would it be possible to describe some of your own sound-making process? How do you capture the sounds of birds, owls, and insects? Do you clean, combine, and amplify any elements of the audio recorded?

Over the years I have built up quite an array of sound recording rigs. I have attended three workshops with the well-known wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson and learnt a huge amount from him. I used to make Electroacoustic music by taking field recordings and processing them using computers but now I tend to simply edit and frame my recordings, sometimes combining them but often simply selecting and playing sections of surround sound recordings. 

The combination of walking and listening in nature has always felt rewarding to me, but not everyone has the time or access to this, to the extent that nature is now being prescribed as a health measure in the UK, with some 74% of patients reporting that it has benefited them. How do we make access to nature easier and commonplace for all?

I believe there is a growing awareness that we need to do a lot more to help nature recover and that goes hand in hand with people becoming more connected with nature. There are organisations dedicated to nature recovery and engaging people with wildlife all over the country. There are fantastic reserves even in cities and old industrial landscapes are being wilded and made into habitats for wildlife. 

Of course, local parks and gardens are a great place to go in a lunch break or whatever. Paying attention to the flora and fauna will provide those dividends that are so helpful to improving our mental health.  A good place to start to find out what is going on in your area is the Wildlife Trusts organisation.

Finally, how do people reach you if they would like to organise a nature walk, create a soundscape, or other project? 

My next walk is with Suffolk Wildlife Trust on 26 April

https://www.suffolkwildlifetrust.org/events/2024-04-27-night-walk-and-dawn-chorus-sound-recording

We haven’t talked about much of your work but I’m also particularly struck by your oral histories project, which we can perhaps discuss in the future.

That would be good… I am about to start a new phase of collecting stories in my village.

Matthew Webb

is the

Director for Panorama.

Helping to craft each issue since Panorama was launched, Webb has developed, edited, and published works from authors, artists, designers, photographers, and filmmakers from the UK, Iran, Germany, Tajikistan, Sweden, US, Scotland, Brazil, Greenland, Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Kenya, Nigeria, and beyond. He is looking forward to championing many more.

Mike Challis

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Mike Challis is a freelance sound artist, maker and educator whose work engages with the sounds of nature. Mike has made a series of SoundHides, spaces to listen to specific habitats. Mike has documented the sounds of Carlton Marshes, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and is running a Night Walk and Dawn Chorus in April. Mike’s piece Bure Riffle is a permanent installation at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk, for the National Trust. His sound installations at Raveningham Sculpture trail have won four prizes over the last 3 years; SawSong, Sounding Stones Nightwire, Beech Cello and Microtonal Chimes.

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