At midday on the 8th January 2015, a one-minute silence was held around the world in memory of the victims of a terrorist attack on the offices of the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo. In Paris, under umbrellas and grey skies, a large crowd of people held their silence in the rain. Later that day, the BBC Radio 4 programme PM broadcasted an uninterrupted recorded extract of this silence. As I sat listening to the dripping static of rainfall through the occasional atmospherics of frequency modulation, I heard my own silence becoming part of a shared silent drizzle of withdrawal. In this brief temporal downpour, time became wet; the borders between here and there, between what is and once was, dissolved.
This description of remembered rain begins my short essay, remembering rain: listening to water and memory [loss].The essay has now been published in the latest on-line edition of Wolf Notes –the publishing arm of Compost and Height. Curated by Patrick Farmer and Sarah Hughes, Wolf Notes #9, features writing by Freya Johnson Ross, Rebecca Glover and Nick Wood, and I am delighted to be in such fascinating company.
Adapted from a paper, originally performed at the Sound of MemorySymposium (Goldsmiths, London) in 2017, the essay is itself a form of remembering. Mingling neuropsychology and the wet reverie of literary oceans, remembering rain, navigates the ‘substantial nothingness’ (Bachelard) of water, sound and memory, drawing in my sound practice – specifically, the installationrain choir (Winchester Cathedral, 2013) and the performed disappearance of Silence Lost (2015 – 2019) – to commemorate the loss inherent in the act of recording.
Is it Eating you? IMT Gallery
Is it Eating you? is a performance event curated by Mark Peter Wright as part of his solo exhibition I, The Thing in the Margins at IMT: ‘A night of sound, film and performance exploring non-human worlds. The title of the event takes its cue from Larry Cohen’s 1985 b-movie horror comedy, The Stuff. The plot involves a goo-like substance that is extracted from the ground and sold as frozen yoghurt. As the story unfolds we discover the yoghurt is a parasitic, even sentient organism that gradually takes over the human brain and turns people into zombies before shedding their skin. Inspired by Cohen’s film the evening will mix humour and horror: amplifying a host of matter and affects; from animals to microbes, technology to plants, soil and screams.’
The evening will feature:
Mira Calix (screening)
Esther Planas & Jennifer Ipekel
Graham Dunning & Tom White Pond Scum Light Show (Jennifer Pengilly, Ash Reid & Jamie Sutcliffe)
I will be performing a new variation of the rain choir with dissolving coral accompaniment.Since its installation at Winchester Cathedral, variations of the choir have been recomposed, installed and performed for various situations in the UK and Europe. In this dead sea variation, the original field-recordings of rain falling the guttering system of the Cathedral are joined by ‘live’ voices respired from the sarcophagi of deceased and fossilised corals dissolving in acid: a reaction echoing ocean acidification. In this resuscitated breath of Paleozoic air, molecules of carbon dioxide, exhaled 429 million years ago can be heard (and inhaled) as they dissolve back into the atmosphere. A collective sigh of dead sea air.
Notes on Blindness: Peter Middleton & James Spinney
John M. Hull 1935 – 2015
I am so very sad to hear of the death of John M. Hull, who, following a fall at home, died in hospital on the 28th July. Emeritus Professor of Religious Education at the University of Birmingham and Honorary Professor of Practical Theology at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, John Hull was widely published on the subjects of religion and blindness. Born in 1935, John developed cataracts in his youth, losing his sight completely in 1983.
I first came across his writing in Oliver Sack’s book An Anthropologist on Mars. Sacks’ books and bibliographies have introduced me to so many fascinating texts, from Luria’s The Man With A Shattered World to Penfield & Perot’s epic paper The Brain’s Record Of Auditory And Visual Experience and of course Hull’s Touching the Rock. In the book Hull describes and reflects upon his own journey into blindness. The writing maintains the honesty and intimacy of the cassette diaries from which it was transcribed, but it is much more than an autobiography of someone else’s experience. As Sack’s writes in his forward to the book: ‘The observation is minute, and it is also profound. The incisiveness of Hull’s observation, the beauty of his language, make this book poetry […] Hull reveals a world in which every human experience […] is transformed’.
I own two versions, the original, Touching the Rock and the later On Sight and Insight, both now full of marginalia and words underlined in reverential pencil. There is so much I would quote: the description of how he and his son learned to wave goodbye at the school gates, shouting ‘bye’ until neither could hear the other; or listening to church bells: ‘To me the very air I was breathing was bell-shaped’.
