Road sign: high-brow artists contributing to Australia’s culture at the site of field recording
The temperature this weekend has been predicted to be the hottest on Australia’s record. Climate change is hard to ignore in a country that is experiencing hotter and longer summers, shorter winters, and catastrophic fire warnings for significant parts of the year.
The climate and other Unmentionables here and across the Pacific have created an uneasy beginning to 2017. We sit glued to a never-ending news cycle that has become overwhelming. It is as fascinating as it is shocking. A reprieve is needed …
… and so it was with a field recording trip to Tenterfield. I drove 2-hours west to hear one of my favourite natural sounds: the bell bird. Found in pockets of sclerophyll forest the bell bird’s measured 2-note chime provides a welcome reprieve from our daily routines and concerns.
It was 8:30 in the morning and the temperature was already 29°C when the first of the bell birds made themselves heard. There by the side of the road their call created the tranquility that I had been looking for. The act of listening provided a sense of peace and spatial awareness. Other concerns were stilled as the mind focussed on the auditory properties of the recording site.
2-hours later the temperature had risen to 41°C. I wondered about the effects of the heat on the local ecosystem. Would the forest be silenced over time?
Summer in northern NSW … humidity, mosquitoes, snakes, heatwaves, swimming with sharks at the beach. Not my favourite season. It is however time to begin collecting new field recordings for a phonographic project focussing on abandoned railway lines. Curated by the Unfathomless label the project has pushed me into the sweaty heat in search of sounds which may or may not end up in the final work.
My first recording was taken around this fabulous old train bridge. I sat in the middle and connected contact microphones to its steel frame but nothing of interest played through the headphones. Instead I trained a shotgun microphone towards a colony of cicadas whose rhythmic stridulation signalled the midday heat. As I recorded I watched a school of fish swimming below, glints of silver broke through the water’s surface.
It didn’t take long before a nest of ants discovered me. Their incessant bites and a hot wind drove me away. A few kilometres down the road an old overpass held the promise of shade and sound.
Contact microphones wedged into splits in the old wooden pylons
I had expected to hear the sound of wind circling around the pylons, and it was indeed present. What was of greater interest were the little clicks and squeaks of insects that must have been living inside the wooden frames. The incongruity of such high pitched signals emanating from such bulky pylons was amusing and fascinating. I have no idea what the sounds were and would be happy for someone to let me know.
That’s enough recording for one hot summer’s day. Once the heat is over it’ll be time to travel and record more of the abandoned railway lines.
How is your sense of place informed by the sounds that surround you?
After decades of living in the northern NSW region of Australia I am pretty familiar with its sights and sounds. It is an idyllic area with forests, farmland, towns, rivers and beaches however this year I have felt a growing fatigue towards its rural limitations. In turn this has fostered a certain deafness towards its sonic diversity. It is an affective deafness driven by an impatience to explore new areas. Wanderlust!
This morning, on a whim, I drove a few minutes from home and walked into the local forest. It is an area I once visited regularly but have neglected to frequent for over 1-year.
I sat by a stream and listened to the surrounds …
… water dripped from a leaf into a small pool, birds called from trees overhead, a cricket chirped from somewhere in the undergrowth, flies buzzed around the microphone …
The recordings I made were unremarkable however the act of recording somehow reasserted my attachment to place. This is an experience many field recordists seem to mention. Listening to the waves of sound that pass around us we become immersed in our immediate environment. Our internal mapping of an area becomes multi-sensory. We find our position within it, realigning ourselves with its metre.
There in the forest life moved at a slower pace. The slow and steady rhythms in the gully calmed, albeit temporarily, the mental rush that has permeated much of 2016. It felt churlish to wish for something more.
On the way home I drove with the windows down, listening to all that I passed. Was it naive to think this moment would last?
More than a 1-hour drive along a narrow dirt-road winding its way through river-valleys lined with eucalyptus trees sits the deserted township of Dalmorton. Once a gold-mining town boasting 13 pubs Dalmorton is now a small collection of abandoned buildings whose facades are barely surviving the elements and mindless actions of some visitors.
