Is it Eating you? IMT Gallery
Is it Eating you? is a performance event curated by Mark Peter Wright as part of his solo exhibition I, The Thing in the Margins at IMT: ‘A night of sound, film and performance exploring non-human worlds. The title of the event takes its cue from Larry Cohen’s 1985 b-movie horror comedy, The Stuff. The plot involves a goo-like substance that is extracted from the ground and sold as frozen yoghurt. As the story unfolds we discover the yoghurt is a parasitic, even sentient organism that gradually takes over the human brain and turns people into zombies before shedding their skin. Inspired by Cohen’s film the evening will mix humour and horror: amplifying a host of matter and affects; from animals to microbes, technology to plants, soil and screams.’
The evening will feature:
Mira Calix (screening)
Esther Planas & Jennifer Ipekel
Graham Dunning & Tom White Pond Scum Light Show (Jennifer Pengilly, Ash Reid & Jamie Sutcliffe)
I will be performing a new variation of the rain choir with dissolving coral accompaniment.Since its installation at Winchester Cathedral, variations of the choir have been recomposed, installed and performed for various situations in the UK and Europe. In this dead sea variation, the original field-recordings of rain falling the guttering system of the Cathedral are joined by ‘live’ voices respired from the sarcophagi of deceased and fossilised corals dissolving in acid: a reaction echoing ocean acidification. In this resuscitated breath of Paleozoic air, molecules of carbon dioxide, exhaled 429 million years ago can be heard (and inhaled) as they dissolve back into the atmosphere. A collective sigh of dead sea air.
rain choir: the St James Variation Live performance at St James Hatcham Gallery, Goldsmiths, University of London
On the 5th May I took part in a small concert as part of the opening of Sound / Place, an exhibition curated by Tom Tlalim & Sandra Kazlauskaite, at St James Hatcham Gallery, Goldsmiths, University of London. The concert, which included performances by Yiorgis Sakellario, Istishhad Hheva and John Garcia Rueda & Ella Jane New, took place in the Listening Box, also known as the Sonics Immersive Media Lab (SIML). The immersive qualities of this technological space seemed to share a concern with the manipulation of sound present in the architecture of the Cathedral. I am interested in how the performance of the choir offers an opportunity for a continual recomposition within the dynamics of another place. Each recital introduces variations of acoustics and pattern, producing a form of sonic palimpsest: a murmuration of rainfall.
rain Choir: the St James variation (edit) | mp3 | 2015
The St James variation of rain choir draws on the field-recordings of the original site-specific sound installation for the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. These recordings explored the acoustic qualities and rhythms of rainfall as it fell through the gutters of the building. The choir also included sounds created by dissolving fragments of the Cathedral walls in acid. Echoing the percussive qualities of rainfall and the effect of its polluted chemistry, this naive chemical reaction releases a Palaeolithic and audible air of effervescent CO2, from the fossilised skeletal remains which form the Limestone.
In his autobiography of sight loss, John M. Hull describes how the sound of rain, ‘throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the falling rain creates ‘a continuity of acoustic experience’. For Hull, rain reveals place, presenting ‘the fullness of an entire situation all at once, […] actually and now’. He continues: ‘If only rain could fall inside a room…’
The rain then falling inside St James sounded out place. The original voices of the choir and those coloured by the acoustic of the cathedral crypt were joined by a ‘live’ dissolve of limestone fragments from the crypt and walls of the Cathedral. In an arid, invisible downpour, the choir immersed the audience in the dynamics and architecture of the Listening Box: an acoustic rain simultaneously describing and being described by the present site of audition.
Sound Place continues until 13/05/15 at St James Hatcham gallery, Goldsmiths, University of London.
I am delighted to announce that the rain choir has been released on the excellent field-recording label, Impulsive Habitat. The choir is available as a free downpour in two versions: the original choir and a recital of the work recomposed from the original field-recordings and those made during the installation of the work in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. This recitation is, as its name suggests, ‘a repetition, a ‘reading aloud from memory’: rainfall evoked and remembered, coloured by the acoustics of the space and the incidental voices of the building.
