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A perfect summer’s day. Sunshine, slight breeze. The Ness ablaze with flowers.
Derek Jarman, Modern Nature

Prelude

Seagulls flocking over Ness [field-recording]: 02:00 / mp3 / 2019

At 9:15 AM on the 24th July 1991, the Post Office collected a hand-written envelope, that had been dropped into a letter box in New Romney near Dungeness. A day later, a bright orange envelope, addressed in a flourish of black ink, fell onto the floor of a one-bedroom flat in Park Fields, Wolverhampton.  Addressed by Derek Jarman this envelope is kept between the pages of a copy of Modern Nature.

In June this year, Modern Nature featured on the BBC Radio 4 series, Book of the Week.  Beautifully read by Rupert Everett the programme was recorded at Prospect Cottage, Jarman’s home in Dungeness. Everett reads from the desk where Modern Nature was written, and an orange envelope inscribed. The letter enclosed within that envelope ends with the words: ‘Dungeness is all flowers.’

Since receiving the letter in 1991, I have wanted to return to Dungeness and see Prospect Cottage in full flower. This summer, twenty-five years after his death I finally returned. I say ‘return’ although I had never actually been to the Ness. And yet, having waited so long, it does feel like a return of sorts, a return to somewhere I have never been and to a memory I am yet to forget.


Starlings Transmitting [field-recording]:  02:32 / mp3  / 2019

Listen. Listen now. Listen to Ness.
Ness speaks. Ness speaks gull, speaks wave, speaks
bracken and lapwing, speaks bullet, ruin, gale deception.
Ness speaks […] transmission, reception, Ness speaks
pure mercury, utmost secret, swift current, rapid fire.
Listen again. Listen back. Listen to the past of Ness […] [1]

As part of the ‘fifth continent’ Dungeness is set adrift, detached, flat and exquisitely bleak. Closer to Calais than London the Global Positioning System of my mobile, ignores Brexit and positions me firmly in France.  On the shingle, the derelict shell of a wooden shed [2], is thought to have been built by Marconi as part of his experiments with the transmission of wireless radio signals across English Channel. The airwaves still chatter in the frequent modulation of broken English and spoken French. Like many of the buildings on the Ness, Marconi’s ‘Wireless shed’ has been converted into a modernist holiday home.

A physical and architectural neighbour to the Wireless shed  [3], the Fog Signal Building is part of the Trinity House Experimentation Station [4]. In August of this year it became the site of my most recent covert residency and micro-FM transmission. The industrial bungalow lies low in the shingle at the very tip of the headland. Rising from its flat concrete roof, the perpendicular pluck of a decommissioned radio tower breaks cover, transmitting a ghost of presence in the horizontal empty – Ness. Every morning a small electronic murmur of starlings settles on the tower, briefly recommissioning transmission.


Fog Signal Building once housed the air pumps, whose compressed breath, mouthed through an array of six horns, tested the distance and propagation of fog signals. An architectural ghost of these forgotten voices remains in a monochrome tower of mute horns, which peaks over the sine waves of shingle, bellowing silently, out to sea.

Formed through longshore drift, the ‘dangerous nose’ of the Ness is constantly wiped by oblique incoming winds. And yet the landscape seems strangely still, evacuated of presence, it oxidises quietly. On the horizon the sea is visible, but it’s sound remains distant and remote, an audible rumour behind a vast tide of shingle.


Considered one of the quietest places in the UK, in the 1920’s the Ness was referred to as ‘the nearest approach to silence […]’[5] and selected as a good site for the large array of three acoustic mirrors at Great Stone (aka Denge). The early warning system of these concrete ears extends along the Kent coast, from Denge to Hythe, onto Dover and the South Foreland Lighthouse, where in 1899, Marconi conducted the first international radio transmission.

As part of the Hythe Acoustical Research Station, the sound mirrors at Hythe were constructed by the Air Ministry in the 1920’s with the largest of the two (30ft) being completed in 1929. Designed to survey the air, the mirrors listened out for the incoming propulsion of enemy aircraft. Although successful in tests, by 1936 the acoustic premonition of sound mirrors was superseded by the electromagnetic scan of RAdio Detection and Ranging.



