Author Archives: soundslikenoise

About soundslikenoise

Sound artist and field recordist from Australia.

A Bridge, a Microphone, the Police.

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Contact microphones on a hollow metal pipe at the Story Bridge in Brisbane. A brief recording moments before the police arrived.

 

What is it about wandering around with headphones and microphones that raises suspicion from passersby?  Walking with a camera in hand it is easy to dissolve into the surrounding crowd, but the sight of a microphone and attentive listening seems to amplify the field recordist’s presence no matter how discreet we try to be.

And so it was yesterday afternoon at the Story Bridge in Brisbane …

My recording objective was to attach contact microphones to the bridge’s support beams and listen to it creak and groan under the movement of the city traffic.

The sound of the traffic was so loud that it was impossible to hear what I was recording. A police car drove past flashing its lights. I tried a second recording, this time placing the microphones on a long pipe that ran along the length of the bridge, this being the recording in this post.

While packing-up my recording equipment I noticed two police officers walking towards me. Call it a guilty conscience but I instantly knew they were coming to “have a chat”. And so they did. After introducing themselves they asked what I was doing, having been monitored by cameras on the bridge.

I was asked to empty out my bag, show them my microphones and recorder and explain why I felt the need to record the bridge. And there, on a sunny winter’s afternoon in Brisbane, I had an impromptu discussion with the city police about field recording and “sound art”.

Questions were asked:

Did I appreciate how suspicious my recording looked? Yes, to an untrained and paranoid eye the cables probably looked as though I was setting-up explosives!

Did I make any money from my recordings? Yes and no.

Why had I driven 2 1/2 hours to come to Brisbane? To record the bridge.

What else would I be doing while in Brisbane? Not much, I just wanted to record the bridge.

Pause. Dubious look.

After my I.D was checked and recorded I then demonstrated how the contact microphones worked. I now like to think that the Brisbane City Police will call me any time they need to add sound effects to any of their training videos.

The police were quite polite throughout the interview, and I had a good laugh about it afterwards, but I wonder if any other field recordists have experienced similar interactions with the local constabulary?

As for the sounds I was seeking, they will have to wait for another day …

Sounds from the Colonial Past: Adventure Bay, Tasmania.

Bruny Isle
Adventure Bay, Bruny Island by George Tobin, 1792. The sound of the waves in this composition were recorded in the same area in 2013. Listening to the gentle movement of water it is hard to believe this region has a history of genocide.

 

The arrival of British ships to Bruny Island in Tasmania during the late 1700s marked a bloody turning point in the lives of the local indigenous population. It is estimated that between 6,000-10,000 Aborigines lived in Tasmania before the colonisation of the island in 1803. By 1830 acts of violence and introduced diseases had all but wiped out a people who had inhabited the island for over 35,000 years. This devastation was not isolated to Tasmania. It was a period of frontier warfare throughout other parts of colonial Australia.

Despite its picturesque images, the damaging effects of colonisation, dispossession, and genocide continue to be an intrinsic part of Australia’s social and cultural fabric.

This week, NAIDOC Week (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observers Committee), we celebrate the survival of the worlds oldest continuing culture. However, it is also a time to consider certain statistics. According to the Australian 2006 Census:

1. Less than 3% of Australians identified themselves as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. Although this percentage is increasing each year individuals continue to feel uncomfortable about being publicly identified as Indigenous.

2. 12% of Indigenous respondents reported speaking an Indigenous language at home; three quarters of those recording they were also fluent in English. The majority of Indigenous language speakers come from the older generations, while younger generations are moving towards being monolingual English speakers.

3. Indigenous peoples’ life expectancy appears to be similar to that of people in developing countries. Indigenous males’ life expectation was estimated to be 59.4 years over 1996-2001, while female life expectation was estimated to be 64.8 years: this is a dramatic gap when compared to the general Australian population of approximately 17 years for the same five year period.

4. For the period 2001 to 2005, approximately two to three times the number of Indigenous infants died before their first birthday, compared to non-Indigenous infants.

5. In 2004–05, half (50%) of the adult Indigenous population were current daily (or regular) smokers, approximately twice the rate in the non-Indigenous population.

6. Excessive alcohol consumption also accounted for the greatest proportion of the burden of disease and injury for young Indigenous males (aged 15–34 years) and the second highest (after intimate partner violence) for young Indigenous females.

7. In the 2006 Census, the mean equivalised gross household income for Indigenous persons was $460 per week, which amounted to 62% of the rate for non-Indigenous Australians ($740 per week).