The relationship between memory and water is familiar to anyone who has watched the beautiful films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Films such as Stalker and Nostlaghia are saturated with water; pools of reflected stillness; echoic drips; rain falling outside and inside the empty rooms of remembered spaces. In a short article (after the rain) for the British Library blog, Sound and Vision, I discussed the sensuous and mnemonic qualities of water and in particular rainfall.
duet for vinyl: edit
The date of the Impulsive Habitat release has a personal memory for me, the 16th being the birthday of my mother who died in 2011. Some years ago I made a covert recording of a telephone conversation with my mother. This was re-edited in the work, duet for radio (and subsequently duet for vinyl), removing my voice and replacing it with the static of telephone silence. In this imposed solitude of our conversation, my mother discusses her day-to-day: what she is having for tea, the weather outside her window. As she listens to a rain I cannot hear, there is a pause and then speaks:
“What have you been doing today, has it been raining? Raining on and off here all day………I can hear on the windows and it just sounds like someone’s breaking in………………….. sounds as if someone’s breaking in…………it’s terrible, I’ve never known it to be like this before…”
In the silent rain of this inconsequential soliloquy, I find a frailty and vulnerability that returns my mother to me. These intimate and mnemonic qualities of rainfall were audible, when Radio 4 broadcast from the public memorial for those murdered in the recent Paris terrorist attack. As the crowd gathered to hold their silence, the radio transmitted a vacant crackle of heavy rain, falling upon umbrellas and coats. As I listen, I hear my own silence in the rain, and I become another silent drop in a collective downpour of remembering.
foraminifera: acid dissolve (sketch for wednesday) | 03:16 | 2014
23/07/14 | 19:00 | The Railway, Winchester | SO22 5AE
after the rain: a live set of dead sounds
for field-recordings, found voices, foraminifera, ammonite and dinosaur shell.
I will be performing a live set of dead sounds as part of Fluviology; an evening of experimental music, organised by Joe Evans, founder of runningonair records. The evening includes performances by Delphine Dora, Sophie Cooper and Joe himself. The word fluviology is defined as the study of watercourses or rivers and all the sounds performed at the event will have some association with water. For my own part I have used the opportunity to listen through the damp corners of my archives; not only the fields I record but also the found sounds of discarded cassettes and obscure discontinued vinyl records. Strangely a number of the found recordings feature people talking about the weather and in particular rainfall. More abstractly, my own recordings have a deluge of watery substance from the submerged yelp of a forlorn jetty, and the traction and rattle of steam trains to the effervescent dissolve of an ancient ammonite. As I discussed in my previous post, water and sound share a sort of ‘substantial nothingness’ (Bachelard) a dynamic materiality that exists on the edge of tangibility, water and sound are continually escaping form and permanence. I want to maintain the dynamics of this fluidity in the performance for Fluviology. after the rain, will include a ‘live’ recomposition of the sound installation, rain choir, based on the original field-recordings and later recordings coloured by the acoustics of its installation in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. As discussed in a previous post, the ‘live’ performance of field-recordings is always slightly problematic. The history and act of field-recording is associated with preservation and conservation; from the field-recording of folk music, to the ‘capture’ of animal noises and environments (soundscapes) threatened with extinction or destruction. In this way field recording is at odds with the dynamics of the substance it ‘preserves’. The act of recording tacitly entombs sound in the past; a moment removed from the essential fluidity of the present. For me field-recording has an innate relationship with failure and loss, the sounds I collect and keep are fossilised shells, dead sounds buried in the taxonomy of my archive. Performing them ‘live’ would seem to just augment their loss. But are there ways that these dead sounds may be reanimated? The collision and collage of juxtaposition creates ‘unique’ and vital sound fields, specific to this moment. The use of analogue recording equipment introduces its own vitality of decay, we can hear the damaged memories of harm as sounds age and corrupt; sound engages with the present by voicing disappearance: making loss apparent also animates.
In a previous post I mentioned how the sound of water and in particular rainfall evokes a strange sense of isolation and reverie. In the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the acoustic (and visual) presence of rain quietly soaks the viewer in a sensual intimacy full of memory and reminiscence. I think this mnemonic quality of rain comes from the dullness of its voice. Consistent and uneventful, we are drawn into the conversation of its vacancy, listening ever closer, to the pattern of drip and tonality of drop.
