I recently composed a new soundwork for Sonospace, the online sound art gallery, curated by Harry Sumner. The piece is based on field-recordings made on a short walk through the water meadows near St Cross Hospital in Winchester. This path follows the River Itchen and is part of Keats Walk, which retraces the steps of the poet who visited Winchester in 1819. On the 19th September 1819, Keats traced the river, through the meadow and along the desire line of this footpath. Returning from his walk he composed OdeTo Autumn, a poem of three stanzas in which language pronounces a landscape trembling with sound:
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
I did not choose my route for its association with Keats, although, like him I was drawn to the soundscape of the meadow. I have walked the trail many times, although only recently have I noticed a particular note hanging in the landscape. As I approached St Cross, a distant and quiet whine appeared, a ‘treble soft’, on the cusp of audition, intermittent yet regular. Approaching closer, the whine was joined by others in a phased pattern of plaintive cries, at once near and at a distance. The sound, as fragile as swallows and reminiscent of the electronic whistle of radio tuning, seemed to possess a form; an acoustic arc, that begins, curves and closes. The arc turned out to be the sound of people moving through the landscape, opening and closing the four kissing gates, which interrupt the path. As I meet the first gate and perform the choreography of its action, lifting the latch and swinging the kiss of its arc, I hear space opening and feel the vibration of its close in my hand. The sound trembling through my body causes a blurring of the distinction between the materiality of my body, the gate, and the landscape. In the sounding of our ‘vibrant matter’, the material and immaterial are hinged.
The physicality of the gesture and the vibration it creates, directs attention away from the surface and toward the interior, the whine being only the audible tip of a soundscape detained in substance: a ‘Music, slumbering’ (Coleridge) inside the gates metallic arch.
In a line with four arcs, contact microphones are used to record and listen to this internal soundscape. Recording each gate in succession, a line of movement is mapped through a landscape, and the abstract terrain beneath the visible uncovered. Distinct from the ‘soft floating witchery of sound’ present in Coleridge’s Eolian Harp, this micro-phonic contact reveals a ‘wailful choir’, a mournful howl of space rent open. Awoken from its slumber we can hear substance singing as it disappears.
The exhibition in Sonospace allows images to be used with the sound exhibited. I wanted to emphasise the abstract qualities of the work, so rather than simply using imagery from the walk, I decided to appropriate images from other sources: images e from other places, but which seemed to correspond with the sound of the arc.
 A ‘half-round, rectangular, trapezoidal or V-shaped enclosure with a hinged gate trapped between its arms’, a kissing gate is so named because of the gentle collision of its close: ‘to kiss, to caress, to ‘touch gently’. The word ‘kiss’ is onomatopoeic in origin: ‘an imitation of the sound of the thing meant.’
In June of this year I completed a sound piece for the BBC Radio 3 series Between the Ears. The programme called, It’s just where I put my words, was a kind of audio memoir or reverie of my mother’s voice, which I have been recording for over four decades. The piece explored not only my personal relationship with my mother’s voice , but also the wider issues of our desire to record and the particular qualities of voice as distinct from photographic records. A review of the programme appeared in The Independent and Spectator.
Produced in Bristol by Chris Ledgard, the programme was available for a week via the Listen Again feature of the BBC Radio 3 website. Now no longer available, I thought it might be interesting to post the piece in its ‘original’ form: that is, an audio collage or soundscape of voice and a script written for speaking. This will enable the listener to place the words with the recorded soundscape in their own time. I have divided the soundscape and script into four sections and added some imagery to locate these sections. I have also, where appropriate, included links to my website so that you may hear full versions of sound works, which are used in extract during the piece.
It’s just where I put my words: a voice remembered
BBC Radio 3 / Producer Chris Ledgard
Part one: our last recording
In September 2010, I made what was to be the last recording of my mother’s voice. Placing a digital recorder by her chair in the residential home where she spent her last year, I pressed record and released pause. We sat and chatted and sorted through her things. I searched the pockets of her beloved trolley, looking for her purse, which, like her spectacles and teeth, was always going missing.
Following a series of falls in her sheltered flat in Bootle, Liverpool, Mam came to live closer to me in a residential home in Hampshire. She never believed the care home to be her home; she was confused about where she was and why she was there. But the act of recording was familiar, something we had done together for more than 40 years.
