Aurora Engine on TERRE, showcasing at Made In Scotland

Ahead of her run as part of this year's Made In Scotland showcase, we catch up with Aurora Engine to find out how she incorporates Scotland's landscape and wildlife into her music

Feature by Tony Inglis | 09 Aug 2023
  • Aurora Engine

Deborah Shaw has been preoccupied with the climate crisis. It has informed her artistic practice, the way she engages with the environment, the way she works, and the way she acts as a mother. As part of Made in Scotland’s familiarly socially-conscious Fringe programme, this will manifest onstage as TERRE, a series of audiovisual shows where Shaw, as Aurora Engine, attempts to electroacoustically transpose the Scottish landscape into music and sound.

“I’m all about how we can address climate anxiety as artists that works with our practice. It’s got to be a natural process,” says Shaw over a video call, surrounded by a harp, piano, and other instruments that she’ll appear with during TERRE. “I wanted to explore it through my work in a way that would bring me closer to nature because that inspires you to want to make small changes. In my activism, and my call to action, it’s more about making those small changes that we can do every day.”

Shaw, who is originally from County Durham but has worked as a musician and an educator in Edinburgh for well over a decade, has landed on particularly novel methods to make a tangible connection between humanity and nature which addresses climate unease in a more physical way than other music focusing on the subject – The Weather Station’s emotional Springsteenian calls for hope; ANOHNI’s pained missives of regret and anger. Instead, she sought to translate and interpret wildlife and landscape into a sonic map initially based off field recordings gathered from around the Water of Leith where she lives.

“I have this immersive world right here in the city and the work is a product of me being here,” she explains. “The accessibility of nature in Edinburgh and the rest of the country is very special. And I really wanted to listen to what animals were doing, how they were making sounds, and how that made me feel and connect with the animal.”

While some of these were worked up into more traditional songs, others take a textural, experimental tact, looking to bring the sounds of animals and the elements to the listener. On one piece, SYRINX, Shaw took birdsong, pitch-shifted it down to her vocal range, studied the intervals and tones and different patterns, and mimics it using her own voice live. On another, D R O N E, recordings of bees in various moods and habitats are layered until their buzz becomes an ambient soundscape.

Shaw has had to overcome a number of barriers to pursue her art – as a woman, from a working class background, who wanted to learn classical instruments. Another was becoming a new mother. “I was a single parent to a very tiny baby. I found this entry into motherhood was quite sudden for me,” she says. “I was on my own, which meant that I couldn’t do that anymore, I couldn’t access music making in the way that I was used to, I couldn’t attend rehearsals or be part of an ensemble. I found this to be quite a loss. What I did do was take a lot of walks, as you do when you have a small child, and I just started tuning in to what was around me: the sounds of insects, birds, water.”

While the ongoing climate disaster can create a great deal of anxiety when future generations connect it to the prospect of parenthood, becoming a mother gave Shaw an insight. “I’m conscious of strengthening children’s relationship with the world and nature as opposed to putting a lot of catastrophe, guilt and dread on their shoulders. There’s a fine line between caring and anxiety overtaking. Engaging healthily with nature deepens your connection and makes you care and want to act.”

A number of creative projects are coming to fruition for Shaw. Later in the year she’ll release a new album, Secret Knock, which mixes pop songwriting with the environmentalist sound art that populates TERRE. On one track, Horde, Shaw used the sounds of an Aeolian harp – an instrument that is played as the wind catches it – on a beach paired with whispered voices from over 100 contributors expressing themselves about their desires and life, which she collaborated with sound recordist Chris Watson to turn into a collage-like composition. The two projects, says Shaw, speak to a meditative realisation of terrains both external and internal.

“I felt quite boxed in for many years as an artist, unable to actually perform and unable to get things out for various reasons,” she says. “If TERRE is about the physical landscape, the album is about how my landscape evolved as a musician during that time of incubation, about the loss, and eventual recovery, of creative voice, this growth and how I had to change the trajectory I was on.”

Aurora Engine brings TERRE to Summerhall, Edinburgh, 16-19 Aug as part of this year's Made In Scotland showcase