The British Library’s “Sound and Vision” site has posted a challenge to people working with sound. The idea is to compose a sound piece, under 3 minutes, that is inspired by one of the 1 million images released by the British Library last year onto Flickr Commons.
I’m happy that my own sound piece, inspired by the above picture, was the first work chosen to be posted for the series. To listen to the work and to read more about the project visit the British Library’s Sound and Vision site.
“O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind!”
J. Jaynes, 1976.
There, almost 20 years ago in an inner-city apartment, I sat talking with a friend. We had been smoking late into the night, the acrid smell of self-induced euphoria filled the small space of her living room. As she spoke a multitude of frogs croaking outside began to compete with her voice. Their volume rose to such an extent that nothing else could be heard. Her lack of wonder at this event struck me as odd. “Listen to that outside, there must be hundreds of them!” I shouted. She could hear nothing whilst for me the intensity had become deafening. She sat with me until the sound abated. This was my first auditory hallucination.
Auditory hallucinations are false perceptions of sound; they have no source point in the external world but are discerned as real by the person affected. Auditory hallucinations are not experienced as sounds coming from inside the mind, rather they are heard as if they are entering the body through the ears or through the surface of the body. Auditory hallucinations can range in loudness, they can be be perceived as voices with great linguistic complexity, or they can include animal sounds, music, tapping or scratching.
How often have you mistakenly heard your name being called? How often have you heard a knock on the door when in fact there was nothing but silence?
The voice “within” has been a central part of many religions. In Classical Antiquity those who heard voices were viewed as being in direct contact with the gods. The Oracle of Delphi, established in the 8th century BC, was renowned for its Pythia, women who heard the voice of Apollo. Leaders consulted the Pythia for advice during periods of war and plague, the oracles commanded a position of prestige and authority in society.
In Judeo-Christian records God spoke to Adam on the 6th day, informing him of the rules of conduct inside the Garden of Eden. God also spoke to Moses from a burning bush instructing him to guide the Hebrews from Egypt. Later in the bible Moses is described as listening directly to the voice of God as he dictated the 10 Commandments to him.
In the Jewish bible God is reported to have spoken to several people, challenging them on their actions, conversing with them and answering certain questions much like a benevolent paternal figure.
According to the Islamic religion Mohammed heard the voice of the Angel Gabriel as he meditated and walked through the desert – he searched for the source of the voice but saw nothing, prompting him to consider taking his own life. Over the ensuing years the Angel Gabriel returned to Mohammed, dictating the contents of the Koran to him.
Thus the world’s major religions have common origins: an individual hears a voice that lacks any physical source yet which commands authority, from this experience a new set of morals and religious guidelines is imposed upon local societies. Could this still be possible in our contemporary world? Probably not. Nowadays anyone proclaiming communication with divine voices in the western world would most likely be diagnosed with schizophrenia, though there are still accounts of cult leaders asserting their ability to hear the voices of gods and angels. Does our lack of faith in the words they relay from their “voices” say more about our secular age than it does about our understanding of mental illness?
Philosophers and Leaders:
Several philosophers and state leaders are documented to have heard voices. One of the more notable was Socrates the Greek philosopher who, at the trial leading to his execution, said his life was directed by his “daemon”. Common to many who experience auditory hallucinations Socrates regarded his daemon as a voice of wisdom, one which he did not experience as part of his recognised thought process. At the time of the trial Socrates spoke of his daemon:
You may have heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, which my accuser Melitus ridicules and sets out in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of being a politician.
Perhaps the most famous of all leaders to hear voices was Joan of Arc. A national French hero and a saint in the Catholic church, Joan of Arc maintained that she was aided by the voices of saints in her fight to free France from the domination of England in the 100 year war. Joan credited the voices for advising her on the strategy which would eventually help France win the Siege of Orléans and have Charles crowned King.
The roots of western philosophy and the modern political terrain can therefore be regarded in no small part as stemming from the actions of those who listened to disembodied voices, voices which secular society would describe as auditory hallucinations.
What do we know about auditory hallucinations?
During the Dark Ages people suffering auditory hallucinations were often thought to be communing with the devil. Subsequently there are accounts of some unfortunate individuals who were subjected to trepanning or trial as a witch.
