On Thursday the 27th of August I took a 10” vinyl record to the shingle shore of the North Sea at Cley in north Norfolk (N 520 57’ 41”, E 10 3’ 47”). With a single-side of unrecorded silence, the record plays nothing for seven minutes before spiraling into the looped shush of the run-off groove. The flip side, the b-side, is smooth and blank, except for the etched details of a return address.
The tide was going out.
I removed the record from its sleeve, walked to the edge of the sea and threw the silence into the waves.
The tide was still going out.
On Thursday August 27 2015 an announcement appeared in the Lost and Found section of The Times newspaper (No.71687). It read:
Silence lost in the North Sea at Cley, Norfolk. If found
return to: S. Hegarty c/o The British Library Sound Archive
The record lost was one of four such silences, one for each of the seas surrounding the coast of the UK: the North Sea, English Channel, Irish Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
Each record is cut with a silent groove. Without input or original signal, the record is not a record of silence, but rather a period of space and time during which nothing is recorded. If ever found, the audible harm of the damage done to its surface, becomes a record of its disappearnce and return.
The release of each record will follow the same process: at four different points along the coast of the UK one of the four records will be thrown into the sea. The silence of the record will not be recorded and its loss will not be filmed or photographed. An announcement placed in the Lost and Found section of The Times, will act as documentation. This will ensure that the loss of the silence will be recorded and held in the archives of the British Library. The British Library Sound Archive kindly agreed to the use of their address for the return of the silence should it ever be found. This has been etched onto the b-side of the record.
Perhaps this silence is not lost but rather discarded or surrendered? The lack of physical evidence and documentation undermines control, suggesting surrender. As the silence enters the unknown, control is lost and time and tide are allowed to compose a journey and determine survival. The silence is lost in terms of its geography: I have not calculated the currents effect upon its movement or used GPS to track its position. Whilst the address etched into the record, anticipates return, indeed asks for return, surrounding the discarded and surrendered silence with a sense of loss and of being lost to.
The lack of concrete documentation may call into question the existence of the record, truth of the action and site of disappearance (if ever it did disappear). Like the silence of its surface the record and its loss addresses the unknown and inaudible, it turns our ear toward sounds imagined, forgotten and ‘unstruck’: a silence lost to audition but not to our listening.
I approached Supersymmetry via a car park lift illuminated in a narcotic violet glow. Cellotaped to the lift wall was a piece of A4 paper, upon which was printed ‘THIS LIFT DOES NOT SERVE THE 3rd FLOOR’. Interjected in felt tip between ‘The’ and ‘3rd’ was ‘2nd’. I got in anyway and was served with the 1st as promised, from here I took the stairs to the 3rd and final floor, where I entered the enclosed darkness of Ryoji Ikeda’s latest installation. It is ironically appropriate to enter the digital, dark matter of Ikeda’s Supersymmetry via an out of order lift and a dank walk up the concrete steps of a car park stairwell.
Supersymmmetry presents: ‘ an interpretation of quantum mechanics and quantum information theory from an aesthetic viewpoint […] drawing on [Ikeda’s] exchanges with scientist and engineers […] at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the worlds largest particle physics laboratory’.
The installation is divided into two separate parts: experiment and experience. Entering the first ‘experiment’ I am enveloped in a visceral bloom of base, intermittently pierced by sublime, frenetic pinpricks of sound. People gather like moths around three, elevated pools of squared and flickering light. Small round particles of matter roll across the surfaces of this illumination, generating patterns of shade, which shift, disperse and congregate. The motion is hypnotic, strangely reminiscent of those oily wave machines, so popular in the 1970’s. These wave machines were the domestic equivalent of the Executive Ball Clickers, whose cradle of steel spheres once provided an aspirational pre-glitch click to the ‘modern’ office soundscape.
From the experiment I proceed through a curtained blackout, toward the noise of experience. Synchronized bursts of light and data travel at speed down a corridor of screens accompanied by an interrupted cacophony of bleeps and blips. The sound suggests organised forms of communication and analysis, as if we were listening to something being questioned, measured and sent. Physically engulfed in the sensual broken waves of digital noise, I am surprised to be suddenly awash in childhood memories of Star Trek; beamed back to the deck of Starship Enterprise, where control panels flash and everything looks like it is doing something, when of course, it isn’t. As I look around I notice that most people are filming, immersed in Supersymmetry through the raised screen of their mobile phone, a gesture reminiscent of Spock, who would survey new worlds with his handheld Tricorder. A sense of pretense begins to intervene in my experience and I am suspicious that the ‘scientific and mathematical model’ that Ikeda presents is a facade, a beautiful, sensual but ultimately empty aesthetic experience.
