Tag Archives: Australia

Field Recordings: abandoned railway lines

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A disused rail bridge in Eltham

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.

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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.

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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.

Listening to your local sounds

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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!

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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?

 

 

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.

Residence

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.

Dalmorton creek

 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 …

A bridge in Thredbo (or, why I love contact microphones)

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Contact microphones – my favourite portal to listening to “the inaudible”.  Whether recording in domestic spaces or the outside world I love nothing more than connecting contact microphones to inanimate objects and listening to their voice. Not only do they reveal unexpected tones and pulses but they also stand in contrast to their surrounds. The juxtaposition between the landscape and its elusive auditory companion keeps me occupied when I’m on field recording trips.

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Thredbo in Australia’s Snowy Mountains. A short metal bridge crosses a creek at a place alluringly called Dead Horse Gap. The ambient sound is as you’d expect, a rush of water gurgling over rocks, a pleasant soundmark for those lucky enough to spend time there.

What took my interest though was the potential of any sound that might vibrate within the metal handrails of the bridge. I wasn’t disappointed. A sound similar to the low drone of a pipe organ moved with the flow of water. With headphones on, looking at the surrounding landscape, I had my own private soundtrack to the region. What could be better?

 

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Moving the microphones to the bridge’s thin wire-grill deck a shrill high-pitched sound replaced the softer tones that flowed beneath my feet. It wasn’t a sound that was easy to fall into however I continued recording as I thought it held the potential to be mixed into a slightly nightmarish composition somewhere in the future.

I left Dead Horse Gap feeling lucky to have experienced its hidden soundscape. With temperatures well below zero it was time to return to the apartment for some warming red wine.

Next, electrical sounds in hotel rooms …

 

 

Flinders Ranges – a trip into South Australia

Flinders New Year

I swore there would be no field-recording during the much treasured summer holidays. This would be a time to rebalance the senses, to enjoy the outdoors without microphones and recorders. For the most part this resolution was maintained, helped in no small way by strong winds and temperatures of 40 degrees.

But there were some key sounds that couldn’t be left undocumented. Dry plants swaying in the relentless wind …

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On New Years Eve we climbed a hill adjacent to our cabin to watch the final sunset of 2015. It couldn’t have been more perfect. As a rainbow stretched from one range to another the sky started turning into various shades of blue to indigo to violet.

The sky, the ranges, the plains … colours enough to startle my jaded self into a renewed sense of wonder, an appreciation of the ephemeral. The wind tore through the trees.

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The following morning we walked into a small section of this range. Here we were told Indigenous rock paintings telling the story of the formation of the ranges could be found.

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It was early in the morning but the heat radiating from the rocks was already intense. The unfamiliar terrain kept us walking.

Flinders rock painting

 

Finally we came upon the ancient paintings, the sunlight reflecting off the rocks. The weight of its history and significance kept us there, we looked at the contours, the colours and motifs, but couldn’t decode its narrative.

A wire grill protected the paintings from human interference. I attached microphones to it and recorded the wind passing over the wires. A sound imposing a cinematic effect upon the location.

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Eagles and hawks dominated the sky.

Flinders wallabies

Kangaroos and wallabies watched us wherever we went

Flinders Canyon

A canyon in another part of the ranges contains another set of visible reminders of the first Australians.

Flinders rock carving

Carvings in the stones signify pools of water that can be found in this arid region, others signify emu footprints. Here the sound of flies dominated the small space. I regretted leaving the microphone behind that day.

Flinders last day

 

The first sunset of 2016 was quite unlike the evening before. A brilliant gold swept across the valley. Wind and flies welcomed the new year.

Adelaide

A 5-hour drive south brought us to Adelaide. We sat on the street and saw a man walk into a tree branch. He cursed loudly before tearing it to the ground. Days later David Bowie died.

Australian Gothic: a new Unfathomless release

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My latest work, The Australian Gothic, has recently been released on the Unfathomless label. Read below about the historical context of the Australian Gothic genre and the process of producing this particular composition.

Long before the fact of Australia was ever confirmed by explorers and cartographers it had already been imagined as a grotesque space, a land peopled by monsters. The idea of its existence was disputed, was even heretical for a time, and with the advent of the transportation of convicts its darkness seemed confirmed. The Antipodes was a world of reversals, the dark subconscious of Britain. It was, for all intents and purposes, Gothic par excellence, the dungeon of the world.

Gerry Turcotte (Australian Gothic. University of Wollongong.1998).

The Australian Gothic : a creative genre emphasising the terrors of isolation in this post-colonial land. The Australian Gothic exposes a tormented communal psyche weighted by dark secrets.

Australia, a country colonised in 1788 by unwilling convicts and prison guards. For these unfortunates Australia was a nightmarish location, its foreign terrain provoked feelings of fear and alienation. Gone was the British gothic landscape of moors and heaths. In its place were dangerous animals, deserts, bush-fires, floods and droughts. The comfortability of the known European landscape was replaced by this new unstable setting.

Integral to the colonisers’ sense of dislocation and dread was the Australian soundscape. Reading journals and novels from this era it is evident that the aural dimensions of the Australian landscape were strongly perceived in gothic terms of enclosure and entrapment. The vastness of the deserts unsettled the first colonisers who remarked upon its deathlike silence, while in the forests the mass of unfamiliar sounds induced intense feelings of fear and disorientation. This sparked feelings of loathing towards the newly colonised space, including the Aboriginal people. In the Australian Gothic tradition the landscape sounded alive, it surrounded and entrapped with suffocating force.

Growing up in a region where Aboriginal artifacts from the pre-colonial era could readily be found under shallow soil the bloody layers of history have always sat uncomfortably with me. We live on stolen land, a place where immoral and bloody actions happened in the recent past. We have a sense of un-belonging to this country. It is part of the Australian Gothic experience.

With this in mind I collected field recordings in my local valley of Main Arm, a place like much of Australia, partly suburban, partly open for farming. I wanted to create a composition that featured field recordings, both modified and unmodified, of sounds from local farms. Could we imagine ourselves in the past, a time when the steady expansion of the frontier into traditional Aboriginal land was a primary source of conflict?

Listening to the composition I hope a sense of unease and dread is provoked through its combination of sounds. Yet somewhere underneath its layers there is the suggestion of beauty, of what could have been. Listen and be transported into the fabric of Australia’s Gothic experience.

Road trip: the Warrumbungles and hotel recordings

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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.