Updated: May 24

DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2020.34 | Issue 6 | May 2021

Charulatha Mani


Confronting a pressing need for newer approaches to reimagining traditional musics, RagAlive: Neelambari is a stratified soundscape that is rigorous in theoretical underpinnings and compositional strategies, relevant to fields of poetry, literature and sound art, and makes a significant contribution to the fields of intercultural composition, and music and emotion as envisaged through a practice-based research model. This work holds originality in that it is a deliberate act of cross-contamination designed to destabilise and disrupt established patterns of musical composition, assembly, recognition and cultural representation. Through this piece, I propose that a covert sonic reframing of cultural hybridity can allow for a sensitive, yet radical, approach to fusion.

(Click on the image below to listen to RagAlive: Neelambari on SoundCloud).

Research Statement

Newer approaches to reimagining traditional musics remain interesting sites of research and practice. Revitalizing established genres, sustaining perishing traditions, and the intersection of these motives with notions of 'hybridity' and 'fusion' in music have marked the cross-over of Eastern sounds, such as that of Indian music, to the West (Mani 2019; Panikker 2010). Today there is a global audience that appreciates the presence of an element of uncertainty and surprise embedded in the form of kernels of newness often initiated by technology within culturally contingent signifiers of tradition – in music and more broadly, performing arts – rendering such hybrids an effective way to connect with newer audiences. Adding to this substrate of cultural and technological change is the now well-established trend within established genres to interrogate convention and tradition (Goehr 1992; Mani 2020). Such scholarship calls for a disinvestment in entrenched assumptions and beliefs perpetrated from within performance cultures that may not always be to the advantage of the sustainability of the musical form itself.

A fusion of traditional South Indian music with Western musical elements is the central artistic feature in the offering under discussion here, RagAlive: Neelambari. This work holds research significance and originality in that it is a deliberate act of cross-contamination designed to destabilise and disrupt established patterns of musical composition, assembly, recognition and cultural representation. A cursory listen to the work might communicate to the listener that it also interrogates what is normatively believed to constitute 'intercultural fusion' with regards to South Indian Music. Fusion in the context of South Indian music is dominated by instrumental music and the element of rhythm more than melody as much scholarship evidences (Schippers, 2009). Further, their constructs have historically involved the actual presence of a ‘foreigner’ in the performer-mix (Lavezzoli, 2006). There overhangs an assumption that audiences may not being satisfied with the sonic marker of cultural difference. Rather, there has been a need to reinforce such difference through the visible participation of a foreign 'person.’ Literal mindedness in interculturality has sadly become a trope for hybridity (Panikker, 2010).

Through this piece, I propose that a covert sonic reframing of cultural hybridity can allow for a sensitive, yet radical, approach to fusion. A collaboration of two South Indian musicians can yield a Karnatik-Western fusion without alteration of the fundamental tenet of the form – namely the raga’s grammar (lakshana), and the ornamentation (gamakas) associated with the notes (swaras). These overarching issues are problematized in this research statement that indeed reframes creativity from the perspective of a performer from a colonized past. They have informed the suite of processual lenses including composing, improvising, writing English poetry for, and singing, through which I conceptualised the piece RagAlive: Neelambari. I sought answers for the following research questions:

  • Firstly, how can I reimagine a Karnatik raga as a vertically layered soundscape involving functional harmonies through my voice and Karnatik saxophone?

  • Secondly, what emotions and visuals does the raga Neelambari invoke in me?

  • Finally, as a provocation, does this music cease to be Karnatik music because it is reimagined thus and interwoven with English poetry?

In this research statement, I contend that RagAlive decentralises Karnatik music in using Western principles of layered harmonies in an acapella style, while decolonising Western music in deploying the Western saxophone as an instrument for collaboration and the English language as the channel of musico-poetic expression.

While on the one hand the politics of fusion brought to bear on the rationale behind this work thus rendering it situated in the field of ethnomusicology and critical cultural studies, the theoretical background and research contribution of this work looks also to the field of music and emotion. The affective qualities of music are articulated and verified through research and scholarship that spans cultures and temporalities. The Rasa (sentiment) effect of various Ragas of Indian music (Balkwill & Thompson, 1999) and the 'affekt' induced by music in the Baroque (Haynes 2007) are just two well-known manifestations of the emotive power of music from two very different cultures. RagAlive responds to the compelling dimension of music as an inducer of moods and sentiment. It explores the transcendence of this dimension across lateral channels of creative expression, notably the metaphorical and the poetic and ends up anthropomorphizing the ragini, the female personification of an Indian classical melody-type (see Lavezzoli 2006: 371-372). By adopting a creative process that deployed the key musical elements of Karnatik vocal music (including raga, tala, bhava, and gamaka), interactively with Western principles of polyphony, verticality of sonic layers, and harmony, using spontaneous improvisation and electronic media art as tools, the research erected a personification of the ragini known by the name 'Neelambari.'

The recording happened in Chennai India over a span of three days. On the first day, I had spent all day at the recording studio, living with the raga and collaborating with saxophonist G. Ramanathan on vertically growing the soundscape. Over the next few days, I would record a short raga phrasing (prayoga) and overlay it another shorter 'bite-sized' ornament or phrase that I would then work with the recording engineer Maniratnam to loop and move within the visual soundscape. I often found myself creating a vertical stack of staggered prayogas – the embedded microtonal ornamentations sometimes clashing with one another and at other times embracing one another. Ramanathan would respond to a prayoga and embark on a dreamy foray into it, which Maniratnam and I would record even without announcing. We would play the 'take' back to Ramanathan, after positioning it strategically on the sound canvas, who would be overjoyed and quip, 'now when did I play this!' The flow state in creativity when captured is unsurpassed and during the RagAlive recording this was experienced without a doubt. Ragini Neelambari is one that brings about calmness and restful sleep. In my journal from the day I had remarked, 'I slept like a baby with Neelambari watching over me.' In retrospect, the researcher in me realises that music is realized multi-sensorially and the vocalizing of music is a process that would have deeply touched both my emotional and physical processes; the works of Bonenfant (2012) and Eidsheim (2015) are ample testament. Interestingly, the poetry that you hear from 2’ 25” until 4’ came about as I was waiting at a noisy and polluted traffic signal in the Chennai heat inside an auto-rickshaw making my way to the studio the next morning. I “wrote” it down quickly on the Notes app of my iPhone and recited it after further raga exploration during the recording session of the day (Day 2). Underlying the poetry in English are syllables typical of a South Indian lullaby, ‘araro.’ I later journaled my reflections on the strange ways in which creative impetus grips, overwhelms and urges one towards inspired action at the most unexpected of times, a manifestation of choice and opportune action in moments of contingency in the context of composition which Coessens (2009) describes using the Greek rhetorical term Kairos. Yielding to Kairos and deploying the South Indian principle of manodharma (spontaneously designed operational modules of improvisation) were the two key methodologies that I adopted in the design and delivery of this work.

Operationally, the Western principles work on the raga from a grass-roots level in this work. They catalyse the repurposing of the raga’s signature elements into active tonal spheres and rhythmic substrates. For instance, in the phrase starting at 4’41” I have formed a chord using the tonic, third, fourth, and fifth scale degrees of the raga by overlaying my voice as three layers, while retaining the microtonal oscillation typical of the raga’s third scale degree. In centralising the melodic and syncopated identity of the powerful idiom of raga, the compositional process also demonstrates an intertwining of the saxophone with the voice. Between 55” and 2’11” for instance, the relaxed raga exploration from the saxophone is layered over a tonic-fifth repetitive loop generated by the voice. The warmth of the female vocals complements the feminine gender of the “ragini” rendering the piece overtly feminine. A statement amplifying the feminine in Karnatik music related fusion is important to make. Karnatik music has been a site of patriarchy, chauvinism, and gender imbalances for over a hundred years now, ever since the female courtesan singers were disenfranchised from the performance culture (Krishna, 2013). A respectful invocation to the feminine in the raga through a female voice is a deliberate statement. Musically, the saxophone player, Ramanathan, responded to the mood invoked by the raga’s bhava (emotion). The windy texture of the saxophone affords a harmonic substrate at certain times, and expansive melodic phrasings that complement the vocally-created verticality in texture, in certain others.

