Hearing in Sound: Part II

Reflecting on several installation works presented at last month’s MONA FOMA (Festival of Music and Art), this post will consider works by Susan Philipsz, Robin Fox, and Vicky Browne and Darren Seltmann in terms of ‘hearing in sound’. In my previous post, I introduced Tim Ingold’s proposition that the listener is positioned ‘in sound’. This experience of being ‘in sound’ problematises soundscape because, like the viewer who beholds landscape, the listener is positioned outside soundscape. According to Walter Ong, “Sight isolates, sound incorporates” in that auditory worlds are enveloping and immersive.

Robin Fox’s Giant Theremin was set up in the forecourt of the MONA FOMA venue, Princes Wharf on Hobart’s once industrial waterfront. Standing at seven metres, the Giant Theremin (YouTube video here) is sculptural and material in the form of a pyramid made of oxidised steel with a long mast protruding from the tip on which sensors were mounted. As a musical instrument, with an industrial aesthetic, it is played by movement around it. Play multiplies through wordplay: playing an instrument playfully. As interaction triggers diverse sounds, strangely reminiscent of other sounds like whale song, other musical instruments and electronic pulses, there is a concomitant change in the surrounds and the people who use it. In a joyous feedback loop, laughter among its users is one of the sounds that the theremin generously generates. As people dance, step and jump around it, sometimes trying to sneak up on it, the calls of the Giant Theremin ululate through and around the waterfront, distinct yet interlaced with the sounds of traffic and shipping. For those accustomed to the auditory environment of the waterfront, there is something new and strange here, a calling out or announcement of difference.

On the mezzanine level of Princes Wharf, Vicky Browne and Darren Seltmann’s Synchronic Lines provides a distinct experience of enclosure. Geometric sound pods enclose listeners in a unique and intimate auditory space of their own making. Users can shape the auditory space using a console to alter pitch and tempo of electronic sounds. Stepping out of the larger space of the wharf into these cocoons of sound is like stepping into an ‘other’ inner world of nuance. Without the cocoons, as small architectures, the sound of Synchronic Lines would dissipate and the listener would be straining to find them among the rattling cacophonies of the cavernous warehouse structure. When in the darkness of the pods, the listener is immersed in sound. Through their reliance on instrumentation, sculpture or architecture, Ong’s divide of “sight isolates, sound incorporates” becomes apparent. Occupying the pod or playing the theremin, as physical objects, is not incorporation. Sound touches.


At Glenorchy, out of town on the way to MONA, an arts sculpture park has recently been opened along a stretch of regenerated waterfront. Susan Philipsz’ The Waters Twine (Vimeo video here) is the first commission at GASP! Based on a 1929 recording of James Joyce reading Finegan’s Wake, the strains of this multichannel work drift along a recently built boardwalk that spans the bay, emphasising its tidal flows. Composer Hazel Felman set the Joyce recording to music having been guided by the pitch of his voice. This sonification of the spoken word and poetic language, using a vibraphone, results in a gentle motion of watery sound that merges with the surrounding speed and hum of traffic from the nearby highway and the lapping of water in this littoral zone. The large black swans seem lulled by it as they flock and rest on the glassy waters within earshot of the speakers. As footsteps mark their own tempo along the boardwalk the listener is more aware of their presence. The listener is welcomed into the fold of listening openly and carefully: to be present and to experience sound in its plurality. (See also this YouTube video of Philipsz’ Turner Prize winning work, Lowlands.)

The auditory worlds created by each of these installations merges with and disrupts other auditory worlds, and the listener not only explores their listening in sound, but sound within sound. This becomes more acute as sound based works are introduced into spaces and places in ways that alter them, encouraging other ways of interacting with and experiencing those spaces and places.

In the Field Report: Day 2

The first session of Day II is centered around the definition and practices of ‘Recording the Urban Field’.  Peter Cusack is first to introduce a recent experience as artist-in-residence in Berlin, and to point out just how much inhabiting a city for the first time had enhanced his aural awareness and attraction to local sound experiences.  With his softly spoken, slow-paced delivery, Peter invites us to take our time listening and reflecting on the unique inside the ordinary.  Specifically, he invites us inside a horsheshoe-shaped block of flats in suburban Berlin, children at play for company, planes overhead at regular intervals, shrieks and toy-gun clicks reverberating heavily in the space.  Except, we are reminded, this is not just any space, but somebody’s home, somebody’s indelible association, part of a resident’s personal sonic heritage.   By placing ears and attention on urban sound stories often dismissed as ordinary or trivial, Cusack provides proof that there is poetry and beauty to be found within our own sonic everyday.

