Sound and Memory

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Sound and Memory

  1. Great post about sound and memories. It’s true, our past is inside of us but most of the times, we never know how to catch it or how to take it back again.

  2. Venice is an unique experience, sonically and otherwise – A city without cars? Where else do you find this? Throw in all the other idiosyncratic sonic ingredients of this place and you’ll agree that this place is audibly like no other. The Arsenale experience is also strange in that it is space reclaimed from industry for art. I wonder if someone like R. Murray Shafer has investigated the conservation of soundmarks over the history of this city?
    As someone who has spent some time in this city, I enjoyed your post and your recordings. Thanks, Brent

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