Sounding Cliffs

A soundscape composition project

Sounding Cliffs is a set of soundscape compositions originating from my 2019 ArtScape residency at the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, Joggins, Nova Scotia. The set includes three works, each focusing on sounds of a specific location within the UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of these compositions was completed at the end of my residency, and two others are currently in progress. Across MacCarron’s River was premiered on October 5, 2019 and revised later that year. This work is available for listening below, following notes about the project and the piece.

The Project

As the Joggins Fossil Institute’s 2019 Artscape Artist-in-Residence, my task was to explore the sonic environment of the Fossil Cliffs, capturing audio recordings and using these as source material for a sound-based (electroacoustic) composition. Beginning before and continuing throughout the residency, I made recordings from various sites along the designated region and in differing weather conditions. These included, among others, the tidal water as it impacts the shores and resonates off the cliffs, footsteps on diverse surfaces along the beach, rocks dropped and scraped, local birds, small streams, waterfalls and human interactions with the environment, such as voices and machines. Many of the recordings were done to explore potential sources while others — particularly those made toward the end of the residency — were intended to support compositional ideas already in progress. As expected, the dominant sound of the Joggins Cliffs — what R. Murray Schafer called the “keynote” — was that of water; in particular, the Bay of Fundy tides. But it was the wide range of water sounds that interested me most: everything from trickles and rhythmic babbles to waves blooping in rock crevices and booming near the cliffs.

My approach to composing with these sounds follows the tradition of soundscape composition (as does some of my previous works): a practice of electroacoustic, or sound-based, music that is distinguished by its purpose to to draw the listener’s attention to the sounds and contexts of specific acoustic environments. While many soundscape compositions —including those of pioneering composers Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp — also transform these sounds to varying degrees, the objective is always to focus awareness on the unique characteristics of a given sonic environment. In line with this practice, I constructed perspectives of the Joggins Fossil Cliffs from segments of field recordings of sites, individual sounds recorded up close (e.g., tapping on iron rails left on the beach) and sounds digitally processed in order to enhance patterns inherent in the natural sounds. My initial plan was to compose a single 15-20 minute work; however, given the sheer quantity and variety of the sources captured, it soon became evident that a multi-movement piece, or collection of separate compositions, might be more appropriate than a single work. In the end, I opted for three independent works, each focused on one of three sites in the area.

I am grateful to the Joggins Fossil Institute for providing this unique opportunity and to ArtsNS, ArtsNB and the Municipality of the County of Cumberland for generous financial support. I also thank Dan Matthews for being my guide on many of the recording trips: introducing me to interesting sites in the area, and helping me to do such things as walk on a sandstone reef without falling and getting on and off the beaches safely during the incoming tide.

The Composition

Across MacCarron’s River was composed entirely from sounds recorded at the region known as MacCarron’s River. Here the cliffs form a bend, curving inland, leaving a large space between cliffs to the north and south with a stream running westward out to the bay. The north side of the stream is always accessible from the main road via a sloping path; but as the tide comes in, the stream swells, making crossing to the cliffs on the south side or back difficult.

The composition used edited natural and digitally transformed versions of the sound sources to construct environmental perspectives from the stream to an area near the cliffs on the south side. The general trajectory follows a path through the variety of water sounds found in the area: the babbling, bubbling stream under calm conditions, a waterfall from the cliffs during the spring thaw, a tiny stream leading from the waterfall to the bay, the waves of the incoming tide, the thundering sound of that tide as it resonates off the cliffs, and the opening stream in a rougher, more active state.


I acknowledge the support of Arts Nova Scotia.  This project is also supported by the New Brunswick Arts Board/Ce projet est également soutenu par le Conseil des arts du Nouveau-Brunswick.

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