May 2015: Elizabeth Bennett, performance and landscape researcher


‘When Shirley Collins talks about folksong, it isn’t a conversation of historical information, musicological data sets, Roud or Child numbers. It is of the corner of a Sussex field … it is a mother strolling through that field’s corner and becoming, for a moment, every young woman who’d ever strolled past it. To Shirley Collins … each age-old song is that corner field – a magical locus in which the singer is no longer merely themselves, but becomes every man and woman who has ever sung that song’ (Justin Hopper, 2014)

The Singer

I sing regularly in a Sussex-based folk choir and I have heard folk songs sung all my life by my mother who has performed in folk clubs around Sussex for the past 40 years. Following in Shirley Collins footsteps, literally and figuratively, I intend to sing the folk songs of Sussex in sites of resonance. I will aim to publish one recording a day, with an introduction to the site, the history of the song, and then an unaccompanied performance in situ. As a researcher, I am particularly interested in notions of landscape that are haptic and auditive rather than visual, therefore I intend for the recording to be purely audio and to discuss how imagination might add to the process of landscaping for the audience.

The Songs

A multitude of folk songs are set in the month of May, and it is within this month that I will be posting my research. I hope that I will be able to explore why May has proven such a muse for singers of the British Isles, by discussions around the social and agricultural practices of this time of year and the processes of nature that have inspired them. Although in contemporary times we have been able to record folk songs, both in the written and the audio form, for this project I would like to interview Sussex folk singers and learn songs orally from them. This method both continues original traditions of practice and reflects how I have absorbed folk songs throughout my life.


Brighton Vox Choir – Firle, Sussex

The Setting

At the outset of the projects I had wanted to learn songs throughout the British Isles and sing them in sites of well-known archaeological merit. My decision to narrow the perspective is two-fold; my postdoctoral research argues that landscaping is a process and Sussex, being my home county, has been the site of my formative landscapes [or lifeworld as Pearson and Shanks term it: ‘the totality of a person’s direct involvement with the places and environments in everyday life’ (Pearson, Shanks 2005: p. 153)]; furthermore I believe that this will contribute to notions of the everyday and vernacular archaeologies explored throughout Public Archaeology 2015. Therefore, whilst I may record a song on the lofty heights of Chanctonbury Ring, I may also record a song walking through Lancing Recreational Ground on my way to the Co-op.


  1. Public engagement as it stands would be with those who are engaged in the project through twitter and the blog, and the singers that I approach to teach me the songs of Sussex. How might I engage the non-blogging public? Do I perhaps perform all 30 songs at the end of May at a local folk club? Or do I sing the songs live at the sites with people around and therefore have both a non-web and non-folk audience?
  2. If archaeology is a subject concerned with artefacts, how might we begin to perceive the artefacts of folk performance practices? Am I the artefact? Or are their traces of songs imprinted on the land? Is this interpretative archaeology?
  3. Is landscape the preserve of the seeing subject? How might folk song contribute to a multi-layered conception of landscape – or a deep map?
  4. Beyond Mike Pearson and Mike Shanks’ collaboration Theatre/Archaeology (2005), are there texts or projects of interest that may help me to formulate my ideas around the relationship between performance and archaeology?

Hooper, J (2014). By The Mark On His Hand. Available at: [Accessed on 11/08/2014]. Electronic.

Pearson, M. Shanks, M (2005). Theatre/Archaeology. London: Routledge. Print.


19 thoughts on “May 2015: Elizabeth Bennett, performance and landscape researcher

  1. Hi Lizzie.
    This is a beautiful project and I promise to put aside my concerns about how much work it appears to be for you!
    In your proposal you say you will use the auditive and the “haptic” rather than the visual, which is fine but I don’t really understand how a sense of touch can be evoked through the stimulation of the audience’s imagination by sound but not work at least as well for the visual imagination.You might want to unpack the reasoning a bit?
    In response to your questions:
    1.If feasible I would perform songs live in situ (“the sites of resonance”), perhaps grouping them for entirely practical reasons somewhere between the 1 or the 30 performances, in local villages for instance, and have them recorded for the Net audience.Would you invite local contributions to the performances? Is it important that you are the lead or sole performer?
    2. I would start with the artefact as being essentially the act of performance ie you and the audience together in the moment and place, particularly what is recorded of course but also anything that has contributed to making the event, and (with some limitations, probably arbitrary) things that flow from it.
    3.I think there must be value in thinking about emotional landscape and (to put it grandly) consciousness as well as the more physical elements.Your performance will resonate with the audience in an unpredictable number of ways.Borrowing Bruce Chatwin’s phrase from his book,The Songlines, “singing the world into existence”,your interpretation and telling (in song) of the story will have some force of emotional impact as it potentially pushes against people’s memories and their realities and may provoke in them new insights, both individual and collective. Although these effects may be small, they will add to the echo of something from the past meeting something from the present, similar but inevitably different, and the ties between the people (those present, those hearing it later, those told about it) and the place will be both consolidated and refined through the performance of the song.”Layers of meaning” seems an apt idea in the circumstances!
    In ways I don’t understand I feel that these things iterate and communicate across time.I suppose it’s some form of cultural transference, which can work through a particular place as a kind of Gateway. (Discuss!)
    I hope this is useful.
    Best wishes,

  2. Pingback: July 2015: Sam Hardy, archaeologist | Public Archaeology 2015

  3. Hi Elizabeth,

    This sounds like a fantastic project. I’ve been thinking about a couple of your questions. In terms of material culture: your performances would generate them – your notes on scraps of paper, transcripts of songs, items exchanged with participants, bus tickets, things you use and discard, mud in your boots, perhaps an item collected from each site. Maybe you could collect these ephemera as part of the documentation? If you record the performances, then you will also have sound recordings – whether digital or analogue these are also artefacts of a sort. Once recorded, then your performances also become historical, and the recordings capture this moment in history (rather than just one off events with no record). You enter time in the equation. It will be interesting to see what other sounds from the sites get included into the recording and then become part of the performance, the entangling of those places and the songs, which together then become the performance. Traces of that landscape/songline/experience become part of the artefact.