In a sudden peak of brightness I look up and notice a series of wooden structures attached to the roof: they looked like upside down tables. Above these I can see damp stains of peeling paint. I realise that the structures have been designed to protect the technology of the installation from the holes in the car park roof. These uncomplicated structures offer an eloquent mathematical model for the solution to a real problem: how do we protect the fabrication of Supersymmetry from the reality of rainfall?
From the pavement outside Carroll/Fletcher I stare through a window at A film about a city (2015), part of the new Wood and Harrison exhibition An almost identical copy. The clinical austerity of Wood and Harrison‘s architectural model is touched with elements of futility as I notice hoards of miniature human forms sheltering under the canopy of a square, whilst others sit on a solitary bank of stadium seating, facing nowhere, waiting for nothing to happen. There is something desolate about this city, this idea of a city and I am reminded of the Talking Heads song The Big Country, in which David Byrne describes an aerial view of the perfect country:
I see the school and the houses where the kids are Places to park by the factories and buildings Restaurants and bars for later in the evening
Byrne concludes: I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.
Unlike the ‘scientific and mathematical models’ of Ikeda, these models, reminiscent of train sets and Airfix kits, are intimate human spaces, they share a physical ratio with reality.
In the video installation 100 falls (2013), Harrison climbs a ladder ascending out of frame. A pause. And then a human dummy dressed as Harrison, drops to the floor. An obvious video edit and the lifeless dummy reanimates as Harrison. He stands up and proceeds to climb the ladder again. So it continues, one hundred times and then, one hundred more. As I talk to one of the Gallery administrators I am aware that behind his back, whilst we chat, Harrison continues with his pathetic ascent and fall, caught in a tragic, inevitable loop of self-harm. The sense of inevitability continues in Semi Automatic Painting Machine (2013) in which we observe various objects as they are mechanically conveyed through a process of being spray-painted. Amongst the bunting, plants and flip charts, we find John Wood, who was born with a face that looks like it has always been expecting this to happen. He is transported and sprayed white, turned, conveyed and sprayed high visibility yellow. Just as Harrison accepts the inevitability of his continual fall, so Wood is resigned to his place in the chromatic production line of the painting machine.
The downstairs gallery seems abandoned, models of tennis courts and industrial estates are deserted; the funfair has moved on. In the out of town car park of the video installation DIYVBIED (Do-It-Yourself, Vehicle Bourne Improvised Explosive Device), model cars randomly explode, not in a CGI altered reality sort of way, but in an indoor firework, Captain Scarlet sort of way. The cars look out of date, unexciting variations of the Hillman Avenger or Morris Marina (once the most popular car in the UK). As one car explodes and then another, I am reminded of those television images of motionless cityscapes, evacuated in response to telephone warnings and suspicious devices, scenes which are then suddenly reanimated by a controlled and remote explosion. As another door flies off another Avenger, every car becomes suspect and the anachronistic image becomes a contemporary premonition of landscapes to come.
As with all of Wood and Harrison’s work there is an obsessive attention to detail. In the gallery upstairs their almost compulsive obsession to order, results in a series of small, pointless and joyous interventions. In what appears to be the office work of bored and idle hands, drawing pins are organised, pencils sharpened, rulers bent and string measured, In the senseless world of Wood and Harrison, everyday objects are faintly rearranged and organised into poetic models, which question our perception of the tangible and concrete, perhaps much more than the aesthetic particle physics and sensuous digital immersion of Ikeda’s Supersymmetry.
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 was recently invited to take part in Elemental Dialogues: air, an interdisciplinary research project by the artist filmmakers, Anna Cady and Pauline Thomas. The project involves artists from an array of disciplines, writers, musicians, poets and dancers, all of who were invited to create their own ‘interpretation’ of the short film Air by Cady & Thomas. The resulting interpretations would then be ‘re-embedded into the film’, creating new, pluridisciplinary artworks, each of which tells a different and sometimes radically unexpected story’. It seems inherent to the project that the contributors interpret not only the film, but also the meaning of interpretation.