Overall, RagAlive is a stratified soundscape that is rigorous in theoretical underpinnings and compositional strategies, relevant to literature, and makes a significant contribution to the fields of intercultural composition, and music and emotion as envisaged through a practice-based-research model. In anthropomorphizing the ragini I may have conveyed an account of my singular experiences as composer/researcher/singer derived from a multisensorial connection with the ragini’s rasa(sentiment). By adopting a practice-centric and generative approach to research, I have privileged my experiences as a practitioner of Karnatik music of over two decades. Overall, RagAlive, for me, holds dream-like quality and confronts a pressing need for newer approaches to reimagining traditional musics. It is interdisciplinary in character; it melds poetry-writing, music, and sound-art. Importantly, like most practice-based research works, RagAlive is both a research project that has yielded new insights and a piece of art that deserves to be cherished.


  • Balkwill, Laura-Lee, and William Forde Thompson. "A Cross-cultural Investigation of the Perception of Emotion in Music: Psychophysical and Cultural Cues." Music Perception 17, no. 1 (1999): 43-64.

  • Bonenfant, Yvon. "Architecting Sensation: Voice, Light and Touch." Choreographic Practices 2, no. 1 (2012): 43-67.

  • Coessens, Kathleen. "Musical Performance and 'Kairos': Exploring the Time and Space of Artistic Resonance." International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 40, no. 2 (Dec 2009): 269-281.

  • Eidsheim, Nina Sun. Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice. Duke University Press, 2015.

  • Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Clarendon Press, 1992.

  • Haynes, Bruce. The End of Early Music: A Period Performer's History of Music for the Twenty-first Century. Oxford University Press, 2007.

  • Krishna, Thodur Madabusi. A Southern Music. Harper-Collins, 2013.

  • Lavezzoli, Peter. The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. A & C Black, 2006.

  • Mani, Charulatha. "Approaching Italian Gorgie through Karnatik Brigha: An Essai on Intercultural Vocal Transmission." Theatre, Dance and Performance Training 10, no. 3 (Dec 2019): 410-417.

  • Mani, Charulatha. “On Breaking With.” Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies 5, no. 1 (June 2020): 59-80

  • Panikker, Dhirendra Mikhail. Indian-American Jazz: An Emerging Hybrid [Masters’ Thesis]. University of California, Irvine, 2010.

  • Schippers, Huib. Facing the music: Shaping Music Education from a Global Perspective. Oxford University Press, 2009.


Updated: May 24

DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2020.26 | Issue 6 | May 2021

Dafydd Sills-Jones (Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand)


Y Trydydd Masg [The Third Mask] uses 360 video (via the third mask of the title) to create a virtual documentary about the author's experience of moving from Wales to Aotearoa (New Zealand). The work uses and challenges the emerging orthodoxies around 360 ​​Documentary Video to intensify the idea of ​​location, whilst also conveying the paradox of the author's (dis)connection from his ‘native square mile'. In addition, the work uses Poetic Inquiry and musical improvisation as methods through which a critical reading of Dirlik’s notion of ‘groundedness’ can be embodied in the weave of a creative text. In so doing, the process also reveals the nascent influence of a Māori-inflection to the question of identity, and academic argumentation.

Research question

To what extent can the nascent orthodoxy around 360 ​​Documentary Video and Cinematic VR textual grammar be manipulated to aid the discussion of groundedness, in the specific example of migration from one British colony (Cymru-Wales) to another (Aotearoa-New Zealand)?

Click on the image below to watch the full 360 version of Y Trydydd Masg [The Third Mask] on YouTube.


The article by Arif Dirlik that acts as a common thread and prompt for this special edition spoke to my experience in a number of ways. In particular, I was interested by how Dirlik linked globalisation’s effect of disconnecting people from their traditional groundedness, to an increased awareness of that dislocation (2011: 48). The ‘call to restore places’ (ibid), and the difficult path for places to survive in the onward march of a ‘globalising political economy’ (ibid) rang true to the status of my home town in Wales (Aberystwyth), where despite decades of support from the EU, we still found ourselves hanging onto placehood in the face of the encroaching logics of high house prices, low wages, high dependence on tourism, high inward migration, and a decline in the indigenous language.

Dirlik’s call to ‘build up a more just and sustainable society from the bottom up, to socialize the spaces offered by these contradictions’ (2011: 54) by his own admission requires a renegotiation of the nature of place and ground. His reading of the work of Doreen Massey, and the danger implicit in her ‘effort to salvage’ that ‘ends up by declaring that there is nothing special about place after all’ (2011: 55), needs to be avoided. Massey’s ‘socialisation of place’ (Dirlik 2011: 56), and its unintended ‘erasure of difference’ (Dirlik 2011; 58) need to be countered by a return to the topographical, the ecological, and the grounded (Dirlik 2011: 57).

This also applies to documentary media representation of place: how can we avoid places in documentary media becoming just 'types of space' or spaces categorised socially, thus losing their 'fixity', singularity and cultural meaning? What if their singularity and cultural meaning lies in their specific testimony to the processes of identity-blanching and hollowing out that Dirlik describes? Can documentary media convey the singularity of places that are losing their ability to hold their singularity?

When I left Wales for Aotearoa (New Zealand) in 2018, I felt as if I was both uprooted by my migration, and also the ‘uprooter’, as I would inevitably take my place in the massed ranks of European settlers trailing back to the late 1700s and early 1800s. And for my position, as an indigenous Welshman, now living as a white European in a colonised country in which the wrongfully neglected rights of indigenous Māori people are debated and acted upon openly, indigenism suddenly became an active part of my life, both as lack and constant presence. So it was with interest that I saw that Dirlik looked to indigenism as a means of rescuing the notion of place altogether: ‘certain common assumptions, by no means restricted to indigenous peoples, that reaffirm the intimate and organic connectedness of culture, social existence, and the natural environment.’ (2011: 65)

Whilst Wales might not be strictly indigenous ground, these values were part of my upbringing there; an awareness, or attitude towards place that aligns with what Dirlik calls ‘place consciousness’ (2011: 69), which links back to the earliest of Welsh stories such as that of the Mabinogi or of the bard Taliesyn, whose birth place I lived near for many years. It is in this response to the notion of 'place consciousness' that I may be able to align myself with the indigenous, and still be able to think of place as being paradoxical and complex. But there is a danger that Dirlik reminds us of:

Place-consciousness itself can serve as a cover for parochialism, and serve as an excuse for setting one place-based interest against another, unless groundedness in place is mindful of the holism of nature and society understood not just as an ether of harmony, sort of to speak, but as a structured totality with contradictions built into its very structurations. (2011: 70)

And this is where the real difficulty lies. I am not indigenous to Aotearoa. Compared to Māori I have encountered in Aotearoa, I was hardly indigenous to Wales, even though I speak its language, know its literature, and have a genealogy there that goes back a 1000 years. Accessing indigeneity in the ‘Welsh place’ would mean having to go back to the ideology, sensibility and social practice of centuries past to fully escape the ‘universalist instrumentalist rationality’ that has marked Welsh civic development (or the lack of it) since the arrival of the Romans. But might it be possible, amidst the fragmentation of my own indigenous place in the world, and my integration into the Anglospherical post-empire, that I may also experience a re-integration into a new, indigenous-inflected way of seeing the connection between identity and land, a grounded way of seeing that fractured identity?

So what can be communicated? How could documentary media, through an exploration of place, be able to grasp the multi-layered and complex dynamic of social, topographical, ecological, historical, cultural, mythical and spiritual strata of any one patch of ground that has sustained human, and/or other, life? This is where 360 documentary media comes in.

Orthodox grammars of ‘360/VR – CVR – NFVR’

It was my working hypothesis that 360 degree/VR video would be an interesting medium to pursue this communicative challenge. This was due in part to the rise of the availability of the technology (Dooley 2017: 161), and the promise of 360 in terms of situational immersion, the ability to transport the experient/viewer to a place and to experience elements of this mediated place in an interactive way. I was enticed by the promise of VR’s ability to turn passive spectators into active participants (Dooley 2017: 161), with a combination of the real and the storified living side by side seamlessly (Ibid). But I was also immediately suspicious of such claims, which would depend on the type of film, the definition of passivity, the site of interactivity and immersion, and so on. It was clear that ‘Cinematic VR’ (CVR) was itself already an aesthetically attenuated version of the full interactive possibilities of VR, which, as noted by Mateer, ‘often limits user involvement to choosing viewpoints within a 360-degree environment’ (Mateer 2017: 15).

