Verity Birt

Notes on Sounding

They would press their cheek against the stone and know the origin of the universe,

They would feel it in their throat,

                           a tender resonance.

My voice cracks as I descend my pitch into the chasm. I’m lying flat with my cheek pressed against a sweeping sandstone outcrop, warmed by the June sunshine in Northumberland National Park. Grains of primordial sand dust the porous surface and imprints my skin with shining speckles. I turn my mouth into the carved channel, the boisterous wind now tenderly stroking the back of my hair.  



Worn smooth by thousands of years of Northumbrian weather, the carved gouge snakes its way down through the belly of the slab for several metres. It was crafted over generations with bone and antler picks and painted rust-red with ochre. Cup marks dimple the surrounding stone, collecting rainwater, straggles of tangled fleece and orange soil thrown up by rabbits. Soft rings radiate from these shallow vessels, spiralling outward in soft mesmeric ripples.  

“Madness and witchery as well as bestiality are conditions commonly associated with the use of the female voice in public, in ancient as well as modern contexts.” 1

An older woman is whining to my right, I feel her warm breath in my ear. Her voice rings pure and deceptively girlish. I shift my pitch to match hers and pass the resonance down the channel. My left ear distinguishes a soft cackle, gradually releasing a clangourous eruption of laughter back up the stone, shifting from joyous to menacing. The volume suddenly amplifies and we become one continuous 

yyyyyYYYyyeyehh  hhhhhhhhurrrrr…//=====.   .. .,


        —–~~~~~~ ~}}eeeeeeyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyhhhhh

               Hhhhhh        lllllluuuuuuurggggghhhh    haa ahahahh–––yyyaahaha

The sandstone protrudes like sleeping limbs from under a blanket of turf. Deep time has soaked into the peat and hangs in the heather. This place holds memory; its anima locus charged with mythology and ritual, enfolding many layers of human ancestry. Older than writing, the symbols held by the stone offer a threshold into another word, one entangled with, and engendered by the land. An Iron Age hillfort perches atop the crest of the hill above us, incorporating carved standing stones into its architecture. Bronze Age cairns cluster around the outcrop, the piled stones almost swallowed by clouds of purple heather. Just across the valley, Simonside’s ridge crests the horizon. Thought to be a corruption of ‘Sigemund’s seat’, the site is named for the dragon slaying hero from the epic poem Song of the Nibelungs.

As a group of womxn, excluded from written history, we have come here to re-member this acoustic space where stories were transferred orally and songs were sung for millennia. What sounds have we lost from each-other and the land; too lively to restrain into language, too vibrant for rational translation?

It is the body which points out and which speaks, this disclosure extends, as we shall see, to the whole sensible world … the experience of our own body, will discover in all other objects the miracle of expression.”2

The Neolithic rock art is nestled on the side of the hill, facing the river. Unlike the phallic and monolithic structures we associate with prehistoric monuments, these large slabs are naturally horizontal; an inviting stage. The topography shelters us from the wind and amplifies our voices. Lying flat, we see and feel the minerology of the sandstone intimately, its glittering surface flecked with lichen and traversed by ants, flies and money spiders. The spiral rings of the ancient carvings appear like vibration; sound waves. We improvise in response, passing sound between our bodies of flesh and stone. We become one organism, listening and sounding simultaneously. Immersed in this sonic space, time bends and loops back; refrains building and repeating, sounds now coming not from us, but from somewhere else. My own voice becomes submerged; we are everywhere. A skylark joins the chorus, the stone begins to vibrate, charged with energy, something is emitting. Emotions stir, I hear sobbing. Voices quieten, the wind brings its own whispers. I pull my fingertips over the soft lip of the channel, I meet another’s hand.


Across the gallery, our voices coalesce as a two channel sound work; a speaker in each corner, re-enacting the way it was recorded in her living room. Her private domestic space enveloped this therapeutic sounding session; a meditative process to release and share energy as sonic vibration; call and response. We are experimenting with voice beyond language, a preverbal expression emitted from our bodies. The atavistic sounds caress and test each other, feeling out the space between understanding. 

Sound is an envelope. No point of focus; no fixed boundaries; space made by the thing itself, not space containing. It is not pictorial space but dynamic, always in flux; creating its own dimensions moment by moment. It has no fixed boundaries, is indifferent to background, the ear favors sounds from any direction, it can experience things simultaneously.”3

The improvised nature of this experiment lets the sound shape itself; finding resonance in and between the bodies of those present, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in discord. We are sonically affirming the bond between us, an ongoing permeation. Soon she will be pregnant with an embryo created with my eggs. I have fertilised, she will gestate and deliver in collaborative reproduction. 

Uuuuuuuh uh}yaaaaauuuuuuuuuhhhuuuu“uuuuhhh h hhh hh `—––-–––whuu

      }}}uuuuuya    aaaaeeeeeeeeeeeeey y yyyey y__—≠≠≠yu yu  

Our voices reverberate off the furniture, skim the hard wooden floors and sink into the deep piled rug; fleshing the sound. Now echoing through the gallery, it takes on a new flesh, permeating and caressing the bodies of the viewers, bouncing off the artworks and leaking out onto the street. There is something ancient and holy in this vocal lament to motherhood; moving through states of yearning, grace, tranquillity and grief, our voices channel various maternal manifestations from the Virgin Mary to Gaia. Singing together creates bonds of trust and kinship,4 and re-calling the oral transmission of memory and embodied knowledge outside of written and patriarchal history, the sounding acts as a non-linguistic container for that which is raw and undefined; as Audre Lorde affirmed “about to be birthed, but already felt”.5

We have no model for this collaborative mothering project, just an intuitive sense of unfolding destiny. The timing was right, our lives aligned. Finding words to identify the power of this experience will always fail. Instead we seek to communicate between the definitions, in the gaps left for us to emerge.


1: Anne Carson, “The Gender of Sound” Glass Irony and God (New York: New Directions Books, 1995) 120

2: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge 1962) 197

3: Marshall McLuhan in J. Marchellsault Marshall McLuhan (London: Sage 2005) 91

4: Jill Suttie, “How Music Bonds Us TogetherBerkeley June 28th, 2016, accessed 1/12/2020

5: Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury” in His Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle His Masters House (London: Penguin 2018) 

Click below to listen to some accompanying sound recordings: 

Deformation Attends Her


Verity Birt