Part two: Bellevue and Barthes
Our first recording was made on in the late nineteen sixties on Liverpool Lime Street station. My brother was ten and I was seven, and on the way back from a visit to Auntie Dot in Manchester, my mother treated us to a session in a coin operated record booth.
The audiocassette was yet to reach the outskirts of Liverpool, so these machines, which once loitered in the lonely, suspended landscapes of train stations, promised an almost cinematic experience: we could record our selves, hear our voice on vinyl.
As an artist, recording continues to inform my practice, and I collect, catalogue and experiment with sounds, editing and mixing them together to create audio works and soundscapes for installations, performances and radio. I am fascinated by how the simple, private act of recording can capture fleeting, unimportant moments and mark them with significance: just as two-minutes in a drafty coin operated booth, is marked, for me, as the start of a lifelong obsession with sound and phonography; it’s also the beginning of my story of recording with my mother; a story which concluded at 17.05 on the 18th September 2010, when, in a care home near Winchester, recording invented our last moment.
Many of the recordings I made with mam had no specific purpose, recording was a just a habit; something I always did. At other times they were intended as source material for my artwork and I would arrive at mam’s door encumbered by an array of digital recorders, microphones and the occasionally defunct tape player.
My mother was a Lancashire lass, born and brought up in Manchester. My dad was an Irish Catholic. He joined the army when he was 16 and spent the 2nd World War in the German prison camp Stalag 3D. After the war and a brief stop on Manchester buses, where he met my mother, he became a prison officer at Stangeways and later Walton in Liverpool.
The sound work BelleVue includes extracts from a reel-to-reel tape of my mother telling stories of her nights out as a teenager at a large entertainment park near Manchester. This voice is accompanied by a covert recording of her getting ready to go out some sixty-years later at the age of eighty. The stories are fragmented and layered, disrupting the narrative, yet revealing that in her voice there remains something which is essentially her, something beyond the story told. I later re-played this piece to my mother and recorded her response. Although she recognises fragments of the stories told, she didn’t recognise the voice telling them. But finding it familiar she places it genetically close, attributing the ghost of her words to her sister Joan or my father’s sister, Auntie Maureen.
Although I have photographs of my father, I have no recordings of him speaking. He was a gentle, lonely man, who was abnormally prone to silence. He never once spoke of his time as a prisoner of war, or even of his childhood. When I remember him now, I can no longer hear his voice, but I can hear him in the tales that my mother tells.
My mother died in April 2011. Since then, listening back to my audio snapshots, I have been reminded of Roland Barthes book Camera Lucida. Barthes describes sitting alone in his recently deceased mother’s flat, ‘sorting’ through her photographic remains. But finding only a fragmented ‘likeness’ amongst the photographs, he writes:‘I missed her being, and therefore I missed her altogether…If I were to show them to friends I could doubt that these photographs would speak’. That Barthes should allude to the audible qualities of language in order to identify that which was essentially lacking in these images, recognises the vital qualities of utterance and voice.
Listening to a recording of voice offers a reanimation of the past, bringing the once was, back into the present. Unlike the mute ‘flat death’ of photography, the recorded voice returns in a manner with which we are acquainted: the telephone and radio have allowed us to grow accustomed to hearing voice without sight of those speaking. In fact, in what Gaston Bachelard calls the ‘logosphere’ of telephonic communication our bodily presence ‘appears by virtue of voice alone’.
Part three: a ghost in the receiver
Dad died when I was fifteen and my brothers emigrated to America, so my mother and I were left together. As I grew up and moved away from home the telephone became our main way of speaking and I listened to her more often than I saw her. It became a way of being there and as good ex-catholic boy I was there most every night. The answerphone machine allowed me to be there even when I was not there then.
We abandon our voice, time stamped and wanting in the emptiness of answerphones. These soliloquies for empty rooms are full of melancholy, a melancholy enhanced by the audible corruption of cheap tape. The messages left are not intended for keeping, they hang like an adjourned presence waiting to be heard and erased. The act of being saved only serves to amplify the vulnerability of the voices kept.
My mother’s sister Joan lives in Clevelys near Fleetwood, where she once ran a chip shop with Uncle Fred. When I visited my mum in Liverpool, I would often drive her to see Auntie Joan and her dog Harry. Joan could sometimes be persuaded to play her organ, and we would drink our tea listening to Moon River, Delilah and the occasional Bob Dylan. Normally, before we set off on our day out, mam would phone Joan, just to check that she was there.