Because the frame has disappeared, ‘viewers of immersive film are in and part of the scene’ (Jerald 2015: 247), which presents challenges about where to put rig, and crew (Dooley 2017: 164). Platforms differ greatly, so considerations for google cardboard viewers and HTC Vive or Oculus wearers are drastically different, despite the fact that texts have to sometimes live across these different sets of platform affordances (Dooley 2017: 164). This leads a ‘typical’ VR narrative to be around 10 mins or less, which in turn tends towards episodic structures with around 5-6 episodes (Dooley 2017: 164). To counter these limitations, a set of strategies has evolved, including the need for a ‘core experience’, meaning that ‘the basic structure of the virtual world should be directly evident and self-explanatory so that users can immediately understand and start experiencing and using the world’ (Jerald 2015: 229). Then there is the interplay between two basic ‘modes’ of audience interaction, between ‘exploration tasks’ and ‘search tasks’, loosely analogous with having an open reading posture, and a more target-oriented reading attitude, respectively (Dooley 2017: 168).

By 2020, Dooley had noted some other strategies that have evolved, including: a closer engagement between viewers and characters (2020: 81), the use of proxemics and different distances to approximate the kind of relational grammar that can be achieved through intercutting shot sizes and eye directions in 2D film (ibid); limiting the number of shots ‘to provide an immersive, real time environment’, with jumps in time and space avoided because they are not realistic (ibid); the preference for crossfades and fades to black as a means of changing scenes, in order to avoid disorienting the viewer; a reliance on actor gesture over facial expression, and an attendant emphasis on blocking the movements within a given scene (Dooley 2020: 83-84).

This leaves the CVR creator in an interesting position: ‘This is one challenge for the CVR creator – how to reconcile narrative control with audience agency, so as to make sure that story cues are not missed?’ (Dooley 2020: 83) Whilst this question seems to be a perennial problem for all kinds of communicators, Dooley also notes Tricart’s point that editing could prove a useful disrupter of the seamlessness of CVR (2020: 84), and that ‘blocking’, or the practice of choreographing movement within the field of vision and audio, can also be used creatively and expressively (ibid). Most interestingly perhaps is Dooley’s use of Hall’s proxemics to create a typology of spatial arrangement within CVR, as an analogue for the way cutting can create thematically meaningful space and relation between characters: ‘On the basis of European and American culture, the four spatial distances are divided into the categories of intimate, personal, social and public, spanning between approximately zero to eight metres, and varying depending on the type of interactions and relationships between persons within them (Hall 1966).’ (Dooley 2020: 86)

This all adds up to a set of creative options within CVR grammar, enhanced as Dooley puts it, because ‘humans react to the violation of these boundaries in differing ways’ (2015: 86) opening up the possibilities of ambiguity and a loosening of the CVR straight- jacket. In terms of documentary, the team behind the UK-funded ESPRC VR Documentary Encounters [1] project have codified these possibilities and challenges for documentary media, rebranding it as NFVR (Non Fiction Virtual reality). They repeat the claims for NFVR’s potential ability to de-pacify the audience and to extend locative presence to distant places, and adding the grandest claim of all that NFVR can be an ‘ultimate machine for empathy’ due to these locative and immersive affordances (Bevan et al 2020: 1-2). But they are also sceptical of these claims and point out that despite NFVR’s potential, the practice does not live up to the hype:

Perhaps the greatest surprise of our exploration of VRNF to date therefore is that the amount of content that attempts to directly fulfill this ambition is actually very small. Less than one in five of the titles we reviewed were presented entirely in the first-person perspective - surely a minimum requirement for sustaining the illusion of a physical presence within a virtual world. (Bevan et al 2020: 10)

In their summaries of a large, representative sample of output, the VR Documentary Encounters team finds that there is a definite conservative aesthetic slant across a wide range of NFVR aspects such as a ‘passive observant’ viewer (69% of titles), the unexpectedly low amount of first person POV (18%), the low rate of interactive viewer agency (15%), and the conventional cinematic practice of the use of eye level in personal interactions (78%) There were elements however some other elements, that did seem, across the sample to be more in active and interventional, such as the encouraging of viewers to move ether heads 180 degrees (66%), and manipulation of time (only 5% in normal time) (Bevan et al 2020: 6-11).

This conservatism may be due to the immaturity of the medium, due to issues of technological diffusion, and a priori audience predilections (Green et al, 2020). There is evidence to show that while empathy, or affective response, may be heightened, ‘such advantages come at a cost for thoroughly processing the information in the story’, a problem a potentially troubling issue for documentary representations (Barreda-Ángeles, et al 2020). The ethical implications of this heightened empathy has also been located in audience responses, including ‘concerns about the impact of VR on vulnerable users, and its potential for manipulation or propaganda’ (Green et al 2020). This again indicates a base-line conservatism in the aesthetic of NFVR, as in the case of CVR, but also indicates where windows of autonomous, creative composition may lie within the form.

Following from this analysis, I can formulate a set of creative disruptions that I could attempt within a NFVR project in order to both invoke and contradict the enhanced sense of grounded place that this medium can offer:

(Disruptive) Editing: cutting quickly from one 360 scene to another creates a disorienting effect, both physically and narratively. Whilst I wanted to establish a grounded sense of place, I also wanted to reflect a dislocation in my circumstances, and in so doing differentiate between the ‘groundedness’ of different places.

Gaze Manipulation and Blocking: the combination of gaze manipulation and blocking would enable myself as a character to be a conduit through which a variety of differently imagined, mediated and experienced places might be experienced, whilst managing the lessened power of the face and the emergent power of bodily gesture. This could involve limited ‘camera moves’, where the default viewer perspective is forcibly moved within a scene, analogous to a ‘pan’ in conventional screen media. This auto-biographical use of the self could also focus the attention on the notion of the self being a kind of ‘place’, and the digital projection of that self yet again a problematization of that metaphor.

Point of View: in line with the majority of NFVR production, I would employ a mix of omniscient POV, first person POV and fly-on-the-wall. In addition, I would also switch between being a character within an omniscient POV, to ‘holding the hand’ of the POV viewpoint as I carried the camera.

Interaction and Audience Agency: I would again go with the majority of NFVR productions, and employ a limited amount of interaction, going along with the majority of production that create a passive role for the viewer/experient, but that I would be trying to embed the notion of interaction within a ‘passive’ viewer mode, buy using disruptive editing techniques, by manipulating time, and by creating a highly allusive poetic narration that worked with/against the images, in order to increase viewer/experient agency through their interpretation.

Interpersonal Space: I would go along with the majority of practice, and include other people in the film, but only sparingly (in the form of my children). The main interpersonal connection is with me, and as explained above, that is in order to create a para-social connection with me. I would divert from the majority of practice with eye-level setting, deviating from an equal-height ‘interpersonal’ setting to having the camera above and below and moving in relation to the viewer and character’s eyelines, as part of the disruption of editing.

Manipulation of Time: like the majority of NFVR, I would use time manipulation, again in line with disruptive editing, e.g. by splitting the 360 sphere, and having one half going backwards, and the other half forwards at great speed.

So I employed a set of techniques to move between Dooley’s two ‘navigation modes’, ‘exploration’ and ‘search’. I established spaces to enable exploration, but I used the written narrative and techniques such as backwards/forwards and fast cutting (relative to VR conventions) to create a kind of ‘intellectual’ searching function, so that the viewer instead of searching for hidden clues or objects, is being asked to reflect on the experience of viewing and how that might relate to the subject matter of the film.

Furthermore, the move towards VR made it possible to think of ‘ground’ as something that documentary has claimed traditionally – ‘field naturalism’ – but that VR/360 promises to collapse and transfer. In a way this is just a continuation of cinema’s ever present play with time and space, but VR/360 seems to take it another step, that time and space and be transplanted. You can be there, whilst you are here, in a way that we have not had before. But due to the affective power of 360, documentary can lose its balance between the old Griersonian dyad (Grierson 1933: 8) of ‘creative’ and ‘actuality’ which still sits at the centre of its power as a genre.