Everyone’s favourite flaneur is next to take the stage. Des Coulam is a British recordist based in Paris, well known in the sound community for his passionate and pain-staking dedication to the collection of Parisian soundsmarks. Photography we are told is a great point of reference, with its ability and immediacy to capture the unexpected, and Des quotes both Robert Doisneau and Robert Capa amongst his inspirations.

“The sound themselves tell you how much they need to speak”, is Des’ sound advice to us recordists. And Parisian sounds certainly have a lot to tell us. Among the extensive catalogue of Soundlandscapes, countless absorbing themes emerge: people, streets, protests, national celebrations, literature, architecture, to list but a few. Des’ tireless recording work becomes even more fascinating when we are told that it was never planned out at the onset, but allowed to develop and grow organically in its own time. Coulam is also keen to stress the importance of the conservational aspect of his work, stating that he often imagines as a listener a PhD student in the future researching an aspect of Paris, and being able to explore the sounds of our current present.

His passion for the sounds and for the city is contagious, and I believe it is because his work not only speak of the sources, or their recordist – it also communicates a subtext of sheer joy in the use of the medium, and stands as a celebration of life in its sheer breadth and variety.

Next we have a world of words to explore with Salomé Voegelin at the helm, who engages in the practice of phonographic writing. Salomé has never visited Hong Kong, she has ‘perhaps seen it once in a postcard’.  As Chair Daniela Cascella puts it, she is the Ghost to Peter’s Guest and Des’ Resident.  Through the Soundwords blog, Salomé shares the intimate thrill of discovering a space through other people’s subjective descriptions. As we listen to the written words being read out and occasionally performed, we become active participants in a process of interpretation, imagination and invention.  The end result is quietly affecting, as everyday subjects such as a harbor, or rain against a windowpane become surprisingly intimate, as seen for the first time through the eyes of a stranger.

During the Q&A, the issue field recording: craft v. art inevitably raises its head (what took it so long?). In response to the question from the audience ‘when is a sound craft, and when is it art?’, Vogelin delivers the Puzzling Throwaway Comment Of The Day when she casually replies, just a little too quickly: ‘you just stick it in a gallery.’ Unfortunate? Poorly judged? Certainly surprising, coming from an artist working with words and until this point painstakingly accurate and deliberate in her definitions.

There is some additional teetering on the brink of a semantic quicksand as a couple of dense questions on methodology and definition are eventually resolved by Peter Cusack, with a candid and rather refreshing: ‘(beat. deep breath.) I don’t know how to answer that.  I just don’t think about that.’, raising another interesting point in the space between the question and the answer.

Helen Frosi’s curated listening session comes at the perfect time. True to its tagline – sharing emotions, it refocuses audience, speakers, chairs and organisers beyond approaches, language and definitions back on why exactly we are all here in the first place. Comfortably enveloped in the dark, we are treated to Retracings, a series of sound and video recordings centered around calendar-based traditions, customs and religious rituals. Be it religious services, marching bands or semi-pagan rituals, these collective sonic gestures are shared moments that bring a community together, and this is exactly what they achieve once again in the dark of the auditorium.

Following the lunch break is an exciting and tightly packed afternoon programme.  First up is Christina Kubisch, whose biog puzzlingly tells us she ‘belongs to the first generation of sound artists’  (uhm, really? For a contemporary of Luigi Russolo and Pierre Schaeffer Kubish looks suspiciously young…) Back within more realistic time spans, it is truly fascinating to be guided through the development of Kubish’s outstanding work with electromagnetic induction from the 1970s, which later developed into her well-known Electrical Walks.  Kubish’s presentation is thoroughly engaging and though-provoking, particularly when she discloses how even the world of electromagnetic waves is now sadly globalized, with only ‘twelve or so’ recognizable sonic identities from bank machines from around the world. Humour is infused throughout her presentation, in particular as Christina recounts some unusual run-ins with security attendants, and we even go behind the glass to share in the thoughts of a particularly confused sales assistant at a train ticket counter.

Davide Tidoni’s charmingly informal style is next, supported by a windows presentation deliberate in its lo-fi look and feel.  While disappointingly the quirky swiftly deflates into some tedious reading along to the presentation text on screen, this is fortunately mitigated by Davide’s sheer enthusiasm for his research practice, inviting us to reflect on the fact that ‘the body is our first interface’ and that we cannot, no matter how much we try, ever adjust our own subjective levels of sensitivity. And that there really is no transparency: by just being there, in the field, we are altering it both with our presence and with our perception.  Davide concludes with a passionate call to what he defines as ‘the cultivation of the sensitive’.

Concluding this session is Jana Winderen, which takes the reins with a presentation on her underwater sound recordings, uncovering what lies beyond our audible perception as well as our own experience as a species.  Her recordings – collected in Belize among other international locations – also occasionally raise the point of how man’s intervention projects such as oil drilling brutally threaten these unique environments, making a case not only for the obvious (their endangered status), but also for their melancholy transient state.

