Framework Intro: variation for a door, a sigh and a cheap guitar.
On Thursday the 6th July I read of the sad death of composer and musique concrète pioneer, Pierre Henry. I shared the Quietus announcement of his death on Facebook and a few minutes later had a message from sound artist and Framework curator, Patrick McGinley (AKA Murmur). Patrick asked if I would be interested in recording a Framework intro for a special edition of the radio show, which would be broadcast as ‘a farewell and tribute to Henry.’ Those familiar with Framework, would know that the intro for each show is created by listeners from across the world. Contributors respond in their own way to a set of recording instructions provided by Patrick on the show’s website. Patrick needed the intro for the following day and thinking aloud said, ‘a squeaky door perhaps’. Coincidentally, on the day Pierre had died I had been recording the Lifts (elevators) on my journey to work, a sort of aural reconnaissance for a project in Southampton this autumn. Although my ear was focused on the damped shush of the Lift doors close, I unintentionally stumbled upon a normal door with an exquisite hinge: I paused, pressed record and mimed the arch of my entrance, allowing a ghost of myself to pass audibly through.
My door recording, which at the time of Patrick’s invitation seemed serendipitous, if not suspiciously portent, formed the starting point of the compositional process. In 1963 Henry used the recorded squeaks of a farmhouse door, alongside the sound of a sigh, a blocked up stream, starved pigs and other occasional off stage noises (Art Lange, The Wire) to compose, Variations pour une porte et un soupir (Variations for a door and a sigh). As a vegetarian, starving a pig seemed intellectually and morally complex, nor did I have access to a farmyard, but as I think back on the intro now composed, other elements of Henry’s variation seem to unintentionally arise, return and resonate.
On Thursday, prior to my learning of Henry’s death, I had been exploring other possible sounds for the forthcoming project. This included a Ping-Pong ball, which, at the request of the winds intermittent sigh (and the occasional impatient forefinger), rolled up and down the un-tuned strings of a cheap guitar. These aural ascents and falls seemed intended for the composition. Having recorded Framework intros before, I realised I would be required to speak the provided statement. I am always slightly uncomfortable hearing my own voice and have previously used methods to place (or hide it) it away from me, such as leaving it on an answerphone tape. In 2007 I recorded an intro with my mother reading out the Framework statement. I decided to use this recording and searched back though my files to find it. I then re-recorded her voice through the larynx of the cheap guitar strings. My mother died in 2011, and it was lovely to hear her voice, her sighs and hesitations, pronounce the air once more. This personal aural link to memory and loss again seemed appropriate for the Henry introduction. As a conclusion to the piece, I printed out the Framework statement and ‘diced’ the words into single letters and full stops. I dripped these alphabetic remains infrequently upon the guitar and listened to language disappear, plucked of meaning but still vibrating.
The premiere of Framework #606 [pierre henry]curated by Patrick McGinley was broadcast on Resonance FM last Sunday and is now available for listening and download on the Framework website.Framework is also broadcast on radio stations across the world (details here).
Thank you to Patrick for asking me to provide an introduction for his beautiful hommage and adieu concrète to Henry.
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
In June of this year I completed a sound piece for the BBC Radio 3 series Between the Ears. The programme called, It’s just where I put my words, was a kind of audio memoir or reverie of my mother’s voice, which I have been recording for over four decades. The piece explored not only my personal relationship with my mother’s voice , but also the wider issues of our desire to record and the particular qualities of voice as distinct from photographic records. A review of the programme appeared in The Independent and Spectator.
Produced in Bristol by Chris Ledgard, the programme was available for a week via the Listen Again feature of the BBC Radio 3 website. Now no longer available, I thought it might be interesting to post the piece in its ‘original’ form: that is, an audio collage or soundscape of voice and a script written for speaking. This will enable the listener to place the words with the recorded soundscape in their own time. I have divided the soundscape and script into four sections and added some imagery to locate these sections. I have also, where appropriate, included links to my website so that you may hear full versions of sound works, which are used in extract during the piece.
It’s just where I put my words: a voice remembered
BBC Radio 3 / Producer Chris Ledgard
Part one: our last recording
In September 2010, I made what was to be the last recording of my mother’s voice. Placing a digital recorder by her chair in the residential home where she spent her last year, I pressed record and released pause. We sat and chatted and sorted through her things. I searched the pockets of her beloved trolley, looking for her purse, which, like her spectacles and teeth, was always going missing.
