“Surprising Sounds” by Viv Corringham

Some sounds take you by surprise while others make you work to hear them. Knowing that my first blog was coming up I thought I’d write about the listening experience that has made the most impression on me so far this year. The obvious choice seemed to be the one I had to research, walk several miles to reach, and hunt for when I arrived.

But then just last week I was walking around a lake in Minneapolis on a rare Spring-like day. Everyone was out. Beneath the conversations and laughter of joggers, walkers and cell phone users I heard an intriguing, tinkling sound like bells. The ice on the lake was finally melting and breaking up into small crystals which were being pushed together by the wind. These collisions caused a delicate chiming that was even more delightful for being barely audible.

In some aspects, such as its subtlety and bell-like quality, it reminded me of the sound I had intended to focus on in this blog: the suikinkutsu, a musical device found in Japanese gardens. In February this year I finally tracked one down in the Taizo-in Zen temple in Kyoto. I was in Japan for a revisit after 30 years, but on my first visit I hadn’t even heard of the suikinkutsu. I read about it in 1995 in David Toop’s book Ocean of Sound. He wrote that after listening to this minute sound “all auditory senses are heightened”. I wanted to hear this for myself.

And so at last, after a long walk to Taizo-in and some searching in the temple garden, I was listening to a quiet but resonant “bing!” and then “bong!” near and below what appeared to be a hand-washing basin. After recording these gentle sounds for a while, I finally realized  that it is the act of washing the hands that plays the suikinkutsu. The device consists of a pot buried upside down with a hole at the top and a small pool of water, usually on a bed of gravel, inside the pot. The hand-washing basin collects water from a bamboo pipe and lets it drip through the hole into the resonating pot. Once I began to let water pour through the hole, splashes started to bounce off the sides and streams of pure, rich tones rang out in the pot.

Apparently it is quite rare nowadays to find a suikinkutsu without a bamboo listening pole to amplify the sounds, but I was lucky in my choice of Taizo-in temple as this was a quiet garden and no pole was necessary. Apart from enjoying the variety of sounds produced, I really like the fact that the suikinkutsu (often translated as “water koto cave”) is discreet and surprising and the device is hidden from view. It is, in a sense, a sound maker that is played by accident and that gives a different listening experience to each person.

(To hear a suikinkutsu, I recommend John Levack Drever’s recording, also at Taizo-in Temple.)

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Viv Corringham is a British vocalist, sound artist and composer, currently based in the USA, who has worked internationally since the early 1980s. Her work includes audio installations, music performances and soundwalks. She is a 2012 and 2006 McKnight Composer Fellow through American Composer Forum and has received many grants and awards. She has an MA Sonic Art from Middlesex University, London, England and is certified to teach Deep Listening by composer Pauline Oliveros.

In the previous 12 months, work has been presented at Around Sound Festival, Hong Kong 2013; Tempo Reale Festival, Florence, Italy 2012; Soundworks, ICA, London, UK 2012; Her Noise Festival, Tate Modern, London, UK 2012 and Deep Listening Institute, Kingston, NY, USA 2012.

Articles about her work have appeared in magazines and books: In the Field (UK), Organised Sound (UK), Musicworks (Canada), Playing With Words (UK) and For Those Who Have Ears (Ireland). Recordings are available on Innova, Deep Listening, Emanem, Slowfoot, NoMansLand, ARC Music, MASH, Slam, Rhiannon, Jungle Records, SSWA, Move, Artship and Third Force.


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