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.
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.
foraminifera: acid dissolve (sketch for wednesday) | 03:16 | 2014
23/07/14 | 19:00 | The Railway, Winchester | SO22 5AE
after the rain: a live set of dead sounds
for field-recordings, found voices, foraminifera, ammonite and dinosaur shell.
I will be performing a live set of dead sounds as part of Fluviology; an evening of experimental music, organised by Joe Evans, founder of runningonair records. The evening includes performances by Delphine Dora, Sophie Cooper and Joe himself. The word fluviology is defined as the study of watercourses or rivers and all the sounds performed at the event will have some association with water. For my own part I have used the opportunity to listen through the damp corners of my archives; not only the fields I record but also the found sounds of discarded cassettes and obscure discontinued vinyl records. Strangely a number of the found recordings feature people talking about the weather and in particular rainfall. More abstractly, my own recordings have a deluge of watery substance from the submerged yelp of a forlorn jetty, and the traction and rattle of steam trains to the effervescent dissolve of an ancient ammonite. As I discussed in my previous post, water and sound share a sort of ‘substantial nothingness’ (Bachelard) a dynamic materiality that exists on the edge of tangibility, water and sound are continually escaping form and permanence. I want to maintain the dynamics of this fluidity in the performance for Fluviology. after the rain, will include a ‘live’ recomposition of the sound installation, rain choir, based on the original field-recordings and later recordings coloured by the acoustics of its installation in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. As discussed in a previous post, the ‘live’ performance of field-recordings is always slightly problematic. The history and act of field-recording is associated with preservation and conservation; from the field-recording of folk music, to the ‘capture’ of animal noises and environments (soundscapes) threatened with extinction or destruction. In this way field recording is at odds with the dynamics of the substance it ‘preserves’. The act of recording tacitly entombs sound in the past; a moment removed from the essential fluidity of the present. For me field-recording has an innate relationship with failure and loss, the sounds I collect and keep are fossilised shells, dead sounds buried in the taxonomy of my archive. Performing them ‘live’ would seem to just augment their loss. But are there ways that these dead sounds may be reanimated? The collision and collage of juxtaposition creates ‘unique’ and vital sound fields, specific to this moment. The use of analogue recording equipment introduces its own vitality of decay, we can hear the damaged memories of harm as sounds age and corrupt; sound engages with the present by voicing disappearance: making loss apparent also animates.
In a previous post I mentioned how the sound of water and in particular rainfall evokes a strange sense of isolation and reverie. In the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the acoustic (and visual) presence of rain quietly soaks the viewer in a sensual intimacy full of memory and reminiscence. I think this mnemonic quality of rain comes from the dullness of its voice. Consistent and uneventful, we are drawn into the conversation of its vacancy, listening ever closer, to the pattern of drip and tonality of drop.
‘Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.’
Thomas Merton in, David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
The 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