My solution to this present problem, in the confines of a specific film project, is to translate the paradox of documentary’s creative/actuality dyad, and think about an analogous dyad implied by Dirlik in his adaptation of Massey, where place is singular, transcendent and always in the process of ‘becoming’. The former is the dominant understanding within mechanical reproductions of place, transferrable and universalizable. The latter is harder, and can be a barrier to communication and an invitation to parochialism. Hence, the attempt in the case of Y Trydydd Masg to intensify the feeling of a grounded place, but to also storify that feeling, to place it within a somewhat complex timeframe, and to narrate it with a proxemic and poetic approach that invites the viewer to experience both location and dislocation, and to decide for themselves where the seams and joins between both reside.

Inflected Methods

In truth, some of the analysis above was done in hindsight, as a way of checking back to try to understand what I had done instinctively, to see whether it fitted with the academic debates and definitions about NFVR, and to seek to build a bridge between the notions that emerged from the Massey-Dirlik discussion on place. But the method of composing Y Trydydd Mask was different in intention, and came from a more personal, haptic, singular root.

I had a hunch about the suitability of VR for the story I was telling, but it was the story not the VR technology that drove me forward, or as Knudsen identifies it, it was an ‘urge’ or ‘necessity’:

Communication is clearly at the heart of this urge; some kind of deep desire to share with not only our fellow human beings, but often also with other animals, nature, God and, some might say, ourselves. Without getting into a lengthy ontological discussion here about the nature of being, embodied in us is something that we wish to express, share and communicate. Perhaps the only way of properly describing this urge or impulse is to think of it as necessity. (Knudsen 2018: 19)

I closely identified this ‘urge’ with the tensions I felt as moving from Wales to Aotearoa in 2018, and when I started to think about a first person narrative told with 360 video, that seemed to fit. It was then a process of exploring the possibilities of that path, checking at each point to see whether I was still being truthful to my ‘necessity’:

As I create, I feel a deep need to be confident that it is the genuine ‘I’ who is speaking and not some other voice. I want to be confident that the truth, my truth, is the truth that I am sharing. I want to be confident that the way that I am expressing that truth does justice to it, is an authentic expression and fully articulates its simplicity or complexity. I want to be confident that it is my voice speaking about my experience. I want to be confident. (Knudsen 2018: 4)

I had experience in locating this ‘authentic expression’ in previous experiments with documentary form, [2] and there were three main, intertwined, research inflections that guided me along the path. I refer to them as inflections because to label them as methods would be to reverse the causality of the process; they were directions I took in pursuit of my ‘urge’, which on reflection were inflected by critical positions I later discovered others had taken before me. But identifying them does fulfil the duty of bringing practice into understanding, which is the cornerstone of screen practice as research, to ‘draw that tacit and innate itch of understanding out in the open, where it can be proffered and critiqued amidst a community committed to enhancing the welter of knowledge surrounding the phenomenon being investigated with film.’ (Gibson 2018: ix)


Pepeha is a statement of identity grounded in the Māori relationship to the land. I took my inspiration from pepeha as I re-articulated my Welsh identity from the perspective of the land that had become my home. My experience of practicing pepeha - a formal greeting I learned at Te reo Māori and tikanga (Māori cultural protocol) classes at AUT - involved my identification and oral evocation of the mountains, rivers and seas that had taken a role in my formation as a person, and on which I depended, not only in terms of sustenance, but also symbolically. This naming of places and people, and the net it cast across the classroom when all members recited their pepeha, created a very different sense of interrelation than I had previously experienced, and the structure of the pepeha formed the basis of the structure of Y Trydydd Masg. Overall, my encounters with Māori culture through attending these classes, and experiencing some aspects of Māori culture at first hand elsewhere, have helped me find the ‘confidence’ Knudsen speaks about, and enabled me to pursue my creative ‘necessity’.

The Māori notions that I was most inspired by through the practice of pepeha were tūrangawaewae (a place to stand) and whakapapa (genealogy). In terms of tūrangawaewae, I was aware that within the Māori context – and even within the white settler Pākehā context – the importance of place was a thing of serious consideration. Places were not merely mountains or rivers, but the mountain, and the river, denoting a connection between an individual and a place, and that far from being an inanimate mineral deposit, as a mountain might be considered from a Western point of view, the mountain had a life force, and rather than it being my mountain, I was its person: ‘Within a Māori ontological frame, all beings and objects are experienced as having mana, a form of presence and authority, and a ‘vigour, impetus and potentiality’, called mauri.’ (Hoskins & Jones 2017: 51) This resonated with my Welsh upbringing, where the names of mountains in particular are associated with legends, spirits and myths. Another task that was part of the pepeha was a systematic categorisation and enunciation of my ancestors – my whakapapa - and from where they came. This had a dual effect on me, which was to sharpen my focus on my genealogy, and to consider again, from a new viewpoint, who my parents and grandparents were, and what they had given me.

These two experiences of tūrangawaewae and whakapapa within the performance of a pepeha deeply resonated with my ‘urge’ and ‘necessity’ to articulate the deeply felt emotions of connection and disconnection that had emotionally troubled me for many months after moving from Wales to Aotearoa. The pepeha’s structure became the backbone of a light touch plan for shooting material in Wales in 2019, and also became a framework through which I could distance myself from any ‘parochial’ – to borrow Dirlik’s word – attachment to my genealogy. The notion of tūrangawaewae also helped me tune into the feelings I had about specific places, and about their polyvalent significances. For example, the final Welsh location in Y Trydydd Mask – the sunken remains of a bronze age forest at Ynyslas – remains the one place in the world that I could identify as my singular ‘place to stand’. These inflections came together to build my version of Knudsen’s ‘confidence’, an attitude Hoskins and Jones describe as a crucial aspect of Te ao Māori, or the Māori world view: ‘we must reach toward something that exceeds language: an attitude, a sympathy, a feeling, an openness.’ (Hoskins & Jones 2017: 53) Finally, the analysis of my whakapapa also reminded me of the creative debt I had to my parents, and in particular their approaches to poetry and music. The former led me to engage in Poetic Inquiry, the latter to engage with a collaborator in musical improvisation.

Poetic Inquiry

...my poems are part of my ongoing engagement with living in the world and the poems are attempts to capture multiple moments, intensities and layers of struggle. (Owton 2017: 7)

Like Owton, I am acculturated into poetry due to my father, who was a published poet in Welsh and English [3]. Being Welsh speaking, the prestige of poetry is high within my cultural background, and in my late teens I assisted my father in judging poetry competitions for his creative writing class, and also studied mostly poetry in my English literature degree at York University. I have always written poetry, for occasions, friends and myself. So whilst I am not a published poet like Owton, poetry was a vehicle open to me.

Owton talks about a ‘methodology of the heart’, in which writing poetry is a physical evocation of becoming (2017: 3-4), in the face of ‘a disembodied style of life’ that characterises the Western world. This attitude has clear alignments with Dirlik’s engagement with Massey’s notions around a place’s process of ‘becoming’, and also the notion of tūrangawaewae - an animated, enchanted world in which life force is widely invested in the materiality of a place, that creates an ‘attitude’ rather than a paradigm or method per se: ‘Poetic Inquiry is not a method, it is an attitude and a way of being and becoming in research and in the world.’ (Owton 2017: 21). But according to Owton, Poetic Inquiry also has a proven role within the positivistic corridors of the global university, albeit at the margins, in terms of supporting the growing practice of reflective writing in humanities research (2017: 6). A good bridge then, to join two seemingly opposed ontologies, with which, as a creative practice researcher, I need to engage.

Again, it’s worth noting that I started writing the base material for Y Trydydd Masg before I was acquainted with Poetic Inquiry as an approach. As part of the process of dealing with the emotions that moving has churned up, and also the feelings engendered by Te reo Māori classes, I started writing a Welsh language autobiography, made up of short scenes from early memories. After encountering Poetic Inquiry, I then developed a technique by which I reduced the prose and turned it into poetic lines. After consulting with colleagues, I found that the writing produced an emotional response, and that there was a research value in this, as Owton says: 'to step into someone else’s world… Like other forms of arts-based methods (e.g. vignettes, art), poetry invites the reader to ‘step into’ another person’s experience.' (p.8) And this in turn gave me the ‘confidence’ that Knudsen mentions, the connection to an inner voice that I could trust. This approach was then applied to the skeleton script that had emanated from the location of my pepeha, with some additions of my own – mountain, river, village, town, castle, sunken forest. Once these processes were in place I was able then to refine until I had something that I felt treaded the exact route that I could envisage, between the identity I had left, and the one I was slowly being influenced by.