Perhaps because of my use of field-recording and an educational diet of 1970’s conceptual art and avant-garde film, I have an inherent suspicion of interpretation. As a word it suggests a concern with the subjective and considered. In her essay Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag describes interpretation as “a conscious act of the mind [illustrating] a certain code”. This description is augmented by the Oxford English Dictionary, whose definition combines the austerity of ‘explaining’, ‘understanding’ and ‘defining’ with the superficiality of ‘stylistic representation’.
Whilst field-recording I attempt to be as transparent as possible in order to let the sound through, allowing the unrecorded present to become a recorded past with as little interference (or interpretation) as possible: in the words of John Cage: ‘let sounds be themselves’. I am of course aware that Cage was not a fan of recorded sound (see David Grubbs book, Records Ruin the landscape) and I accept that the fluff of my blimp and bent of my microphone will find and amplify certain noises, whilst excluding others, thereby interfering with the sound recorded. But an inclination toward absence remains, whilst in my practice I accept and often celebrate the flaw, blemish and failure inherent in the act of recording.
air: wire wool and battery / mp3 / 01:10
dialogue with air: composed interpretation / mp3 / 03:56
For my contribution to the project I wanted a dialogue with ‘air’ that would avoid subjective, analytical, or emotional ‘responses’, preferring an ‘interpretation’ focused upon the sensual and temporal qualities of the film. I was drawn to the ephemerality of the imagery, and began listening for moments of air when its presence drifts between the audible and silent. I was interested in listening for these temporal qualities, more than the sonic consequence of its visibility: such as the rustle of leaves in a breeze. I began exploring chemical reactions that required air to occur, moments where air is used up and sound goes out. These field-recordings included the flameless chemistry of wire wool kindled by electricity and the designed illumination of a match struck gently.
I used these recordings to ‘compose’ a soundscape in retrospect: it was important not to watch the film whilst recording or composing, to look away in order to allow the sensual and temporal qualities to be filtered through my memory. This also helped me to avoid the temptation to synchronise sound to imagery, although a simple graphic score was created, to map the geography of the composition. I also used the fixed length of the film to set the duration of composition. Subsequently, it occurred to me that this almost intuitive inclination to synchronisation created a restriction that would be neither required nor applied to an interpretation in words or drawing. It seemed more appropriate to interpret the film holistically rather than breaking it up into a code of synchronised fragments.
air struck gently (away from the body) / mp3 / 05:05
Listening to the soundscape and the original field-recordings I found the austere narrative of a match struck, was the most transparent and eloquent interpretation of the film. The temporality of each match was innate, unique and complete, whilst in the composed soundscape time was fragmented. I concluded that the interpretation should preference performance to re-composition, allowing the unique sound of each match to occur and disappear like a breath, unformed by the voice of aesthetic decisions.
I found the stillness and temporal shifts in the film, reminiscent of Yoko Ono’s Flux Film No. 14: One (1966), in which the muted strike of a match is filmed at 2000fr/sec, extending and pausing the moment of illumination. Free of a prescribed duration, I applied this process to one of the match recordings, prolonging and amplifying the sonic details of its narrative, from the rush of chemical ignition to the gaseous cackle of flame and the final intermittent creek of exhalation as the match curls up in the silent darkness of light and air exhausted: ‘Then there begins a silence that breathes’ (Gaston Bachelard)
 The safety instruction on boxes of Swan Vesta matches advises the user to: ‘Strike gently away from the body’.
An ‘exploration’ of the interpretations by artists, writers and dancers have been ’embedded’ in a site-specific collaboration at The Manor, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire next weekend. More details here: https://talkthinkmake.wordpress.com/book/
Another collaboration will take place in London on the 7th May.
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
The rain choir is a new sound installation commissioned by the arts event 10days Winchester and taking place in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral.
The piece is based on ‘field-recordings’ of rain, as it falls through the tympanic guttering system of the Cathedral. Fragments of the Limestone walls dissolving in oil of Vitriol (sulphuric acid) and vinegar add an effervescent static to the rising damp of this motet for wet and secreted voices.
