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
‘Then there begins a silence that breathes’
Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams
Kinokophonography is the name of a series of field-recording events organised by Kinokophone.
A number of my recordings have featured at these events, which have occurred in many places including the British Library, where my water snails of suffolk were acoustically released.
As part of a Kinokophongraphy radio retrospective curated by Kinokophone, Basic FM will be broadcasting a collection of field-recordings from the events. The retrospective will feature a series of my own recordings, including a selection of chalk dissolves, the Aeolian harmonics of Resistance #4, and those watery snails of suffolk bent. As one of the featured artists, the broadcast will include an interview with me and Jon Tipler from Kinokophone, in which we discuss field-recording and the poetics of dissolving ancient ammonites.
In his essay Reverie and Radio the philosopher Gaston Bachelard imagined a radio that would bring the ‘unconsciouses into communication’ and ‘reverie on every wavelength’.
The sound of fossils breathing again is perhaps part of such a wavelength of reverie.
Kinokophonography radio retrospective. Basic FM. 18.07.13 / 13:00 – 14:00
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.
ˈtʃɔːk: eight studies of hearing loss
very quiet records | VQR 007 | Cdr & digital download
I am delighted to announce that a collection of my chalk dissolves has been released on the most appropriately named, Very Quiet Records. Available as a digital download and limited edition CDr, the discreet chemistry of the cretaceous recordings forms the seventh release by the independent label, dedicated to sonic detail and focused listening. Curated, designed and produced by sound artist Tony Whitehead, the labels impressive roster of artists includes: Frédéric Nogray, Atilio Doreste and Mecha/Orga.
The release is titled ˈtʃɔːk: eight studies of hearing loss, and I am particularly drawn to the limited edition CDr as a method of bringing substance back to the ethereal sounds evoked: a physical shell for the disembodied noise of shell loss. My interest in this dialogue between something and nothing is apparent in the written notes that accompany the CDr:
In the series of eight sound studies, I lend my own shell like to the fossil remains of deceased seas. The Cretaceous samples employed include: Chalk taken from the bed of the River Itchen and from a recent cliff fall in Lyme Regis (kindly donated by Sarah Craske); fossilised ammonites that once swam in those lost oceans and fragments of dinosaur eggs from nestings in France and Argentina (fragments which are now geographically distant, but were once tectonically close). These studies offer a sympathetic drift of attention away from chemistry and toward the extinction of substance and the audibility of loss.
In a number of the studies such loss is augmented, by allowing the sample to continue dissolving until it is fully exhausted, until the final breath of substance has been taken. The sound does not extinguish by volume but by frequency, there is no gradual fade down into silence, but rather an acoustic and percussive crumbling of something into nothing.
Unlike the invisible microscopic algae that make up the substance of chalk, a fossilized ammonite presents a visually recognisable creature, a prehistoric form that once lived, but which geology buried away from time and preserved from disappearance. Dissolving these fossils seems like an act of vandalism, a destruction of history, an abolition of the past. But it also offers a temporal resurrection, a reanimation of the past into the present. Exhumed from permanence the past is allowed to dissolve and we can hear the immanence of nothing in everything, we can listen to the loss of substance occurring and the movement of solid matter into thin and ‘audible air’.
very quiet records: Tony Whitehead
ˈtʃɔːk: eight studies of hearing loss is available now as a limited edition CDr and download from: very quiet records
set: to seat: to place: to put: to fix: to put, place, or fix in position or required condition: to apply: to cause to be: to plant: to stake: to put on eggs: to put under a hen: to spread, lay cover, as a table: to compose, as type: to put in type: to embed: to frame: to mount: to beset or bestow about: to stud, dot, sprinkle, variegate: to form or represent: to imprint: to make to become solid, coagulated, rigid, fixed or motionless: to begin to form: to regulate: to appoint: to ordain: to assign: to prescribe: to propound: to present for imitation: to put upon a course, start off: to incite, direct: to escort: to put in opposition: to posit: to pitch as a tune: to compose or fit to music: to sharpen as a razor: to indicate by crouching: to lease or let to a tenant: to become befit: conversely to appear to advantage: to sit: to hang in position: to be in session: to go down towards or below the horizon, to decline: to offer a stake: to become rigid, fixed hard or permanent: to coagulate: of a bone to knit: to settle down: to begin to develop as fruit: to dance in a facing position: to acquire a set or bend: to apply or betake oneself: to have or take a course of direction: to begin to go.
