As January came to a chilly close we were out doing some field recordings – or barn recordings, as the cows are still in their winter quarters. In past years musicians have been called in to play to cows in various investigative projects aiming to increase milk yield. There is a particularly arresting photo of an all-woman vaudeville band in the 1930’s playing trombones to the herd in a dairy barn in Wisonsin. But Sianed Jones, the composer on CowGirl Parlour, wanted to see for herself not only how cows responded to her singing and playing, but to listen in turn for the rhythms of their breathing, chewing, the sounds of miking and the strange beats and melodies of cattle… Below are some of Sianed’s notes on the day.
“There are two hand-milked cows, Peggy and her daughter Snowdrop, at Canon Frome Court, which was our first stop. Normally the morning milkers Erica and Ann would have been chatting away non-stop about this and that but because of the presence of the microphone there were some silences whilst we recorded the rhythm of the milk going into the bucket and the sound of them chewing the cud, breathing and snorting. The cows were taken back to the barn and given a barrow load of freshly picked greens which they attacked with enthusiasm, great crunching noises and ripping of leaves.
I chose to play a bass viol da gamba because I thought the cows might be more responsive to lower tonalities especially the bass notes and drone- like sounds. I tried a few high vocal sounds but it did not feel quite right to be fast or to be high. I tried some plucking riffs on the bass and some slow melodies almost blues like.
Later that day we moved on to Cropthorne Farm, which has a herd of 120 dairy cows. Perched on an upturned breezeblock, I played the viol again, and sang. A few of the younger cows wandered up to get a closer look, scratching themselves on the gate or sniffing around the wall but also listening. One even had a ‘moo’ almost the same pitch as my bottom string. We moved further inside the shed to where there were younger cows and a magnificent red and white bull who I had a lovely duet with at one point with the cows all lined up by the fence to see what was going on.
Once the cows are back out in the pasture in the spring I will be able to try out my calling songs and learn some calling sounds. I’m sure that the sounds that come to me outdoors will be completely different to the ones from inside the cowshed. I’m looking forward to hearing the recordings so far.” Sianed Jones, Composer, CowGirl Parlour.