Shh. Shush. Hush. Schtum. Silence is often something imposed, an instruction to refrain, to not participate, something we leave behind when we hold our tongue and keep mum. It seems appropriate that many of the silencing verbs, which are primarily directed toward a silencing of speech, are onomatopoeic in origin; pre-verbal imitations of sounds that hold voice back from language. Even the physical action of the verbs’ pronunciation requires a narrowing of the mouth, a gesture which in the mumble of closed lips and shushed tittle-tattle of tongue against teeth, mimes the physical restraint of utterance. But the refrain of silence need not be a negative imposition, it might be a positive choice, an elective, collective and possibly selective withdrawal from presence.
The above paragraph is from, Withdrawn from use: Silence, listening and undoing, a new article published in the latest issue of the journal Organised Sound26/2 (Cambridge University Press). Edited by the composer, musician and academic, Tullis Rennie the issue explores Socially Engaged Sound Practices. In his editorial Tullis introduces a collection of articles which are:
‘[…] decidedly diverse: in interpretations of ‘sociality’; and in addressing distinct areas and eras of sound practices – the contemporary, canonical and hereto less-heard. Considering this issue as a single entity, the authors thus become united in their aim to diversify the conversation, in decentralising theoretical approaches to the subject matter and in the positive inclusion of a wider variety of voices, experiences, sounding bodies and attitudes to listening.’
I am delighted to be amongst such a diverse and fascinating collection of articles and authors, which includes Catherine Clover, whose article, Oh! Ah ah pree trra trra, extends sociality beyond the human to ‘speculative and expansive interspecies encounters’, Sam Mackay who examines ‘The sonic politics of “Clap for Carers” […] as participative sonic arts practice’ and Chris J. H. Cook whose article, Trevurr: A dialogic composition on dementia, auraldiversity and companion listening, ‘documents important aspects of participatory practice with neurodiverse collaborators, told through the lens of a co-created sound work.’
Withdrawn from use: Silence, listening and undoing
In his book Giving Way, Steven Connor provides a list of unappreciated qualities. This list starts with a capitalised, ‘SILENCE’. Shyness, reserve, withdrawal and holding back accompany silence in a long sentence of qualities, which ‘tend to be marked with disapproval, sympathy or revulsion’, and some of which are, as Connor notes, ‘characterized as a mental disorder, in the form of social anxiety or social phobia’ (Connor 2019: 1).
Silence is often seen as a lack of agency, an anti-social and suspect unwillingness to participate. But as a sound artist working with field-recording, I am aware that silence, withdrawal and holding back can also be a form or method of participation and social practice. Since 2004, my sound work has included a series of physical and imagined silent releases. The article draws on these works and the writing of, amongst others, Steven Connor, Seán Street,Hamja Ahsan, Gaston Bachelard and Dylan Thomas, to explore silence as a potential, shared and communal space; an immediate composition that invites both listener and non-listener into its congress. Listening in on the conversation of telephone pauses and the closed paragraphs of library shelves, silence can be heard undoing purposeful agency, shyly engaging us in the anti-social practice of inaction, so that we might not participate, together.
I am grateful to the editor of Organised Sound, Prof Leigh Landy, Tullis Rennie, Jan Baiton and the peer reviewers for their critical guidance and support. Thank you as always Julia Hall for your insight and patient ear.
Framework Intro: variation for a door, a sigh and a cheap guitar.
On Thursday the 6th July I read of the sad death of composer and musique concrète pioneer, Pierre Henry. I shared the Quietus announcement of his death on Facebook and a few minutes later had a message from sound artist and Framework curator, Patrick McGinley (AKA Murmur). Patrick asked if I would be interested in recording a Framework intro for a special edition of the radio show, which would be broadcast as ‘a farewell and tribute to Henry.’ Those familiar with Framework, would know that the intro for each show is created by listeners from across the world. Contributors respond in their own way to a set of recording instructions provided by Patrick on the show’s website. Patrick needed the intro for the following day and thinking aloud said, ‘a squeaky door perhaps’. Coincidentally, on the day Pierre had died I had been recording the Lifts (elevators) on my journey to work, a sort of aural reconnaissance for a project in Southampton this autumn. Although my ear was focused on the damped shush of the Lift doors close, I unintentionally stumbled upon a normal door with an exquisite hinge: I paused, pressed record and mimed the arch of my entrance, allowing a ghost of myself to pass audibly through.