As we hurtle towards the final session of the Symposium, thoughts and ideas are well and truly competing with each other for space in our collective mind.  There is a lot to absorb and digest in a very short space of time, and there’s more to come.  Udo Noll drops in virtually via video-link to illustrate the concept and practices of his Radio Aporee project, a perfect example of a truly global ‘field’ of practice, that is also open-source, accessible and engaging.  Udo aptly blends his technical, scientific and engineering skills with a commitment to making these skills (in the form of user-friendly platforms) available to others. All in an effort, as he puts it, to ‘reclaiming the field’ from increasingly present, looming commercial and advertising forces.

I sit thoroughly engrossed through Zoe Irvine’s presentation of her project Magnetic Migraton Tapes.  What begun as a simple observation of magnetic cassette tape ‘breaking free’ at the end of the 90s, discarded by the side of the road or waving attached to lamp-post, triggered in her the curiosity to find the stories within. This salvage process of patient re-spooling progressively led Zoe on a creative journey to the Sangatte Red Cross centre for asylum seekers, where it really comes into its own by becoming equally about narrative as about the social and the political.  Most crucially, however, the process is fun and engaging: we relish the anticipation as Zoe plays back a quickfire round of tapes, only providing us with the locations where these were found- a sonic treasure hunt, a collage and an invitation for the imagination all rolled into one.

Ximena Alarcón’s work also deals with engaging audiences, but with a thoroughly different approach. Inspired by Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening techniques, Alarcón utilizes sound and the virtual world to shorten the distance between migrants and  their respective countries of provenance (in project that included Leicester-Mexico, and London-Bogotà), and asking of her participants to consider ‘how do you sound in Mexico?  How do you sound in Britain?’. Although the transmission process can add its fair share of mishaps such as feedback and acoustic deformation, Ximena assures us that what is established is not merely a technical connection, but that ‘empathic moments of energy’ are also generated.  What comes across a little less clearly is the approach to the second project, entitled Migratory Dreams, where dreams are shared in a virtual space between people in different locations. As the presentation doesn’t dwell on the detail of just how this two-way communication is delivered- by way of improvisation, free association, performance? and in what ratios in relation to each other? – we are left to wonder whether such intimate sharing can actually successfully work in practice.  Or perhaps it simply aims to re-enact the sharing of a common experience, but as a long-distance call.

Francesca Panetta is the final speaker of the day and indeed the Symposium. Special Projects Editor at the Guardian’s Audio Department, Francesca has also developed an extensive experience with ‘Sound AR’, or augmented reality platforms for sound experiences.  20 years after Janet Cardiff’s early soundwalks the game has inherently changed, as both public and artists are mercifully no longer restricted to linear narratives or forced to walk at the same pace as the storyteller.  HackneyHear is such one contemporary productions, a GPS-reactive smartphone app that immerses the listener in a creative actuality of sound, interviews, music and specially commissioned material. This layered audio experience is innovative in its active sensing of changes in the listener’s position and actions, which it reacts to by pausing the narrative, cross-fading to a different layer, or fading out.  What this work celebrates is ultimately giving the power from the developer into the hands of the audience, and the audience seem to definitely want more of it: there are already similar projects in development, Panetta anticipates, for Soho and King’s Cross.

And so we come, breathlessly and with literally no time to spare – not even for the Plenary session that must regrettably be cut out of the programme – to the end of the first In the Field Symposium. Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle wrap up proceedings. And as the audience trickles its way out and towards the pub, with somewhat sore lower limbs but in the afterglow of two inspiring days of talks, we can only agree that the huge amount of creative energy and enthusiasm developed in this room must be harvested and built on. Through new work, new collaborations and the further nurturing of what is an increasingly tight and supportive community of field recordists.

La Cosa Preziosa

With special thanks to the Symposium curators and organisers Cheryl Tipp, Cathy Lane, Angus Carlyle and Joel Cahen, and to Dan Godston of the World Listening Project.



Symposium Report: Day 1 at In the Field

Day I at the In the Field symposium packed a lot into a tight schedule of presentations, listening sessions and walking tours.  The queue snaked out onto the piazza of the British Library, under a blue sky and the watchful eye of William Blake’s Newton.

Sold out on both days, the auditorium was tightly packed with what was repeatedly defined as the ‘field recording sub-culture’, or ‘field recording tribe’. Potentially a problematic definition, this- while some might enjoy and even aspire to the idea of a group uniting under a common interest, the concept inevitably becomes uncomfortable when dealing with creative expression, and the boundaries and rules that sub-culture and tribes necessarily imply. But this is for another time, and another blog entry.