Perhaps because of my own field-recordings and sound work, the words I return to most concern his experience of rainfall. John writes about rain and thunder several times in his books. There is also a beautiful recording of him describing a thunder storm in an episode of Blind Man’s Beauty, Peter White’s series for Radio 4. Like his writing, John’s voice has a rhythm and tonality, which seem to bring the words closer to ear. He returns to the rain in Sound: An Enrichment or State, an interview for Soundsacpe: The Journal of Acoustic Ecology:
I can remember times when, in my study at home, I would become conscious that there was a storm going on. I would forget about my disorientated and vacated interior and would become aware of the wind, thundering upon the corner of the house, whistling through the eaves. And then I would become aware of the rain, splattering on the windowpane. I would stand up. I would press my nose hard against the window. And gradually it was as if the glass disappeared, because now my consciousness extended out from my nose pressed upon a panel of glass until it became un-conscious […] The rain had turned the light on […] And as I listened…I realized I was no longer listening, because the rain was not falling into my ears, it was falling into my heart.’
This capacity for the sound of rain to dissolve the borders between the body and the world it senses, is perfectly expressed in Touching The Rock, when Hull writes:
‘As I listen to the rain, I am the image of the rain, and I am one with it’.
To See and Not See, the chapter in Sack’s book where first I read John’s words, was concerned with the case of Virgil, a man virtually blind since childhood, who had his sight restored. Having been without vision for over forty-five years, Virgil could see, but was unsure of ‘what seeing means’. ‘He saw, but what he saw had no coherence’; he could see individual letters but not the words they created. ‘He found himself between worlds, and at home in neither’. Virgil would have to learn to see. Sacks writes: ‘When we open our eyes each morning, it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see. We are not given a world; we make our world…’
Through his writing John Hull offers a moving and profound account of sight-loss, he not only builds a bridge between the worlds of the sighted and blind, he enhances our senses and remakes the world we see and hear.
Last year John very kindly accepted an invitation to be the Keynote speaker at Chalk: time, sense and landscape, an interdisciplinary symposium I am organising in Winchester this October. The symposium, now dedicated to the memory of John, will begin with a showing of the short documentary Notes On Blindness, directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney and based on the cassette diaries from which Touching the Rock was formed. This beautiful documentary is now being made into a feature length film.
rain choir: the St James Variation Live performance at St James Hatcham Gallery, Goldsmiths, University of London
On the 5th May I took part in a small concert as part of the opening of Sound / Place, an exhibition curated by Tom Tlalim & Sandra Kazlauskaite, at St James Hatcham Gallery, Goldsmiths, University of London. The concert, which included performances by Yiorgis Sakellario, Istishhad Hheva and John Garcia Rueda & Ella Jane New, took place in the Listening Box, also known as the Sonics Immersive Media Lab (SIML). The immersive qualities of this technological space seemed to share a concern with the manipulation of sound present in the architecture of the Cathedral. I am interested in how the performance of the choir offers an opportunity for a continual recomposition within the dynamics of another place. Each recital introduces variations of acoustics and pattern, producing a form of sonic palimpsest: a murmuration of rainfall.
rain Choir: the St James variation (edit) | mp3 | 2015
The St James variation of rain choir draws on the field-recordings of the original site-specific sound installation for the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. These recordings explored the acoustic qualities and rhythms of rainfall as it fell through the gutters of the building. The choir also included sounds created by dissolving fragments of the Cathedral walls in acid. Echoing the percussive qualities of rainfall and the effect of its polluted chemistry, this naive chemical reaction releases a Palaeolithic and audible air of effervescent CO2, from the fossilised skeletal remains which form the Limestone.
In his autobiography of sight loss, John M. Hull describes how the sound of rain, ‘throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the falling rain creates ‘a continuity of acoustic experience’. For Hull, rain reveals place, presenting ‘the fullness of an entire situation all at once, […] actually and now’. He continues: ‘If only rain could fall inside a room…’
The rain then falling inside St James sounded out place. The original voices of the choir and those coloured by the acoustic of the cathedral crypt were joined by a ‘live’ dissolve of limestone fragments from the crypt and walls of the Cathedral. In an arid, invisible downpour, the choir immersed the audience in the dynamics and architecture of the Listening Box: an acoustic rain simultaneously describing and being described by the present site of audition.
Sound Place continues until 13/05/15 at St James Hatcham gallery, Goldsmiths, University of London.