8. In the 2006 Census, 55% of Indigenous peoples aged 15 years and over were participating in the work force.

9. Between 2001 and 2006, the proportion of Indigenous peoples aged 15 years and over who had completed Year 12 increased from 20% to 23%. There was also an increase in the proportion of people who had completed a non-school qualification (20% to 26%).

10. Indigenous prisoners represented 24% of the total prisoner population (6139 males and 567 females) as of the 30th June 2008.

And what of the Indigenous Tasmanians?

For decades a myth existed concerning Truganini, the last Tasmanian Aborigine, who died in 1876. Her bones were sent to museums around the world, her death being the end to a shameful chapter in out past. Yet in recent years the story of the last Tasmanian has been shown to be untrue, perhaps a story assuaging white guilt for the crimes of the past. The exposure of this lie is no better demonstrated than through the photography of Ricky Maynard.

I stood in a natural shelter at Adventure Bay recording the ocean. Looking at the settlement of houses metres from the beach I wondered what the residents and holiday-makers heard in the waves.

Listening to the Inside of your Computer

vintage computer

 

Field recording often focuses on the exterior world. We step outside with microphones in hand to capture the sounds that add dimension and meaning to our public lives yet there is a wealth of sound within our domestic sphere that is equally as valid.

During a moment of procrastination last night, one of many, I broke away from household duties to direct a microphone towards my computer hardware. In this 3-minute recording you can hear short samples from the computer’s external hard drive, mouse, keyboard and screen.

There are some beautiful rhythms, drones and high pulsating frequencies quietly emanating from these devices. The sounds in the recordings are reminiscent of early science fiction movies based in the imagined hi-tech world of the 21st century. The future is now!

Gathering field recordings: The Australian Gothic

 

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                      Gothic sounds … a field recording of wind, wire and electricity.

 

Over the past few months I have been spending time in the local hills gathering field recordings for a new work titled The Australian Gothic.

The Australian Gothic attempts to understand the way in which the native soundscape provoked feelings of dread, isolation and entrapment in the minds of the first Europeans to the area in the 1850s. The sounds of the local forest at night unnerved settlers who had migrated from the townships of Britain. Indeed visitors to this region continue to be alarmed by the sounds of bats, possums, owls and other nocturnal animals.

My initial field recordings for The Australian Gothic were gathered during nightly walks in the local swamps and forests. This was because I was only interested in recording sounds that existed at the period of colonisation. However as time progressed I realised that certain electrical sounds connected to local farming add another element to the area’s Gothic potential. The sharp snap of electricity surging along fence-lines is a sound loaded with connotations of danger and containment.

In this field recording a slight wind adds a further ghostly element to the sound of the electric fence.

The Australian Gothic will be released through the Unfathomless label.

 

Field Recordings – electrical sounds in your bed

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                The sound of electricity charging through an electric-blanket on its lowest setting.

 

Winter in Australia. A time to turn on the electric blankets and dive into bed. Stories of defective electric blankets catching fire have never turned me off the pleasure they bring on a cold winter’s night. However a quick listen to the electricity that pulses through them has made me think twice about their well-known safety issues!

I’ve never heeded the warnings to switch the blankets off once you jump under the covers. I prefer to slowly melt into a sweaty mess while the outside world grows ever colder …

… that is until I directed a coil pick-up microphone to them!!

Noticing that my computer was producing some feedback while I was listening to some sound files I wondered if it could be the result of my beloved electric blanket. I directed a coil pick-up microphone close to the mattress whereupon I heard these sounds …

The electric blanket on its mid-setting:

 

The electric blanket on its highest setting:

 

I know nothing about the effect of electro-magnetic radiation on the human body but just hearing these sounds has encouraged me to reconsider the casual attitude I’ve had towards it in the past … well at least until I get into bed tonight.

Health concerns aside, I’m really intrigued by the micro sounds that can heard in these recordings and I can’t wait to use them in a composition somewhere down the track!

The Sound of Yellow

yellow

                                      Yellow-belly, Yellow-peril, Yellow-fever, Yellow-streak.

 

During the Age of Enlightenment a Parisian Jesuit priest named Louis Betrand Castel researched the relationship between light and sound. In 1730 this study culminated in Castel inventing an Ocular Harpsichord.

The ocular harpsichord consisted of a frame with 60 small coloured windows that sat above a regular harpsichord. Each window was covered by curtains which in turn were connected to an individual key. Whenever a key was struck a curtain would open revealing a coloured window that corresponded with Castel’s theory relating colour to sound.

According to Castel the colour yellow related to the note “E”.

With his new harpsichord Castel not only hoped that the colours would enhance the fleeting world of sound, but that sound would also intensify colour:

The principal advantage of this new harpsichord is thus to give to the colours, apart from their harmonic order, a certain vivacity and lightness which on an immobile and inanimate canvas they never have.

