Lionel Lindsay’s 1931 wood-engraving The Clipped Wing depicts a raven surveying its surrounds as it stands hunched on a branch. Printed during the Great Depression it is said to not only reflect the socio-economic climate of the time but also the despair Lindsay felt at returning to Australia after years of enjoying the artistic delights of Europe.
Writing at the time J.S MacDonald said The Clipped Wing was created with the utmost simplicity to give feather form to Lindsay’s subject whilst at the same time expressing the utter dejection of a bird deprived of liberty and flight … It seemed emblematic of its times … as if the bird were meditating upon the vanity of existence.
This soundscape positions the listener next to the raven. A dark wind blows through the leaves of the tree, ravens are heard flying in the distance prompting an occasional croak from the raven in the foreground.
The first reviews for my composition The Great Silence have been posted on various websites. It is encouraging to see that reviewers have taken the time to listen to the work in such a contemplative way. To read more about the composition please scroll down to the next post.
Following are excerpts from the reviews and some nocturnal field recordings included in The Great Silence:
López … presents the kind of soundscape the first colonialists would have encountered, one which, needless to say, is anything but silent. A nocturnal recording, The Great Silence thus presents a forty-minute sound portrait of crickets, cicadas, frogs, and fruit-bats that sees their individuating voices coalescing into a vibrant mosaic of natural richness. If ever a field recordings project were meant to be heard in a state of total darkness and at peak volume, it’s this work, as doing so will make one feel as if one’s been airlifted to Australia and dropped into the very storm-drenched setting those colonialists would have found themselves within hundreds of years ago. … The multi-layered thrum of bird and insect sounds cumulatively present a dazzling web of detail that can’t help but be engrossing for the active listener.
The Great Silence builds as it progresses, in the same manner that one’s awareness of one’s aural environment builds with time, attention, and one’s own silence … The 40-minute piece begins with the familiar sounds of crickets and cicadas, soon joined by frogs and fruit bats. But when the thunder begins to roll midway through the recording, unidentified wildlife coos and cries. Were these creatures hidden in the forest the whole time? One suspects that even Lopez might not be able to name every source, and therein lies both the triumph and tragedy of the recording. Other sounds were once here as well: now-extinct flora and fauna, original resonances, Aboriginal languages. The colonists robbed history of its stories and sounds, first labeling them as silence and then creating the silence themselves, fulfilling their own dark prophecy. Lopez’ profound statement returns a fragment of their voice: The Great Australian Silence, silent no more.
Jay-Dea López presents a pristine field recording of the ”great silence” that reigned and that provoked such a negative reaction from the colonists, leading to a cultural contempt for the land and the civilization of its habitants, to whom the land spoke and sang. Of course it is anything but silent, as a brook burbles and choruses of frogs croak and cicadas whirr and crickets chirp and halfway through, thunder rolls off in the distance. Otherwise untreated, it is López´ intention to protest the quashing of the aborigines and the encylopedic knowledge of a land that would soon no longer be theirs. A simple but effective act, beautiful to hear.
In The Great Silence, Australian sound artist, Jay-Dea López, has created an Australian soundscape anchored in the present but very much of the past. It’s the type of composition at which López excels. … In ‘The Great Silence’ Jay-Dea López captures both the timeless natural sounds of Australia and their resounding cultural echoes in a characteristically sensitive and engaging way.
To purchase The Great Silence please visit the 3Leaves website.
I am happy to announce the release of The Great Silence. This 40 minute composition combines a range of nocturnal field recordings in order to imagine our way into the dark layers of Australia’s colonial past. The release can be purchased through 3Leaves.
A short sample from The Great Silence:
When Australia was colonised in 1788 its soundscape was so unfamiliar to the foreign British ear that it was deemed inferior and unworthy. This attitude reflected the alienation and displacement felt by the colonisers, many of whom were unwillingly transported here as convicts from the industrial townships of Great Britain. The refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the landscape and the indigenous peoples who lived within it was so strong that a term now exists to describe the phenomenon: The Great Australian Silence.
With the moon overhead fruit-bats compete with each other for food in a native fig-tree:
The contempt (fear) felt by the colonialists towards Australia is best exemplified through the writing of the explorers who journeyed throughout Australia in the 1800s. Their journals are laden with negative adjectives to describe Australia’s native sounds; these include deathlike, dismal, gloomy and appalling. Ludwig Leichardt, an explorer best known for his disappearance into the Australian outback with 20 mules and 50 bullocks, described the song of kookaburras as mocking and the call of frogs as inharmonious. Thomas Mitchell agreed with many other early colonialists in describing Aboriginal music as sounding like groans. During one of his explorations Ernest Giles stated that the silence and solitude of this mighty waste were appalling to the mind. More of these early descriptions can be found on the programme Hearing the Past. A video with historian Michael Cathcart discussing Australia and Silence can be found here.
