ABC Radio National: the sound of yellow

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Yellow, a colour that can provoke joy and nausea. Artists have used its binary shades to reflect summer’s vitality and our gradual decay. The negative connotations of yellow are quite strong in the English language. Consider: yellow-bellied, yellow-streak, yellow-journalism, yellow-fever.

If we were to imagine the sound of yellow, what would we hear? Viewing fields of sunflowers we might connect them with pleasant high pulses of energy; yet as their petals begin to fade their former sound could be replaced with low murky drones.

“Yellow” is the latest colour to be heard in my “Sound of Colour” series on ABC Radio National’s Soundproof. To listen or to download this piece please click here.

Next week, the colour red.

 

 

ABC Radio National: the sound of blue

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IKB 191, monochromatic painting by Yves Klein

 

For the past few months I have been working on a short series of works interpreting the colour of sound for Australia’s Radio National.

This 3-part series features a combination of spoken word and soundscapes designed to reflect the emotional resonance that is shared by sound and colour.

The first episode, Blue, is now free to download through Radio National’s program Soundproof.

While you are visiting the Soundproof page check out their archive of radio art and other delicious audio features; all of which are freely available to download.

Click here to listen to my work The Colour of Sound: Blue.

Road trip: the Warrumbungles and hotel recordings

Warrumbungles

It is a strange experience visiting the place of your birth, a region left behind as a child with only family photographs and verbal anecdotes to support the fact that this period existed. The Warrumbungles National Park and its outlying farming districts where my family once lived had almost reached a mythological status in my mind so 41 years after moving away seemed more than an appropriate amount of time to visit it. 

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In what is otherwise a land dominated by flat fields of yellow wheat the Warrumbungles rise incongruously from the ground in ancient violent rocky eruptions. Once covered in a layer of green foliage the Warrumbungles were stripped bare by an intense bushfire in 2013 that burnt 43,000 hectares of eucalyptus forest to the ground. Driving through the area it was very evident that 80% of the park had been devastated. Blackened tree stumps were what remained of the forested hills although hints of greenery shooting from the cracked earth pointed towards regeneration in progress.

Looking at the devastated landscape it was no surprise that there was little in the way of sonic variety. Aside from a few birds in small pockets of surviving forest the dominant sound came from cicadas. It was a strong auditory marker of how the biodiversity of the park had virtually been extinguished.

On our first night at the Warrumbungles we watched the sun set behind the hills. As the sky deepened in colour the cicadas pulsated in the valley below us. The sound was omni-directional having no fixed perspective, no discernible layers of depth. It was as if the immense stretch of earth below us was breathing in slow measures.

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The experiences of the outside world were in sharp contrast to our hotel rooms. I’m always eager to explore these interior liminal spaces, searching for sounds that amplify our strange artificial worlds. Hermetic space capsules.

My favourite object to record was a TV in Canberra. A coil pickup microphone recorded this tiny musical siren perhaps warning of the health hazards associated with mind-numbing sit-coms and live-televised golf tournaments.

 

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Later I recorded the flickering tone of a fluorescent tube that cast its sickening light throughout the surface of the hotel bathroom. This was one example of a sound whose penetrating edges perfectly resembled its physical source.

And now the road trip is over …

… I am left with only a small selection of field recordings, the scorching heat of inland Australia in summer deterring me from spending much time standing in the sun with a microphone. However the moments that I did record are now etched strongly in my mind, much like the way in which drawing objects in situ helps reinforce the awareness of space.

Returning to the Warrumbungles as an adult, with no real memories of the region from childhood, I found myself wondering what other possibilities life would have presented had we stayed there and not moved to the east coast. It unsettled me a little. Hypotheticals.

Road Trip into the Australian Gothic

Junee

What better way to spend the holidays than by driving into Australia’s Gothic past? After a couple of days driving through unfamiliar terrain we reached our destination: the neighbouring districts of Junee and Wantabadgery. Our aim was to explore a slice of Australia’s queer history through both sight and sound.

This isolated farming district was the site of a bizarre bushranger siege in 1879. Captain Moonlight, having recently been released from prison for bank robbery, was travelling north recounting his tales of injustice at the hands of the colonial legal system. Moonlight’s attempts to sell his story to audiences in regional Victoria and New South Wales were thwarted by police who road ahead of him smearing his reputation to local townsfolk.

Having starved for two days and without any money Captain Moonlight and his gang arrived at Wantabadgery station where they asked for food in return for labour. The station owner refused any assistance and sent the gang on their way. Moonlight returned the next morning and took all 25 residents and workers in the station hostage.

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After a number of days Moonlight’s gang fled the station with the police shortly behind them. After a shoot-out at a hut near the station Moonlight’s partner, James Nesbitt, was shot dead. At this stage Moonlight and his gang surrendered. From his gaol cell, just metres from the gallows where he was soon to be hung, Moonlight wrote endless letters declaring his love for James Nesbitt. At the moment of his execution he held the hand of another of his gang members, his last words being “we have made a sad mistake”.

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After exploring the area we stopped by the Murrumbidgee River just across the road from Wantabadgery Station. A flock of cockatoos screeched from the trees above us, this the only sound other than the incongruous chatter of some Swedish tourists who appeared for a swim in the murky water. Metres away were the two wings of a cockatoo, the body missing. Their neat arrangement and cleanly cut lines implied human involvement.

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A long wire fence separated the camp ground from this group of trees. Old enough to have stood during the time of Captain Moonlight I wondered if he had journeyed through this same area, the trees a living memory to this region’s Gothic past. How did he hear this environment, which sounding objects survived to this present day? I connected contact microphones onto the fence lines and listened to their eerie resonance, the tapping of grass on the wires playing at a lower frequency. The sound of the cockatoos and the wires conspired to create a haunting atmosphere informed by the story of Moonlight 135 years ago.

It wasn’t a traditional type of Christmas day but it was one whose regional sounds added depth to my understanding of Australia and its colonial past. The next stop was to the Warrumbungle Mountains, an area decimated by bushfires in 2013, this to feature in my next post …

Floodwater and fencelines: a contact microphone recording

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This New Year started with the intense sound of thunder ricocheting through the valley. At times it sounded as if the sky was being pierced open. With the thunder came heavy torrents of rain, bringing our first flood for 2015. This photo shows our driveway submerged under murky floodwater, a regular occurrence during summer.

Aside from the humidity that rises from the earth after a flood there is another common phenomenon that I have noticed over the years: the locality is rendered mute, a virtual silence  surrounds the water-soaked valley. So, recording the floodwater receding has never been as satisfying as I hope it to be. That is until this morning …

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Stepping across the flood debris that lay on the bridge I noticed fence-lines stretching into the quickly flowing water below. Contact-microphones brought their sonic characteristics to life. I sat on the bridge and listened to a dystopian choir rising from the floodwater. It felt like the perfect combination between object and sound. It was only the relentless heat and the need to clear the bridge that dragged me away.

Happy New Year and fingers crossed for less floods in the future.

 

Road Trip: listening to the landscape of Captain Moonlight

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This summer holiday has seen us on a road trip to the historic sites of Captain Moonlight’s last days. We have driven over 1,000 kilometres south-west to the town of Junee where this Australian bushranger (outlaw) spent his last days of freedom in 1879.

Captain Moonlight is of particular interest to me as recently uncovered letters written on death-row have revealed his undying love for a fellow member of his bushranger-gang. This member, James Nesbitt, was killed in a shoot-out with police next to the stand of trees shown in the photo above. Moonlight was described by police as weeping while kissing Nesbitt’s dead body passionately. Moonlight later wore a lock of Nesbitt’s hair on his wedding finger when he was executed. Moonlight’s final request was to be buried next to Nesbitt:

My dying wish is to be buried beside my beloved James Nesbitt, the man with whom I was united by every tie which could bind human friendship, we were one in hopes, in heart and soul and this unity lasted until he died in my arms.

Despite the misdeeds of Moonlight there is beauty in his declaration of love for Nesbitt. I admire Moonlight’s unapologetic stance which challenged the heteronormative culture that was fostered during this conservative colonial period.

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On the morning that we visited the site of Moonlight’s last stand a storm was approaching. As dark clouds closed in thunder rumbled in the distance. From the trees at the site of Nesbitt’s death a colony of cicadas dominated the soundscape. I wondered if this same sound was heard by Moonlight and Nesbitt in 1879, I hoped that this auditory experience provided a tangible link to the past.

AC: free to download through Galaverna

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When we think of the concept of “place” we often do so in a context that focuses on vast exteriors. As field recordists we regularly position ourselves in grand locations with microphones directed towards the sounds of exotic forests, river systems, mountain ranges or the frozen Polar Regions. But what of the place in which we live – our domestic sphere. How do our smaller private worlds connect with these public exteriors?

In my new composition commissioned by Galaverna I have attempted to convey the relationship between home and its outer perimeters. This has been done primarily through recording the sounds of electricity that run between my home and the local farming community. Here electricity is an invisible, and often inaudible, thread that holds us all to a bigger notion of place, a grid that dissects and connects the earth beneath our feet.

“AC” (alternating current) is comprised of multiple layers of electrical recordings. I used a coil pick-up microphone to record the pulses and white noise emanating from domestic appliances around my house. Computers, phones, battery rechargers … each appliance connected to a larger world through wires running to an electrical grid. Each appliance with its own idiocyncratic sound, a sonic fingerprint signifying the state of domestic technology in the early 21st century – a subject worthy to be recorded and heard. That these sounds exist in most modern homes creates a sense of community, albeit an inaudible one.

Mixed into the composition is the sound of insects, their electrical-sounding stridulation providing a parallel between the manufactured and the natural. A recording of a Japanese tour group walking through a local forest at night is also included, the incongruity of the tour guide’s voice amidst the sub-tropical rainforest emphasising our own dislocation from the natural world.

“AC” is free to download through Galaverna.

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Below are a few short samples of the electrical recordings which are used in “AC”.

This from an electric blanket:

 

This from a tablet while in use:

 

This from a smart phone:

 

This from a battery recharger:

 

This from an external hard-drive:

 

Please visit the Galaverna website to download “AC” and to listen to works by other people working in sound and field recording.