I am delighted to announce that the rain choir has been released on the excellent field-recording label, Impulsive Habitat. The choir is available as a free downpour in two versions: the original choir and a recital of the work recomposed from the original field-recordings and those made during the installation of the work in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. This recitation is, as its name suggests, ‘a repetition, a ‘reading aloud from memory’: rainfall evoked and remembered, coloured by the acoustics of the space and the incidental voices of the building.
The relationship between memory and water is familiar to anyone who has watched the beautiful films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Films such as Stalker and Nostlaghia are saturated with water; pools of reflected stillness; echoic drips; rain falling outside and inside the empty rooms of remembered spaces. In a short article (after the rain) for the British Library blog, Sound and Vision, I discussed the sensuous and mnemonic qualities of water and in particular rainfall.
duet for vinyl: edit
The date of the Impulsive Habitat release has a personal memory for me, the 16th being the birthday of my mother who died in 2011. Some years ago I made a covert recording of a telephone conversation with my mother. This was re-edited in the work, duet for radio (and subsequently duet for vinyl), removing my voice and replacing it with the static of telephone silence. In this imposed solitude of our conversation, my mother discusses her day-to-day: what she is having for tea, the weather outside her window. As she listens to a rain I cannot hear, there is a pause and then speaks:
“What have you been doing today, has it been raining? Raining on and off here all day………I can hear on the windows and it just sounds like someone’s breaking in………………….. sounds as if someone’s breaking in…………it’s terrible, I’ve never known it to be like this before…”
In the silent rain of this inconsequential soliloquy, I find a frailty and vulnerability that returns my mother to me. These intimate and mnemonic qualities of rainfall were audible, when Radio 4 broadcast from the public memorial for those murdered in the recent Paris terrorist attack. As the crowd gathered to hold their silence, the radio transmitted a vacant crackle of heavy rain, falling upon umbrellas and coats. As I listen, I hear my own silence in the rain, and I become another silent drop in a collective downpour of remembering.
rain choir: the prague variation galerie dira / Školská ul. 28 / Praha 1 / Prague
26.10.14 – 07.11.14
rain choir: the prague variation (edit) / 2014 / mp3
A variation of the sound installationrain choir, originally created for the crypt of Winchester Cathedral, is now in ‘exhibition’ at the Galerie Dira, Prague. The prague variation was recomposed in response to the particularity of this new situation: a headphone socket in the external wall of the gallery, where visitors are invited to bring their own headphones, ‘plug into the hole…and listen’.
In his excellent book Paraphernalia, Steven Connor discusses plugs as a situation of pause; a ‘lingering’ hesitation in a world more normally inclined to speed and continuous movement. This is why, Connor argues, sinks in airport bathrooms have no plugs and the electric sockets are hidden from the desperate prongs and low battery life of passengers. Running a tap and filling a sink or recharging your phone or laptop would suggest rest and intermission, an absence of progress, when the momentum of the airport requires you to proceed and go.
‘Plugs’ writes Connor, ‘plug you in to a particular locality and lifespan’, at one level this is cultural, the three prongs of British plugs are unique: an individuality that requires every UK citizen to keep an unused international plug adaptor in the back of some forgotten draw.’ But it is also a physical attachment. When visitors plug in at Galerie Dira, they tether themselves (and their listening) to a place, to this particular hole in place; whilst through this hole pours another place, an acoustic space spilling what was once here, now there. Just as the gutters of Winchester Cathedral, organise and disperse the rain falling upon its canopy, so too this anonymous hollow in Prague, transports a choir of rain from the drains of its source, through the wires of headphones to the plugholes of the plugged in listener.
Sound, pipes, wires and plugs share a tangled history with place, time and substance and our attempted escape from them. There is definitely something of the H.G. Wells in the piped ‘hydraulics’ of the time travel and wet clairaudience that the rain choir in Prague presents. ‘Pipes are old-new’, writes Connor, they have an alliance with the ghosts of voice and presence. We hear voices lurking in the whispering throat of pipes just as our listening organises the chaos of rainfall into patterns of rhythm. Connor identifies the drain as a vocal space, a gullet for hidden voices: ‘The drain introduces the most striking feature of the pipe, namely its clamorous crypto-vocality.’