 

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A caricature of Castel and his ocular harpsichord (Charles Germain de Saint Aubin, 1700s).

Castel believed that the ocular harpsichord would eventually reside in every Parisian home yet to this day no remaining artefact of his invention is known to exist.

Yellow: the colour of instability, flitting from freshness to decay. It is the colour of joy and jealousy.

Yellow: the colour worn by Judas Iskarios at the last supper; it is the colour of falsehood and cowardice.

Yellow: the colour of exclusion; it is the colour marking the Other.

The Sound of Yellow: it is the sound of lightness, of pulsating energy; it is a sound that lifts but does not embrace. I listen to the sound of yellow and am moved by its luminosity, its tone is to be admired from a distance.

The Sound of Red

deep red colour

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was a Russian composer who claimed his classical compositions were deeply influenced by synaesthesia. Hearing colour as sound Scriabin experimented with the relationship between the auditory and visual senses in his compositions.

In his revolutionary work Prometheus Scriabin ambitiously designed a clavier à lumières, or colour organ, which projected various colours throughout the theatre in accordance with the movement of the melody and tone of the instruments.

The colour “deep red” was heard by Scriabin as an “F” on the chromatic scale.

Red: a colour of extremes. It is love, violence and destruction. It is the colour that rises and falls as we negotiate the world.

Red: the colour of lava, of molten rock forming new worlds out of old. It is the colour of our beginning and our conclusion.

Red: the colour of blood and fire. It is the colour that ebbs and flows with our own vitality.

The sound of red: its deep enriching tones flood our veins. Listening to the sound of red I long for the world in which Scriabin inhabited, a place where sound blurs with colour, a place with no division.

The Sound of Blue

klein blue International Klein Blue. A study conducted by Wichita University consistently connected blue to C1 (32.7 Hz) and C3 (130.81 Hz) on a keyboard.

 

Blue. The colour of the world’s edge, a place beyond the cartographer’s ink, allowing the imagination to unfurl; it is the colour of the ocean as we leave the shore, the darkening folds of water provoke unease.

What is the relationship between colour and sound? As a species are we wired to find certain combinations of light and pitch pleasing or even logical?

The correlation between light and sound has been theorised abundantly. This is not a new phenomenon, being explored by Isaac Newton in the 17th century. In a letter to the Royal Society in 1675 Newton pondered whether rays of light emitted certain vibrations or frequencies:

I suppose, that as bodies of various sizes, densities, or tensions, do by percussion or other action excite sounds of various tones & consequently vibrations in the Air of various bigness so when the rays of light, by impinging on the stiff refracting superficies excite vibrations in the aether, those rays, whatever they be, as they happen to differ in magnitude, strength or vigor, excite vibrations of various bigness; the biggest, strongest or most potent rays, the largest vibrations & others shorter, according to their bigness strength or power.

Blue. The colour of isolation, or solitude, its various gradients moving from despair to quietude; it is the colour that sits between ourselves and others, a distance that cannot be known or measured.

The question as to whether the vibrations of light can be translated in audible terms is still debated today. An interesting 2004 study by Wichita State University investigated the integration of auditory and visual sensory information:

Seventy-one participants were presented sine wave tones along with seven on-screen colored boxes. Participants chose which color “fit best” with each presented tone. Color choices from ten exposures to each tone across 80 trials indicated an inverse audio-visual sensory processing relationship between wavelength and frequency of light versus wavelength and frequency of sound. Analyses suggest a consistent and symmetrical data pattern revealing a quasi-linear relationship between pitch and color that suggests a natural, stable, and universal auditory/visuo-sensory neurological processing algorithm for simple tones when presented with basic colors.

Blue. The colour of memory, of loss; it is the colour of languid states, we sink into its opiate warmth.

The Sound of Blue. A warm tone, modulating in even curves, it transports us into emptiness.

The Australian Gothic Experience

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The doomed German explorer Ludwig Leichardt travels through the Australian bush, 1842-44.

Long before the fact of Australia was ever confirmed by explorers and cartographers it had already been imagined as a grotesque space, a land peopled by monsters. The idea of its existence was disputed, was even heretical for a time, and with the advent of the transportation of convicts its darkness seemed confirmed. The Antipodes was a world of reversals, the dark subconscious of Britain. It was, for all intents and purposes, Gothic par excellence, the dungeon of the world.

Gerry Turcote “Australian Gothic”, 1998.

