James Bulley Interview - An Exploration in Sound

James Bulley's love of nature has permeated throughout his professional career. Fostered during his early life growing up in the South West it would not be until moving to London to study his degree that he began to explore the idea of fusing that love of nature with sound. Now an accomplished sound artist, James has created a number of outdoor installations, film scores and soundscapes. We joined him to get an insight into his journey into sound art, the defining moments in his career and where he wants to go next. 

Could you tell us a little about your journey into sound design?

I grew up as a musician from a really young age and specialised in music as a violinist, pianist and saxophonist throughout school. I was doing a lot of jazz, orchestral and chamber concerts, and then as I got into my late teens I began to explore composition and music production. Moving to London to attend Goldsmiths really opened up a whole new world for me.

I had a series of really wonderful opportunities at that point. I went and assisted producer Guy Sigsworth, who had worked with Björk, Imogen Heap and others. I then worked on and off for Warp Records as well as Trojan Sound Systems. At the same time I was at Goldsmiths doing a BMus in music and very much focussing on studio composition and became really interested in the more experimental side of music and sound.

From that point onwards I found myself experimenting and making a lot of work, and then went on to do a masters in Studio Composition. It was around this time that I met Daniel Jones and we started collaborating together, beginning with a piece called Variable 4. The piece explored the idea of using atmospheric conditions to control musical composition in real-time.

We managed to get a small bit of funding from PRSF and took the piece to Dungeness, where we spoke with the local people as well as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the staff of the nuclear power station. They gave us permission to do a 24-hour installation of the work in 2010, as an 8-channel outdoor sound installation.

James Bulley Interview - Photos from Variable 4 installation
Variable 4 in Dungeness, 2010 [Above] and Elizabeth Castle, 2011 [Below]

In a sense the majority of what I’ve done draws from my experience with been that piece; the idea of taking care with how sound is placed in landscapes, of exploring live composition and the blurred borders with performance that can occur, and also exploring different ways of thinking about spatialising sound dynamically. This has led to interactions with other non-human systems including forest ecosystems and radio signals.

Is there a memory that sticks out to you as being the ‘moment’ where sound in particular really started to become something you wanted to explore?

I think there are two really clear moments, actually. My mother studied fine art history and used to take us to masses of contemporary art exhibitions when we were children. When I was 14 or 15 years old she took us to the Tate Liverpool and I saw Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, which had a huge impact on me.

It’s a 40-speaker circular system and is an arrangement of Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Allium, where every speaker is a singer - you hear all of the mouth sounds in between them singing, and their preparations before they sing - it’s an incredibly beautiful spatial piece.

That had a massive effect on how I thought about sound in space, including the realisation of how playful it’s possible to be with what is a very serious and beautiful piece of music, and how intimate you can make it by placing the singers in the space where they might stand, solely using speaker placement.

I think it was two years after that during a visit to the Tate Modern in London that I saw Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in the Turbine Hall, which I think along with many other people had a massive impact on how I thought about artistic engagement with nature within gallery spaces.

James Bulley Interview - The Weather Project (Photo Credit - Ben Freeman)
The Weather Project in Turbine Hall [Photo credit: Ben Freeman]

I grew up in rural Somerset and spent a lot of my childhood in North Cornwall and I’ve always had a very strong desire to be working in nature as a result, and it’s something I miss a lot living in London. It’s a very privileged position to be able to make artwork in nature and engage with communities and people in the natural world and not just be stuck engaged in the white cube or urban environment all the time.

You mentioned artist and software engineer Daniel Jones who you regularly collaborate with. How did this partnership first come about?

We were showing work in the same exhibition in South East London, and he was showing a really beautiful light box of neural networks - from that point we just ended up talking a lot.

That exhibition we spent an evening in my flat discussing how we felt sound work should change and what potential ideas could be realised. During that period of time computing ceased to be a challenge in terms of making work. It became very open as to what could happen in terms of code and Daniel is an extraordinary systems artist. It really opened up a level of work for both of us where we could bond together and play to our strengths, with each having a full understanding of what the other was doing.

It all came from that really and we very quickly set ourselves the challenge of doing Variable 4. We’d both had similar thoughts that we wanted to draw people out into the natural environment and let them experience art and sound outside of the sterile confines of a gallery.

There’s something so tangible about the freedom of walking in and out of a piece that’s feasibly going to go on infinitely, and then coming back and feeling how a small change in weather has affected the composition. A rise in humidity will make the composition feel more dense, if there’s a big shift in wind direction it will change where you’re hearing the sound come from, a dramatic weather change will change the overall tonality of the piece.

So what it does is draw your attention to just how incredibly complex and important atmospheric conditions are. In your everyday life you don’t really pay that much attention, but those conditions define the world and are hugely important.

Did Dan’s background and experience in software help you realise any of your ideas?

I think both Dan and I think more conceptually in that we’re both people that love to discuss how to achieve things in quite an abstract way. What the software is doesn’t really matter to us, what the technical implications are, what the speakers are, all that stuff doesn’t really matter - it’s about achieving the conceptual and experimental aim we set ourselves.

It was incredible to meet someone with a like-mind in that sense, but then also with the skill set to achieve a lot of things that are extremely difficult. I suppose he might say the same compositionally in terms of the work I’d been doing so we had this really lovely match happen where it just meant we were free not to worry because the other person had their corner covered.

Thanks to smartphones, everyone has a field recorder in their pocket and can capture sounds wherever they are. How often do you find a recording captured in your day to day becomes the seed for a future project?