‘Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.’
Thomas Merton in, David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
Water is a mysterious element […] it can convey movement and a sense of change and flux. Maybe it has subconscious echoes — perhaps my love of water arises from some atavistic memory of some ancestral transmigration.
I was recently invited to contribute to If Wet at the Flatpack Festival in Birmingham. Devised and organised by Sam Underwood and David Morton, If Wet normally takes place in Callow End, Village Hall and is ‘part test bed, part salon; a place for artists to showcase their latest sonic works and research’. It is not an event exclusively concerned with wetness, its title coming from the traditional English retreat indoors in response to a sudden downpour. However, for this urban excursion, If Wet focused (eponymously) upon the sound of water, bringing together a babble of soggy voices. Beginning with a short history of MortonUnderwood’s “water instrument” and included a gorgeous and possibly erudite recital upon said instrument. I say possibly erudite because, as a new instrument, a definitive method of playing is still to be discovered and the full vocabulary of its wetness yet to be heard. Prof Trevor Cox introduced some awe inspiring acoustics from his Sonic Wonderland, instruments and spaces, which operate at the intersection of human endeavor and natural phenomena: from the disconsolate (Tom Waits) moan of a Wave Organ to the longest reverberation in the world, formed in the vast emptiness of Inchindown oil storage tank, Scotland. For my own part I chose to consider and discuss the relationship between sound, memory and water using three of my dampest works: four walks around a year, ˈtʃɔːk: eight studies of hearing loss and the installation rain choir.
In his book The Strange Familiar and Forgotten Israel Rosenfield questions the idea of memory as a fixed system of storage and retrieval. Proffering a dynamic model, Rosenfield writes:‘We understand the present through the past, an understanding that revises, alters and reworks the very nature of the past in an on-going, dynamic process’.
Sound too is dynamic; a space ‘without fixed boundaries…[auditory space] is always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment’. Water shares this state of flux, just as sound is coloured and formed by the present situation of its audition, water borrows its form from its current place of occupation. For Gaston Bachelard the substance of water is ‘full of reminiscence and prescient reveries’. Metaphorically we also lend the substance of water to memory; our memories have fathomless depth, they sink, submerge and rise to the surface of consciousness. Four walks around a year: winter, the final perambulation of a soundwalk quartet through the wet-lands of the winnall moors reserve in Winchester (UK), begins with an archive recording of city residents remembering the flooding of the moors in the years before and after ‘this last war’. These voices, which flood the landscape with history, emerge and submerge beneath the crisp, slowly thawing soundscape of winter. That which was then solid now melts, the sound dissolving not only the landscape, but substance itself.
Chalk (mirror) dissolve: after Robert Smithson
As part of If Wet, I performed a live dissolve, immersing various fossils and fragments of chalk (microbiological fossils) in vinegar. This process of sublimation, explored in ˈtʃɔːk: eight studies of hearing loss, makes audible a flight from substance, as the effervescent pre-historic CO2 escapes back into the present air: like a breath held in matter for millions of years, now quietly exhaled. One of the chalk fragments dissolved was ‘borrowed’ from an incarnation of Robert Smithson’s Chalk Mirror Displacement (1968). This was not intended as an attack on art history, but rather a sympathetic homage to Smithson’s occasionally visible Spiral Jetty. In counterpoint to this sublimation of matter, Trevor Cox, acoustic engineer and author of Sonic Wonderland, introduced us to the Great Stalacpipe Organ in the Luray Caverns, Virginia, whose ‘pipes’ have slowly dripped into solidity and stone: a precipitation into (sonorous) form.