Later in the 16th century the first Insane Asylums were opened in order to remove the afflicted from the streets. Often chained to walls it was believed that clean air, food, and water would help restore the patients to good health. The reality of the asylums was quite different. Depending on the institution patients might be doused in cold water and starved. There are some stories of patients being spun on a wheel with the belief that the reduced flow of blood to the brain would relax their muscles. In more recent times patients hearing voices were subjected to lobotomies and shock therapy.
It is now known that 75 percent of people with schizophrenia experience auditory hallucinations, though 10-40 percent of people without a psychiatric illness have also reported experiencing auditory hallucinations.
The most common type of auditory hallucinations in psychiatric illness consists of voices, sometimes of a gender opposite to the patient and even with accents and intonations different from the patient’s linguistic background. Voices often comment on the individual’s behaviour, referring to the patient in the third person. Often the voices have a negative and malevolent content, speaking to the patient in an abusive manner. However research has shown that many people who hear voices regard them as a positive aspect of their lives and that they can be inspirational and comforting.
Interestingly people without mental illness report a higher proportion of positive voices as well as a greater ability to control them. Auditory hallucinations in mentally healthy individuals is often caused by neuro-infections; cerebral tumours; intoxication or withdrawal from drugs.
The existence of auditory hallucinations demonstrates the fragility of the human psyche, that our position as healthy individuals is tenuous and often beyond our control. Auditory hallucinations illustrate the power of sound to unsettle, to disturb and to inspire, even when it is manifested from deep within the mind.
(Image by Kenneth Skeaping from the 1891 book “The Devil’s Acres”)
Over one million images from 17th-19th century books have been scanned and released by the British Library. The images are available for general use and are stored in a variety of categories including flora and fauna, old advertisements, maps, technology, portraits, science fiction.
Searching through the images I was taken by this illustration from the book The Devil’s Acres. Here a child holds her mother as an unknown force surrounds them. The mother brings her hands to her ears suggesting a terrifying sound is filling the house. The Devil’s Acres was published on the order of Pope Pius XII and was written anonymously due to the nature of its contents although it is thought to have been written by Bishop Johannes Neuhausler.
The British library is currently running a project asking for soundscapes to be added to these images:
Whether you’re a musician, artist or designer, we’d like to invite you to bring these images to life by creating a short sound piece inspired by this amazing collection. Whether you’re interested in creating a sound portrait of an exotic landscape or fancy tackling something a little more abstract, we’d love to hear what you come up with.
This is a good opportunity to flex some creative muscle while having a bit of fun. For more information follow the link to the British Library’s Sound and Vision blog.
When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
Marcel Proust “Swann’s Way”.
Months after returning home I listened to an assortment of my field recordings from Venice. During the listening process I was surprised at the abundance of memories that emerged, several of which were not directly related to the exact moment or place of the recording.
Memory is unreliable. We recontextualise the past according to what we know and feel today. We use photographs as definitive proof of our personal narratives but in doing so we often create stories that omit or reshape the truth. A photograph restricts memory within the limits of its frame. What lies outside the viewfinder is rendered into insignificance and is often lost. We remember the place, the object, the experience through the photo.
Conversely field recordings generate a flight of memory that connects all of the senses. Listening to personal field recordings allows thoughts and states of being, once forgotten, to regain a position in the consciousness.
Our past lives inside us.
Listening to the water in this recording I recall a moment hours before when, in a small ferry that was being rocked dangerously by a storm, I planned my escape route should the boat overturn. As I listen to the recording my mind returns to the tense atmosphere onboard as the boat moved through the heavy swell. I remember the cold of my clothes soaked by the autumn rain.
An often quoted observation about Venice is its absence of traffic noise. In truth, although the city is void of cars, it is difficult to find anywhere that is not marked by the drone of motor-boats. With hydrophones placed deeply into one of the canals I recorded the sound of engines as boats of various descriptions passed by. Months later as I listen to this recording my mind drifts to a lunch that I had that day. I remember the frenzy of pigeons that flew onto my table when a basket of bread was placed in front of me. Later I watched as a bottle slowly drifted up the canal.
The sound of bells ringing at different times of the day was a good indicator that I was far from home. I tried, mostly in vain, to get a recording of a bell that I might later use in a composition. Listening to this recording transports me back to Venice. I am reminded of the massive seabirds that flew above the city. I listen to the bells and remember watching with ghoulish fascination as one sea-bird ate the carcass of a pigeon.
The sound of music emanating from each room of the conservatory flooded the narrow confines of the space below. Standing beneath the windows and listening to guitars, pianos, vocalists and trombones was both an exhilarating and slightly disorienting experience. Months later as I listen to this recording I recall feeling cold and hungry. I made the recording while mentally planning dinner and drinks upon my return to the apartment.
