Wild Côa Symphony

Posted: 29th September 2022

Photo: Antony Lyons

Working closely with local communities in the Greater Côa Valley, the creative collaboration of ecological artist Antony Lyons, archaeologist Bárbara Carvalho and musician Jesse D. Vernon has been exploring this river valley region. Through a series of seasonal journeys, they have been connecting with the communities, ecology and the elemental character of the landscape. By introducing new forms of attention, their project, titled ‘Wild Côa Symphony’, reflects on the identity of the valley-region and its layers of time – past, present and future. The artist residency aims to enhance a sense of local pride and help envisage futures where both biodiversity and communities can flourish.

The host organisation for this residency is Rewilding Portugal, who are catalysts for ecological regeneration. The Côa Valley of Northern Portugal is an important region for birds of prey and apex predators, but overhunting and persecution have diminished populations of these species, disrupted food chains and damaged local ecology. Rewilding Portugal is creating a crucial wildlife corridor in the Greater Côa Valley and transforming a region with currently high levels of rural depopulation and species loss into one with new opportunities for people and wildlife.

A rocky outcrop from below.

The very diverse landscape character of the Côa Valley provides inspiration for the project. Image: Antony Lyons.

“This is a project of journeys and encounters, where people with very different backgrounds, are exploring multi-sensory geographies in a landscape. Through meanderings on pathways, the experience of a region defined by a river has become a shared place; shared also with participants and partners. In our work, we communicate a core principle of ‘flow’ and positive ecological change, enhancing a sense of territorial identity, encompassing a river and its topography. It’s not only a water body, a resource, a borderland. For me, there are so many other layers – unconscious dimensions of a landscape that materialise identity, pride and consequently, care.” – Bárbara Carvalho

Left image: an aerial view of a river valley with roads running along each side. Right image: A person in a hat and life jacket kayaking in a lake or river, surrounded by low mountains in an arid landscape.

The team has connected with the valley’s waterscapes, ecologies and communities. Image: Antony Lyons.

Over four seasons, the creative team has been seeking to discover diverse flows, rhythms, atmospheres and entanglements within the communities and terrain of the Côa Valley. Guiding their journey are questions around wildness, healing, freedom, sustenance, sanctuary and co-existence. Of particular interest are the personal attachments to place, stories and poems of flora and fauna, and elemental qualities of water, weather, rock and fire, which have a big influence on people and nature in this harsh landscape.

‘We are tuning-in, and drawing attention to many facets that form this place, contemplating also the time-range from the deep past, through the present and into the future. We feel we are enhancing the ecological restoration vision by celebrating the cultural vitality and the multi-sensory atmospheres of the terrain and ecosystems.’ – Antony Lyons

Rock art engravings in the Côa Valley, in a cave.

Through thousands of years, humans have left their marks on this landscape, as shown here in Paleolithic rock art. Image: Antony Lyons.

Throughout their residency, Lyons, Carvalho and Vernon are using a variety of processes and artforms to engage with the landscape and the communities, including acoustic field-recordings, music-based data sonification, photography and moving-image. In spring this year, they conducted their second creative expedition in the Côa Valley, engaging local communities with performative walking events as well as sound and music workshops with primary school pupils in the large regional town of Pinhel. Sharing music has opened doors to community connections that may otherwise have been less accessible.

A young girl with brown hair points at a drawing of a wolf.

Engagement with communities included workshops with primary school pupils. Image: Antony Lyons. Illustration: Indagatio.

Their journey culminated with an artist-led ‘deep time’ walk with the community of Vilar Maior, visiting the nearby Rewilding Portugal site of Vale Carapito. Prompted by pre-recorded sounds, the group of 30 participants, of all ages, were able to imaginatively explore the past, present and future of their local environment. The walking party also shared local plant knowledge, memories and stories. The event included musical interludes, with a playful impromptu choral session and a specially composed song ‘Vilar Maior, telling the story of the artists’ journey along the river valley to this historic town.