The essence of speech does not necessarily reside in the ability of voice to communicate and tell tales. It may also reside in what Barthes calls the ‘patina of consonants and voluptuousness of vowels’. Listening back to my mother, it is in the rhythm, intonation and imperfections of her voice that I hear her speak. These hesitations, inflections, stutters and errors are the non-verbal noise or crackle of language, tracing speech back to its etymological roots: to crackle, to rattle and hiss.
For the philosopher Gaston Bachelard words are the ‘shells of speech’ and the telephone places these shells against our ear. We hold voice close; so close we can hear language as it is inhaled. Our being there is fragile; there is always the possibility that we might disappear, that we may, unannounced, return to the silence from where we came.
I had many telephone conversations with my mother. In Duet for Radio, I edited a recording of one of them, removing my own voice and filling it with the silence of telephone static. My mother’s voice, bereft of reply is isolated and widowed. Interrupted by forgetting, her tale of daily survival emphasises the lonely fragility of body and memory. And this is where I find her: a brittle presence in a spectral landscape: a ‘ghost in the receiver’.
Part four: putting voice away
Mam always liked to take care of people and in particular me. All her bingo prizes were saved and wrapped as presents for Birthdays and Christmas. As she grew older and more vulnerable, there was a change in our roles. I did her shopping on-line, sorted her bills and fought with social services for the luxury of a weekly bath and two days at Connelly House, the day centre, she so loved
Following the death of my father she became a Catholic; hoping that this would enable her to, one day, be reunited with him. For one of my early performances, I recording her singing Ave Maria and together we were interviewed for Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope. Off air, she said that performing was better than Bingo. But on air, her voice trembles with an unease and vulnerability that was never there in our own recordings.
The phonograph record promised the spoken word a life beyond the grave, but by giving voice permanence and substance, it was also subject to loss and decay. Just as the photographic image is perishable and in Barthes words ‘attacked by light…fades, weakens and vanishes’, so too the recorded voice is vulnerable to age and awaits an audible disappearance beneath the surface noise of time and neglect.
The recording of my mother’s Ave Maria was played at her funeral and I later had it cut as a 10” vinyl record, revolving at an archaic 78 rpm. Such physical regression takes voice back into the history of its own recording, repatriating it in time.
In a further act of repatriation, I took her voice back to Sheffield, where once we had performed together and she had sung her Ave, and where now Duncan Miller used an Edison phonograph to transcribe her voice onto a wax cylinder.
In our last recorded conversation, I reminded my mother where she was and gave her spectacles a wash. She was my mother but also my child. Recording her voice was an extension of care, a way of keeping her close and holding her dear.
Sealing her words in the fragile surface of a wax cylinder, I put her voice away, like an heirloom or time capsule for previous generations. Silenced by the obsolescence and vulnerability of the recording medium, her voice becomes a record that playing and listening may harm. Each time this recording is played another small detail of my mother’s voice is lost and she disappears further into the cracked silence of surface noise.
This cylinder is perhaps my own Ave, a farewell to a voice that I keep preserved in silence. For Barthes a photograph is best seen with our eyes closed, he writes we ‘may know better a photograph we remember than a photograph we are looking at’. The visible silence of a wax cylinder, reminds me that there is more to my mother’s voice than its record, there are those unheard memories of her speaking, which only I can hear.
Addendum: the nearness of silence Although our conversation in the care home is the last recording of my mother’s voice, we did make other recordings together. In March 2010, mam was placed on the Liverpool Care Pathway, the significance of which I never fully understood, refusing to realise or accept that this path lead in one direction only. Her breathing pattern became erratic and she was put on a morphine drip. As she lay asleep, I realised that listening to her breathing, although painful to hear, was a way of being with her: in the absence of voice we shared silence. I recorded this silence, the rhythm of her breath, the inhalation and exhalation and the dreadful pause between the two. I did not do this with the intention of the recording ever being played or heard again, but rather, to keep her close in the ‘nearness of silence’.
‘When language ceases, silence begins. But id does not begin because language ceases. The absence of language simply makes the presence of Silence more apparent’.