Hythe Mirror gunfire [field-recording]: 00:41 / mp3 / 2019

At the summit of The Roughs, overlooking the beached military ranges below, the largest of the Hythe mirrors survives. Tagged and crumbling, its cracked concrete ear still listens. ‘[A]lone with nothing particular to listen to’, perhaps as Derek Jarman writes, ‘this is [its] finest hour.’[6] As I ascend the hill and reach the mirror, I hold a microphone out into the oracle [Auricle] of its hollow, and I am suddenly confronted with a burst of gunfire, the echo of its acoustic shrapnel shattering the mirror’s derelict silence. Francois Bonnet notes that ‘the echo, produced by the repercussions a multiplied sound […] establishe[s] a supernatural sonorous environment’[7]. Brandon Labelle also recognises the ghosting of acoustic delay when he writes: ‘the echo is a sound that comes back to haunt [ …]’[8]. Just as the mythical Echo wasted away,  her bones turning to stone, so too the percussion of the ballistics recurs, an echoic and fugitive spirit, mineralised in the concrete of the mirror.


Air Harp n.3: 04:12 / mp3 / 2019

My previous transmissions at Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station were composed of sounds found and recorded in the surrounding landscape. At Fog Signal I decided to not only listen into the landscape, but also introduce other sounds into it. The ‘air harp’ is a cheap second-hand auto harp, ‘prepared’ with the flotsam of wood, screw and polystyrene washed up onto the Ness. Performed by the wind, this automatic aeolian harp, uncovers the murmuring music of sea breezes.

But from where and whence do these ghostly melodies come? Athanasius Kircher, who first described the Aeolian harp in 1650, ‘surmised that the wind comes in rays’, plucking the strings and causing them to sound. Whilst, in Physiological Disquisitions, the 17th century natural philosopher William Jones proposed that the music of the Aeolian harp originated not in the strings, but in the air itself. The harp operated as a ‘sound prism’ ‘[refracting] the wind,’ dividing and revealing ‘vibrations […] already present in the air.’[8]


Pebble arc: 02:40 / mp3 / 2019

Fog Signal Transmission [harp and signal] edit: 03:00 / mp3 / 2019

The transmission at Fog Signal, begins as the beam of the Dungeness lighthouse automatically announces night fall. A line of pebbles cast onto the shingle, traces an arc of auditory space and presence.  The auto harp sounds, divining the air and revealing a concert of signals already present. I transmit to an unknown and unknowing audience, the transmission, like sound itself, disappearing in the moment of its appearance. Signals lost are sent, received and lost again. No one is listening, nothing is heard.

 

Footnotes

[1] Robert Macfarlane & Stanley Donwood, 2019. Ness. London: Hamish Hamilton. p.5

[2] This shack appears in the landscape of Jarman’s The Garden (1990).

[3] It is difficult to confirm that Marconi built the ‘Wireless Shed’ in the 1890’s.  The building is also refereed to as the Decca Radar Station, built by the Decca Navigator Company in 1961.

[5] Fog Signal Building and the Experimentation Station complex were redesigned by the Interior Architects Johnson Naylor

[5] Richard N Scarth. 1995. Mirrors by the sea. North Elham: Minnis Print Ltd. p.5

[6] Derek Jarman. 1991. Modern Nature. London: Century. p.72

[7] Francois J. Bonnet. 2016. The order of sounds. Falmouth: Urbanomic. p.25

[8] Brandon Labelle. 2010. Acoustic Territories. London: Bloomsbury. p.15

[9] Thomas Hankins & Robert Silverman. 1995.  Instruments and the Imagination. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 94-95.