There under the unrelenting midday sun an old butchers shop and residence begged to be recorded …
Inside the butchers
The heat was oppressive inside the old butchers shop. I definitely didn’t want to spend much time there. Quickly scanning the room I saw some rusting metal rings from which meat once hung. They looked an ideal place to connect a contact microphone. The metal transported a definite thumping sound. A loose sheet of corrugated-iron roof was flapping in the barely existent breeze.
Next door an old residence baked in the sun. Although it had survived decades of abandonment visitors had at some stage kicked in the walls and windows. In a room to the left a tree branch scraped against a sheet of iron. My recording was cut short by the intense heat. The space or sparseness of the sounds caught in the recordings somehow reflected the slow pace of the empty township.
Walking around the remnants of the old township it is easy to forget that a a river runs through the valley. The sounds of life by the riverbanks were in direct contrast with the town. We entered its fresh water contemplating the place Dalmorton had once been. Questions were asked:
How had the land shaped those who once lived there? How could a town big enough to host 13 pubs all but disappear? What emotional attachments did residents have to Dalmorton in order to call it home? Did the local soundscape help form a connection to the land? What sounds had since been lost?
Electrical pylons. Towers dominating the landscape, fields dissected by lines of parallel wires. Their symmetry and incongruity have always been appealing.
For years I have wanted to record their steel frames. Passing them along country roads I have always wondered about the sound vibrating within them. How does its low level frequency affect those who live around it; can we hear crackles of electricity, a low monotonous drone?
Until recently these questions had been a source of frustration with each pylon sitting within private land. However on a recent trip to Canberra one electrical pylon stood by the side of a quiet road. I quickly took the opportunity to record it.
The recording process was hampered by wind and rain however the contact microphones brought an otherwise inaudible side of the pylon to life. Its sound being quite different to what I had expected. The recording is short due to the weather and my fear of being apprehended by the authorities so I still don’t feel entirely satisfied with the end result …
… but here it is, my first recording of an electrical pylon.
Sound and memory. We turn to the visual image for reminders of the past. Leafing through personal archives we view photos for clarification and confirmation of events blurred by time.
Although photographs depict certain scenes and events, I find them to be lacking in ways that field recordings are not. Looking at old photographs I remember the scene through the object itself, it is an external act, the gaze failing to unveil the hidden layers of experience within the subconscious. Compare this with the act of listening. Turning the ear to personal field recordings a free-flowing association of memories rises to the surface. The sounds of place act as a conduit to the past.
Helsinki, December 2013.
We had left Estonia earlier than expected. After 5-weeks in an isolated village, our inability to read the local attitudes had divided us. We had planned the trip for over 1 year, anticipating a sense of stimulation in the unfamiliar post-soviet neighbourhood of Mooste. The stimulation was present but so too was a sense that we didn’t belong. We were an openly queer couple viewed with suspicion and derision. Walking through the village we felt vulnerable, it reduced us to silence, our minds turned inwards separating us from each other.
Arriving in Finland we felt a flood of relief, but the experiences of the past were not forgotten. The previous 5-weeks of unnatural and forced communication had wedged a sense of disconnection between us. The dark winter light spread a quiet across Helsinki, it amplified a level of gloom that now pervaded our interactions.
Only once did I take my microphones outside. We took a ferry to a neighbouring island, the fog on the ocean sometimes cleared to reveal our destination. Upon arrival it began to rain however the knowledge that we were leaving the next day forced us to make the most of our remaining time there. We walked in the rain, a favourite past-time of ours, but this time it left us feeling despondent.
Before catching the ferry back to the mainland I took out my microphones for my only recording in Finland. I recorded the waves gently gurgling against the rocky edge of the island as the rain continued to fall. It is a completely unremarkable and flawed recording. At the end of the trip, home at my computer, I listened to the sound file and was annoyed at myself for not having recorded more while I was there.
Only recently did I listen to the recording again. Overlooking its faults, memories began to surface. I remembered the damply muted colours, the cold wet wind, the tour groups competing for seats on the ferry. More acutely the recording returned the sense of hopelessness I had felt while walking around the island, the sinking feeling that another attempt at reigniting a warmth between us had again failed. I remembered the silence between us as we caught the bus to the airport.
The water lapped against the island’s edge as I wondered who we now were.