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2016: favourite things

This wasn’t a year filled with the best of news. It increasingly felt trite to be posting articles about sound while cities burned, politicians stirred up hate and the masses followed them.

So as a nourishing distraction from what has been going on in The Outside I’m promoting some of the books, movies, tv shows, music that I enjoyed this year. Several of the inclusions weren’t published or broadcast this year however they were discoveries, or re-discoveries, nonetheless. I hope this small list will prompt you to find out more about the artists involved. Meanwhile let me know what your favourite things were from this year.

Favourite Books

Pearl: translated by Simon Armitage

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Simon Armitage’s translation of Pearl, a 14th century verse-novel written by a poet whose name is now lost in history, follows the melancholic tale of the narrator who reunites with his dead daughter. It was refreshing to read a work that focussed on language rather than page-turning devices. Armitage’s translation from the original author’s 14th-century regional dialect must have been a labour of love. The first page is shown below:

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H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

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Hawk is Helen Macdonald’s memoir dealing with bereavement. Months after the death of her father Macdonald raises a goshawk chick into adulthood. The story of her taming the goshawk runs parallel with another account by Terence Hanbury which describes his successes and failures with both the bird and his private life. This was a beautiful and solemn read.

Favourite Movie: Under the Skin

Visually appealing, refreshingly original, and with a brilliant soundtrack by Mica Levi, Under the Skin follows the story of a mysterious female in Scotland who spends her days driving a white van and picking up hitchhikers. No spoliers here!

Favourite TV Series

Transparent

You will have to trust me when I say that Transparent is a lot more intense than the schmaltzy official trailer suggests. It follows the story of one family whose father is transitioning from male to female.

The Night Of

After a night of partying with a woman who has jumped into his car Naz, a Pakistani-American, wakes up to find her mutilated body beside him. Thus begins the HBO series The Night Of.

Favourite Music

Sunergy by Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani

Sunergy by Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani is comprised of drones and loops of synth-generated sound. The two musicians sit in front of a mind boggling array of cables attached to a Buchla Music Easel and a Buchla 200 E in a bid to capture the mood of the rising sun. It’s worth a close listen and is especially good to wake up to in the morning!

Under the Sun by Mark Pritchard

Mark Pritchard’s Under the Sun is an collection of electronically produced tracks which demonstrate a broad range of techniques and styles. I had this album on high rotation earlier in the year.

Desertshore by Nico

Nico’s 1970 album Desertshore features instrumental arrangements by John Cale. Decades later Nico’s music continues to sound strikingly original. It is a curious blend of folk, medieval drones courtesy of her harmonium, all of which support her doomsday vocal delivery. All That is My Own is the final song on the album.

That’s all from me for 2016. Thanks for all your interest and comments this year. Until 2017 …

 

 

 

Sounds from a Deserted Town: Dalmorton

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The old Dalmorton Butchers

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 …

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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.

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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.

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 Boyd River

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?

We floated in the water, no answers came …

Auditory Visions: exhibition of soundscapes and prints

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Sant’Alvise III – Jan Davis (2014)
sugar lift etching with chine collé

Auditory Visions, an exhibition combining prints with original interpretive soundscapes responding to the artworks, will open at Lismore Regional Gallery on the 12th September. The exhibition features works by 7 established and emerging Australian printmakers. The worlds of sound and vision come together in this exhibition curated by printmaker Rona Green and myself.

For the purpose of the exhibition seven contemporary Australian printmakers were invited to contribute two works focussing on an environmental or personal space. In response G.W. Bot, Jan Davis, Rona Green, Alexi Keywan, Bruce Latimer, Travis Paterson, and Michael Schlitz have each created works depicting scenes of quotidian objects under a microscopic lens, exotic locations seen through dreams, and inner worlds rendered visible. Each work was made with the intention to be interpreted through a mix of field recordings and synthesised tones. The 3-minute sound pieces highlight visual and psychological elements within the prints.

Printmaking is a visual medium, but at its best it can trigger and inspire other senses. It is concerned with conveying sensory ideas of texture, space, smell and, in the context of the proposed exhibition, sound. Visitors to the Gallery will be able to listen to the interpretive soundscapes through media players located close to the works. The soundscapes will offer a viewing beyond a literal understanding of the prints, enhancing the viewer’s appreciation of the work in a way that is absent in 2D representations.

I am really excited to have worked with some of Australia’s finest printmakers in this exhibition. Auditory Visions showcases the work of some of our most talented printmakers whose diversity in style and content allowed for a variety of ways to place sound alongside the image. Visitors to the gallery will hear field recordings from the bottom of the Venetian lagoon to the outer edges of the atmosphere, each of which add additional layers to the ink on paper.

The print featured here is by Jan Davis. In 2014 Davis spent time observing the way in which light reflected from the ripples of the Venetian lagoon. While in Venice she completed Sant’Alvise III  for Auditory Visions. Rather than interpret the print with a literal soundscape I imagined the life that exists outside its frame. Thus the sound of church bells and musicians from a Venetian conservatorium blend with the sound of water lapping against the hull of a gondola, none of which are present in the print. Here, sound serves to refocus sight.

The entire Auditory Visions collection is now online. Please follow the link to view the works.

Road Trip into the Australian Gothic

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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 …

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.

Frog n beetles

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).

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.

Lost in Transit: day one in Tallinn, Estonia

After a long flight from Venice to Tallinn via Berlin and Riga I arrived in Estonia at midnight only to discover that my luggage containing my recording equipment, clothes, food had got lost in transit somewhere in Europe. This wasn’t an ideal way to start my time here but it is a part of modern day travel, first world problems!

To take my mind off the sickening feeling of losing everything that was needed to make this trip comfortable and productive I walked from the hotel into town and then to Tallinn’s medieval “Old Town” built between the 13th and 16th centuries. With no sound equipment I enjoyed walking around taking photos.

Outside of the “Old Town” there is a real Soviet era influence. I used to live in South Korea and the buildings in this area of Tallinn reminded me a lot of South Korean architecture and urban design: utilitarian.

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Similar to South Korea there were small spaces where more traditional architecture survives:

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The “Old Town” includes a fortress and town gates, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, a couple of Orthodox Churches, and a garden said to be the birthplace of the Danish Flag:

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The walk was a fantastic introduction to what is to come over the next 4 weeks during my residency here in Estonia. Here’s hoping that my next walk will include a sound recorder that has freshly arrived from Tallinn airport’s “Lost and Found” department.