top of page

Nell Catchpole: Listening Outside of the Norm through Ecological Sound Art

This month on Between the Art brings a conversation with ecological sound artist Nell Catchpole.


Nell grew up in rural Suffolk and spent a lot of time in the outdoors. Her family was very invested in classical music and so she trained as a classical violinist throughout her teenage years, studying a chamber music course and taking lessons at Guildhall School of Music & Drama. However, at university Nell chose to study Anthropology, which she found to be life-changing, giving her a framework for how to look at the world and question why we do what we do. This has had a big influence throughout her life and career as an artist.

Whilst studying, Nell met a theatre director and together they founded a music theatre company, The Gogmagogs, which toured internationally for over ten years. She also worked for three decades with composer Brian Eno, and other music artists. Through these experiences, Nell gained an insight into different creative processes along with developing many collaborative relationships.

After receiving funding, Nell began making her own work, initially exploring memory, which led her back to Suffolk. She started working outdoors with a sound recorder, leading her into the world of sound art. Nell is now based in Teesside, North East England, working with many local organisations. She has also just started a PhD in Newcastle, focusing on her practice and the eco-social relationships in Teesside. This has led to her question what is her practice going to do and how is it useful in terms of the environmental crisis; going beyond reconnecting to nature with an activist approach.


Here, Nell shares her practice, including how she prepares herself to be in a state of heightened listening, noticing, and connecting with the place she is in. She also shares two exciting upcoming projects, one being making gongs out of Teesside steel! Read on to find out more...


Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

My instinct is to be in and work in the landscape. When I began to work outdoors, I went through an undoing of my formal education and recognition that I’d had a different education growing up by being outdoors most of the time. This is a huge part of what is important to me and who I am. It had always had personal value but was not something I had considered in terms of my professional career. I went through a period of reframing and relearning of my values and what is important to me.

Deciding to move north after 25 years in London was a huge shift, and so when I came to Teesside, I discovered that there was a real need to understand the landscape and come to know it through my practice. There are some things that feel instantly recognisable and like home by just being outdoors and in the way I notice things and connect to other species. But equally, I can still feel like an outsider, such as when I go into the moors, I still feel its vastness, bleakness, and the plants that grow there and the smell of the soil are unfamiliar. There is an ongoing process of allowing them to become more familiar through building a relationship with them.

I’ve been drawn to work near the river a lot, and I think that’s because it’s partly a natural human instinct, which is why we live and build near rivers.

I often work with groups of people who are connected to the land and I see this as a way to amplify their stories and connections with place. I’ve just started a project in Hartlepool for young people called We Make Sound. I’m working with another musician, Grace Stubbings, who is from Hartlepool, and we gravitated towards this place as it’s quite out on a limb culturally, socially and practically. I try to look for where there is a need or where I can offer something through my practice, and there isn’t much in Hartlepool of this kind of project.

"Sound-making is an embodied process, working with the way our bodies move rather than trying to push outside of them. The sounds are determined by how my body works within the space I am in."


How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

For me, sound-making is an embodied process, working with the way our bodies move rather than trying to push outside of them. The sounds are determined by how my body works within the space I am in. For example: I might find a stone and circle it on the ground and every stone and bit of ground sounds different; the duration and size of the circling is determined by other elements. It’s about listening to the place rather than the language of sound or music that determines the creative process. Starting and finishing recording is also influenced by the weather and other events that might happen in the moment that you can’t predetermine.

There might also be political or environmental events that are happening which determine the place that I want to work in and find out more about. I made a piece called Teesmouth, which was very consciously about major marine die-offs in the Tees estuary and there has been many different perspectives on what has caused this. A lot of people feel that it’s to do with dredging to build a new freeport. Whilst making the piece, I encountered people along the river mouth who agreed to have a conversation with me. This was really fascinating as they were people who knew the area really well and local knowledge of the environment, the place and its history. This emerged out of me being there, rather than a strategy of contacting people – it felt very organic. These encounters felt similar to how I encounter the landscape myself, and this became part of the work.

My aim is for my work to generate an experience that is perhaps similar to what I experience when I was in the particular place in the landscape. The point of this is to allow people to explore their own relationship with the landscape. Increasingly over time, I’ve looked for different ways to do this, especially querying the limitations of audio recording and recreating something with audio, rather than people experiencing things for themselves first-hand in the landscape. I’m always looking for possibilities to curate something for people in the landscape.

Looking forwards, I’m considering how to think towards effect as well as affect. Affect being what the emotional response people may have to art work, which is obviously an important human experience, but then considering how this can be harnessed to effect actual change. I think this is a challenge for myself. More and more I love the idea of being a part of movements or conversations which are needed to address a political or environmental issue. I’ve realised that through ecological sound art I can question how I can work in a more activist way.


Do you have any rituals that help with this process of creating work?

Firstly, I think it’s always important to acknowledge that I don’t have a day-to-day golden practice where I spend time doing my thing – 95% of my time is spent doing everything else that enables me to be an artist! I’m very lucky in the fact that I do many things, but in terms of my practice spent outdoors, it’s a tiny percentage of my time.