Musical Improvisation

In addition to my inflection by Poetic Inquiry, which was inspired by the poetry of my father, Y Trydydd Masg also makes use of harp music, inspired by my mother. The music was improvised by an ex-pupil of hers, and an old school friend of mine, Rhodri Davies, who is an experimental harpist with an international profile [4]. His contribution was in the form of a reaction to the scenes I created shot and edited on the initial pepeha structure, and his compositions also helped guide the refining stages of the poetic writing and 360 video editing.

Several of Rhodri’s most recent projects – such as Yr Hen Ogledd [5] or Telyn Rawn [6] - are concerned with a kind of archaeology of traditional Welsh music, and in particular the harp, which is used improvisationally in Y Trydydd Masg. But despite the partial attempt to reclaim an indigenous musical sound, Rhodri is also aware of the draw of what Dirlik would call the ‘parochial’, and seeks to create a ‘music of now’, from a Welsh perspective, rather than any form of ‘period performance’ practice:

Yr Hen Ogledd is a bit of a misnomer, because we’re trying to do something else with time… not just back and forth… throwing linear time into a multitudinal happening all at the same time … even though my improvised work is referred to as Avant Garde, and the Telyn Rawn comes from the past, all I’m doing is playing the music of now... constantly unfolding now with connections to what has happened and what could happen. (Davies 2021)

There is a similarity here to how Davies positions himself to what Dirlik refers to the ‘strong utopian strain’ visible within an indigenous approach to culture and place. The strong familial ties and shared singular heritage – school, town, landscape, etc – give Rhodri’s music a resonance to my video material that speaks to the specific cultures, histories, lived experiences and topographical delimitation of the corner of Wales that nurtured us both in our childhoods. This kind of association might be an example of a combination of Massey’s socialised space (1994: 5), and Dirlik’s call to rescue the singular and the topographical in the notion of place (2011: 8).

Y Trydydd Masg is therefore a creative response to Dirlik’s meditation on place, through the filter of my experience of dislocation and relocation, inflected by elements of the practice of pepeha and Poetic Inquiry, and musical improvisation. What emerges is a work that seeks to live in the ‘sweetspot’ between the conservatism and novelty of NFVR, making use of its heightened empathic response, and creating an ‘intellectually interactive’ experience which hopefully allows the experient/viewer to ‘step inside’ a representation of my confident, authentic rendition of the multi-layered and paradoxical connectivity of place.


  • Barreda-Ángeles, M., Aleix-Guillaume, S., and Pereda-Baños, A. (2020). ‘Virtual reality storytelling as a double-edged sword: Immersive presentation of nonfiction 360-video is associated with impaired cognitive information processing.’ Communication Monographs. 1-20.

  • Bevan, Chris, David Philip Green, Harry Farmer, Mandy Rose, Kirsten Cater, Danaë Stanton Fraser, and Helen Brown (2019). 'Behind the curtain of the' ultimate empathy machine' on the composition of virtual reality nonfiction experiences.' In Proceedings of the 2019 CHI conference on human factors in computing systems, 1-12.

  • Bevan, G., and Creeber, G. (2017). ‘Into the Looking Glass: How selfie culture is preparing us to meet our future selves.’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-Q8rJIeWSw

  • Dirlik, Arif. 'Globalization, indigenism, social movements, and the politics of place.' Localities 1 (2011): 47-90.

  • Dooley, K. (2017). ‘Storytelling with virtual reality in 360-degrees: a new screen grammar.’ Studies in Australasian Cinema 11 (3): 161-171.

  • Dooley, K. (2020). ‘A question of proximity: exploring a new screen grammar for 360-degree cinematic virtual reality.’ Media Practice and Education 21 (2): 81-96.

  • Green, D. P., Rose, M. Bevan, C, Farmer, H., Cater, K, and Fraser, D.S. (2020). ‘You wouldn’t get that from watching TV!’: Exploring audience responses to virtual reality non-fiction in the home.’ Convergence: 1354856520979966.

  • Grierson, J. (1933). ‘The documentary producer.’ Cinema Quarterly, 2 (1): 7-9.

  • Hoskins, Te Kawehau, and Jones, A., eds. (2017). Critical Conversations in Kaupapa Māori. Huia Publishers..

  • Jerald, J. (2015). The VR book: Human-centered design for virtual reality. Morgan & Claypool..

  • Owton, H. (2017). Doing poetic inquiry. Springer.

  • Massey, D. (1994). Space, Place, and Gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Mateer, John. 'Directing for Cinematic Virtual Reality: how the traditional film director’s craft applies to immersive environments and notions of presence.' Journal of Media Practice. Vol. 18, No. 1 (2017): 14-25.

  • Nichols, B. (2017). Introduction to documentary. Indiana University Press.


[1] See more about this project at http://vrdocumentaryencounters.co.uk.

[2] In previous research exercises I have worked with unpicking the discourse of a participatory documentary (Pwy Yw T.H.? [Who is T.H.?] , 2010), experimented with walking techniques and multilingual narration in the poetic documentary mode (17, 2014), examined participation and musical composition as a means of suspending authorial imposition in expository documentary (Y Gors [The Bog], 2016), and looked at the ontological positioning of the observational documentary (Y Dosbarth Melyn [The Yellow Classroom], 2019).

[3] My father was R. Gerallt Jones, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-r-gerallt-jones-1046695.html.

[4] For more on Rhodri Davies, see http://www.rhodridavies.com/words/.

[5] Yr Hen Ogledd is the name of a band, of which Rhodri Davies is a member. It is named after the ancient Celtic kindgom that was once situated in what is now the North East of England. https://www.henogledd.com/2018/09/06/new-website/.

[6] Telyn Rawn is a project in which Rhodri Davies has reveived an ancient harp, strung with horsehair, that harks back to the days of Hywel Dda’s Welsh law codification in the 13th century. The harp’s revival is in part an attempt to side-step the often Victorian and Romantic imagining of the harp, and return it to its minstrel roots. See more at: https://www.folkradio.co.uk/2020/07/rhodri-davies-telyn-rawn/

Appendix: Script for Y Trydydd Masg

Y Trydydd Masg

2018, gadael eto

Y trydydd ymadawiad, i’r chweched bywyd

Nol a mlaen

Cymru a Lloegr

Cynghenidra ac alltudiaeth

Dau bersonoliaeth, dau bwrpas

Dau fasg fel rhai Ezra?

Gwyleidd-dra gwerinol, deallus-dra trefol

Nol a mlaen

Llais y galon

Llais y pragmatydd

Rhythm goroesiad oesol y Cymry.

Y tro yma mae’n wahanol, ond yn debyg:

Cyrraedd glannau estron, sy’n ymdebygu -

Coed, defaid, bryniau gwyrddion

Tric trefdadeth arddodol – wedi fy anwytho

Recriwt i luoedd y Pākehā,

Concistadorau Aotearoa.

Byw dan nawdd a chysgod

Iaith, baner, diwylliant yr hen ymerodraeth

Ar draul y cynghenid, y naturiol, y cyfiawn.

Tramwyo’r tirwedd newydd

Fy hen fasgau deublyg yn drysu

Stori gysur yr ysglyfaeth

Yn gymysg â gwacter y gwladychwr

Pragmatiaeth y proffesiwn

Wedi dewis ochr arall y geiniog.

Ond mae galwad yr hen diriogaeth -

Fy milltir sgwâr chwedonol -

Yn aflonydd dan arwyneb profiad

Pob cam, pob munud yn adlais

O gartre sydd erbyn hyn dan donnau

Arwahanrwydd ac anghof

Prosesau erydol yn esblygu

Yr hyn a adawyd ar ei ol.

Fe es yn ôl am wythnos yn 2019,

Ryw fath o ffyrlo o’r ffrynt.