Following a series of falls in her sheltered flat in Bootle, Liverpool, Mam came to live closer to me in a residential home in Hampshire. She never believed the care home to be her home; she was confused about where she was and why she was there. But the act of recording was familiar, something we had done together for more than 40 years.
Part two: Bellevue and Barthes
Our first recording was made on in the late nineteen sixties on Liverpool Lime Street station. My brother was ten and I was seven, and on the way back from a visit to Auntie Dot in Manchester, my mother treated us to a session in a coin operated record booth.
The audiocassette was yet to reach the outskirts of Liverpool, so these machines, which once loitered in the lonely, suspended landscapes of train stations, promised an almost cinematic experience: we could record our selves, hear our voice on vinyl.
As an artist, recording continues to inform my practice, and I collect, catalogue and experiment with sounds, editing and mixing them together to create audio works and soundscapes for installations, performances and radio. I am fascinated by how the simple, private act of recording can capture fleeting, unimportant moments and mark them with significance: just as two-minutes in a drafty coin operated booth, is marked, for me, as the start of a lifelong obsession with sound and phonography; it’s also the beginning of my story of recording with my mother; a story which concluded at 17.05 on the 18th September 2010, when, in a care home near Winchester, recording invented our last moment.
Many of the recordings I made with mam had no specific purpose, recording was a just a habit; something I always did. At other times they were intended as source material for my artwork and I would arrive at mam’s door encumbered by an array of digital recorders, microphones and the occasionally defunct tape player.
My mother was a Lancashire lass, born and brought up in Manchester. My dad was an Irish Catholic. He joined the army when he was 16 and spent the 2nd World War in the German prison camp Stalag 3D. After the war and a brief stop on Manchester buses, where he met my mother, he became a prison officer at Stangeways and later Walton in Liverpool.
The sound work BelleVue includes extracts from a reel-to-reel tape of my mother telling stories of her nights out as a teenager at a large entertainment park near Manchester. This voice is accompanied by a covert recording of her getting ready to go out some sixty-years later at the age of eighty. The stories are fragmented and layered, disrupting the narrative, yet revealing that in her voice there remains something which is essentially her, something beyond the story told. I later re-played this piece to my mother and recorded her response. Although she recognises fragments of the stories told, she didn’t recognise the voice telling them. But finding it familiar she places it genetically close, attributing the ghost of her words to her sister Joan or my father’s sister, Auntie Maureen.
Although I have photographs of my father, I have no recordings of him speaking. He was a gentle, lonely man, who was abnormally prone to silence. He never once spoke of his time as a prisoner of war, or even of his childhood. When I remember him now, I can no longer hear his voice, but I can hear him in the tales that my mother tells.
My mother died in April 2011. Since then, listening back to my audio snapshots, I have been reminded of Roland Barthes book Camera Lucida. Barthes describes sitting alone in his recently deceased mother’s flat, ‘sorting’ through her photographic remains. But finding only a fragmented ‘likeness’ amongst the photographs, he writes:‘I missed her being, and therefore I missed her altogether…If I were to show them to friends I could doubt that these photographs would speak’. That Barthes should allude to the audible qualities of language in order to identify that which was essentially lacking in these images, recognises the vital qualities of utterance and voice.
Listening to a recording of voice offers a reanimation of the past, bringing the once was, back into the present. Unlike the mute ‘flat death’ of photography, the recorded voice returns in a manner with which we are acquainted: the telephone and radio have allowed us to grow accustomed to hearing voice without sight of those speaking. In fact, in what Gaston Bachelard calls the ‘logosphere’ of telephonic communication our bodily presence ‘appears by virtue of voice alone’.
Part three: a ghost in the receiver
Dad died when I was fifteen and my brothers emigrated to America, so my mother and I were left together. As I grew up and moved away from home the telephone became our main way of speaking and I listened to her more often than I saw her. It became a way of being there and as good ex-catholic boy I was there most every night. The answerphone machine allowed me to be there even when I was not there then.
We abandon our voice, time stamped and wanting in the emptiness of answerphones. These soliloquies for empty rooms are full of melancholy, a melancholy enhanced by the audible corruption of cheap tape. The messages left are not intended for keeping, they hang like an adjourned presence waiting to be heard and erased. The act of being saved only serves to amplify the vulnerability of the voices kept.