I don’t tend to work with field recordings that much, I do make a lot of field recordings, but it’s more for documentation purposes because these site-specific works exist and then they’re gone so it’s nice to have a record of it, both to learn from what it sounded like and explain to others what it sounded like.

I did use field recordings for a piece called Holloway with Stanley Donwood, Robert McFarlane and Dan Richards based on their book of the same name. It’s about a sunken pathway in Dorset and they asked me to provide a sonic response to continue the project.

I went to the Holloway and recorded over 12 hours using 12 microphones there. Those recording were then condensed into a 12-minute piece that represented the 12 hours moving from dawn, day, dusk and night, and that then came out as a companion piece with the reissue of the book.

So field recording does enter into my work, but it’s not a huge element of what I’m doing at the moment. Having said that, in the documentary film work that I’m doing there’s often a core of field recording and sound design. I tend to work on a truthful basis, for example with the documentary E-LIFE some of the footage was shot in Agbobloshie and Accra in Ghana and the shots and the sounds that you hear are recordings made in exactly the same place later on in time.

I don’t tend to use sound libraries very often, I’ll always prefer to record onsite and draw on material from there, unless it’s absolutely impossible and the place doesn’t exist anymore. I think there’s something very important about truth in field recording and sound design in that way, which is not to say you can’t make brilliant stuff with library material, it’s just something I choose not to do. 

Your work has covered film, installations, theatre and even literature. Is there a medium you’ve not worked in that you’d like to explore?

Computer games and VR certainly. I didn’t grow up with computers and didn’t really actually watch many films or any television until I came to London and got schooled quite heavily. The same applies to computer games really. They’re a fantastic and interesting environment for sound composition and there’s some very inspiring people working in that medium.

I’m very interested in non-linear composition and generative processes. In the same way that you can experience sound landscapes over a long period of time, VR  and games provide an excellent platform to explore sound in a similar way. The spatial nature of VR and the ability to look up at a virtual tree for example and have your soundscape change and have things happen sonically and compositionally is a hugely important and interesting area that just isn’t happening in the way it potentially could at the moment.

What are your must-have tools?

First and foremost I have two physical notebooks; one is for working notes and the other is for pieces ideas. I used to use a lot more digital tools, but have regressed somewhat recently. I actually have a card system that I’ve found really useful. I buy blank cards and if I have a particular thought about something I want to make I try to fit it on the card along with the date and then it goes into a box in my studio and I forget about it. I’m constantly coming back to those cards and it’s really useful to have this archive to draw upon - it is a really good way of distilling ideas down to their core.

James Bulley (Photo Credit - Frankie Pike)On the digital side of things I use Pro Tools and Ableton Live, depending on what I’m doing. If I’m doing generative stuff or anything that needs to control the sound I’ll use Ableton. If I’m doing recording, editing, film work, anything that’s quite linear then I’ll use Pro Tools.

For plug-ins I tend to stick with what I’ve got. I own the Waves suite, plus I love a lot of the Sound Toys and Oxford plug-ins too. I have the full Arturia suite too, which is very useful. I do most of my synthesiser recordings using hardware, but if I’m travelling and just want to sketch something out their emulations are great for that.   

I also use the Zoom F8 quite often, which is an affordable and practical 8-channel recorder. I use the DPA 4060 microphones all the time, which are great for field recording. I’d also recommend the Cymatic uTrack24 as they’re fantastic for installations and not expensive in comparison to the alternatives.

I do the vast amount of my work on paper now and try to refine my ideas before bringing them to the computer because it’s so easy to get lost or waste time. There are an incredible array of tools, and I do use them, but I plan to use them rather than spending lots of time messing around.

Do you have a favourite technique you regularly use?

I use worldizing a lot which is a technique created by Walter Murch. He’s an incredible sound designer and film director who worked on The Conversation with Francis Ford Coppola and the opening scenes for Saving Private Ryan.

He worked out this technique, which isn’t complex when you think about it but is extraordinarily useful if you do work like I do. In a film perhaps there is someone getting shot on the streets of Manhattan, so instead of recording the sound for that there is one take, you go out with a really good speaker and amplifier, place microphones all around the streets in the area you want to record, go out at dawn when there’s no one around and then play back dry gunshots (pre-recorded) and record using all those different microphones in different places to get different effects from the acoustic environment.

You can do the same in a canyon or a cave etc. but the point being you don’t need to fire the gun over and over - you can record from different perspectives and be very careful about how you’re doing it.

It’s a really fascinating technique because you could take a dry recording of a violinist, play it back in a church through a really nice speaker and listen for that sweet spot without having to bring along the violinist and asking them to play over and over again. So in terms of expense it’s massively cheaper and you get more control over the sound you want.

What advice would you give to someone who are interested in a similar career?

Before anything else don’t get stuck on technology, don’t get stuck on what you feel like you should be doing or what other people are doing or saying. It’s about making lots of work and seeing what you enjoy, listening and learning from it and being absolutely fine with making a series of pieces that aren’t very good and progressing from there. You can’t get really good at what you’re doing unless you’re making a and exhibiting work.

All the best people I know make a lot of work, it is built into their lives - that’s got to be your primary reason for doing this. It can’t be for success or fame, it has to be because you want to create work that you enjoy and you think is interesting and you hope that other people do too.


Intrigued by the world of sound design? Check out our masterclass with video game sound designer Bjørn Jacobsen (EVE Online, Hitman, Cyberpunk 2077)

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