A oes modd mynd yn ôl nawr, eto

Yng nghanol y pla, heb fynd?

Ail gysylltu a’r ddaear gwreiddiol

Masg newydd, hudol, yn gaddo uniongyrchedd

Cysylltiad ar draws y cyfandiroedd -

Y drydedd masg.

Hiraeth naïf, neu nesâd rhithwir?

Cawn weld

Cawn glywed

Cawn deimlo?

Ond oes modd dychwelyd i’r llonyddwch?

Oes modd sefyll ar y ddaear?

Y Ddinas, Y Cofeb;

Dau le, dwy Gymru

Sedd senedd ansad

Lleoliad llofruddiaeth Llywellyn

Defod mewn carreg a choncrit

Chwedl i feibion yr arfordir

Trip ysgol, trip gwaith,

Dinas Gymreig, cofeb cyfianwnhad

Cyfaredd neu gyfannedd:

Ai rhain yw lleoliadau craidd y wlad?

Mae pŵer sgwâr tref

Ar goll mewn cymysgedd o atgofion

Adeiladau wedi colli’i ffordd

Tir wedi’i oruchuddio

Mantell fodern y mashnachwr.

Oes gobaith codi ysbryd

Mewn sgwâr sydd yng nghysgod yr hen dŵ?

Carreg unig mewn cartre union

Y blodau’n deyrnged, a’r bedd yn dawel

Cae gwag ger heol brysur

A phrin le i barcio car.

Yng nghoed y llanerch hanfodol

Prin mae sgrech tylluan yn treiddio

Sain y modur, sawr y llygredd.

Y Mynydd, Yr Afon;

Y Foel Fach Goch yw’r mynydd

Rwy’n cofio’r tro cyntaf i’w swyn

Fy nghludo - gyda help car bach rhydlyd dad a mam

Wrth i ni yrru heibio iddi

Y grug porffor yn goron perffaith

I ffantasïau bachgennaidd

Castell o greigiau a siawns o fwystfil.

Flynyddoedd wedyn, y pumed bywyd

Rhodiais lwybrau rhedyn y Foel

Y ci yn hel ffon o’r môr gwyrdd

A’r wraig yn agos ar draddodi bywyd newydd.

A draw yn y pellter, a allaf weld yr Afon, Y Dyfi?

Y Dyfi a’i ddyffryn godidog,

Ei statws rhyngwladol, a’i thref cyn-seneddol?

Na, yr afon yn ddi-os yw’r Leri

Disgynnydd naturiol, cyfrin yr uwch ddyffrynnoedd

Afon ddi-seremoni, a’i thaith olaf

Yn gaeth yng nghoetgaeau camlas

Dyfais ddiwydiannol dyfodwyr

Sydd â’u cestyll tywod o hyd

Yn gwastrodi’r traethau cyfagos.

Y Pentre;

Mae’n fy hawlio

Pentref fy mhlentyndod

Yn ddrama byw o farwolaeth iaith

Cyfnewid hen ledis am dai haf

A finne, yng nghanol brwydr gïaidd

Sectyddol yr ysgol gynradd

Iaith, dosbarth a chefndir yn croesdorri

Ffarwmwr, mewnfudwr, deallusyn, y colledig

Mewn gwe o gasineb a ddallineb.

Yng nghanol hynny stafell lonydd

Fy rhieni a’u miwsig a’u llên

Y gwesteion o’r Affrig, o’r Undeb Sofietaidd,

Y sgwennu, y darllen, y ffôn canolog

Y nosweithiau heb drydan

Yng ngholau’r glo tanbaid

A fflamau glas yn gaddo eira.

Mae Mam hyd yno

Blwyddyn o ynysu rhag y pla

A rhan ohonof gyda hi

Mewn cegin felyn felys

Sgwrs ddi-baid am stad y byd

A’r Robin tiriogaethol yn curo ar y ffenestr

Hwnnw oedd y bywyd cyntaf.

Er bod y lle, a’r tir yma’n rhan

Ohonof nawr, o’m lleoliad amwys amlochrog.

Y Dref;

Erbyn y pumed bywyd

Mae’r dref yn fy meddiant

Swydd yn y brifysgol

Parch parod yn lle paranoia

Modd credu eto yn rhithdybiau

Fy nyheadau

Modd trigo yno fel unrhyw berson arall

Cerdded y prom, codi plant o’r ysgol.

Ond sydyn cliria’r gwyll

A phelydr oer ‘Y Sefyllfa Gymreig’

Yn llosgi drwy’r statws brau

Y freuddwyd dyneiddig yn deilchion

Y frawdoliaeth athronyddol yn yfflon

A pob unigolyn yn ymladd am

Sgrap o gig o floc y cigydd.

Y Castell;

Mae cysgod yr hewn dŵr

Yn dywyll ac yn dreiddgar.

Wrth ddod nôl nawr, yn y chweched bywyd

Rwy’n crwydro maes y Castell

Yn atgyfodi rhamant pictiwresg

Y creig-greithiau

Chwarae mig yn mhlith y monolithau

Dynwared fy hun o’m bywyd cyntaf

Ond y tro yma gyda gwên.

Ond mae rhoi troed ar dir fyma’n beryglus

Ffrwydriaid tir yn llechu

A’u ffrwydriadau parod

Llawn teilchion – hen sicrwydd yn jibidêrs

Sadrwydd yr oesoedd a fu

Wedi’i bentyrru wrth ddrysau’r castell

Yn goelcerth o ymostyngiad anochel

Yn aberth ddewr er bydd Aber dda.

Mae amser yn elfen greulon

Didosturi yw’r cysondeb

A’m ffilm bresennol yn eistedd mewn rhyw wagle

Amser cyn y cau mawr

Amser cyn yr ymadawiad Ewropeaidd.

Oes modd sefyll yn y gwagle hwnnw?

Y Goedwig Efydd;

Efallai’r ffordd ymlaen

Yw mynd yn ôl

Nid at greiriau hynafol dyn

Ond at rhythmau dyfnach daearyddol

Y goedwig gelain o’r oes efydd

Yn fyw yn y dychymyg

Yn berllan o wreiddiau

Yn wawl sy’n asio

Tywod ar symyd, ymdeimlad yn sicr

Cyn i ddynolaieth lesmeirio

I freichiau haerllugrwydd -

Clai uwch lai

A’r cyfan oll yn adnodd anadweithiol -

Nol cyn y dehreuadau, cyn yr ardd.

Yn ôl i’r dyfodol

Diosg y masg hud

A canfod traed ar dir

Heb wybod, heb gysylltiad

Idliaf i lifoedd hanes dyn

Mewn cyfres o atyniadau twristaidd.

Does na’m llawer o ots amdana i

Dwi fel biliynnau eraill nawr

Ymbalfalu am amser

Pan fu cysylltiad dilys

A’r unig ffordd yn ol i hynny nawr

Yw drwy rhith-freuddwyd burhoedlog

Y drydedd masg.

The Third Mask

2018, leaving again

The third leave-taking, to the sixth life

Back and forth

Cymru and England

Indigeneity and exile

Two personalities, two purposes

Two of Ezra’s masks?

A folksy humility, an urban intellectualism

Back and forth

The heart’s voice

The pragmatist’s voice

Age old rhythm of Welsh survival.

This time it’s different, but similar:

Reaching far shores, resembling

Trees, sheep, green hills

A trick of imposed heritage – I’m inducted

Recruited to the Pākehān hoarde,

Conquistadores of Aotearoa.

Living under patronage and shelter

Language, banner, culture of the old empire

Forsaking the indigenous, the natural, the just.

Traversing the new landscape

My old dual masks confuse

Comfort of a victim’s narrative

Commingled with the emptiness of the colonist

Professional pragmatism

Has chosen the other side of the coin.

But the old land calls -

The mythical square mile of a birth’s locality -

Restless under the surface of experience

Every step, every minute an echo

Of a home that is by now under waves

Of isolation and forgetting

Processes of eroding evolving

That which was left behind.

I went back for a week in 2019,

A kind of furlough from the front,

Can one go back, now, again

Amidst the plague, without going?

Connecting with original ground

A new, magic, mask promises intimacy

Strong connection across continents -

The third mask.

Naïve nostalgia, or an intimate approach?