My door recording, which at the time of Patrick’s invitation seemed serendipitous, if not suspiciously portent, formed the starting point of the compositional process. In 1963 Henry used the recorded squeaks of a farmhouse door, alongside the sound of a sigh, a blocked up stream, starved pigs and other occasional off stage noises (Art Lange, The Wire) to compose, Variations pour une porte et un soupir (Variations for a door and a sigh). As a vegetarian, starving a pig seemed intellectually and morally complex, nor did I have access to a farmyard, but as I think back on the intro now composed, other elements of Henry’s variation seem to unintentionally arise, return and resonate.
On Thursday, prior to my learning of Henry’s death, I had been exploring other possible sounds for the forthcoming project. This included a Ping-Pong ball, which, at the request of the winds intermittent sigh (and the occasional impatient forefinger), rolled up and down the un-tuned strings of a cheap guitar. These aural ascents and falls seemed intended for the composition. Having recorded Framework intros before, I realised I would be required to speak the provided statement. I am always slightly uncomfortable hearing my own voice and have previously used methods to place (or hide it) it away from me, such as leaving it on an answerphone tape. In 2007 I recorded an intro with my mother reading out the Framework statement. I decided to use this recording and searched back though my files to find it. I then re-recorded her voice through the larynx of the cheap guitar strings. My mother died in 2011, and it was lovely to hear her voice, her sighs and hesitations, pronounce the air once more. This personal aural link to memory and loss again seemed appropriate for the Henry introduction. As a conclusion to the piece, I printed out the Framework statement and ‘diced’ the words into single letters and full stops. I dripped these alphabetic remains infrequently upon the guitar and listened to language disappear, plucked of meaning but still vibrating.
The premiere of Framework #606 [pierre henry]curated by Patrick McGinley was broadcast on Resonance FM last Sunday and is now available for listening and download on the Framework website.Framework is also broadcast on radio stations across the world (details here).
Thank you to Patrick for asking me to provide an introduction for his beautiful hommage and adieu concrète to Henry.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
I took a day-trip to London to see Wood and Harrison’s Things That Happen at the Carroll / Fletcher Gallery and hear Graham Dunning’s talk at SoundFjord.
It rained and my navigation skills proved themselves to be suspect once more. But I was justly rewarded for my endurance.
Having had the immense pleasure of teaching with Mr. Harrison at Wolverhampton University, I have some knowledge of the video works that Wood and Harrison have created over the years. Things That Happen brings together, new pieces (I have never seen), alongside earlier works, which I have only seen on old, defunct televisions in various badly lit seminar rooms. The show is an eloquently curated retrospective, presented within an appropriately minimalist space: Carroll / Fletcher is a beautiful gallery with a very satisfying gray concrete staircase.
At the back of the gallery a familiar black dot provided me with a mnemonic focal point. I have watched the video Blind/Spot on DVD many times. In my mind I had imagined it to be exhibited full size at the end of a gray minimalist corridor. I find it however, unassumingly projected onto a free-standing projection screen, similar to those once set up in schools and homes throughout the 1970’s, enabling us to watch educational films on childbirth, and Super 8 films of holidays in Rhyl or unprofessional family pets. Of course, this is the perfect situation for the work: a screen upon a screen: a projected space upon a space for projection. The video holds a black dot in the middle of a white rectangle, before abruptly snapping up to reveal another black dot on the white rectangle of another screen, which snaps up again to reveal another dot on another screen further down a corridor of other screens. The dot remains the same size, although in fact it is increasing in size as it recedes down the corridor: the circle filling a larger area of the rectangle in order to remain unchanged to the eye. This simple experiment seems to rent a hole in my perception of the space I am seeing: a visual diagram undermining my frail understanding of the laws of physics. The tear is accompanied by the audible snap of the screen rolling up, however, the sound is not dramatically amplified, but carefully left to descend from the tinny speaker of the projector above our heads.
Next to Blind/Spot, in the corner of the gallery, a TV monitor sits abandoned on the floor. In front of this hang a pair of headphones, quietly awaiting the unification of sound and image. On the TV screen a microphone swings from side to side in front of a small amp. I am of course reminded of Reich’s Pendulum Music, to whom Wood and Harrison offer their ‘Apologies’, but here there are no performers and the repetitive un-touched initiation and cessation of movement, adds futility to the dull tock of the looped swing. The visually mute chronometric pendulum of MIC/Amp remains silent until I put on the headphones. At this moment an intermittent feedback, swings through my ears, slowly approaching an exquisite full stop, in the form of a constant standing tone humming intimately, right between my eyes. Wood and Harrison’s use of sound is adroit and understated, the work Shelf (2007) ( (not in this show) is in many ways as much a sound piece as it is a video installation.
In 10 x 10 (2011) a cyclical almost autonomic gush of breath, reminiscent of a David Lynch soundtrack, seems to repeatedly drag down image after image projected onto a large wall. The regular rhythm of this noise implies continuity, a mechanical descent, which distances us from the space we are observing. The closed-circuit of these images provides a voyeuristic glimpse into the windowless rooms of a bizarre office block, inhabited occasionally by a bored man (Harrison) whose behavior seems simultaneously mundane and bizarre: throwing paper planes into a bin; blowing up balloons, which never increase in size; dropping office furniture onto randomly arranged strip lights. The monotonous descent of images proceeds like a visual paternoster, allowing us to join or leave the threads of narrative that a full ride reveals. Sometimes Harrison appears adorned in a line-up of fancy dress costumes, which reminds me of Village People: a police officer, a cowboy, a Red Indian (sadly no macho man). Harrison seems to be waiting for an office party that no one else could be bothered to attend. The dull dejection of such overdue moments pervades many of the works that make up Things That happen. The actions performed seem to result from a lack of purpose, time suspended in that idle never ending empty moment when things that happen, don’t.
Later that afternoon I clumsily orienteered through increasingly unfamiliar regions of Tottenham, in search of SoundFjord, where Graham Dunning was giving a fascinating talk as part of his exhibition For Posterity. The talk concerned his attempt to reunite a found reel-to-reel tape with the owners of the voices left upon it.
At a car boot sale, Graham had bought a flat-bed tape recorder together with a spool of audio tape. Upon this he found waiting the voices of a family who had recorded themselves ‘for posterity’: for the listening attention of unknown ears. Diligently Graham had located the survivors of these voices and corresponded to discuss a safe return. But the narrative had continued whilst voice remained still: one of the children heard singing had died in a motorbike accident and his father had also died some years after the tape had been recorded. The surviving relative of the voices could not bear to hear them speak: to have them happen again. She did not want them returned, but preferred them left where they were: unspoken and unheard.
Found tapes have featured in my own sound work and I have boxes full of discarded voices that others have left to disintegrate on forgotten audiocassettes, reel to reels and answerphone tapes. There is something fatal in the act of recording voice. Edison of course, considered the phonograph a portal for conversations with the deceased, whilst, in Ulysses, James Joyce imagined a gramophone would one day be placed in the headstones of all our dearly departed.
Having made numerous covert recordings of people talking on trains or in the delayed spaces of transport waiting rooms, I am aware of the fatality that occurs when we attempt to keep that which is fleeting. When listening back to these voices whilst still in the present company of their author, I was struck by a dull but absolute sense of loss. The layering of the past upon the present generated a distinct lack in time, a lack that made ghosts of those whose voice I had confiscated.