Tapping the air: weak signals at nightfall.
Off the Beat(en) Track.
Deep Wireless Festival of Radio and Transmission Art, Ontario, Canada. 2019

On this day, one hundred and eighteen years ago, a test signal was sent from Knowles Farm on the Isle of Wight to the Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station on the Lizard Peninsular in Cornwall. At 5.32pm (the same time that I now post this here) a Post Office Telegraph was handed in at the Lizard Village Office, confirming receipt of the signal and declaring Marconi’s test ‘completely successful.’ The transmission was ‘a world record for long-range wireless propagation’ and the first time a wireless signal had been transmitted ‘over the horizon’. Prior to this, it was believed that ‘the operating range of wireless would be restricted to the [optical] horizon.’ (Rowe) But on Wednesday the 23rd January, 1901, in what became known as ‘Marconi’s First Great Miracle’ the arrival of three Morse code dots at The Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station, signalled not only the letter ‘s’, but also an escape from the visible: a flight from the material into the airy immaterial.


In that same year, at Poldu, some six visible miles from the Wireless Telegraphy Station, Marconi had begun construction of the largest transmitter ever built. The Poldhu station was charged with determining if wireless signals could be transmitted and received over the fathomless horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. On the 12th December 1901, the faint dit-dit-dit of Marconi’s test signal transmitted from Poldhu, was heard some 2100 miles away, at a receiving point on the appropriately named Signal Hill, in St John, Newfoundland, Canada. The signal was too weak to operate the Morse printer and could only be confirmed by the (h)ear(ed) witness of Marconi and his assistant George Kemp. Without visible evidence, the existence of a signal was disputed, even today the authenticity of the transmission continues to be questioned. Pat Hawker, a writer for the journal Radio Communication, states: ‘[W]hatever clicks Marconi and Kemp heard on that windy Newfoundland cliff, they could not have originated from the three dots automatically transmitted from Poldhu.’ That the existence of this inaugural signal of wireless communication should be so spectral and suspect, seems appropriate for a medium in which the perimeters of the real and imagined, the here, there, then and now are so diffused.


Tapping the air: weak signals at nightfall is a recording of a micro-FM transmission, composed and performed live at the Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station in August 2018.
The transmission was based on field-recordings collected on the Lizard Peninsular and surrounding environment; a landscape littered with the history and architectural remains of listening and communication technologies. The transmitted soundscape mingles local sounds with recordings made on the Isle of Wight and physically transported over the horizon to the Lizard station. The architectural ghosts of towers, wires and blast walls are sounded out by the air moving through them and the by the geological dit-dit-dit of Serpentine pebbles tapping out Marconi’s test signal upon them. The transmission began as the first illuminated arc of the Lizard Lighthouse signaled nightfall: weak signals lost in and to the visible landscape.

Tapping the air: weak signals at nightfall is featured on the NAISA Radio programme, Off the Beat(en) Track. Curated by Darren Copeland, Artistic Director of New Adventures in Sound Art (NAISA), the programme is available online as part of the Deep Wireless Festival of Radio and Transmission Art.

Radiophrenia Poster: Emer Tumilty

I am delighted to announce that two new works for radio will be broadcast as part of Radiophrenia 2017, which begins broadcasting at midnight on Monday 6th November. Radiophrenia is a ‘temporary art radio station, offering a two-week exploration of sound and transmission arts. Broadcasting live from Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts on 87.9FM, the station aims to promote radio as an art form, encouraging challenging and radical new approaches to the medium.’ Radiophrenia will also be available online.
The two works will be broadcast on the 8th and 9th of November and the full Radiophrenia schedule is available here.



Tappng the air: a wireless ecology of the Lizard Peninsula.
Radiophrenia: 09/11/17 | 09:30 – 10:00

Wireless, the air receives us: ‘scattered souls, in expected or else irremediable exile from matter…’ (Gaston Bachelard).