This recording was one of the last that I took in Venice. Although I had tried to resist recording anything bordering on cliche I felt at the last minute that I might regret not having recorded the sound of water slapping against a gondola. Listening to the recording I once again feel the melancholy associated with the knowledge that part of a holiday is over. I remember standing by the boats while thinking of the flight to Berlin that lay ahead the following morning.
When exploring the relationship between stimulus and memory Proust famously describes his own experience when eating a madeleine. This moment becomes the starting point of a deluge of memories. In his work “In Search of Lost Time” Proust inexhaustibly details the way in which we negotiate the world in two trajectories of time: our inner time, that which is filled with our thoughts and experiences, and the more literal chronometric time. Proust wrote The past still lives in us … has made us what we are and is remaking us every moment! … An hour is not merely an hour! It is a vase filled with perfumes, sounds, places and climates! … So we hold within us a treasure of impressions, clustered in small knots, each with a flavour of its own, formed from our own experiences, that become certain moments of our past.
One of several telecommunication towers that rise above the farmlands of Mooste. It was in these objects that I found some of the greatest satisfaction during my one month of field recording in Estonia.
A late winter compromised my objectives in visiting Estonia. I had originally intended to explore the sounds of a frozen landscape however with moderately warmer temperatures than expected it was necessary to be flexible in what to record.
After only limited success in recording thin layers of ice on lakes and soft drops of snow on glass I had to face the fact that the weather conditions weren’t right for my intended outcomes. It was slightly difficult to give up these plans but with only a month to spend in Estonia it was important to find a new focus with my recordings.
It was at this stage that I turned my attention to the industrial and telecommunication infrastructure that dominate the village of Mooste. Ex-Soviet water-tanks, electrical fences and telecommunication towers became my new objects of interest.
Visitors to this site may have already listened to some of my recordings of towers and fences in Mooste. Listening to the objects in situ I was always hypnotised by their deep and heavy resonance. Their tones seem to carry a weight of history that reflect the village itself.
Estonia, a country invaded and occupied by Russia, Germany, Sweden and Denmark throughout the centuries, was a somewhat difficult country to understand. During my month in Mooste I never really comprehended where I was, nor was I able to read the personalties of the local people. Although this was unsettling at times I am happy to have had my cultural perspectives challenged by this remote and relatively unknown part of the world.
Each day I walked through the village to outlying forested areas or to more localised industrial areas. These walks were documented by recordings of the village of which those using contact microphones are my personal favourites.
On my second-last afternoon I walked more than a kilometre to reach this telecommunications tower. I had seen it in the distance throughout my residency but it was only with John Grzinich’s recommendation that I took the time to record it.
As can be heard in these three recordings each of the supporting cables vibrated at different frequencies in just the smallest amount of wind. With contact microphones connected to the cables I sat and looked at the brown winter landscape that surrounded me all the while knowing that I would soon be back in the heat of the Australian summer listening to a completely different soundscape.
For artists of any medium who are interested in applying for the MoKS residency program please follow this link.
Regular visitors to this site may have listened to a recording I made of an electric fence a few months ago. The sound of the electrical pulse snapping through the contact microphones is quite dramatic. I had been tempted to record the electric fences here in Estonia too, but being unaware of their voltage I was hesitant to do so. However with only a few days left in Estonia I finally dared myself to connect my microphones to them.
Near the MoKS residence is an electric fence stretching over bare hills into the distance. Perfect! After recording various sections along the fence I found that its tone changes depending on the direction that the wind strikes the cables and, perhaps, its distance from the power source. This is the first of four recordings I made. There is almost a delay effect reverberating through the cable as it sways in the wind.
This second recording was made a few hundred metres further along the fence. A harsher, more distinct, generator sound replaces that of the first recording. It builds and fades yet the electrical pulse remains the same.
On a windier section of the hillside the sound in this recording is higher in pitch. I’m not sure if this change is a reaction to the wind or if the cable itself may be different from other sections of the fence-line. There is a nice vibration that ascends and descends in pitch that is quite musical.
This final recording was made as the wind was become slightly stronger. The low rumble reminds of reverb on an electric guitar. At times the wind can be heard above it granting the recording an idea of space and location.
