Tag Archives: phonography

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.

Swarm: the onslaught of Argentine Lawn Scarabs.

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Hundreds of Christmas beetles Argentine Lawn Scarabs flew into the glass door at night then scratched around the wooden boards of the verandah searching for a mate.

 

Thanks to Chris Reid from the Australian Museum for correcting my identification of the beetles in this post. What I had thought were Christmas Beetles were in fact non-native Argentine Lawn Scarabs. Read his comment for more information. Summer and introduced species? Another reason not to like this season …

I’ll admit it … I am not a summer person. In fact just the anticipation of the the mind-numbing, body-bloating heat of the Australian summer is something that I dread the moment winter fades away. There must be a point to summer, but I just don’t get it.

However there is one thing that slightly redeems these humid and draining months: the brief onslaught of Christmas beetles. For about a week these beetles emerge from the earth and swarm around street lights and brightly lit windows. This mass event is something that marks the beginning of summer.

The beetles fly clumsily into walls and faces, often getting stuck in long hair and clothing. Their long spindly legs claw their way across skin and clamp down when feeling threatened. Needless to say these beetles have a certain creepy value. Their buzzing and whirring as they fly through the night air is something I’d like to add to my list of Australian Gothic sounds.

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Easy pickings for this green tree frog.

Each year I have tried to record the arrival of the Christmas beetles as they circle our outdoor light in their hundreds. These recordings have never been very successful as the beetles invariably fly into the microphone. After these recording sessions I return inside with beetles covering my body.

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Beetles re-enacting Ancient Roman orgiastic rituals.

This year I tried a different approach by recording the beetles as they flew into our kitchen window. The multiple thuds as they hit the window give some indication of the mass of beetles swarming outside.

So these beetles and their characteristic sounds are a soundmark of the Australian summer. I’m not sure if it is enough to help me appreciate summer but at least there is something to consider as the sweat trickles down my face. (Though now we know that these are in fact an introduced species, impostors! One less thing to like about summer).

Sound and Our Past

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Sound entwines itself within our memory. Our adult selves are transported into emotional states from childhood through the exposure to sounds connected to past experiences.

 

Sound, like memory, is intangible yet it has the ability to haunt us. States of being rise through buried layers of personal history when exposed to soundmarks from the past. Although sound passes swiftly it leaves raw emotions floundering in its wake.

… and so it is for me.  Sitting by streams the gurgle of water unlocks a deeply hidden reservoir of childhood emotions.

As a child I grew up in a valley filled with farms, patches of forest, and trickling streams. In one sense it was quite ideal though as a queer youth it wasn’t without its problems. Verbal and physical homophobic harassment was something to endure on a daily basis and its shame was something to bury and keep silent about when at home. A sense of insecurity prevailed.

But there was a refuge. On the outer perimeter of my parent’s farm was a place where the anxiety of the school week could wash away. A stream flowed under the shade of trees which lined its bank. It was a space where I could sit alone allowing the week’s accumulation of fear to sail downstream. The sound of the stream allowed me to move beyond those experiences.

At the time I didn’t know that the sound of water was burying itself inside my subconscious, becoming an emotional memory, a personal soundmark. I sit by streams today and feel myself transported into the past. This familiar childhood sound provokes a confusion of sadness, anger, quietude. I walk away from streams feeling unsettled.

This is just one soundmark however there are so many more tugging at these barely hidden emotions from the past.  And so it is with us all.

Which sounds reverberate inside your personal history?

Raising the Inaudible to the Surface

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The pulse of an electronic rust inhibitor as recorded through a coil pickup microphone.

 

Trails of sonic activity drift, unheard, around us. Beneath our feet the earth groans in frequencies too low to be discerned. From the trees ultrasonic clicks from insects remain unrecognised. At home electrical pulses radiate from domestic utilities. It is the unheard universe.

Discovering these hidden sounds is one of the joys of field recording. Although contemporary discourse describes the world as getting smaller field recording and the act of listening reveal the planet to be much larger than we think. How satisfying to know that there are still some mysteries to be uncovered!

With the advent of modern recording technology regions of uncharted sound have been made available to us. Contact microphones capture the subtle vibrations of inanimate objects; hydrophones amplify the sound of aquatic life; coil pickups, my new personal favourite, reveal a musicality of tones emanating from everyday electrical appliances. It is in these objects that I have recently found the greatest interest.

Coil pickup microphones detect the electromagnetic signals of motors and microprocessors. It is endlessly fascinating listening to the variety of tones each appliance projects. The timbre, duration and frequency of tones is quite unique, often falling into the region of what is termed microsound. Here short bursts of sound are heard lasting between one tenth of a second and 10 milliseconds.

The effect of these tiny sounds on our approach to listening is immense. They emerge briefly to the foreground forcing the ears to pay attention to the space into which they retreat. Through this process we hear sounds beneath sounds. We notice a polyphony of textures and beats, the complexity of which encourages the mind to lose itself, if only briefly.

When I first started field recording I did so from a concern for the state of the natural environment. Although that concern still exists my interest in recording has moved to a new terrain – that of bringing the inaudible to the acoustic forefront. With the aid of recording equipment we can overcome the limitations of our auditory system, enabling us to listen to a more 3-dimensional version of the world in which we live. We are the richer for it.