My mother’s sister Joan lives in Clevelys near Fleetwood, where she once ran a chip shop with Uncle Fred. When I visited my mum in Liverpool, I would often drive her to see Auntie Joan and her dog Harry. Joan could sometimes be persuaded to play her organ, and we would drink our tea listening to Moon River, Delilah and the occasional Bob Dylan. Normally, before we set off on our day out, mam would phone Joan, just to check that she was there.
The essence of speech does not necessarily reside in the ability of voice to communicate and tell tales. It may also reside in what Barthes calls the ‘patina of consonants and voluptuousness of vowels’. Listening back to my mother, it is in the rhythm, intonation and imperfections of her voice that I hear her speak. These hesitations, inflections, stutters and errors are the non-verbal noise or crackle of language, tracing speech back to its etymological roots: to crackle, to rattle and hiss.
For the philosopher Gaston Bachelard words are the ‘shells of speech’ and the telephone places these shells against our ear. We hold voice close; so close we can hear language as it is inhaled. Our being there is fragile; there is always the possibility that we might disappear, that we may, unannounced, return to the silence from where we came.
I had many telephone conversations with my mother. In Duet for Radio, I edited a recording of one of them, removing my own voice and filling it with the silence of telephone static. My mother’s voice, bereft of reply is isolated and widowed. Interrupted by forgetting, her tale of daily survival emphasises the lonely fragility of body and memory. And this is where I find her: a brittle presence in a spectral landscape: a ‘ghost in the receiver’.
Part four: putting voice away
Mam always liked to take care of people and in particular me. All her bingo prizes were saved and wrapped as presents for Birthdays and Christmas. As she grew older and more vulnerable, there was a change in our roles. I did her shopping on-line, sorted her bills and fought with social services for the luxury of a weekly bath and two days at Connelly House, the day centre, she so loved
Following the death of my father she became a Catholic; hoping that this would enable her to, one day, be reunited with him. For one of my early performances, I recording her singing Ave Maria and together we were interviewed for Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope. Off air, she said that performing was better than Bingo. But on air, her voice trembles with an unease and vulnerability that was never there in our own recordings.
The phonograph record promised the spoken word a life beyond the grave, but by giving voice permanence and substance, it was also subject to loss and decay. Just as the photographic image is perishable and in Barthes words ‘attacked by light…fades, weakens and vanishes’, so too the recorded voice is vulnerable to age and awaits an audible disappearance beneath the surface noise of time and neglect.
The recording of my mother’s Ave Maria was played at her funeral and I later had it cut as a 10” vinyl record, revolving at an archaic 78 rpm. Such physical regression takes voice back into the history of its own recording, repatriating it in time.
In a further act of repatriation, I took her voice back to Sheffield, where once we had performed together and she had sung her Ave, and where now Duncan Miller used an Edison phonograph to transcribe her voice onto a wax cylinder.
In our last recorded conversation, I reminded my mother where she was and gave her spectacles a wash. She was my mother but also my child. Recording her voice was an extension of care, a way of keeping her close and holding her dear.
Sealing her words in the fragile surface of a wax cylinder, I put her voice away, like an heirloom or time capsule for previous generations. Silenced by the obsolescence and vulnerability of the recording medium, her voice becomes a record that playing and listening may harm. Each time this recording is played another small detail of my mother’s voice is lost and she disappears further into the cracked silence of surface noise.
This cylinder is perhaps my own Ave, a farewell to a voice that I keep preserved in silence. For Barthes a photograph is best seen with our eyes closed, he writes we ‘may know better a photograph we remember than a photograph we are looking at’. The visible silence of a wax cylinder, reminds me that there is more to my mother’s voice than its record, there are those unheard memories of her speaking, which only I can hear.
Addendum: the nearness of silence Although our conversation in the care home is the last recording of my mother’s voice, we did make other recordings together. In March 2010, mam was placed on the Liverpool Care Pathway, the significance of which I never fully understood, refusing to realise or accept that this path lead in one direction only. Her breathing pattern became erratic and she was put on a morphine drip. As she lay asleep, I realised that listening to her breathing, although painful to hear, was a way of being with her: in the absence of voice we shared silence. I recorded this silence, the rhythm of her breath, the inhalation and exhalation and the dreadful pause between the two. I did not do this with the intention of the recording ever being played or heard again, but rather, to keep her close in the ‘nearness of silence’.
‘When language ceases, silence begins. But id does not begin because language ceases. The absence of language simply makes the presence of Silence more apparent’.
