Sound Catchers

A concept for outdoor performance by Near Now Studio member Jess Murray

Posted on 21st April 2023

Written by Near Now

Sound Catchers is a concept for outdoor performance developed by dance artist Jess Murray and musician Mitch Oldham.

In Sound Catchers, live percussion, dance and digital technologies are used in a roving ‘walk-about’ performance to co-create sound and movement with audiences in the moment. Performers portray ‘alien’ characters that are gathering sounds and rhythms to understand the human species through movement, sound and rhythm. The aim is to develop sound-generating wearable tech and static devices that blur the lines between movement and instrumental playing.

The performance uses live sound sampling and sound manipulation through ‘the Sound Catcher', a prop device which captures audience sound bites and transforms them into music that performers use to dance and play with audiences in real-time.

The show has appeared at Grimsby Creates Noise and Beeston Light Night as well as securing many dates with Applause Rural Touring over 2022/3. Sound Catchers is also due to appear as part of Derby Festé 2023.

 Sound Catchers at Beeston Light Night

Sound Catchers at Beeston Light Night

Jess and Mitch first had the idea of Sound Catchers whilst performing as stilt drummers at Blue Dot where they saw BBC Radiophonic Orchestra perform a set that integrated samples generated through a participatory workshop that had taken place earlier in the festival. This made them curious about how live sound sampling and sound manipulation might become part of an interactive outdoor performance and what this could facilitate in terms of performance dramaturgy and storytelling.

The aims were to develop a format of show that could be interactive, co-creative, and appeal to intergenerational audiences, as well as be site-responsive and highly flexible to the needs of different outdoor settings training from urban areas to green field festival sites.

Sound Catchers R&D

Sound Catchers R&D

Initial R&D was incubated by City Arts in Nottingham and supported by Arts Council England. Theatrical engineer Mike Patterson, creative technologist Neil Spowage and costume Designer Rowan Taylor joined Jess, Mitch and creative producer Alison Denholm to work through the logistical and creative demands of the concept. Focussing largely on the needs of outdoor performance, this included everything from portable power sources and internet broadcasting solutions, to troubleshooting weatherproof wearable tech and creating robust light-up costumes.

During 2019-2020, further support from Studio Wayne McGregor's QuestLab Network enabled Jess and Mitch to continue developing and testing ideas with a wider pool of collaborators including designers, creative technologists and performers. Collaborating with technologists Michael Davis and Steve Symons, they worked to create a prototype interactive lighting panel as part of a moving set as well as initial prototypes of sound generating wearable tech for dancers and a modular sound sampling and manipulation device to use with audiences. Designers Audrey Gaullard and Karsten Goodwin contributed to initial designs for costumes, set and props in a process that moved iteratively between advances in thinking around demands of the technology and the emerging design brief.

This phase of the research began to apply a user-centred design approach to thinking about the needs of the performers, the story-telling and also audience access and inclusion. Working during the time of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the need to be responsive to changing guidelines about social distancing was also prominent in the thinking around how the show could be accessed by audiences in a highly flexible format.

In order to be suited to performing outdoors in all weather and light conditions, it was important to prioritise robustness and ease of use by performers when designing the form and function of wearable tech and props. As well as being robust towards weather conditions and the physicality of the performance itself, a modular approach to developing tech mitigated the potential impact should one aspect of the tech fail during performance.

Sound Catchers R&D: workshopping the wearable tech

Sound Catchers R&D: workshopping the wearable tech

Connecting with outdoor arts producer Lou Lomas, Mitch and Jess went on to gain support from Arts Council England to create the first phase of the show - a roving performance for a cast of 5 which performed at Beeston Light Night and Grimsby Creates Noise in 2021. At this stage, technologist David Wilson-Clarke took on the making phase of the wearable tech, props and lighting systems for costumes while designer-makers Tom Cleaveland and Iola Weir completed the final design and make of the costumes and props.

What next?

Currently, Jess and Mitch are using the existing roving show as a test bed to develop and try out further iterations of the sound generating wearable tech and live sampling prop, gradually making changes and additions to meet the story-telling needs of the developing performance. The next phase of the project will explore how to make aspects of the technologies usable in an integrated community cast version of the show.

Jess and Mitch are currently working with creative technologists David Wilson-Clarke and Michael Davis on ideas such as ‘Theremin Hands’ (proximity generated sound tones) and ‘Body Percussion Generators’ (to generate percussive sound in response to movement). They are also planning to carry out further R&D around interactive sound and light generating technologies that can become part of a mobile, 2 meter high moving tower that would form the main set piece of a processional performance.


  • Near Now Studio Talk, 5 May 2023. A demonstration of the wearable tech, costumes and sharing more about the show and its ongoing development.
  • Near Now Studio Talk and Workshop, 10 Jan 2024. Further updates about the show, plus a practical movement-based workshop and experimentation with sound-generating wearable technologies.
  • Nottingham Light Night 2024, 2–3 Feb 2024. The Sound Catchers outdoor interactive show featuring live percussion, dance and digital technologies.

About the company

Jess has extensive experience of performing in outdoor arts productions such as ‘Master Juba, Wonder of the World’ with Fittings Multimedia Arts, and Stilt Batteristas. Jess worked as a dancer for the French pyrotechnic and percussion company Les Commandos Percu performing in France, Belgium, Holland and collaborating to create On the Night Shift for an audience of 20,000 at the Olympic Opening Ceremony at Windermere in 2012. She went on to perform with the company for a further year in performance in Holland, Belgium and France. More recently Jess was choreographer for outdoor performance Tappin’ In (developed by Steph Ridings and Lou Lomas) which was part of the Commonwealth Games 2022 cultural programme and Birmingham International Dance Festival. Jess is an Associate Artist of Studio Wayne McGregor through the QuestLab Network programme which supports dance artists in collaborating with creative technologists.

Mitch Oldham is a drummer and percussionist skilled in playing percussion instruments from Brazil, Cuba, The Middle East as well as kit drums. He is interested in creating experimental percussion racks that also serve as performance set and props and interfacing these with digital sound technologies to create opportunities for generative and interactive performance. Mitch has performed on European and World tours as well as being a studio musician and band leader of carnival bands ‘Fat Cat Brass’ and ‘Stilt Batteristas' as well as a community based Brazilian Samba group ‘Hand Made Samba’ who both regularly perform around the UK. He performs as ‘Dr.Um' - a solo drum-looper on a moveable stage which has appeared at festivals (Kendal MintFest, Blue Dot, Kendal Calling), carnival parades (Manchester Day Parade, Handmade parade) and outdoor events throughout the UK.

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