Max Picard, The World of silence
I have just completed a short sound piece for the BBC Radio 3 series, Between the Ears. The sound work takes the form of an audio memoir or perhaps reverie, based on recordings of my mother’s voice, which I have been making for over forty years. My mother died in April 2011, and listening back to these intimate fragments of her speaking reminded me of Roland Barthes’ book Camera Lucida, in which the author sits alone in his deceased mothers flat, sorting through her photographic remains.
The Camera Lucida ( light room) to which the title refers, is an optical device that allows artists to view simultaneously their subject and the surface of depiction, thereby enabling the creation of a highly accurate image. But such accuracy may still lack the essence of the subject. As Barthes sorted through the images he finds only a fragmented ‘likeness’, he writes:‘I missed her being, and therefore I missed her altogether’. He continues: ‘If I were to show them to friends I could doubt that these photographs would speak’.
Listening to my mother’s voice, there is a likeness and accuracy to its reproduction. But there is something more, something vital, which lies beyond the fidelity of tone and the familiarity of the story told. When Barthes appeals to the audible qualities of language in order to identify that which was essentially lacking in his mothers image, he tacitly recognises the vital qualities of voice and utterance.
In this new sound piece for radio, I take a journey with my mother’s voice, listening for her in the recordings we made and the sound works I composed, reflecting upon the act of recording and our relationship with memory and loss.
I would like to thank to Chris Ledgard, who produced the show in Bristol and who sensitively and eloquently edited my ‘script’; studio manager Mike Burgess for his erudite attention to detail, and Duncan Miller for the transcription of my mother’s voice to wax cylinder.
set: to seat: to place: to put: to fix: to put, place, or fix in position or required condition: to apply: to cause to be: to plant: to stake: to put on eggs: to put under a hen: to spread, lay cover, as a table: to compose, as type: to put in type: to embed: to frame: to mount: to beset or bestow about: to stud, dot, sprinkle, variegate: to form or represent: to imprint: to make to become solid, coagulated, rigid, fixed or motionless: to begin to form: to regulate: to appoint: to ordain: to assign: to prescribe: to propound: to present for imitation: to put upon a course, start off: to incite, direct: to escort: to put in opposition: to posit: to pitch as a tune: to compose or fit to music: to sharpen as a razor: to indicate by crouching: to lease or let to a tenant: to become befit: conversely to appear to advantage: to sit: to hang in position: to be in session: to go down towards or below the horizon, to decline: to offer a stake: to become rigid, fixed hard or permanent: to coagulate: of a bone to knit: to settle down: to begin to develop as fruit: to dance in a facing position: to acquire a set or bend: to apply or betake oneself: to have or take a course of direction: to begin to go.
This section from the set of my live: dissolve, was performed as part of a Sunday afternoon of experimental sound at We Are Collective (Chapel Arts Studios) with Joe Evans (runningonair) and Dirty Demos and organised by Tom Mortimer & David Dixon.
Here, beneath the ancient carbon dioxide of a dissolving ammonite, lies a redacted recording of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia (1983), from which all dialogue has been removed. This silenced landscape of absence and gesture, is employed here as a form of unwritten script for the other sound events that overlay it. This includes the drone and attack of air passing over wire fences stretched out between the beaches and reed beds of Cley Marshes in Norfolk. Synchronised by ear and a graphic score, a wildlife record of birdsong accompanies the host of birds, which escape from the robes of a statue of the Madonna del Parto in the opening scenes of the film. Later, the time-signal of BBC sound effect records introduce a damaged sequence of closing doors echoing in the emptied cinematic spaces of Nostalghia’s vacant landscape. The piece concludes with a chorus of alarm calls as a herd of Cranes is released sonically into the acoustics of the chapel, remembering the escape of birds from the robes of the Madonna.
In recording this set, I place the live moment in digital aspic (a word whose ancestry recognises the fatal consequences of such attempts at permanence, evolving as it does from the Old French basilisk: ‘a serpent…said to kill by its breath or look’).
In contrast the graphic score, although setting the sounds in a determined sequence, also provides the potential for error, variation and change: it prepares for use and sets in motion, events that are otherwise solid.
set: to put somebody or something somewhere; to become, or cause something to become solid; to cause something, or somebody to begin doing something, or begin to do something; to become permanent or fast; to arrange, place, or prepare something to be used; to portray something as happening in a particular place or time period; to heal up and become solid after being broken; to cause somebody to sit somewhere; to fit in a particular way; to come to a gradual end and pass into eclipse or obscurity; to move below the horizon.