We’ll see

We’ll hear

We’ll feel?

But can we return to the stillness?

Can we stand on the ground?

The City, the Memorial;

Two places, two Cymrus

Site of an unsteady senate

Murder scene of the last prince

Rite in stone and concrete

A legend for the sons of the coast

School trip, work trip,

City of Wales, Commemoration of justification

Habitation or enchantment:

Are these the core locations of the country?

The power of a town square

Lost in a mix of memories

Buildings off the track

Land that’s been covered

In concrete – modernity’s mercantile mantle.

Is there hope to lift spirits

In a square still in the shadow of the old tower?

A lonely stone in a precise home

The flowers a tribute, the grave quiet

An empty field near a busy road

And hardly a place to park a car.

In the trees of this crucial clearing

The scream of an owl hardly penetrates

The sound of motor, the taste of pollution.

The Mountain, The River;

Foel Fach Goch is the mountain

I remember the first time its charm

Transported me - with the help of my parent’s rusty little car

As we drove past her

The purple heather the perfect crown

To boyish fantasies

Castle of rock and the chance of a beast.

The fifth life

I walked the Foel’s ferned trails

The dog picking a stick from the green sea

And my wife close to delivering a new life.

Over in the distance, can I see my River, The Dyfi?

The Dyfi and its magnificent valley,

Its international status, and its once-parliamentary town?

No, the river is undoubtedly the Leri

A natural descendant, the secret carrier of highland waterways

An unceremonious river, its final journey

Trapped in canalised order

Invented by industrial invaders, who

Still have their sand castles

Quelling the surrounding beaches.

The Village;

It claims me

My childhood village

A live drama of language’s death

Swapping old ladies for holiday homes

Me, in the midst the brutality

Of the primary school’s sectarian battle

Language, class and background cross-cutting

Farmer, immigrant, intellectual, the lost

In a web of hatred and blindness.

At the centre, a still room

My parents and their music and literature

Guests from Africa, the USSR

The writing, the reading, the land-line phone

The black-out nights

In the glow of fiery coal

And blue flames promising snow.

Mam is still there now

A year’s isolation from the plague

A part of me is with her

In a sweet yellow kitchen

Constantly nattering the world into its place

The territorial Robin tapping at the pane.

It was the first life.

Although the place, and the land here is part

Of me now, from my vague multilateral setting.

The Town;

By the fifth life

The town is in my posession

A job at university

Ready respect in place of paranoia

I can believe again the delusions

Of my aspirations.

I can live there like any other person

Walk the prom, pick up kids from school.

But suddenly the dusk clears

And the cold ray of 'the Welsh situation'

Burns through the brittle status

The humanistic dream in tatters

The philosophical fraternity in flight

And every individual fighting

For scraps of meat from the butcher’s block.

The Castle;

The old tower’s shadow

Is dark and penetrating.

Coming back now, in the sixth life

I'm wandering the Castle grounds

And trying to resurrect the romance of the picturesque

The rock-scars

To play among the monoliths

Imitate myself from my first life,

This time with a smile.

But putting a foot down here is dangerous

Land mines lurking

Their ready explosions

Full of shrapnel – old certainties smashed up

The certainties of times gone by

Stacked at the castle doors

A bonfire of inevitable submission

A brave sacrifice for a good town.

Time is a cruel element

Indifference is the constant

And my current film sitting in some vacuum

Time before the big closing

Time before the European departure.

Can one stand in that space?

The Bronze Forest;

Maybe the way ahead

Is to go back

Not to ancient human artefacts

But deeper geographical rhythms

Stumpy trees from the bronze age

Alive in the imagination

An orchard of roots

A radiance that unites

Moving sands, certain sense

Before humans fainted

Into the arms of arrogance -

Clay above clay

The whole lot an inert resource -

Back before beginnings, before the garden.

Back to the future

Lose the magic mask

And find feet standing on ground

Without knowing, with no connection

I surrender to the flow of human time

In a succession of tourist locations.

I don’t really matter now

I am like billions of others

Fumbling for the time

And a valid connection

And the only way back now seems

Through the fleeting half-dream

Of the Third Mask.


Updated: 4 days ago

DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2020.27 | Issue 6 | May 2021

Paul Newland (University of Worcester, UK)


Park Avenue & East 53rd Street is a film about the Seagram Building and a New York City street corner on which it stands. It features a voice over by Asheq Akhtar, camera by Tom Lecky, synthesizer improvisations by Ben Edwards (aka Benge), and archival footage from the film Birth of a Building (provided by the Hagley Museum and Library). Drawing primarily on the geographer Doreen Massey’s theoretical work on space, Park Avenue & East 53rd Street is an experimental, poetic attempt to use digital video and sound to explore the ways in which a specific urban location might develop a character (or characters) – through a process of ‘becoming’ - that could not have been imagined by architects and planners. The film also seeks to examine how far representations might affect the identity or even the life of an urban space. The film asks: what are the potential ‘uses’ or ‘potentials’ or ‘experiences’ of architectural spaces, as opposed to their original plans and design intentions? Employing contemporary iPhone footage of a street corner by the Seagram Building in New York City (a celebrated corporate architectural structure emblematic of modernity and US capitalism), alongside stock documentary footage of this building being constructed in the late 1950s, Park Avenue & East 53rd Street uses a voice-over to examine links between personal memory, nostalgia and loss, but also poetry, visual representations, architectural design, history, and the everyday rhythms of an urban place. By writing the voice-over/voice-off to be performed in a variety of modes of delivery – such as personal reminiscence, dialogue, academic lecture, omniscient expository narrator (direct address) – and mixing this voice with an evocative synthesizer soundtrack that serves to evoke the rhythms of the modern city as industrial complex - the film becomes a meditation on how far specific places in cities might be understood to be in a process of ‘becoming’ (Massey), and how representations can facilitate this ‘becoming’.

Research Statement

The geographer Doreen Massey once asked ‘Can we rethink our sense of place? Is it not possible for a sense of place to be progressive; not self-enclosing and defensive, but outward-looking?’ (1994: 147) In conceptualising such a new, progressive sense of place in the contemporary world, Massey argued that instead of thinking about places as enclosed, grounded areas defined by boundaries, ‘they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings’ (1994: 154). In her book For Space (2005), Massey also raised the question: ‘What if we open up the imagination of the single narrative to give space (literally) for a multiplicity of trajectories?’ (2005: 5) Thus, in its simultaneous temporality, space for Massey might always in a process of ‘becoming’; of being made. If one follows this logic, the same can be said for buildings and streets. Architectural structures are always ‘becoming’, and can open up space for multiple trajectories. Drawing primarily on Massey’s theoretical work on space and place, Park Avenue & East 53rd Street is an experimental, poetic attempt to use digital video and sound to explore the ways in which a specific urban location and architectural structure that informs this location might develop a character (or characters) through a process of ‘becoming’ which could never have been imagined by architects and planners. Linked to this, the film aims to examine how far a system or history representations might affect the identity or imagined life of an urban space or a specific building. By doing this, the film asks: what are the ‘potentials’ or ‘potential experiences’ of architectural spaces, as opposed to their original plans and design intentions? And how are these potentials – more accurately, spatial potentials – related to the ontologies of the specific places concerned? As well as Massey, the film cites via the voice-over the critical and theoretical work of writers such as Kevin Lynch, Georges Perec, Steen Eiler Rasmussen and William Whyte. Employing contemporary iPhone footage of a Park Avenue street corner by the Seagram Building in New York City (shot by the American artist Tom Lecky during the COVID-19 pandemic), interweaved with stock documentary footage of this building being constructed in the late 1950s, the film Park Avenue & East 53rd Street uses a voice-over (performed by the actor Asheq Akhtar) to examine links between personal memory, nostalgia and loss, poetry (e.g. Frank O’Hara), cinema (e.g. The Best of Everything), photography, architectural design, history, and the quotidian rhythms of a distinct urban place at one specific moment in 2020.