Walking around the countryside it is amazing to think that these natural spaces have sounds such as these that we are oblivious to without the aid of contact microphones. These seemingly tranquil areas are filled with sound and it is discoveries like these today that maintain my interest in field recording, walking, travel and sound.
This telecommunication tower is my favourite object to record in the village of Mooste. I arrived in Estonia with the idea that I’d record the subtle sounds of snow and ice but instead the drones and crackles of the tower’s support cables have caught my attention. When I first recorded the cables last week I planned to return to the tower during a snowy afternoon. I was interested in what effect the tiny flakes would have on these massive support structures..
In this recording you can hear short staccato-esque sounds, almost electrical in tone, as hundreds of snow-flakes hit the wire. There are occasional pops when the snow hits the contact microphones. It was easy to forget the cold while listening to this sound playing through the headphones.
Once the snow had eased I returned to get a clearer recording. This time I struck one of the cables lightly with a stick, this being the same action Ben Burtt used to create the laser blasts in Star Wars. Unfortunately there was still a bit of snow and wind so I will have to go back again to get a recording that I’m entirely satisfied with.
As my feet moved on the ground near the connecting wires a much deeper frequency moved through the cables. Headphones might be needed to hear this recording.
The residency here at MoKS has provided some unexpected outcomes. With less than 2 weeks before I leave I hope to add a lot more of these listening moments during what is left of my time here.
Looking at this inconspicuous building in Tartu, Estonia, it is difficult to believe that it was once a site of terror and oppression. From 1940-1954 thousands of Estonians were detained and tortured by the Russian KGB in tiny cells in the basement of “the Grey House”.
Upon entering the basement this 3 minute audio file is played on a loop. Fluency in the local language isn’t necessary to understand the story that is enacted:
During the period of Russian annexation thousands of Estonians passed through the Grey House on the way to labour camps in Siberia in an attempt by Russia to quash the Estonian resistance movement. This resulted in the deaths of 30,000 civilians either directly through execution or from the deprivations of life in a gulag.
Walking through the basement visitors can see plans by Russian authorities to deport Estonian politicians, teachers, clergy and skilled workers to Siberia. Artefacts from gulags, as well as a number of devices used to torture prisoners, can also be viewed.
Estonian history is not something that I am familiar with. However after visiting the Tartu KGB museum I now look into the faces of the local people and wonder what stories reside behind their stoic expressions.
It was a strange experience to walk through a pine forest and hear no sign of life. Up above wind whipped through the tree tops resulting in a whistling sound that belonged to a gothic novel but otherwise the forest was silent.
Traipsing further into the centre of the forest a sound finally made itself heard. A pine tree, snapped at its base, had fallen against a neighbouring tree and was swaying with its movements in the wind.
By placing contact microphones directly near the split it was possible to hear every creak and groan emitted by the tree as it moved helplessly with the wind. Away from the context of the forest the sound is reminiscent of a wooden ship as it heaves and sways in the ocean.
In a much more subtle way the sound of snow falling on the tree trunk was as delicate as it was musical. It’s various notes ring with the timbre of a xylophone, there is a beauty in its unpredictable melody.
The residency here at MoKS has been invaluable for providing a new context in which to listen. It took a lot of preparation to travel from Australia but the benefits are numerous. I’d recommend artists of any medium to come here to immerse themselves in this unique part of the world.
The sound of wind passing over this abandoned Soviet era water tank as caught by contact microphones. At times leaves and other debris clatter their way inside.
There is an incredible array of abandoned buildings and machines in Mooste. Their rusting bodies speak of another period that, for many Estonians, is best left in the past. Once the Soviet era finished in the 1990s many industrial structures were left to decay in the harsh Estonian elements. One such example is this water tower:
The dark silhouette of the tower dominates the frozen landscape.
The water tower stands surrounded by frozen farming fields and sheds in a state of disrepair. From the vantage point of someone who didn’t live through the deprivations of Soviet annexation I can look at this tower through the privilege of a detached aesthetic sense. Nevertheless I can’t help but wonder how local residents view this same object.
Recording the tank in the snowy blustery weather.
Socio-historical ruminations aside, how could any field recordist not be tempted to record this Soviet relic’s voice? Taping contact microphones onto its wet rusting frame proved to be quite difficult but with some perseverance the sound of the freezing wind passing over the metal body floated to the surface.
There in the hostile conditions low tones rose to higher whistles, the sound drawing a connection between the past and present. What histories did the wind communicate through the microphones, can they ever be deciphered?