Definition: The word “gothic” was originally a pejorative term to describe the Northern European tribes in the 4th-6th centuries. It carried negative connotations of ugliness and barbarism. Later in the 12th-16th centuries the term “gothic” referred to objects that were non-Classical and hence viewed as repellant and grotesque. In the 18th century there was a renewed interest in the Middle Ages, at this stage “gothic” became connected with decaying medieval architecture. In turn the gothic literary genre became intrinsically identified with scenes of love and degeneration.

The Roots of Australian Gothic: It was an important coincidence that the British colonies in Austrialia were in the process of being established during this period. For the convicts and prison guards alike Australia was a nightmarish location, its foreign terrain provoked feelings of fear and alienation. Gone was the British gothic landscape of moors and heaths. In its place were deserts, bush-fires, floods and droughts. The comfortability of the known European landscape was replaced by this new unstable setting.

The Australian Soundscape and Colonial Perceptions: Integral to the colonisers sense of dislocation and dread was the Australian soundscape. Reading journals and novels from this era it is evident that the aural dimensions of the Australian landscape were strongly perceived in gothic terms of enclosure and entrapment. The vastness of the outback unsettled the first explorers who continually remarked upon its deathlike silence. The silence instilled a sense of claustrophobia, this being quite paradoxical in an open space. Meanwhile the sheer volume of unfamiliar sounds in forested areas induced intense feelings of fear and disorientation. In the Australian gothic tradition the landscape sounded alive, observing the colonists, waiting …

Marcus Clarke (1846-1881), a celebrated Australian writer, described the local landscape in these aural terms:

The Australian mountain forests are funereal, secret, stern. Their solitude is desolation … In the Australian forests no leaves fall. The savage winds shout among the rock clefts. From the melancholy gums strips of white bark hang and rustle. The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Grey kangaroos hop noiselessly over the coarse grass. Flights of white cockatoos stream out, shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes burst out into horrible peals of semi-human laughter … From a corner of silent forests rises a dismal chant, and around a fire dance natives painted like skeletons. All is fear-inspiring and gloomy.

This description is quintessential Australian Gothic. Clarke’s disdain and unease towards the native landscape is clear while his description of Aborigines chanting in a forest is typical of several explorers’ journals of the time. Could it be said that this sense of dislocation, of loathing and fear, brought upon by auditory experiences, partly triggered the genocide of the aboriginal population during the colonial period? How much the local soundscape contributed towards this act is open to debate.

Contemporary Australian Gothic: For better or for worse the colonial experience created a way of listening that continues to be part of our culture today. The Australian Gothic tradition is still alive and well in our contemporary arts with critically acclaimed movies such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Proposition utilising field recordings of the local surroundings to reinforce gothic themes.

Watch this space for my own contribution to the Australian Gothic genre in weeks to come …!

The Art of War: Listening to Otto Dix

Otto Dix storm troopers advance under gas
Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor [Stormtroops advancing under gas]
Otto Dix. 1924. Etching, aquatint, drypoint.

This year marks the centenary of the commencement of World War One. Having studied the history of the war through the perspective of the British allies it was interesting to view the work of German artist Otto Dix during a recent trip to Berlin.

The Der Krieg [War] cycle by Otto Dix confronts viewers with hellish depictions of the Western Front. This series of 51 prints depicts rotting corpses, maggots, horse cadavers, ruined landscapes. Dix had experienced many of these images personally while serving as a machine gunner on the Western Front from 1915 onwards. The prints in Der Krieg speak one truth: in war the only victors are the worms.

Otto Dix the war cycle
                                                  Schädel (Skull) from Der Krieg (The War)

The works in Der Krieg illustrate the misery that was experienced in the trenches. The German figures often appear to be physically and mentally damaged by the effects of the war. The prints contain no sense of nationalistic pride or intent, instead they demonstrate the psychological and physical horror of war.

GH Hamilton describes Dix’s cycle as “perhaps the most powerful as well as the most unpleasant anti-war statements in modern art … It was truly this quality of unmitigated truth, truth to the most commonplace and vulgar experiences, as well as the ugly realities of psychological experience, that gave his work a strength and consistency attained by no other contemporary artist“.

Otto Dix storm troopers advance under gas copy

In Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor the advancing stormtroops wear masks whose creases accentuate the worn and weary faces that reside behind them. Emerging through the gas the figures initially look terrifying yet on further examination their bodies are hopelessly emaciated. Their hands resemble outstretched claws, an effect which reduces the soldiers to something less than human. The monochromatic finish of the print suggests the frontline is a world where the senses become dulled, muted.

While viewing the print I tried to imagine how the sounds exploding around the trenches affected the soldiers. Was the constant pounding of artillery fire so overwhelming that soldiers on both sides became deaf to the horror? Was it possible to recover from this state? Do modern day soldiers experience the sounds of war differently?

It was with these questions that I approached this sonic interpretation of Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor.