Silence and weak signals live: part one  5:23 / mp3 / 2019
Silence and weak signals live: part two  5:28 / mp3 / 2019
Silence and weak signals live: part three  5:27 / mp3 / 2019
To mark the end of the exhibition of Various Silences at Winchester School of Art Library, I performed a short micro-FM transmission in Library 2. Silence and weak signals: for five poorly tuned radios, was accompanied by the live dissolve of a cretaceous ammonite, a dissolve that quietly released the fossilised air of ancient C02 into the atmospheric lull of library stacks. The performance begins with a damaged silence as I take Silence on Loan from the library shelf and drop the stylus into its groove. Tuning into the dead air between radio stations, I find silence and weak signals coming through the radios, whilst the tapping of the library shelves and architecture, calls substance into question and asks for a response from elsewhere.
Each day of the exhibition, a page of the erased found novel Red Silence: for the missing, was turned. As I removed the novel from the exhibition, the silent dust of language rubbed out and unsaid, remained on the cabinet floor.
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.
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.
Curious listeners are invited to Kinokophonography, an evening of curated sound cinema at The British Library on Wednesday 27th May 2015. Organised by Kinokophone, the evening will include one of my recordings as part of a themed programme of ‘disappearing sounds’. Inspired by the British Library’s Save our Sounds project the event will feature sounds which are perhaps becoming closer to silence than audience: sounds going out slowly.
With a title from adapted from the safety instructions on a box of Swan Vesta matches (‘Strike gently away from the body’), air struck gently (slowly going out) concentrates attention upon the momentary illumination of a match struck in air. Like the quiet choreography of the gesture that accompanies it, the sound of a match is gradually disappearing from audition and memory. Condemned to extinction by the demise of smoking and the convenient, controlled ignition of the disposable lighter, the chemical reaction of a match offers a brief, obsolete and fragile soundscape of undetermined duration. In the vulnerable brevity of its flame we can listen to light appearing and sound going slowly out.
closer out / 03:52 / mp3
In closer out (2015) one of a series of ‘match’ recordings has been slowed down, bringing the flame closer to our ear, prolonging and amplifying the sonic details of its narrative: a roar of ignition followed by a gaseous cackle of flame and a last creaking gasp of extinction as the match goes out.
The hysterical (pathological) juxtaposition of a flame struck in the quiet, dark paginated archive of The British Library is not lost on me. I am strangely drawn to the casual poetic threat that the heat of this endangered sound creates amongst the libraries preserved manuscripts of silent language.
Kinokophonography at the British library is free, but places are limited and should be booked online via the British Library website.
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.
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.
The final part of my seasonal quartet, four walks around a year, is now available from the German sound art and field-recording label Gruenrekorder Digital. Based on two years of recordings made in the Winnall Moors Conservation Reserve (Winchester, UK) the four sound walks have been slow released throughout 2013, beginning with spring in May 2013 and concluding with winter in January 2014.
Working with Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, the sound walk project (documented on the project blog) was intended to not only to record the different elements of the soundscape, but also to use recording to reveal and disclose the temporal patterns and sonic qualities of the moors landscape. The resulting sonic perambulations would provide a form of audio guide that would enable visitors to walk around the moors in the acoustic company of a previous season.
Listening to the cold, empty and brittle soundscape of the winter walk, I was struck by its contrast to the present landscape of the flooded moors in 2014. Recent rainfall has caused the Itchen to break its banks and pour across the moors. The gravel paths around the reserve are now under several inches of river, with the mumbled voices of water leaking everywhere. The previous creaking transit of footfall over a frosted and frozen boardwalk is now replaced by the splish and splash of puddles and wellington boots. Coincidently the winter walk begins with the anonymous chit-chat of people reminiscing about other winters, when the posh boys from Winchester College, would cut through the banks of the river to flood the moors with freezing water, turning them into a temporary ice rink.
WordPress allows several sound files to be played simultaneously, which permits the initial intention of mixing together the past and present soundscape to occur, without having to visit the moors: people may now flood this previous winter with the dank sounds of the present inundated landscape. The sound files below include extracts from four walks around a year: winter alongside a series of recent field-recordings from the flooded moors. You are invited to use the sounds to listen and compose your own flood of winter.
Four walks around a year: winter / dawn with sporty
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.