A frog in a swamp keeps steady time whilst crickets pulsate overhead:
The notion that Australia was silent, or void of life, demonstrated crucial imperialistic values. In part it illustrated the mistaken belief that the country lacked a significant civilisation prior to colonisation. This belief justified a brutal expansion of the colonial territory into traditional Aboriginal land. Almost half of the 250 Aboriginal language groups that existed prior to 1788 were systematically silenced through frontier warfare. Vital indigenous knowledge was lost, as was an ancient way of listening to the Australian environment.
Crickets gently pass the summer’s night away in long grass:
So what did the first colonialists hear? What was the soundscape deemed so unworthy that it was regarded as “silent”? By using nocturnal field recordings from Australia’s sub-tropical forests this composition imagines our way into the past. In doing so we hear a night that is far from quiet or deathlike. Crickets and cicadas sing from the trees, frogs maintain steady beats in the creeks below, fruit-bats call through the darkness. It is an environment filled with a boisterous vitality. It is The Great Australian Silence.
Please visit the 3Leaves website to purchase The Great Silence. Released April 1st.
A short introduction to Framework Radio’s recent show announcing the latest in their Seasonal
issues. The full show can be streamed or downloaded directly from Framework Radio.
Twice a year Framework Radio releases a compilation of field-recording based works from around the world. Their latest release has selected my composition Catalepsis to be the opening track. This is the fourth in their seasonal series and it features field recordists whose various approaches and subject matter reflect the diversity of field-recording today.
The field recordists include: Flavien Gillié, France Jobin, Francisco Lopez, Jay-Dea Lopez, Luís Antero,
Maile Colbert, Stefan Paulus, Terje Paulsen, and Yannick Dauby with Olivier Feraud.
Framework Radio is integral to the vitality of field recording. It promotes emerging and established artists who work in either field recording or field recording based compositions. In its own words Framework radio sees itself as an outlet for this ever-growing and developing
community, a folk-tool in a new folk movement, a community driven exchange point for creators and listeners alike. Framework‘s goal is to present not only the extremely diverse sound environments of our world, but also the extremely diverse work that is being produced by the artists who choose to use these environments as their sonic sources.
Framework’s seasonal issues are part of a fund-raising drive to pay for the costs involved in running the program. For those who are interested in purchasing the Framework’s Seasonal
Issue no. 4 more information can be found here.
Due to several floods in our local area the phone-line supporting the internet has been damaged. Static emmanates from the phone and the internet connection now cuts out regularly. Listening to this white noise I am reminded of the fragile nature of our digital environment.
Since the beginning of the year massive electrical storms, cyclones and floods have repeatedly interrupted the power supply and communications infrastructure along Australia’s east coast. For days and then weeks it was impossible to access the internet, a scorch-mark along a wall signalling where a lightning strike had burn out the local phone lines. Once the flood waters receded and the electricity was able to be reconnected my computer crashed. These disruptions forced me to question the fragility of a society living in the digital age. In relation to field recording I questioned the long-term fate of our digital sound files.
For thousands of years the progression of human civilisation has been documented in physical forms which can still easily be read today. From ancient cave paintings and engravings in stone to writings on papyrus and paper our heritage has been recorded and archived through significant eras of social political and artistic change. Adding to this is the recent explosion in digital communication technology. A multitude of websites, blog-posts, journals, books, newspapers are published online on a daily basis – it truly is a communicative revolution. Yet the technology which has fostered this is developing at such a rate that we are running the risk of losing data as its formats become outdated. The rise in information technology is paradoxically creating a vacuum for future historians and archivists who may wish to study this era.
Many of us have noticed how quickly websites disappear. Websites that carry significant information today may be discontinued tomorrow and unlike the printed media once dismantled no trace of them remains for the benefit of future generations. Their collective absence leaves a black hole in our cultural and social identity. Digital historians have noted that many websites retrieved from the past are unable to be read as the plug-ins or hardware that once supported them are now non-existent. In our excitement about the possibilities of the digital era we have overlooked the value of maintaining our heritage. Historical artefacts such as the world’s first website and the world’s first email have already been lost.
What are the ramifications for us as field recordists? A quick look at some statistics should force us to consider the long-term survival of our wav and mp3 files. In an article about preserving digital history Cohen and Rosenzweig state that a significant fraction of collections from the 1980s of audio CDs, one of the first digital formats to become widely available to the public, may already be unplayable. The Library of Congress, which holds roughly 150,000 audio CDs in conditions almost certainly far better than those of personal collections, estimates that between 1 and 10 percent of the discs in their collection already contain serious data errors.