 In the summer of 2017 I took a holiday and covert residence at The Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station; built by Marconi in 1900 and site of the first ‘over-the-horizon’ wireless communication. Prior to this, it was thought that wireless communication was restricted to the optical horizon, there had to be a ‘direct line of sight’ between transmitter and receiver.
The ‘residency’ concluded in a live micro FM transmission to an audience of one, in what once was the ‘operating room’ of the wireless station. Broadcasting through six radios the performed transmission was based on field-recordings from a local landscape haunted by the architecture of listening and communication: the looming pulse of the Lizard Lighthouse foghorn, the automatic Morse of loose wires and antennas at Poldhu (site of the first trans-Atlantic wireless transmission), the perimeter hum of wire fences that surround the galactic ear of Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station and the abandoned listening-in of RAF Dry Tree.
The piece opens and concludes with the di-di-dit, of Marconi’s test signal, tapping away at the surface of the Wireless Telegraphy Station, a signal answered by the ethereal tap of another letter ‘s’ as performed on the nearby walls of a derelict radar room at RAF Pen Oliver.


the silence of nostalghia
Radiophrenia: 08/11/17 | 12:00 – 13:00

One part of a trilogy of silenced films, in the silence of nostalghia, all dialogue and non-diegetic sound has been removed from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 film Nostalghia.
The silence that survives pulls the background into focus, concentrating the attention of the ear on the sonic details of an emerging landscape, wet with the revenants of footfall, entrance and exit. The textures of optical-sound silence, reminiscent of the atmospheric leaks and spillages of radio transmission, amplify the spectral and oneiric qualities of a soundscape where apparitions of place and time seem to appear, disappear, dissolve and fragment.



thunder for three guitars and a trowel | 07:00 | 2017 | mp3

I am delighted to be included in the programme for Datscha Radio 2017. From the 25th August the German radio station will be broadcasting ‘a garden in the air, combining radio, gardening, hospitality and contemporary discourse in a live radio festival from a garden in the north of Berlin.’ The five day radio festival will also be available as a live stream via the Datscha Radio website and subsequently archived online.

The work included was composed specifically for the festival and is based on a series of new field-recordings, which take full advantage of a particularly dank English summer. The field in which I recorded is local and colloquial; that is my own back garden, of uneven bricks, plant pots and things I must at some point do. Things get left in back gardens; they escape use and end up there, waiting for attention, purpose and repair. The nearness of such an enclosed field is helpful to the act of recording rain. I am close to my recording equipment and the site of the transitory unpredictable precipitous event I wish to record. When it rains the garden pronounces an array of wet locutions, from the interrupted drop of rain lolling through the creased guttering of leaves, to the hollow ceramic timpani of a garden pot I must fill and the occasional plink of a seldom-used trowel.

The field recordings used in the new piece differ from many of my earlier works, which are focused upon recording the sound of what is there. In order to record I make myself absent, ensuring my presence does not intrude. I aim to disappear. Informed by the timpani and plink of things left out in the rain, more recent work has included the initiation of sound, introducing things that sound into the field. There is still a sense in which I am distant (I do not attempt to play the things or acoustically intrude) and there is no desire to force the sonic environment into a musical form. The things become instruments for sounding out place, a means of fathoming the patterns and pause of air and rainfall. The arrangement or gardening of things becomes a sort of physical score, a sculptural and horticultural gamelan for the weathered performance of rainfall.


The majority of field recordings used in thunder for three guitars and a trowel were recorded on the early evening of the 18th July. Around 8 o’clock that evening, the sky became yellow, leaves greened, air quickened and shushed. At 8.33pm the first fret of rainfall plucked at the strings of a guitar ‘set up’ with contact microphones and left out to the elements. The pattern thickened as the thunderstorm progressed, the water interrupting the signal from the contacts. Slowly it passed and the garden dripped with the return of birdsong metallizing in the resonance of a crash cymbal and the plaintive wet tick of trowel. The next day I found the silent petrichor of a damp forlorn guitar waiting in the garden, unstrung and murdered by rainfall.
In the aerial garden of the Datsha Radio the rain returns, a low that once moved across a small back garden in Hampshire, now moves across Berlin. A storm now passed continues to excite the air and pour acoustically down.

Listen to the full programme of Datscha Radio’s garden in the air here: http://datscharadio.de/en/

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