A ghost of previous rain: recomposed version of the rain choir for If Wet
The sound of rain evokes a strange sense of isolation and reverie. In the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, its acoustic (and visual) presence quietly soaks the viewer in a sensual intimacy full of reminiscence and memory. As a wet conclusion to my talk I composed my own ghost of previous rain. Based on recordings of and from my site-specific sound installation rain choir, exhibited last year in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral, this acoustic shower mixed the drip drep and drop of gutter recordings with the live dissolve of limestone fragments taken from the walls of the crypt. Water can dissolve and dissipate, but it may also combine and associate. In his autobiography of sight-loss, Touching the Rock, John M. Hull describes how the sound of rain: ‘has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things [and] creates continuity of acoustic experience […] The rain gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationships of one part of the world to another.’
Yet this ‘perspective’ remains acoustic, in that it is fluid and dynamic, place emerging and disappearing in sonic detail, ‘moment by moment’ without the concrete solidity of visual form. In his book Water and Dreams, Gaston Bachelard recognises this ability of water to simultaneously dissolve and unite: ‘The first to be dissolved is a landscape in the rain; lines and forms melt away. But little by little the whole world is brought together again in its water. A single matter has taken over everything. “Everything is dissolved.”’
Just as the sound of CO2 escaping from a dissolving fragment of chalk, quietly announces the immanence of nothing in everything, so too the sound of rain remembers the ‘substantial nothingness’ of water. For John Hull, listening to the rainfall, extinguishes the borders between himself and the wet landscape, as if each raindrop were falling in his brain, he becomes one with the rainfall, a drop of rain at once present and disparate, substantial and not.
O soul, be chang’d into little water-drops,
And fall into the Ocean – ne’er be found
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.
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.
When I was 17 I was coerced into studying Geology CSE: a form of academic punishment for dropping Economics A level in favour of Art. I had already grown to distrust geography, having found myself damp and ridiculed on a field trip to somewhere very wet. So I did not readily take to geology, although I was quite fond of the diagrams and information graphics.
Decades later Dr Simon Park introduced me to the sonic potentials of geology. Simon is a microbiologist at the University of Surrey, and has already presented me with the wonderful opportunity of recording a gaseous choir of Yeast microbes. Fascinated by all things microbiological, he asked me if I thought it would be possible to record the sound of chalk? If Simon had taught me geology, I think I may have exceeded CSE grade 3. Simon’s blog, This Is Microgeography, visually extends his fascination with everyday bacterial geography.
The experiment of dissolving chalk in vinegar seems now to be a school standard, but what has my attention are the sounds that result from this process and the poetics of the biochemical reaction.
I am old enough to have been taught at the monochrome coalface of chalk and blackboard, however, scholastic chalk is an industrial mineral: calcium sulfate. Chemically speaking ‘real’ Chalk is calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and microbiologically, chalk is composed of the discarded Coccolith plates of tiny organisms (Coccolithophores) that lived in fathomless seas millions of years ago. White charnel heaps of chalk are all that remains of those dead oceans. The skeletal protrusion of the white cliffs of Dover and the Needles of the Isle of Wight, are like geological ghosts, whose presence drowns us beneath invisible waves: ‘times tide [will indeed] smother you’. This whiteness of chalk is shrouded in deadliness: ‘White is the colour of mourning except in the Christian West where it is black – but the object of mourning is white. Who ever heard of a corpse in a black shroud?’ (Chroma: Derek Jarman). Ghosts are at the very least pale if not completely white and this morbid association is not restricted to a visible white. Jürgenson and Konstantīns Raudive, believed that the voices of the dead could be heard in the white noise of radio static or recorded electronic amplification.
The white static noise released as chalk fragments dissolve, offers up an acoustic shell to our ear, through which we can hear the decaying Geiger roar of deceased seas.
Chalk Study #3: River Itchen
I have made a number of chalk studies, using different varieties of chalk and various methods of recording the release of CO2. A sample taken from the bed of the River Itchen (a chalk stream) features in the winter perambulation from the winnall moors sound walk project. I am trying to track down chalk from a quarry in Beer and the red chalk of Norfolk. As I gather and dissolve these samples, they create a form of spontaneous sonic index to an as yet uncharted, acoustic map of dead geological oceans.
There is something supernatural in this alchemical transformation of solid matter into effervescent air. This movement from stillness into sound, reminiscent of Ariel’s escape from substance in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: a voice and song set free to ‘take the ear strangely’:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.