Max Picard, The World of silence
I have just completed a short sound piece for the BBC Radio 3 series, Between the Ears. The sound work takes the form of an audio memoir or perhaps reverie, based on recordings of my mother’s voice, which I have been making for over forty years. My mother died in April 2011, and listening back to these intimate fragments of her speaking reminded me of Roland Barthes’ book Camera Lucida, in which the author sits alone in his deceased mothers flat, sorting through her photographic remains.
The Camera Lucida ( light room) to which the title refers, is an optical device that allows artists to view simultaneously their subject and the surface of depiction, thereby enabling the creation of a highly accurate image. But such accuracy may still lack the essence of the subject. As Barthes sorted through the images he finds only a fragmented ‘likeness’, he writes:‘I missed her being, and therefore I missed her altogether’. He continues: ‘If I were to show them to friends I could doubt that these photographs would speak’.
Listening to my mother’s voice, there is a likeness and accuracy to its reproduction. But there is something more, something vital, which lies beyond the fidelity of tone and the familiarity of the story told. When Barthes appeals to the audible qualities of language in order to identify that which was essentially lacking in his mothers image, he tacitly recognises the vital qualities of voice and utterance.
In this new sound piece for radio, I take a journey with my mother’s voice, listening for her in the recordings we made and the sound works I composed, reflecting upon the act of recording and our relationship with memory and loss.
I would like to thank to Chris Ledgard, who produced the show in Bristol and who sensitively and eloquently edited my ‘script’; studio manager Mike Burgess for his erudite attention to detail, and Duncan Miller for the transcription of my mother’s voice to wax cylinder.
‘Film, as distinct from video, is like paint; it’s a tactile material that can be used to make powerful spatial illusions’ (Guy Sherwin, File Note #75).
In a maudlin and rather pedantic tone, I often hear myself reminding students that film is not video; they are different in nature and substance. Hold a film up to the light, run it through the fleshy gate of your fingers and you will see oblong frames of colour and form; try doing that with videotape.
In counterpoint to the flippant immediacy and temporal incision of digitally encoded video, film inserts a chemical delay between the moment an image is taken and the moment that image reappears: in the photographic darkroom we can actually watch this process taking place, we can be there when the once present reappears and light becomes substance.
For those of us familiar with the rituals of the Super 8 process, the additional delay that the international postal systems confers, adds another anxious yet delicious adjournment of presence. It takes a fortnight (an appropriately outmoded measurement of duration) for three minutes of time to arrive or rather return, wrapped in a 50ft coil of film, 8mm wide. The film is immediately laced up in the digital projector of our fingers and the nearest available light source, just to confirm, to see, that something is there.
Perhaps this is merely the nostalgia of a man of a certain age reflecting upon the technology that recorded his childhood. Or perhaps there is something essential in films relationship with light and substance, something that impinges upon our experience of not only the image we see, but also the moment and place that we experience that image in? A relationship Guy Sherwin alludes to in his introduction to the exhibition Film in Space at Camden Arts Centre: ‘Images are formed through certain processes and that affects our understanding of them’ (ibid). For me the strongest parts of this exhibition occur when the materiality of film is most apparent, when light and substance oscillate.
On entering the exhibition we are greeted with the continuous mechanical chatter of a pack of 16mm projectors, biting at the glossy tongue of film and chewing image into light and presence; the occasional film-edit introducing a momentary gulp for air. That the images which Lucy Reynolds’ films project, should concentrate on words, emphasises a distinct lack of voice, language stripped back to the noisy mastication of its production: the hard ‘tittle-tattle of the teeth’ (Stephen Connor) rather than the soft wet vocalisation of lips, tongue and larynx.
An air of the mechanical continues in the large empty space where William Raban’s Diagonal (1973) awaits projection. Here we are presented with a lifeless, lightless, projector and a wall mounted push switch. The motor memory of previous light switches that linger in my tarsals, overcome the awkwardness of the gallery situation, and I witness my hand reaching for the button, causing a temporary change in the state of an electrical circuit and plunging the gallery into a moment of measured light. The ‘kinetic melody’ of my gesture brings with it tangent memories of the dark staircases and deserted landings of Wolverhampton bedsits in the 1980’s: impoverished non-spaces where even light was rationed.
The resuscitated projectors mechanically wrench stillness back into motion. The first familiar static breath of film sound, prefacing the re-animation of images photography has stilled. The whole process of switching the film on is strangely reminiscent of those fairground automata, which suddenly awake as a coin is dropped into their slot. The origins of film are full of such spectral reference: the phantom rides of the Lumière Brothers, the staged illusions of Georges Méliès, but to find such echoes here, in an exhibition concerned with the materiality of film, is unexpected.