The Symposium opened with a warm welcome from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Natural Sounds at the British Library, and Angus Carlyle, Researcher at CRISAP.  Although the first three presentations of the day were grouped under the heading ‘The Origins of Field Recording’, Joeri Bruyninckx from Maastricht University provided the only paper technically to brief – an absorbing look at the past of field recording, with particular focus on the period 1930s-1950s and the work of Ludwig Koch and the Cornell University recordists.  Although presenting somewhat of a change of topic – personal projects  and nature recording – the other two presentations were no less interesting.

Felicity Ford took to the podium all kitted out in wool, to talk us through some of her recent works- including Knitsonik. The first challenging point of the day emerged when she admitted to having renounced bulky and expensive gear in an effort not to alienate her interviewees  or her audience in community and rural settings.  She added she’d rather worry about how to approach her subjects and engage them than about specs and configurations, providing the example of  ‘little horrible Maplin speakers’ rather than ‘big black Genelecs’ for a recent installation.  Beautifully presented and covered in hand-knitted wool, the horrible Maplin speakers seemed to be working a treat, as we are told the audience able to get up close to the sound source and interact with the tactility of the material. Naturally, it emerged shortly after that of course Ford also wishes to achieve ‘the best possible sound quality’ in her work, ‘so that the message can be delivered clearly as intended’.  It was interesting to walk this fine line with Ford during this presentation, reflecting on choice, selection, and compromise- a reminder of the necessity for some elements of the work to occasionally be sacrificed for the overall goal.

One not for cutting corners is certainly Simon Elliott.  Professionally working in a medical capacity, he introduces his interest in field recording ‘as a hobby’, but this definition soon proves to be a decoy.  Drawing a big red line over the word ‘soundscapes’ and taking on Bernie Krause in his opening statement, Elliot quickly displays an intensely, almost aggressive commitment to recording (his bio goes on to say that ‘it’s quite normal for him to be up in his chest in a lake before dawn to place a microphone, or abseiling down a cliff to record an eagle’s nest’ – Bear Grylls who?).   I know what you’re thinking. I did too.  It could have gone horribly wrong. But it didn’t, as the goods were delivered in spades: a series of stunning natural close-ups, pristine and razor-sharp. It was a thrill to be so close to Ospreys and wedge-tailed shearwaters, as Elliott made a fair point on behalf of ‘clinical’, uncolored and unaltered recordings, for uses in reproduction schemes as well as in scientific study.

During the Q&A session, an interesting point was raised from the audience about the language utilized in the practice of field recording, and its colonial and hunting references in respect to the natural environment- with terms such as ‘shot gun’, ‘capturing’, ‘zeppelin’ and so forth, which introduced more food for thought in relation to the origin of the discipline and how definitions would possibly be different would the medium have been developed in more recent times.

Following the first session, I joined the tour of the British Library Sound Archives.  We were escorted behind the scenes and through corridors grey with the melancholy sadness of the most beautiful, now obsolete machines- wax cylinders, gramophones, DAT machines- even a rather forlorn, lifesize HMV dog. We intruded upon staff transferring information, soldering chips and cataloguing material- small windowless rooms, stale with the smell of acid and metal, home to staff utterly contagious in their passion for the material they dedicate their lives to preserving. I found this visit a particular moving experience, which also brought home the outstanding and largely unsung work being made in conservation and archiving in Britain today.

Following a lunch break, the Symposium resumed with the session ‘Public Life of Recording’ that featured arguably the ‘star’ speaker of the entire symposium.  Chris Watson is somewhat of an iconic figure in the field recording world, and it was a pleasure to discover that this did not at all thwart a soft-spoken and utterly charming persona.  From the onset he had the audience in the palm of his hand with a fantastically repellent opening- verbally taking us through the sound a dead rat makes when a cockroach is eating it from within (and yes, I did say this was after lunch).  Armed with a somewhat wonky coat-hanger prop ‘from the hotel room I was put in’, Watson lived up to expectations and delivered a thoroughly gripping talk peppered with outstanding recordings, including a spine-chilling poisonous viper, reminder of the ancestral reactions sound has the power to evoke.

Claudia Wegener’s presentation introduced the work she is currently carrying out in Africa, providing some lyrical examples of use of sound and poetry in collective and community projects and describing the challenges she is presented with when facilitating her audio projects locally.  David Velez from Colombia also took to the stage as part of this session, busy diving his time between his sound artist work (with roots in film and documentary making), as reporter (and founder) of The Field Reporter and with the Impulsive Habitat label.

Day I was rounded off to a close by Mark Peter Wright, PhD researcher at CRISAP, who presented am eclectic and diverse selection of recordings.  Featuring works by Alan Lomax and Hildegard Westerkamp among others, this one hour listening session ‘from the microscopic to the universal, natural to man-made, personal to political’ proved a suitable ending to the first day, proposing ‘the field’ as a space and a site of enquiry as wide as it is far-reaching.

La Cosa Preziosa