Compounding the problem is the built-in obsolescence of modern computer hardware and software – much of what we use now is designed to have a short shelf-life in order to drive the consumer demand for new technological products. Without regular updating, which may result in a loss of fidelity, our digital files may be rendered unreadable in the future. Chen elaborates on this problem by stating: Despite our information technology investments, there is a critical, cumulative weakness in our information infrastructure. Long-term preservation of digital information is plagued by short media life, obsolete hardware and software, slow read times of old media, and defunct Web sites. Indeed, the majority of products and services on the market today did not exist five years ago. More importantly, we lack proven methods to ensure that the information will continue to exist, that we will be able to access this information using the available technology tools, or that any accessible information is authentic and reliable.
Many of us working in field recording approach the discipline from an archivist’s perspective. It is therefore essential to preserve our recordings beyond the lifetime of a single computer program or operating system. Unfortunately not enough information exists about the shelf life of digital storage formats or the future possibilities of retrieval capabilities to formulate a plan to protect our files. Currently each solution has certain disadvantages: migrating files to newer systems can be time-consuming and repetitive; files which are replicated and saved on different hardware might eventually become unreadable without migrating them; emulating old hardware to run outdated software requires money and expertise. There is also the problem of knowing which of your sound files will have archival worth, something which is normally judged retrospectively.
If these solutions seem overwhelming you should at least back-up your sound files by saving them on an external hard-drive or cd-rom. This is an obvious piece of advice but one which I had failed to follow regularly until the date my computer crashed. The sickening thought that I had lost all of my field recordings and compositions was so immense that I won’t be making that mistake again anytime soon.
A simple love of sound first sparked an interest in recording the world around me, however what has sustained this interest is the connection between sounding objects and their socio-historical contexts. An example of this can be found in the following recording where small ripples pass over hydrophones at D’Entrecasteaux Channel, the site where Truganini’s ashes were scattered 100 years after her death.
The year has begun with a lively debate regarding the direction and role of field recording. On sites such as The Field Reporter questions have been raised regarding several aspects of field-recording-based productions. Reading a number of posts there are three recurring concerns in the debate:
1st: the perception that there is an elitism in field-recording which fails to foster an audience beyond other field-recordists.
My response: field-recording lacks a strong theoretical structure in which to interpret it – unlike other disciplines which have had centuries of trained thought to support them field-recording is still young and relatively unknown beyond its circle of practitioners. A stronger theoretical base might increase its profile beyond the majority of us whose work only exists on nebulous internet platforms.
2nd: the rise in cheaper technology has enabled less professional recordists to saturate the pool of field recordings with “second-rate” work.
My response: expensive equipment does not guarantee a good ear or a good technique. Nor does it provide interesting ideas on what subject to record. Indeed, starting with low-end equipment can make the recordist much more resourceful and creative.
3rd: the perception that field recordists are increasingly focussing on sounds from exotic, or developing, locales in a way that reeks of neocolonialism.
My response: for those without the financial means these recordings present us with a world we might never experience. Listening to such recordings has the potential to increase our sensitivity and wonder towards the world’s cultural and environmental diversity making us much more likely to respect our global heritage rather than devastate it.
The tone of some critics in the current debate seems quite harsh, especially when one of the primary aims of field-recording is to promote the experience of listening for everyone rather than a limited, exclusive, few. In any discipline there will always be a hierarchical structure which defines what is of value, a canon to instruct us as to what is “good” and what is “not”. As we have seen in art and literature the inherent danger of a canon is that it benefits some while disadvantaging others. Is this recent debate the beginning of such a process?
It is true that the time needed to listen to the work of field-recordists can be extensive. Just as there will always be too many books to read, too many galleries to visit, and too many movies to watch, there will also be too many field-recordings to listen to. Narrowing your focus of attention to either a few favourite field-recordists or areas of field-recording, as you would with any other discipline, will overcome this problem.
Every debate should forward some positive elements so this post will conclude with a promotion of some field-recordists whose work I listen to regularly. By following their work over the past few years I have listened to sounds from all corners of the earth, they have sharpened my ability to listen and broadened my sense of place in the world:
Sebastiane Hegarty: a British artist, writer and lecturer whose recordings have featured on radio and film. John Grzinich: an American sound and video artist now living in Estonia, he also co-ordinates the MoKS residency program. Des Coulam: a British ex-pat living in Paris, he documents the many sounds of Parisian streets, arcades and subways. Vladimir Kryutchev: a Russian reporter and field-recordist who documents the sounds of local village life. Magnus Bergsson: an Icelandic field-recordist whose recordings focus on the urban and natural spaces of Iceland. Ian Rawes: a reporter and field-recordist for the London Sound Survey. David Velez: a Colombian field-recordist whose recent essay “El Coyote” is an immensely insightful and sensitive reflection on why he chooses to record the subjects that he does.