This section from the set of my live: dissolve, was performed as part of a Sunday afternoon of experimental sound at We Are Collective (Chapel Arts Studios) with Joe Evans (runningonair) and Dirty Demos and organised by Tom Mortimer & David Dixon.
Here, beneath the ancient carbon dioxide of a dissolving ammonite, lies a redacted recording of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia (1983), from which all dialogue has been removed. This silenced landscape of absence and gesture, is employed here as a form of unwritten script for the other sound events that overlay it. This includes the drone and attack of air passing over wire fences stretched out between the beaches and reed beds of Cley Marshes in Norfolk. Synchronised by ear and a graphic score, a wildlife record of birdsong accompanies the host of birds, which escape from the robes of a statue of the Madonna del Parto in the opening scenes of the film. Later, the time-signal of BBC sound effect records introduce a damaged sequence of closing doors echoing in the emptied cinematic spaces of Nostalghia’s vacant landscape. The piece concludes with a chorus of alarm calls as a herd of Cranes is released sonically into the acoustics of the chapel, remembering the escape of birds from the robes of the Madonna.
In recording this set, I place the live moment in digital aspic (a word whose ancestry recognises the fatal consequences of such attempts at permanence, evolving as it does from the Old French basilisk: ‘a serpent…said to kill by its breath or look’).
In contrast the graphic score, although setting the sounds in a determined sequence, also provides the potential for error, variation and change: it prepares for use and sets in motion, events that are otherwise solid.
set: to put somebody or something somewhere; to become, or cause something to become solid; to cause something, or somebody to begin doing something, or begin to do something; to become permanent or fast; to arrange, place, or prepare something to be used; to portray something as happening in a particular place or time period; to heal up and become solid after being broken; to cause somebody to sit somewhere; to fit in a particular way; to come to a gradual end and pass into eclipse or obscurity; to move below the horizon.
Although in my earlier days, performance art (also known latterly, as Live Art) was my main form of communication with the outside world, more recently, reclusive tendencies have conspired to isolate me from direct, immediate contact with a living audience. I have withdrawn to the acousmatic anonymity of ‘recorded space’, the obscured spatial and temporal flux of radio, and the intimate originality of the sounding object.
As much of my work is concerned with time, place and remembering, such a retreat into recorded places might seem appropriate, but it is also contradictory.
Sound is essentially temporal, emerging moment-by-moment, and insistently coloured by the present site of audition. Memory itself should not be considered a fixed recording of past experience. As the excellent writing of Oliver Sacks, Israel Rosenfield and A. R. Luria suggest, memories are anything but permanent or fixed, and remembering is an active process where past and present coalesce.
‘We understand the present through the past, an understanding that revises, alters and reworks the very nature of the past in an ongoing, dynamic process.’
Israel Rosenfield, The Strange, Familiar and Forgotten
Working with field-recording, sound objects, found tapes and discarded voices, would therefore seem problematic in relation to the essential ‘temporal presencing’ of sound and the dynamic process of remembering. Certainly the live performance of recorded sound would seem at least incongruous if not oxymoronic.
The sounds I collect (and by that I primarily mean, the sounds I record) seem to emphasise not only their belonging to a particular location and time, but also their displacement from it. And it is perhaps the inherent loss and absence of such spatial and temporal disruption, that allows the dynamics of sound and remembering to emerge: producing an original, live dialogue between the moment present and past.
It is this originality of the sonic moment that seems to be essential to the live performance of sound. Such originality welcomes indeterminate elements that are open to the unexpected, allowing sounds ‘to be themselves’ (Cage). Does it not also require some form of loss; that something should now be missing from the present? Towards this end and in preparation for the concert, I purchased a pre-historic fossil: an Ammonite that once lived in the now deceased Jurassic seas covering Somerset. As one element of the live soundscape, these remains of a life now extinct, shall be heard escaping substance: a chemical evaporation from presence, an audible disappearance into silent air.
