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Sunderland Repository records the research produced by the University of Sunderland including practice-based research and theses.


Kefala-Kerr, John (2022) Sanctuary. [Composition]

Item Type: Composition


Sanctuary is a smartphone app-based audio installation and musical composition commissioned by and conceived for the Amble Bird Sculpture Trail.

The work draws connections between the avian and the human by transforming people’s singing voices into ‘birdcalls’ and birdcalls into human-like vocalisations. Scored for a hybrid ensemble of singers, musical instruments, digital sounds and an unlikely chorus of people and birds, the work encourages reflection on the intersections between bird and human life in terms of how each has a common need for a safe haven.

Sanctuary offers bird trail walkers the opportunity to pause and experience the area around Amble Harbour and Little Shore as an al fresco concert hall. This spot is frequented by seabirds, and the work exploits the likelihood that while listening to the work, bird trail visitors will be treated to the various displays of bird flight—a dive into the water by a hungry tern, perhaps—and that such actions might synchronise in some way with the patterns and events in the soundtrack and, thereby, be interpreted as part of the piece’s overall drama.

Simple digital tools were used to realise the piece, altering the pitch and duration of audio material to bring birdcalls into the human vocal range and send human voices up into the birdcall register. Sounds were gathered from a variety of sources, including recordings of local people whose ‘birdified’ voices form part of the work’s sonic texture. Along with soprano Alison McNeil’s wordless singing (listen out for her brief duet with a skylark), and a hybrid score of orchestral and electronic instruments, these elements combine to make a modest contribution to a long tradition of bird-inspired music. Works by Frederick Delius, Olivier Messiaen and Maurice Ravel (whose Oiseaux Tristes is briefly parodied in Sanctuary) spring to mind, though my own approach differs somewhat in that I’ve treated human and bird utterances as interchangeable: transposing, juxtaposing and intermingling their ‘voices’.

In exploring the conceptual affinities between people and birds, I thought a lot about community, and how the participation of people living in Amble and its environs might contribute to the creation of the piece. Their inclusion 'situates' the work, makes it ‘indigenous’, and I also see this involvement as a response to that uniquely constrained period—the Covid-19 lockdown—when ‘wings were clipped’, so to speak, and while birdlife continued unhindered, humans were keeping their distance from one another (recorded material from Harbour Lights choir, for instance, was gathered remotely due to the social distancing rules in place at the time).

My research for Sanctuary involved observing and listening to birds, and reading various articles about bird flight, habits and habitats. I found migration a particularly telling metaphor for the contested ethics of human exodus and resettlement, and this guided me in sculpting the sometimes plaintive, sometimes playful music. As did stories about birds: in particular, The Origin of the Birds by the Italian author Italo Calvino. Calvino’s short tale highlights the otherness of birds, and I was especially drawn to a scene in TOOTB where the central character, Qwfwq, takes refuge from a flock of attacking birds by hiding under the wing of a giant bird. I equate this idea of a safe haven to the stretch of coastline that plays host to the Amble bird sculpture trail, and which provides a habitat and a shelter for birds and people alike.

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Depositing User: John Kefala-Kerr


Item ID: 16063
Official URL:

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Catalogue record

Date Deposited: 16 May 2023 15:36
Last Modified: 16 May 2023 15:36


Author: John Kefala-Kerr

University Divisions

Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries > School of Media and Communications


Performing Arts > Music
Fine Art

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