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If Wet at Flatpack Film Festival
mortonUnderwood
Great Stalacpipe Organ

Water is a mysterious element […] it can convey movement and a sense of change and flux. Maybe it has subconscious echoes — perhaps my love of water arises from some atavistic memory of some ancestral transmigration.
Andrei Tarkovsky

I was recently invited to contribute to If Wet at the Flatpack Festival in Birmingham. Devised and organised by Sam Underwood and David Morton, If Wet normally takes place in Callow End, Village Hall and is ‘part test bed, part salon; a place for artists to showcase their latest sonic works and research’. It is not an event exclusively concerned with wetness, its title coming from the traditional English retreat indoors in response to a sudden downpour. However, for this urban excursion, If Wet focused (eponymously) upon the sound of water, bringing together a babble of soggy voices. Beginning with a short history of MortonUnderwood’s “water instrument” and included a gorgeous and possibly erudite recital upon said instrument. I say possibly erudite because, as a new instrument, a definitive method of playing is still to be discovered and the full vocabulary of its wetness yet to be heard. Prof Trevor Cox introduced some awe inspiring acoustics from his Sonic Wonderland, instruments and spaces, which operate at the intersection of human endeavor and natural phenomena: from the disconsolate (Tom Waits) moan of a Wave Organ to the longest reverberation in the world, formed in the vast emptiness of Inchindown oil storage tank, Scotland. For my own part I chose to consider and discuss the relationship between sound, memory and water using three of my dampest works: four walks around a year, ˈtʃɔːk: eight studies of hearing loss and the installation rain choir.

four walks around a year: winter flood
In his book The Strange Familiar and Forgotten Israel Rosenfield questions the idea of memory as a fixed system of storage and retrieval. Proffering a dynamic model, Rosenfield writes:‘We understand the present through the past, an understanding that revises, alters and reworks the very nature of the past in an on-going, dynamic process’.

Sound too is dynamic; a space ‘without fixed boundaries…[auditory space] is always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment’. Water shares this state of flux, just as sound is coloured and formed by the present situation of its audition, water borrows its form from its current place of occupation. For Gaston Bachelard the substance of water is ‘full of reminiscence and prescient reveries’. Metaphorically we also lend the substance of water to memory; our memories have fathomless depth, they sink, submerge and rise to the surface of consciousness.
Four walks around a year: winter the final perambulation of a soundwalk quartet through the wet-lands of the winnall moors reserve in Winchester (UK), begins with an archive recording of city residents remembering the flooding of the moors in the years before and after ‘this last war’. These voices, which flood the landscape with history, emerge and submerge beneath the crisp, slowly thawing soundscape of winter. That which was then solid now melts, the sound dissolving not only the landscape, but substance itself.

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Smithson dissolve: sebastiane hegarty

Chalk (mirror) dissolve: after Robert Smithson

As part of If Wet, I performed a live dissolve, immersing various fossils and fragments of chalk (microbiological fossils) in vinegar. This process of sublimation, explored in ˈtʃɔːk: eight studies of hearing loss, makes audible a flight from substance, as the effervescent pre-historic CO2 escapes back into the present air: like a breath held in matter for millions of years, now quietly exhaled. One of the chalk fragments dissolved was ‘borrowed’ from an incarnation of Robert Smithson’s Chalk Mirror Displacement (1968). This was not intended as an attack on art history, but rather a sympathetic homage to Smithson’s occasionally visible Spiral Jetty. In counterpoint to this sublimation of matter, Trevor Cox, acoustic engineer and author of Sonic Wonderland, introduced us to the Great Stalacpipe Organ in the Luray Caverns, Virginia, whose ‘pipes’ have slowly dripped into solidity and stone: a precipitation into (sonorous) form.

sebastiane hegarty: rain choir (gutter 4)

A ghost of previous rain: recomposed version of the rain choir for If Wet

The sound of rain evokes a strange sense of isolation and reverie. In the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, its acoustic (and visual) presence quietly soaks the viewer in a sensual intimacy full of reminiscence and memory.  As a wet conclusion to my talk I composed my own ghost of previous rain. Based on recordings of and from my site-specific sound installation rain choir, exhibited last year in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral, this acoustic shower mixed the drip drep and drop of gutter recordings with the live dissolve of limestone fragments taken from the walls of the crypt. Water can dissolve and dissipate, but it may also combine and associate. In his autobiography of sight-loss, Touching the Rock, John M. Hull describes how the sound of rain: ‘has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things [and] creates continuity of acoustic experience […] The rain gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationships of one part of the world to another.’
Yet this ‘perspective’ remains acoustic, in that it is fluid and dynamic, place emerging and disappearing in sonic detail, ‘moment by moment’ without the concrete solidity of visual form. In his book Water and Dreams, Gaston Bachelard recognises this ability of water to simultaneously dissolve and unite: ‘The first to be dissolved is a landscape in the rain; lines and forms melt away. But little by little the whole world is brought together again in its water. A single matter has taken over everything. “Everything is dissolved.”’
Just as the sound of CO2 escaping from a dissolving fragment of chalk, quietly announces the immanence of nothing in everything, so too the sound of rain remembers the ‘substantial nothingness’ of water. For John Hull, listening to the rainfall, extinguishes the borders between himself and the wet landscape, as if each raindrop were falling in his brain, he becomes one with the rainfall, a drop of rain at once present and disparate, substantial and not.