That this disappearance should take place beneath the canopy of Chapel Arts Studios seems totally appropriate, the live soundscape, dispersing and dissolving amongst the cemetery of hush which surrounds it.
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.
Last week I had a wonderful day with Simon Park, recording the sounds of the microbiological laboratory at Surrey University. Simon, an expert in microbiological luminescence, had very kindly set up a number of cultures: a conical jar of yeast and two petri dishes of other luminescent microbe colonies. The cultures are kept in a series of incubator rooms set to different temperatures in order to aid the growth of microbes. The room set to human body temperature is breathtakingly warm; I had no idea that I was this hot.
This initial visit to the lab was a kind of acoustic reconnaissance: lets listen to what is there to hear. Simon showed me the various machines used to stir and agitate the liquid cultures. This includes the ‘Magnetic Flea’, a seemingly uninteresting, elongated plastic covered magnet, visually not unlike a suppository. However, when the flea is put into a jar placed on a spinning machine, it begins an untidy clangorous choreography, as it rattles against the glass walls of its container. Finding equilibrium, it produces a distinct pattern of movement and sound, each magnet composing its own percussive stir: unique to that jar, that flea, in that moment and that position. The patterns continually evolve and change like listening to waves fall onto the shore, a sonic equivalent to the visual patterns of growth produced by the microbes in the petri dish.
We spent hours (and I do mean hours) trying different jars, different fleas, different microphones, and different spinners. Some of the machines allow the speed of stir to be varied, so that the jars can be ‘played’ like a musical instrument. And whilst some machines spin to stir, others have a gentler shaking action, like the clichéd motion supposedly used to swill brandy around the bottom of a glass. I recorded many variations of instruments, jars and microphones to capture a canon of growing percussive patterns.
In one of the incubator rooms I placed contact microphones against the sides of a conical jar containing yeast. On the surface of the solution you could see small eruptions of gas as the yeast feeds, digests and expels. In appearance it is not unlike looking through a telescope at the surface of some gaseous planet. It is interesting that visually we often find the microscopic and macroscopic interchangeable: so what would be the audio equivalent? I suppose the contact microphone may be seen as a form of aural microscope: delving beneath the surface to listen to the very substance of things, bringing the tiniest sound closer and making it available to the ear.
Through the glass membrane of the conical jar, the snap, crackle and pop of yeast digestion is audible, although the contact microphone also picks up the vibration of the incubators heating system travelling through the metal shelving system. This metallic hum adds a laboratorial ambience to the sound here, (I have reduced it slightly in post-production, so as to emphasise the sound of yeast). The drone of environmental climate control could perhaps be called the ‘keytone’ sound of the laboratory (and of the archive; a soundscape I have also explored). R Murray Schafer described a Keynote sound as ‘often not consciously perceived’ but ‘heard continuously or frequently enough to form a background against which other sounds are perceived.’ In the laboratory the hum of temperature control pronounces an acoustic stasis, the pulsing sound of time standing still.
A hydrophone sunk into the solution, is surrounded by the digestion of yeast, although again the ambient sound of the laboratory is also present in the mix: this time it’s the voices of people preparing to experiment. In order to get a larger hydrophone in on the action, we decant the yeast to a metal pan and notice (through the microscope of contact microphones) a change in the acoustics resulting from the metal skin of the pan. Another experiment, set-up quickly by Simon, involved two conical jars and a rubber tube. By gently stirring one jar full of yeast, the gas escapes up the tube into a jar full of water, producing quite delicious bubbles of effluent.
The yeast songs have their own pattern, as the microbes consume all available oxygen and food, the static crackle of their existence is extinguished. There is the possibility of producing a spatial and acoustic bell curve, through which could be heard the life cycle of these microbes, their multiplication, peak and extinction: a microbiological soundscape, beginning with silence and returning to it.