When I was 17 I was coerced into studying Geology CSE: a form of academic punishment for dropping Economics A level in favour of Art. I had already grown to distrust geography, having found myself damp and ridiculed on a field trip to somewhere very wet. So I did not readily take to geology, although I was quite fond of the diagrams and information graphics.
Decades later Dr Simon Park introduced me to the sonic potentials of geology. Simon is a microbiologist at the University of Surrey, and has already presented me with the wonderful opportunity of recording a gaseous choir of Yeast microbes. Fascinated by all things microbiological, he asked me if I thought it would be possible to record the sound of chalk? If Simon had taught me geology, I think I may have exceeded CSE grade 3. Simon’s blog, This Is Microgeography, visually extends his fascination with everyday bacterial geography.
The experiment of dissolving chalk in vinegar seems now to be a school standard, but what has my attention are the sounds that result from this process and the poetics of the biochemical reaction.
I am old enough to have been taught at the monochrome coalface of chalk and blackboard, however, scholastic chalk is an industrial mineral: calcium sulfate. Chemically speaking ‘real’ Chalk is calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and microbiologically, chalk is composed of the discarded Coccolith plates of tiny organisms (Coccolithophores) that lived in fathomless seas millions of years ago. White charnel heaps of chalk are all that remains of those dead oceans. The skeletal protrusion of the white cliffs of Dover and the Needles of the Isle of Wight, are like geological ghosts, whose presence drowns us beneath invisible waves: ‘times tide [will indeed] smother you’. This whiteness of chalk is shrouded in deadliness: ‘White is the colour of mourning except in the Christian West where it is black – but the object of mourning is white. Who ever heard of a corpse in a black shroud?’ (Chroma: Derek Jarman). Ghosts are at the very least pale if not completely white and this morbid association is not restricted to a visible white. Jürgenson and Konstantīns Raudive, believed that the voices of the dead could be heard in the white noise of radio static or recorded electronic amplification.
The white static noise released as chalk fragments dissolve, offers up an acoustic shell to our ear, through which we can hear the decaying Geiger roar of deceased seas.
Chalk Study #3: River Itchen
I have made a number of chalk studies, using different varieties of chalk and various methods of recording the release of CO2. A sample taken from the bed of the River Itchen (a chalk stream) features in the winter perambulation from the winnall moors sound walk project. I am trying to track down chalk from a quarry in Beer and the red chalk of Norfolk. As I gather and dissolve these samples, they create a form of spontaneous sonic index to an as yet uncharted, acoustic map of dead geological oceans.
There is something supernatural in this alchemical transformation of solid matter into effervescent air. This movement from stillness into sound, reminiscent of Ariel’s escape from substance in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: a voice and song set free to ‘take the ear strangely’:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
‘Serendipity: making discoveries by accident and sagacity, of things we are not in quest of’.
After discovering a large amount of flies dying or approaching death at the Frieze Art Fair, I had not given their demise another thought. But on Friday, I rolled open a blind in a room at work (appropriately numbered 101) and there discovered a quiet holocaust: a windowsill landscape of dead flies. Most of the flies were dead on their backs, but others seemed to have just fallen over, whilst one was in a strangely erect position, as if addressing the other members of the necropolis. There was definitely something of the Pompeii in the flies’ deathly arrangement. One fly occasionally moved a leg, whilst the remaining extant fly, wandered around on a sky, cruelly visible through the glass pane of the window.
Exposing a rather Warholian disposition, I went to get my camera, so that I might visually seize the poor flies in their moribund tableaux.
I read a story once that, when Andy was informed one of his ‘friends’ had just leapt from a building to his death, Andy replied, “I wish he had told me, I could have taken my camera and filmed him”. Which may appear heartless and cruel, but then again if the call had been made and Andy and his Bolex arrived, then this sad anonymous exit may have been remembered; a life disappeared, would be framed and possibly immortalised through the 16mm lens of Andy’s ‘ocular vampirism’.
Not that I would claim to be immortalising the brief lives of these poor flies. No, there is just something very sad in the quiet recent death that hides behind the closed blind of a window.