Some writing from Our time at the Burn O Vat
The Burn O’ Vat is a pothole which appears to have been drilled in the surrounding rocks by eddying currents of water bearing stones, gravel and other glacial matter. This debris was carried in melt water flows 15000 year ago as the 1000m thick ice age glaciations covering ancient cairngorm magma began to melt. Our sonic journey to the Burn o’ Vat began by arrival in descending gloom of late summer nights on August 12th. It was getting to too dark explore so we jacked up the caravan and cooked up some food. Anticipating a grandstand view of the Perseid meteor shower I took a short walk after dinner but cloud rolled in and the midges forced a retreat. Sleep came quickly but not before catching a streak of yellowish light as another lump of extraterrestrial debris vapourised
We began the day by kitting up and walking down to the Vat. The car park had filled with visitors, slightly to our surprise as we hadn’t anticipated the early morning popularity of quirky geological features. The approach to the Vat gives little away. A short walk alongside a gently burbling stream that runs through a deciduous valley whose sides begin to steepen as one nears the end of the path. The entrance to the Vat is hidden from sight, guarded by a collection of rocks, some as big as a buses. The sonic landscape shifts from open woodland to an enclosed low growl as the outfall clatters over a precarious landscape of smaller rocks and then under a tomb sized slab that crosses the entrance giving the cascade a hollow woody timbre.
The way into the vat is across this sharp edged debris that seems to have defied the erosion of water, ice and human footfall and down through a narrowing watery passage beneath a huge lump of suspended granite. I felt it was somewhat reminiscent of Neolithic constructions I had encountered in Orkney where narrow passages beneath huge rocks may open out into subterranean spaces except that the Vat is open to the sky.
Once through entrance hole we emerged into a narrow gorge with towering sides. Rising from the floor along each wall, the rock has been gouged out to reveal the top half of a spherical hole in the rock, half filled with a red gravel so uniform in size that it looks artificially laid down. We are struck by the gentleness of the water tripping over the rocks on the inflow and the obvious violence of the formation. It is obvious that our visit is only courtesy of light summer rainfall. The Vat was busy with visitors and our first soundings were the kind of tentative claps and whistles that we saw repeated by almost all subsequent visitors and quickly abandoned as there is no obvious repeat echo or grand reverb but more a subtle acoustic shifting that revealed itself slowly. In retrospect it is hardly surprising as the curve of walls will tend to focus sound inwards and downwards into the unplumbed depths of the gravel bed – a perfect sound damper.
We spent a good couple of hours exploring the layout of the vat and the geology of the space. Occasionally clapping, yodeling and shrieking in the gaps between visitors. (for although we are seasoned performers there is still a residual reserve with regards to howling at unsuspecting strangers). We wound our way back down the path to introduce ourselves to the staff at the visitors centre having arrived too late to do this the previous evening. The visitors centre is a fantastic place full of maps photographs, samples of tree bark and stuffed wildlife and best of all, free books on the Cairngorms geology we met our contact and were reassured that we could stay in the car park.
We returned to the Vat and started to work on an idea Lindsay had brought. Working the score in a radial fashion notating graphic scores onto a radial graph seemed to be a perfect fit to the Burn O’ Vat allowing us to map the geological features, topology or colours with the idea that the score could be read in a radial manner converting our observations into time based performance
We spent the rest of the day preparing for the following day’s workshop. This was to consist of a voice warm up which we planned to conduct up at the Loch Kinord viewpoint above the Burn O’ Vat car park. The warm up was to be followed by a sound listening walk to the Vat where we would spend some time exploring the acoustics of the space by improvised singing we would then spend sometime creating scores on the radial graphs based on how the participants were inspired by the Vat. We would then perform the individual scores and attempt to layer or sequence them into a performance.
Night brought out a different side to the Vat notably an explosion of local wildlife Lukas found 6 toads. I went to explore the acoustics of the vat at night and by torchlight found that avoiding toads became a bit tricky- I stopped counting in the thirties. Now darkness shouldn’t make a great physical difference to the sound but heightened perception of auditory senses in the absence of light is palpable.
Our early morning explorations of the upper reaches of the Burn revealed a Wooded valley with few visible clues as to the formation of the vat. I had half expected to find further unusual granite outcrops or terrain that made suggestions as to the striking features further down stream. It is also odd that the valley gives little hint below the Vat of any rocky structures. Leading me to idly speculate at the forces that created the Vat thousands of years ago. Perhaps a granite outcrop or ridge impeded the flow of a sub glacial river carrying debris and then subsequent deposition of moraines formed the hills through which the valley runs. We need to find an expert !
Following lunch we install ourselves at the visitors centre to await participants in the planned Noizechoir workshop. We find that, of the potential participants only two have been in contact and they had turned up at the Woodbarn by mistake and were subsequently sent on their way to the Burn O’ Vat visitors centre. As no others had turned up we decided to wait for them and whilst waiting outside the visitor’s centre a party of four and a dog had turned up to see what was happening. We think that they had come to listen rather than participate but they seemed game. Our missing people had still not arrived so we asked all to keep silence and set to on a listening walk up the hill to the viewpoint. Following an introduction to Noizechoir and an extensive warm up we descended to the Vat to explore the acoustics and improvised some singing.
One of the things I had noticed the previous night was that there were sweet spots in the vat where the sound was magically enhanced and we invited the temporary choristers to see if they could locate the same spots. Strangely there were no arrivals of walkers during our vocal explorations which was for the best as our workshop party were not the most confident singers. We introduced the idea of writing visual scores using the radial graph papers that Lindsay had prepared. After about 20 minutes of score writing we attempted to perform through all of the resultant scores with some interesting results. It seemed as though our party had enjoyed themselves so we waved goodbye and retired to the caravan for a Martini or two.