Using an array of hydrophones and acoustic and contact microphones, the field recordings explore the rhythm and timbre of the metallic guttering, as it transports rain away from the buildings canopy. The drainage systems provides a unique spatial acoustic, colouring the sound of rainfall and picking up other peripheral notes from the cloistered soundscape of the Cathedral Close: the peal of Sunday bells, the enclosed footfall and conversational echo of passers-by.
rain choir: opening (edit)
In addition to the audible downpour of such voices, the very fabric of the building is explored as a site of unpronounced voice. Just as the graffiti covering the internal walls, creates a visible silence, a palpable but unspoken history, so too the Limestone used to build the Cathedral contains its own petrified voices. Formed from the skeletal remains of pre-historic marine organisms, such as corals and Foraminifera (“hole bearers”), the stone contains the respiration of primeval life forms and landscapes. The external walls of limestone are pitted with holes and crevices, evidence of changes in atmospheric conditions and the corrosive effects of rainfall. Dissolving small fragments of these walls in acid produces an acoustic time-lapse of the process of corrosion. Just as the acid concentrates the harm caused by centuries of rainfall, so too the noise of this dissolve concentrates the attention of the ear upon the sonic details of decay and disappearance. Through this naive chemical action, the effervescent charnel noise of ancient CO2 is made audible. Voices once ‘confined’ in stone are released from permanence and solidity, taking ‘the ear strangely’ in an occasional shower of quiet geological rain.
rain choir: after the fall (edit)
The Cathedral is the final resting place of St. Swithun and was once itself in danger of collapse, through the flooding of its foundations. So the building has a metrological, hagiographical and mythological relationship with rainfall.
The proverbial saint and former bishop of Winchester St. Swithun asked that his body be buried in the grounds outside the Cathedral, so that it may ‘be subject to the feet of passers-by’ and the rain dripping from the eaves of the building. Such experiences suggest an appeal to auditory sensations; St Swithun was perhaps listening for the buried percussion of footsteps and rainfall. In 1906 Walter Walker dived beneath the flooded crypt in order to reinforce the foundations of the building, which was in danger of sinking beneath the sodden earth. Even now, the eastern transept is downwardly inclined and every winter, when the groundwater rises, the crypt floods with water.
Through the choir’s internal relocation of rainfall, the installation mimics the movement of St Swithun, whose body was exhumed and reburied in a shrine in the retrochoir behind the alter of the Cathedral. The rain, which once fell above the decaying but attentive ear of St Swithun, now pours beneath his mortal remains in the shrine where he rests. The choir presents an enclosed ghost of rain, a concealed but sensuous downpour that describes and is itself described by the karst topography of the Cathedral’s architecture.
Two single-sided 10” records were made, each cut with a silent groove. Revolving at 33rpm, each record was ‘recorded’ without input and provides over 7 minutes of soundless revolve. Something strange and quietly hypnotic occurs when you place such a record on a turntable and watch as the dampened fall of needle finds the groove. The record ‘plays’ without the expected audible consequence, making silence appear to double. The lack of synchronicity between sound and action seems to cause time to pause. There is a sense of displacement, and I feel slightly transparent. But the experience is more meditative than disturbing.
In an act of microphone-less field recording, I used the two records to record the tides at Holme-next-the-Sea and Cley. On the beach at Holme, I walked to the shoreline and placed a record in a stream of seawater. As the tide came in, each wave covered the record in a layer of sand, the particles of silica rolling over the surface of the mute spiral. After seven minutes the record was rescued from the sea, tidemarks of sand appearing on its surface, as it dried in the sun. On the shore at Cley, the retreating sea pummelled the surface of the remaining record with waves of roaring shingle.
Tide: Holme-next-the-sea | sand | tide coming in | edit
Tide: Cley | shingle | tide going out | edit
Returning each record to the platter of the gramophone, the needle moves across the coast of the silent vinyl spiral, meeting and dislodging particles of sand as it listens to the damage done. The revolve of the vinyl echoes the rotation of the earth, while the needle redistributes the sand across the surface of the record, rebuilding it’s own coastline . In the surface noise of self-harm, we can hear the records memory of water, as two quiet tides of time and silence.
I now imagine a vinyl index of tides, a tidal clock, mapping the coasts of England, the rotation of the earth and the gravitational pull and push of the lunar calendar.