    • Hi Dan,

      Thank you so much for your helpful comments and sorry for the delay in replying, I think in a way, I’d like to imitate in the process the non-material aspect of folk singing as much as possible, so that it reflects the tradition of songs existing in our minds before they were written down. But then perhaps discussing the great collectors like Cecil Sharp etc and the introduction of materiality. I thought also about grabbing unsuspecting members of the public to teach them the songs but I’m going to have to properly think that through – would be fun to carry on the chain though …I love the idea of the other sounds in the site becoming weaved in to an auditory soundtrack, I think that will be fascinating. Also I agree, the recording enters it into time. The song I recorded for my bio on this site has a dog barking in the background and other suburban garden sounds.


  4. How about getting in touch with your local Radio station, or a Radio 4/ 6 music to see if they are interested in your performances? That way you would reach a wide audience.

  5. It may be too much for a month-long project, but you may find some public engagement mileage (with the non-blogging public, the dwellers of your landscapes) in the issue of ownership of intangible cultural heritage. Engaging people through the seeking of permission…

    This piece from Valdimar Hafstein (Minintry of Culture representative on the Icelandic mission to UNESCO) may be of interest:

    It’s a talk given in relation to this:


    • Hi James,

      Thank you very much, that’s given me some proper food for thought. I write elsewhere about folk songs and footpaths being democratic processes because by singing or walking you help to continue their existence, however I haven’t given much thought to the ownership of intangible cultural heritage or folklorist cultural property.

      Very, very interesting!


  6. Dear Elizabeth,

    Thank you for sharing this interesting project with us, I have a few comments and references for you here.

    There is a great quantity of literature on ethnomusicology and the archaeology of music. Here as always, ethnography promises to “breathe life into archaeology”. Within archaeology, the subjects are seldom pursued systematically, but experiments have been done in Paleolithic decorated caves, and in bronze age megalithic monuments, to connect spaces and visual markers with acoustic properties connected to human activity. These enquiries are sometimes done by individual researchers, or “amateurs” or community archaeologists.

    In the field I am working in, Chinese archaeology, we never know what to do with prehistoric stone chimes and bronze bells: apart from striking them and noting the variety of sounds that they can produce, the melody is lost and cannot be reconstructed. Also, we have sung poetry in written form as the earliest form of literature, in which we can detect rhythms, but no inflections. It remains irremediably mute.

    I feel it would be interesting to think of the ways you can anchor sound into the sites, perhaps to material relics, vegetation, or peculiar land formations. Your body, while you sing, or before or after the song, may be a vehicle which narrates the song, too, close to Bruce Chatwin’s “Songlines”. As you are providing a missing link, which re-configures sensory experience, I would try to connect the songs, find their ties, with all possible other dimensions of experience. Are the songs related to specific sites, or do the people who will teach you the songs relate then to familiar sites?

    I hope this was useful, here are a few articles that may be of interest:

    Reznikoff I., “L’existence de signes sonores et leurs significations”. Congrès de l’IFRAO, septembre 2010 – Symposium : Signes, symboles, mythes et idéologie… (Pré-Actes) IFRAO Congress, September 2010 – Symposium: Signs, symbols, myth, ideology…

    Paul Devereux & Jon Wozencrofta .2013. ” Stone Age Eyes and Ears: A Visual and Acoustic Pilot Study of Carn Menyn and Environs, Preseli, Wales.

    Lia Wei

  7. Great project and questions Elizabeth! In relation to Q2, I wonder if the songs wouldn’t be the intangible artefacts? In that sense, you could be seen as the mediator, translating between tradition and landscape. In a way, by interpreting/performing to the tradition, you’d be contributing to the production of intangible artefacts by adding your own spin on it?

    • What a fascinating idea! Thank you – I’m a total pub arch novice so framing it that way is really helpful. Intangible artefacts – I like it. Especially as the joy of folk singing is rarely to share your voice, but rather to share the song. Like Shirley Collins says you feel like every young woman who has ever sung that song. E.B

  8. The informal folk fellowship are a very welcoming bunch – I have some contacts in the Morris Dancing and folk singing world that can be asked to share your questions.There are lots of events (small, monthly gigs, and large festivals) which would probably welcome and support your project – I can ask for a list and suggestions for you, if you like?

    • Yes please – and thank you. That would be wonderful re my wider research into folk performance practices as well. I wonder though if having a show would feel like too much of a ‘product’ at the end, where some of the inspiration for PA2015 was for it be a process without any formal output. There’s something about the idea of folk flash mobbing the unsuspecting public that feels more suitable …

    • Yes I think it would have to be organised as a separate event rather than me standing up and doing thirty songs at an open mic! I still worry thought that it would be a folk audience, which is why I think that performing to passers by when I’m doing the recordings is probably better. E.B

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