In Gallery 1, I discover Sherwin’s Newsprint (1972/2012), a film I have seen and shown many times. The original curl of the actual film, covered in its now yellowed newspaper, hangs on the wall next to the effigy of its own projection. In my previous single-screen viewings of this film, I have been struck by the physicality of the sound produced. The dull sonic cosh to the back of the head as the printed text rubs against the optical heads of the projector and language escapes from meaning. But here the projector is in front of me, wall mounted on a do-it-yourself shelf. A constructed armature fixes a mirror to the machines body and projects the text down onto a grey table, a speaker, skinned from its box hangs down beneath the projector. The formerly abrasive escape of language is now delicate and visually confused with the interference of a loose wire or poor connection. It is as if language were between stations, trying to break through,to return here from somewhere else. As ‘what is inaudible becomes audible’ I am reminded first of the EVP experiments of Raudive & Jürgenson and then of the poetic resistance of voices that emerge from the chauffeurs radio in Cocteau’s Orphée (1950).
Steve Farrer: Clawless Bolex & 10 Drawings
The ghosts of film’s history continue with a long printed strip of landscape from Steve Farrer’s Clawless Bolex (1878-9), where the artist has removed ‘the claw and shutter from [a] cine camera to record the landscape rolling past a train window’ (Sherwin, ibid): another phantom ride through time and space, resulting in an emergent spectral landscape reminiscent of the chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey. In a visual echo of Sherwin’s Newsprint, the ten ‘drawings’ of Farrer’s film, 10 Drawings(1976), are mounted on the wallnexttotheir illuminated future. The drawings are exquisite; a grid of six rectangles, each consisting of 50 strips of clear film stock laid side by side, upon which Farrer has drawn (or printed) simple geometric forms, producing astronomical linear patterns of light and dark. The drawings are deconstructed and spliced into the thin extended line of 16mm film and projected as an oblong of visible light next to their original forms. The optical sound head of the projector translates the patterns of line and light into pulses of sound. It is as if we are listening to the transmission of a signal or wavelength from some far away source, a pulsating star, a distant and active galactic nucleus: a signal we can find on our channel but which we cannot decode or receive due to lack of vertical and horizontal hold (I like to imagine that 10 Drawings was included as part of Voyagers interstellar message). Although, in both Newsprint and 10 Drawings, I am conscious that the sound I hear is a result of the image projected, there remains a ventriloquial gap between the site/sight of utterance and the sound enunciated, as if this vocal burst of electronic communication was coming from some when and somewhere else or other.
In a corner of this gallery a silent and almost apologetic table and chair invite the physical company of a solitary viewer. Upon the table, a strip of film hangs over the illuminated Perspex window of a light-box, a line of film held in tension between two metal spools. As my hand cranks the film from one side to the other, the handle of the spool I am not holding rotates in sympathy with my action, as if another invisible hand was shadowing my movement. When my hand stops, the film continues to spool…“spool”. The solitary intimacy of this situation augments the delicacy of Annabel Nicolson’s hand printed film, Slides (1971). My position mimics that of the filmmaker, as I thread the film through the small rectangular aperture of light. The ritual of this encounter is enhanced further by the attention of the gallery assistant, who, following the departure of each audience, carefully rewinds the spools to ensure that the film is held in perfect tension.
Annabel Nicolson: Slides (1971)
In the artist studios of the gallery, Lynn Loo presents a selection from her personal archive of Expanded (live) cinema. And here I find Sherwin’s performance of the film Paper Landscape (1975-), which seems to me an almost perfect conclusion to the exhibition. As a projector starts we see Sherwin painting into existence the white rectangle of a cinema screen. As this action progresses upwards, the hands of a much younger Sherwin begin to appear, tearing away at the bottom of a paper screen, through which a landscape becomes visible. As the process of painting and tearing conclude, Sherwin is immured behind the image of the landscape revealed. The filmic apparition of Sherwin’s younger self, steps through the torn paper screen and walks toward the camera, before turning back and walking away into distance and absence. The image trembles as the screen begins to tear again, the present Sherwin steps through the landscape of his past, bringing his body back into matter and presence. Once more I am reminded of Cocteau’s Orphée and a return to substance through the refracted portal of mirrored light.
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.