I recently visited the chemical abode of Dr. Simon Park with the nefarious intention of immersing a hydrophone in Sulphuric acid and listening as it recorded the sound of its own dissolve into silence. I provided the hydrophone and Simon provided the acid (also known as oil of vitriol), along with the appropriate protection of gloves and goggles. We decided to conduct the experiment outside on a garden table, its surface protected from harm with a copy of the Sunday Times supplement, featuring Princess and sprout.
Unfortunately, this vitriolic and potentially expensive experiment failed, the Jez Riley French hydrophone quietly surviving all attempts at chemical destruction. However, we were able to conduct other experiments into the sonification of chemistry. Simon has recently been encasing deceased bumblebees in the blue sarcophagi of copper sulphate crystals. Knowing the anhydrous properties of the compound, Simon suggested we listen to the compound (also known as blue vitriol) quenching its thirst for water. As he dropped the white powder into a plastic container of water, we could hear the exothermic reaction, as energy was released in a short, but deep blue fug of sound. Using a pipette we dripped precisely measured droplets of water onto a hydrophone covered in the compound, producing sonic eruptions of blue, like tiny burns in the surface of audition.
I am currently working on a new sound piece for Winchester Cathedral, which will take the form of a rain choir. The Cathedral is the final resting place of St. Swithun’s and was itself once in danger of collapse through the flooding of its foundations, so it has both a metrological and mythological association with rainfall.
The Cathedral Limestone walls are simultaneously pitted and smoothed by the chemical action of centuries of sulphurous precipitation. As one of the possible voices in the rain choir, I am exploring the sounds generated by this chemical dissolution. Dissolving small fragments of Cathedral Limestone in oil of vitriol, produces an acoustic time-lapse of the process of corrosion. Just as the acid concentrates centuries of rainfall into a brief moment, so too the noise of this dissolve concentrates the attention of the ear upon the sonic details of chemical decay. In an almost electronic emission, reminiscent of an un-tuned radio the sound of dissolve continues to change as the acid burns beneath the surface of the limestone revealing the karst topography of its geological and biological history: a fossil choir of coral and shell.
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
ˈtʃɔːk: eight studies of hearing loss
very quiet records | VQR 007 | Cdr & digital download
I am delighted to announce that a collection of my chalk dissolves has been released on the most appropriately named, Very Quiet Records. Available as a digital download and limited edition CDr, the discreet chemistry of the cretaceous recordings forms the seventh release by the independent label, dedicated to sonic detail and focused listening. Curated, designed and produced by sound artist Tony Whitehead, the labels impressive roster of artists includes: Frédéric Nogray, Atilio Doreste and Mecha/Orga.
The release is titled ˈtʃɔːk: eight studies of hearing loss, and I am particularly drawn to the limited edition CDr as a method of bringing substance back to the ethereal sounds evoked: a physical shell for the disembodied noise of shell loss. My interest in this dialogue between something and nothing is apparent in the written notes that accompany the CDr:
In the series of eight sound studies, I lend my own shell like to the fossil remains of deceased seas. The Cretaceous samples employed include: Chalk taken from the bed of the River Itchen and from a recent cliff fall in Lyme Regis (kindly donated by Sarah Craske); fossilised ammonites that once swam in those lost oceans and fragments of dinosaur eggs from nestings in France and Argentina (fragments which are now geographically distant, but were once tectonically close). These studies offer a sympathetic drift of attention away from chemistry and toward the extinction of substance and the audibility of loss.
In a number of the studies such loss is augmented, by allowing the sample to continue dissolving until it is fully exhausted, until the final breath of substance has been taken. The sound does not extinguish by volume but by frequency, there is no gradual fade down into silence, but rather an acoustic and percussive crumbling of something into nothing.
Unlike the invisible microscopic algae that make up the substance of chalk, a fossilized ammonite presents a visually recognisable creature, a prehistoric form that once lived, but which geology buried away from time and preserved from disappearance. Dissolving these fossils seems like an act of vandalism, a destruction of history, an abolition of the past. But it also offers a temporal resurrection, a reanimation of the past into the present. Exhumed from permanence the past is allowed to dissolve and we can hear the immanence of nothing in everything, we can listen to the loss of substance occurring and the movement of solid matter into thin and ‘audible air’.
very quiet records: Tony Whitehead
ˈtʃɔːk: eight studies of hearing loss is available now as a limited edition CDr and download from: very quiet records