Voiceover and Spatiality

For Bill Nichols, in the mode of ‘direct address’ often seen in documentary films, the male voice-over is ‘overwhelmingly didactic’ in its domination of the visual (1988: 48). The traditional expository mode of direct address relies on proximity between text and image: the words explicate the visuals, telling the spectator how he or she should interpret them; the potential for secondary, connotative meaning is limited. A crucial component of such an ‘unproblematic’ narration has traditionally been held to be the masculinity of the ‘voice of God’, the traditional tones of authority and universality (Bruzzi 2000: 57). Writers such as Michel Chion and Mary Ann Doane have considered film voice-overs as ‘disembodied’ phenomena. In my work (2016) on the function of the voice in Patrick Keiller’s film Robinson in Ruins I argue that through a combination of omniscient authority, self-reflexive irony, and the mannered vocal performance of the role of a fictional character, Vanessa Redgrave’s voice-over evokes an uncontainable presence. I demonstrate that the fluid play of presence and absence in Redgrave’s disembodied voice-over - but also the grain of her voice (Barthes 1977), its performative qualities, and its display of traces of an enduring star persona – informs the free and open concept of place and spatiality that the film explores and articulates. What primarily interested me about Redgrave’s performance in this film, but also the voice-overs provided by Paul Scofield in the earlier Keiller ‘Robinson’ films London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997), is the fact that these voices create interestingly rich spatial effects. I wanted to experiment with the ways in which the aesthetic device of a performed voice-over might help us to better understand the ontology of architectural structures and nodes in cities within the contexts of human experience, memory and imagination.

Phonotopes as Architectural Structures

The sonic space I call a ‘phonotope’ (the prefix ‘phono’ deriving from the Greek word for ‘sound’, but also suggesting ‘speech’ or ‘voice’) can be best understood as an audio-visual redevelopment of Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the literary chronotope, specifically pertaining to the potentially spatial effects and functions of the human voice. For Bakhtin, a chronotope is a ‘time-space’. (1981: 84) I have argued elsewhere (2010 and 2016) that a phonotope can be best understood as a ‘voice-space’ which temporally informs and structures the spatial imaginary and, as it does this, transcends material, ‘real’ spaces represented by the images in a film. In other words, phonotopes are filmic time-spaces in which voices develop a temporal dialogue between ‘real’ places, places represented in images on screen, and places that are described by these voices but that remain unseen and off-screen. I see phonotopes very much as a geographically spatial phenomenon, not just as a means of describing how a space impacts on sound. Rather, a phonotope might be understood as a conceptual voice/space that can allow a spectator/listener to imagine and subsequently describe specific landscapes or territories suggested by vocal performances. Because phonotopes can reorganise, reimagine and restructure our experience of material reality they can effectively become architectural.

The plan for Park Avenue & East 53rd Street was to develop an architectural phonotope through a voice-over performance influenced by the work of Sarah Turner, Chris Marker and Patrick Keiller, whereby the voice is not to be yoked to a singular mode of address, documentary or otherwise. I encouraged a heterogeneous, multi-generic performance from the actor Asheq Akhtar in which his voice ultimately floats free of interiority and exteriority, omniscience, characterisation, persona, individual expression, and, as such, generic expectation, but also, importantly, the precise grounded location in the city shot in the film. The shifting mode of vocal address in the film – moving quickly between hesitancy to knowing irony to authority – is designed to lend Akhtar’s voice (or the voice of an unnamed character) a fluid sense of enunciation. In its constant shifting between describing and departing from the image, and in its shifts is performative style, this voice assumes an open, unlocated, or ‘unenclosed’ status. As such, Akhtar’s voice-over becomes a strategic aesthetic device that facilitates the exploration of architectural spatiality. It develops a boundless, uncontainable phonotope; a ‘voice-space’ which temporally informs and structures the architectural and spatial imaginary and, as it does this, restructures the material, ‘real’ spaces represented by the images. This phonotope suggests, in aesthetic terms, the ‘multiplicity of trajectories’ that Massey calls for in her spatial theory, thereby invoking and articulating a process ‘becoming’ through film and film sound.

Groundedness and Photogénie

At the same time, the film explores and critiques the concept of ‘groundedness’. Arif Dirlik advocates that ‘Place as metaphor suggests groundedness from below, and a flexible and porous boundary around it, without closing out the extra local, all the way to the global.’ (2011: 57). The film employs the recurring and central symbolic device of a brass manhole situated on the sidewalk below the Seagram building on Park Avenue to work through and critique some of the interesting tensions evident in Dirlik’s conceptualisation of grounded place. For example, Dirlik argues: ‘This is where ecological and indigenous conceptions of place have some crucial insights to contribute by bringing nature into the conceptualization of place. The ecological conception insists that an important aspect of the concept of place is its groundedness in topography.’ (55) The island of Manhattan, which through its massive development since the nineteenth century has of course come to disguise much of its natural topography and ecology, nevertheless is not entirely spatially divorced from (or alien) to the topographical and ecological aspects of its specific grounded location. By focusing on the manhole cover at Park Avenue and E53 Street, the film plays with and explores the essential absence that informs this location’s relationship to the natural topography and ecology of the ground on which it has been constructed, while also playfully drawing the gaze of the viewer away from the celebrated, monumental Seagram building (designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson) and through a poetic process of the ‘making-strange’ of an aspect of the location which would usually be unnoticed. Here I drew on the Russian formalist concept of ostranenie, and Jean Epstein’s notion (or interpretation) of the concept of photogénie (see Farmer 2010). For Daniel Frampton: ‘the concept of photogénie [is] that sublime, indefinable, ineffable quality given by film to the objects and people within it (and found most readily in close‐ups and slow‐motion).’ (2006: 52) However, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell advocate that ‘photogénie is created by the properties of the camera: framing isolates objects from their environment, black‐and‐white film stock further transforms their appearance, special optical effects further change them, and so on. By such means […] the cinema gives us access to a realm beyond everyday experience’ (2003: 91). And Richard Abel states that photogénie ‘assumed that the ‘real’ was transformed by the camera/screen, which, without eliminating that ‘realness’, changed it into something radically new […] the effect of photogénie was singular: to make us see ordinary things as they had never been seen before.’ (1988: 110) Through the repetition of close-up images of the manhole cover, the aim with my film was to develop photogénie as a spatial device, which it is hoped helps to articulate and develop the potential of new spatial awareness of this locale in New York City. In this way, a quotidian street object is shown to be connected, through poetic language, to wider, global, atomic and/or universal forms of spatiality.


  • Abel, R. (1988). French Film Theory and Criticism, 1907-1939: Volume 1. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

  • Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin and London: University of Texas Press.

  • Barthes, R. (1977). ‘The Grain of the Voice’. Image Music Text. London: Fontana.

  • Bruzzi, S. (2000). New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. London and New York: Routledge.

  • Chion, M. (1994). Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbmann. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Chion, Michel (1999). The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbmann. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Dirlik, A. (2011). ‘Globalism, Indigenism, Social Movements, and the Politics of Place.’ Localities (1): 47-90.

  • Doane, M. A. (1980). ‘The Voice in the Cinema: the articulation of body and space’. Yale French Studies (60) Cinema/Sound. 33-50.

  • Epstein, J. (1977). ‘Magnification and Other Writings’. October (3) Spring 1977: 9‐25.

  • Farmer, R. J. (2010). Jean Epstein and Photogénie narrative avant­garde film theory and practice in late silent­era French cinema. MA thesis, University of Exeter.

  • Frampton, D. (2006). Filmosophy. London: Wallflower.

  • Lambert, P. (2013). Building Seagram. Yale University Press.

  • Lynch, K. (1960). The Image of the City. MIT Press.

  • Massey, D. (1994). Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Massey, D. (2005). For Space, London: Sage.

  • O’Hara, F. (1986). Lunch Poems. City Lights.

  • Newland, P. (2008). ‘Folksploitation: Charting the Horrors of the British Folk Music Tradition in The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)’, in Seventies British Cinema, edited by Robert Shail. London: British Film Institute. 119-28.

  • Newland, P. (2016) ‘The Spatial Politics of the Voice in Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins (2010). The New Soundtrack, 6 (2): 129-142.

  • Perec, G. (2008). Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. Penguin.

  • Rasmussen, S. E. (1962). Seeing Architecture. MIT Press.

  • Thompson, K. and Bordwell, D. (2003). Film History: An Introduction, 2nd Edition. New York: McGraw Hill.

  • Whyte, W. H. (1980). The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Project for Public Spaces Inc.