O soul, be chang’d into little water-drops,
And fall into the Ocean – ne’er be found

 

 

flooded_path2_w
flooded_path3_w

Four walks around a year: winter
Gruenrekorder | GrDl 141

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.

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Four walks around a year: winter / dawn with sporty

Four walks around a year: winter / winter thawing

Flooded moors: wet feet

Flooded moors: Boardwalk bubbles

Flooded moors: streaming in metal

Flooded moors: broken banks

hegarty_ four walks_grdl__141_web

 

take the ear strangely

chalk dissolving #2 (inverted)

chalk dissolving #1

Chalk Study #1: fully dissolved

Chalk Study #2: from the surface

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.

River Itchen: chalk stream 2

River Itchen: cgalk stream (surface)

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.

Plan of predicted route through theatre

Interval for Winchester Community choir and Cathedral  | mp3 | 2011

On the 31st October, artists, musicians, dancers, writers and other creatively inclined individuals and groups from the Winchester district occupied the stage and architecture of the Royal Theatre, Winchester. Unlike the worldwide occupy movement, this occupation was curated by Trisha Bould at the invitation of the theatre and was part of an opening event for the Ten Days Across the City, arts festival. Beginning at six and ending at the stroke of midnight, Map, Plot, Plunder and Possession led its audience behind the scenes of the theatre, into the normally concealed backstage areas of the building.
As part of the event, I composed a cycle of three soundscapes for the auditorium and a sonic river for the public address system. The cycle included soundscapes from the winnall moors sound walk project and Winchester Cathedral, that had been specifically re-composed for the site of the auditorium. In between the two soundscapes, I inserted a percussive interval created by evoking sounds from the lighting and scenery rig of the stage; swinging the descended rigging and occasionally hitting it with a toy xylophone mallet.
The soundscapes were intended to inhabit the acoustics of the theatre and act as a consistent cycle of sound spaces that would come into contact with other acoustic events taking place during the evening. This included; a rehearsal of a song by the Winchester Community Choir from the theatre circle; and the indeterminate composition Copy Rite by Hossein Hadisi and other members of ACE (Avant-garde Composer’s Ensemble).
The choir began their rehearsal in the percussive Interval, before being acoustically repositioned into the soundscape of Winchester Cathedral, the opening of the Cathedral gates, the organist at practice. Perhaps most pleasurable was the choreographed pile up of rehearsal as the community choir’s preparations collided with the Pilgrim school rehearsing in the Cathedral.
In Copy Rite, Hossein Hadisi and the other members of ACE (Sam Cave/Guitar; Tom Green/Piano & Ignacio Agrimbau/Gyil & Hulusi) moved around the theatre between pre-arranged sites within and without the auditorium: a piano in a stairwell, a guitar on the first floor of the atrium. The sounds of the auditorium were fed back into these satellite positions, all the musicians responding to the sounds, acoustics and other visual events occurring around them. Both the choir and Copy-Rite, created some rather unrehearsed collisions with the continuous cycle of soundscapes.

plotted percussion  | mp3 | 2011

piano, river, voice and sitar |/ mp3 | 2011

Violin and guitar for Cathedral | mp3 | 2011

Guitar and flute with dawn and birds | mp3 | 2011

The peripatetic music of ACE, mingled not only with its disparate musical parts, but also the acoustics of the theatre and the patterns and dynamics of the entire recorded and existing soundscape. The sonic river, composed entirely from the sounds of water from winnall moors, leaked, flowed and dripped into the acoustics of the architecture. In the front of house speakers the water generated small wet, but distinct pockets of sound. In the non-space of the corridors the speakers created a ventriloquial soundscape, the echoic drips evading location. In the atrium, the dripping of water echoed the pluck of guitar strings, the river seeming to rain down from the heavens, although the speakers were actually located. A fragment from this unpredicted duet appears on the winnall moors sound walk blog, along with a section of the unaccompanied sonic river.
All photographs by kind permission of David Gibbons.

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