The delicate distinctions and rhythms of rain falling through the cloistered drainpipes of Winchester Cathedral, were some of the voices that inspired and composed the rain choir. But the voices of pipes are not always so subtle. On a dank and damp Sabbath, I took my ears to the gutters of the Holy Trinity Church. Due to the conspicuous wired dawdling of my field-recording, I was accosted as a potential gutter thief. Able to prove my lack of form and malevolent intent, I was allowed to continue getting totally drenched only to discover that the collected voice of a heavy downpour through the canopy of Holy Trinity, can transform the wet epiglottal delicacy of rain into a swirling rant of potty-mouthed vernacular.
rain through a wire fence / 2014 / mp3
On my damp way home I noticed the rain falling through a wire fence. Listening to fences allows the audible to erase the fixed and limited space of vision, we can hear place dissolve and disappear. As Gaston Bachelard writes ‘The first to be dissolved is a landscape in the rain; lines and forms melt away’.
The rain colours the choir with a meteorological spatiality and time, a colour augmented by its reappearance in Prague. The choir becomes an acoustic cloud drifting across Europe and dissolving the solid borders of geography as it precipitates. In this precipitation of place, water is let in through the hole of the gallery wall and the wired plugholes of listeners.
the rain choir continues to fall in Prague until November 7th 2014. If you are near, plug in and downpour.
foraminifera: acid dissolve (sketch for wednesday) | 03:16 | 2014
23/07/14 | 19:00 | The Railway, Winchester | SO22 5AE
after the rain: a live set of dead sounds
for field-recordings, found voices, foraminifera, ammonite and dinosaur shell.
I will be performing a live set of dead sounds as part of Fluviology; an evening of experimental music, organised by Joe Evans, founder of runningonair records. The evening includes performances by Delphine Dora, Sophie Cooper and Joe himself. The word fluviology is defined as the study of watercourses or rivers and all the sounds performed at the event will have some association with water. For my own part I have used the opportunity to listen through the damp corners of my archives; not only the fields I record but also the found sounds of discarded cassettes and obscure discontinued vinyl records. Strangely a number of the found recordings feature people talking about the weather and in particular rainfall. More abstractly, my own recordings have a deluge of watery substance from the submerged yelp of a forlorn jetty, and the traction and rattle of steam trains to the effervescent dissolve of an ancient ammonite. As I discussed in my previous post, water and sound share a sort of ‘substantial nothingness’ (Bachelard) a dynamic materiality that exists on the edge of tangibility, water and sound are continually escaping form and permanence. I want to maintain the dynamics of this fluidity in the performance for Fluviology. after the rain, will include a ‘live’ recomposition of the sound installation, rain choir, based on the original field-recordings and later recordings coloured by the acoustics of its installation in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. As discussed in a previous post, the ‘live’ performance of field-recordings is always slightly problematic. The history and act of field-recording is associated with preservation and conservation; from the field-recording of folk music, to the ‘capture’ of animal noises and environments (soundscapes) threatened with extinction or destruction. In this way field recording is at odds with the dynamics of the substance it ‘preserves’. The act of recording tacitly entombs sound in the past; a moment removed from the essential fluidity of the present. For me field-recording has an innate relationship with failure and loss, the sounds I collect and keep are fossilised shells, dead sounds buried in the taxonomy of my archive. Performing them ‘live’ would seem to just augment their loss. But are there ways that these dead sounds may be reanimated? The collision and collage of juxtaposition creates ‘unique’ and vital sound fields, specific to this moment. The use of analogue recording equipment introduces its own vitality of decay, we can hear the damaged memories of harm as sounds age and corrupt; sound engages with the present by voicing disappearance: making loss apparent also animates.
In a previous post I mentioned how the sound of water and in particular rainfall evokes a strange sense of isolation and reverie. In the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the acoustic (and visual) presence of rain quietly soaks the viewer in a sensual intimacy full of memory and reminiscence. I think this mnemonic quality of rain comes from the dullness of its voice. Consistent and uneventful, we are drawn into the conversation of its vacancy, listening ever closer, to the pattern of drip and tonality of drop.
‘Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.’
Thomas Merton in, David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
Water is a mysterious element […] it can convey movement and a sense of change and flux. Maybe it has subconscious echoes — perhaps my love of water arises from some atavistic memory of some ancestral transmigration.