However, in trying to write about my practice-as-research, and along with my background in anthropology, I’ve recognised that talking about my work as being ritualised is as accurate as I can get. My practice isn’t a ritual in terms of being something that is socially and culturally understood, with a set of actions and rules; but ritualised in terms of qualities of ritual, particularly around heightened states of awareness and being. When I do go out into the landscape, I prepare myself physiologically and emotionally to be in this state of heightened listening, noticing and connecting. This influences where I select a place that feels right for me to stop and be. There’s a sense of being drawn to a certain place, although this place can also be influenced by other agendas and things I want to investigate.

Similarly, I will find materials in the certain place and explore a way of sounding with those materials. Rather than trying to invent or compose, or be ‘interesting’ as an improviser in sonic terms, the purpose of the sounding is a way of connecting and getting to know the place through the materials. The sound-making tends to be very repetitive and durational, therefore ritualised. It also has a sense of having a length of time that feels right.

Within all of this, there is an honouring the place, including the living beings and materials found there. There is a sense of being respectful and paying attention, and therefore I try not to be destructive in anything that I do.


"Our habits of how we perceive are always open to being shifted. We can all listen outside of our normal habits and question, where does this take us?"

What are you working on at the moment?

Alongside the project in Hartlepool and my PhD, I’ve started a project called Gongs of Teesside. This came about after another project called Sonic Allotments in Middlesbrough, which I shared during Sonic Arts Week Festival. For this, I made a series of recordings that people could listen to with headphones that were set up a gazebo in the middle of town in a small park. As part of this, I brought back local musicians to do performances, including a sound healer, Nicole, who plays gong baths. Unfortunately, at the last minute she went down with Covid, and so I managed to get hold of a gong and did the performance myself! People were fascinated and drawn to the gong, with very differing relationships to it. Off the back of this, I also made a durational piece performed at Cheeseburn Sculpture Gardens, which was essentially about listening and making the sound of the gong something to focus on; as the sound of the gong disappears, making the audience become more aware of the sounds of the environment around them. The gong represents spirituality, or ritual, which is really important in my practice, and it sounds quite mournful. They cover the full sound spectrum and therefore can be very immersive.

For this new piece, I had this thought of making my own gongs out of Teesside steel. The steel industry was an important part of Teesside and Middlesbrough during the last century and there’s currently a lot of change happening within the industry. There is a shift in terms of employment, skills, social inequalities, and the environmental impact. The idea of the piece is to create a set of gongs that I will then bring to different local groups to invent together sonic actions that draw attention to local areas in relation to the environment. I’m working with an extraordinary blacksmith, Pete Oberon, who is 83 and still lives and works locally. We are in the process of trying to make gongs! There is still quite a long way to go into getting the sound of the steel gongs to fulfil what I’m imagining!


What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

Sense of place is absolutely crucial to my work. Within this conversation, I’ve talked about it in terms of something I find or value, but there’s also the feeling of questioning it.

In acknowledging where I’ve moved to, the feeling of being an outsider is apparent as there are people here who have lived in Teesside their whole lives and identify with this place very strongly. I know I won’t ever have this feeling. In a way, this has strengthened by connection to the Suffolk landscape and how formative it has been for me. I’m fascinated by what this means neurologically, energetically, and what science might reveal in future decades about how connected we are to land. I suppose I have tried to make my peace with accepting the feeling of being an outsider, which is not to say that people haven’t been very welcoming to me; but it does give me a certain perspective which I’m trying to embrace.


Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world through your work?

Other than wanting to open spaces for people to authentically explore for themselves from their own perspective, I’m trying to work with ways of perceiving that are available to anyone and everyone. Our habits of how we perceive are always open to being shifted. We can all listen outside of our normal habits and question, where does this take us? I mean listening in the broadest, multisensory way as I recognise that people’s ways of listening are different.


Nell's Book List:


1.Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin

Deakin is now recognised as one of the best so-called nature writers ahead of the latest wave of writers. I’m slightly embarrassed that I’m only now reading his work for the first time as he was on the board of trustees of my theatre company back in the 1990s! He also lived in Suffolk for most of his life and a lot of this writing, including this book, is based around his house there. All of the things he talks about in this book feel incredibly familiar.

2. Re/Sisters: A Lens on Gender and Ecology by Alona Pardo

Very rarely do I go to an exhibition and buy the book publication, but I went to a recent exhibition at the Barbican and I’m finding the writing really interesting. It’s introducing me to some ecological artists of the late last century who were quite radical in their approach, which is invigorating.

3. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description by Tim Ingold

Ingold is an anthropologist but an outlier in terms of his approach. I find that his writing reflects how I feel and articulates ways of being in the landscape so beautifully and inspirationally. His work is a great bridge between theory and practice, and actual experience. It inspires me and gives me faith in what I’m trying to do with my own work. 

To learn more about Nell's work, visit her website and see her Instagram @nellcatchpole

All Images: Artist's Own


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page