While staying in a hotel in Sydney my eyes rested on this photo on the bedroom wall. Its tranquil scene contradicted the bustle that lay outside the hotel space. Was the photo a portal to another world; looking at the snow-capped mountains could we transport our minds to a far-away place and distance ourselves from an undesired reality? Hotels, after all, offer the allure of a respite from the mundane aspects of our lives.
As time passed the disconnection between the photo and its immediate surrounds in the hotel room grew. A low-frequency room-tone that had initially gone unheard began to dominate the space creating an unsettling dislocation between the visual and auditory senses. The image, once hung to allow the mind passage to escape, was now being recontextualised by the low monotonous hum that pervaded the room. Far from being relaxing the juxtaposition of the image with the room-tone created a sense of unease, a frustration that even in this idyllic setting a complete feeling of contentment could not be reached.
Once noticed the sound could not be ignored. Non-varying low-frequency tones such as these have no beginning or end, often connected with badly insulated air-conditioning and heating units in offices, trucks, airplanes. Low-frequency tones can travel for extended distances without energy loss, creating resonating vibration in our chest cavities, eyes, sinuses and throat. Studies have revealed that low-frequency tones elevate blood pressure, induce motion sickness, disturb sleep patterns, and may trigger mental health problems such as depression and noise sensitivity; all of these side-effects can occur even without consciously noticing the sound. How many of us work or live in an environment such as this?
After returning from my holiday I looked at the photo from the hotel while listening to the recording of the room. Again the disturbing blend of the utopian image with the dystopic sound created a conflict between the visual and auditory senses. Perhaps these two elements can never be reconciled, something that movie directors such as David Lynch discovered to their benefit long ago.
An ancient forest in Australia’s Border Ranges was an ideal place to spend New Year’s Eve. Here clusters of 2,000 year old Antarctic Beech trees stand surrounded by sub-tropical vegetation. Relics of a distant era they connect the past to the present and an imagined future.
After sunset a number of Japanese tour groups were guided through the forest to view hundreds of glow worms positioned within a shallow cave, the voices of the guides seemed incongruous to the sounds of the Australian night.
Inside the cave the voices were subdued by the sight of glow worms illuminating the rocky ceiling. The pounding sound of water falling into a pool below dominated the space. Within this enclosure the sound was as overwhelming as it was timeless.
Upstream from the waterfall a colony of tree frogs called from vines and rock pools. The voice of a tour guide broke through the darkness as she spoke to a group of tourists spending the final night of 2012 listening to the sounds emanating from the shadows.
A Bora Ring at Tucki Tucki. This Aboriginal cultural site was once alive with the sounds of localised religious and cultural activities. Now the only sounds to be heard here are those of cicadas, birds, and traffic.
Bora Rings are circles in the ground constructed from earth and stone. Before the British invasion of Australia in 1788 Bora Rings were integral to the religious ceremonies of the Aboriginal people. The largest rings measure 30 metres in diameter and were typically associated with male initiation ceremonies. Bora Rings were usually connected to a complex design of paths which led to smaller circles, the size of which often reflected social hierarchies. The areas surrounding the smaller rings acted as temporary campsites for any visiting groups attending the ceremonies. It appears that the construction of Bora Rings was limited to parts of Queensland and New South Wales.
Aside from their religious significance Bora Rings were often sites for the exchange of material items between various groups. The organisation of tribal divisions and settling of differences could also be decided here. Bora Rings were consequently part of the maintenance of social systems within and between certain Aboriginal groups.
Since colonisation the destruction of Australia’s Bora Rings has been immense. It is estimated that of the 426 Bora Rings which are known to have originally existed only 94 still survive. The spread of farming and urbanisation coupled with a disrespect for Indigenous values have been responsible for the demise of these cultural sites.
The single ring at Tucki Tucki is regarded as one of the finest examples remaining in Australia, spared from destruction due to its proximity to a neighbouring cemetery. However Australia’s disregard for its Indigenous cultural heritage continues with the expansion of a nearby quarry being approved by the NSW state government. Members of both the Widjabul (the local Aboriginal people) and local residents are currently protesting against the expansion. An article on this story can be found here.
To read more about Australian Aboriginal archaeological sites please follow this link to an article by Susan McIntyre-Tamwoy.