I was recently invited to contribute to If Wet at the Flatpack Festival in Birmingham. Devised and organised by Sam Underwood and David Morton, If Wet normally takes place in Callow End, Village Hall and is ‘part test bed, part salon; a place for artists to showcase their latest sonic works and research’. It is not an event exclusively concerned with wetness, its title coming from the traditional English retreat indoors in response to a sudden downpour. However, for this urban excursion, If Wet focused (eponymously) upon the sound of water, bringing together a babble of soggy voices. Beginning with a short history of MortonUnderwood’s “water instrument” and included a gorgeous and possibly erudite recital upon said instrument. I say possibly erudite because, as a new instrument, a definitive method of playing is still to be discovered and the full vocabulary of its wetness yet to be heard. Prof Trevor Cox introduced some awe inspiring acoustics from his Sonic Wonderland, instruments and spaces, which operate at the intersection of human endeavor and natural phenomena: from the disconsolate (Tom Waits) moan of a Wave Organ to the longest reverberation in the world, formed in the vast emptiness of Inchindown oil storage tank, Scotland. For my own part I chose to consider and discuss the relationship between sound, memory and water using three of my dampest works: four walks around a year, ˈtʃɔːk: eight studies of hearing loss and the installation rain choir.
In his book The Strange Familiar and Forgotten Israel Rosenfield questions the idea of memory as a fixed system of storage and retrieval. Proffering a dynamic model, Rosenfield writes:‘We understand the present through the past, an understanding that revises, alters and reworks the very nature of the past in an on-going, dynamic process’.
Sound too is dynamic; a space ‘without fixed boundaries…[auditory space] is always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment’. Water shares this state of flux, just as sound is coloured and formed by the present situation of its audition, water borrows its form from its current place of occupation. For Gaston Bachelard the substance of water is ‘full of reminiscence and prescient reveries’. Metaphorically we also lend the substance of water to memory; our memories have fathomless depth, they sink, submerge and rise to the surface of consciousness. Four walks around a year: winter, the final perambulation of a soundwalk quartet through the wet-lands of the winnall moors reserve in Winchester (UK), begins with an archive recording of city residents remembering the flooding of the moors in the years before and after ‘this last war’. These voices, which flood the landscape with history, emerge and submerge beneath the crisp, slowly thawing soundscape of winter. That which was then solid now melts, the sound dissolving not only the landscape, but substance itself.
Chalk (mirror) dissolve: after Robert Smithson
As part of If Wet, I performed a live dissolve, immersing various fossils and fragments of chalk (microbiological fossils) in vinegar. This process of sublimation, explored in ˈtʃɔːk: eight studies of hearing loss, makes audible a flight from substance, as the effervescent pre-historic CO2 escapes back into the present air: like a breath held in matter for millions of years, now quietly exhaled. One of the chalk fragments dissolved was ‘borrowed’ from an incarnation of Robert Smithson’s Chalk Mirror Displacement (1968). This was not intended as an attack on art history, but rather a sympathetic homage to Smithson’s occasionally visible Spiral Jetty. In counterpoint to this sublimation of matter, Trevor Cox, acoustic engineer and author of Sonic Wonderland, introduced us to the Great Stalacpipe Organ in the Luray Caverns, Virginia, whose ‘pipes’ have slowly dripped into solidity and stone: a precipitation into (sonorous) form.
A ghost of previous rain: recomposed version of the rain choir for If Wet
The sound of rain evokes a strange sense of isolation and reverie. In the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, its acoustic (and visual) presence quietly soaks the viewer in a sensual intimacy full of reminiscence and memory. As a wet conclusion to my talk I composed my own ghost of previous rain. Based on recordings of and from my site-specific sound installation rain choir, exhibited last year in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral, this acoustic shower mixed the drip drep and drop of gutter recordings with the live dissolve of limestone fragments taken from the walls of the crypt. Water can dissolve and dissipate, but it may also combine and associate. In his autobiography of sight-loss, Touching the Rock, John M. Hull describes how the sound of rain: ‘has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things [and] creates continuity of acoustic experience […] The rain gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationships of one part of the world to another.’
Yet this ‘perspective’ remains acoustic, in that it is fluid and dynamic, place emerging and disappearing in sonic detail, ‘moment by moment’ without the concrete solidity of visual form. In his book Water and Dreams, Gaston Bachelard recognises this ability of water to simultaneously dissolve and unite: ‘The first to be dissolved is a landscape in the rain; lines and forms melt away. But little by little the whole world is brought together again in its water. A single matter has taken over everything. “Everything is dissolved.”’
Just as the sound of CO2 escaping from a dissolving fragment of chalk, quietly announces the immanence of nothing in everything, so too the sound of rain remembers the ‘substantial nothingness’ of water. For John Hull, listening to the rainfall, extinguishes the borders between himself and the wet landscape, as if each raindrop were falling in his brain, he becomes one with the rainfall, a drop of rain at once present and disparate, substantial and not.
O soul, be chang’d into little water-drops,
And fall into the Ocean – ne’er be found