“I was born and lived all my life in this place, walking back and forward in every one of its paths, but I never took the time to pay enough attention to understand how much we could find in it, about us, about nature, about time and the changing landscape. Things that you cannot find written in a book, things of life that you can only understand by being present. Thank you so much to the Wild Côa Symphony to have encouraged us to be there and share a wonderful afternoon together in the Vale Carapito.” – Mayor of Vilar Mayor, António Cunha

Four pictures of a small group of people singing and playing the guitar. Image: Anthony Lyons.

Other community engagement activities included a ‘deep time’ walk, including musical interludes. Image: Antony Lyons.

During this time the team also had the opportunity to attend the release of a herd of 10 Sorraia horses at Ermo das Águias near Vale de Madeira, Pinhel, an important event for Rewilding Portugal. Wild horses once roamed widely across the Iberian Peninsula. Like the Sorraias of today, they helped to maintain biodiversity-rich landscapes through their grazing, trampling and other behaviours. Over time, populations of such horses declined dramatically due to hunting pressure and the rise of domestic livestock and agriculture. A small population of Sorraia horses, a breed of ancient horse that developed in Portugal, was discovered in the 1920s; it is from this stock that the lineage has been preserved, although the breed remains rare.

A collage of photos of Sorraia horses.

The Wild Côa Symphony includes imagery from the release of a herd of 10 Sorraia horses, who form a key part of the restoration and fire-prevention strategy. Image: Antony Lyons.

Wild Côa Symphony

Imagery, soundscapes, and songs have been gathered during the creative expeditions and the project will culminate in the creation of the ‘Wild Côa Symphony’ an audio-visual artwork which will be a poetic view involving the entire journey of the Côa River, from the rains on Serra da Estrela to the confluence with the Douro River. Weaving together voices, field-recordings and many visual threads, it will, to some extent, always remain an unfinished symphony.

A collage of images of people singing and playing instruments.

Sharing music has opened doors to community connections that may otherwise have been less accessible. Image: Antony Lyons.

Wild Côa Symphony will take the form of an exhibition with film and sound, communicating a multi-sensory ‘map’ of this distinctive place, a landscape which is forever morphing and adapting; a valley in transition. Through an immersive experience, audiences will be invited to contemplate the changing landscape as a place of healing and repair for people and ecologies, and discover some of the multiple entangled flows of the Côa Valley bioregion.

“With a focus on ecological, cultural and elemental aspects, our collaborative expeditions have set out to reach and record many little-known places and events in the Côa Valley landscape, activating conversations and gaining new personal insights and understandings. In my experience, long duration and commitment are needed for a respectful creative encounter with communities and ecologies in a place or region. The aim of our work is therefore to create a space – real and metaphorical – for the co-creation of a video-sonic ‘portrait’ with which people can genuinely feel an emotional relationship, and which can also evolve over time.”  – Antony Lyons

Four images of a concrete pipe, and signs at the source of the River Côa.

To develop a sense of the landscape processes of the whole valley region, the artists journeyed to the source of the River Côa in the southern uplands. Image: Antony Lyons.

“I love being involved with the Côa Valley and its people. I went there with my guitar and was introduced to some amazing people and places. Old and new songs were sung, and sounds resonated in the moment and back across aeons of earth time into the deep roots of this landscape. I can’t wait to go back – to the rocks and valleys and joyful music-sharing!” – Jesse D Vernon, musician/composer with the Wild Côa Symphony team.

A short preview of the ‘Wild Côa Symphony’ was screened locally, at the Vila Wild Festival in early September, accompanied by an open-air photographic exhibition. In spring and summer 2023, the full video-sonic work will be exhibited in the project area and tour to other locations, including internationally. It will be accompanied by an artist book publication and music-composition releases.

To find out more about the Côa Valley Artist Residency, see the project page. For updates on the exhibit, visit the Wild Côa Symphony web page. The project has links to a related initiative by Lyons, titled ‘Here Commons Everybody’, which is supported by the CCRI and Arts Council England. Additional support for Wild Côa Symphony exhibitions and publications is provided by the international research project Heritage Futures.

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