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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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 …
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.
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.
It was early in the morning but the heat radiating from the rocks was already intense. The unfamiliar terrain kept us walking.
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.
Eagles and hawks dominated the sky.
Kangaroos and wallabies watched us wherever we went
A canyon in another part of the ranges contains another set of visible reminders of the first Australians.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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 …
This New Year started with the intense sound of thunder ricocheting through the valley. At times it sounded as if the sky was being pierced open. With the thunder came heavy torrents of rain, bringing our first flood for 2015. This photo shows our driveway submerged under murky floodwater, a regular occurrence during summer.
Aside from the humidity that rises from the earth after a flood there is another common phenomenon that I have noticed over the years: the locality is rendered mute, a virtual silence surrounds the water-soaked valley. So, recording the floodwater receding has never been as satisfying as I hope it to be. That is until this morning …
Stepping across the flood debris that lay on the bridge I noticed fence-lines stretching into the quickly flowing water below. Contact-microphones brought their sonic characteristics to life. I sat on the bridge and listened to a dystopian choir rising from the floodwater. It felt like the perfect combination between object and sound. It was only the relentless heat and the need to clear the bridge that dragged me away.
Happy New Year and fingers crossed for less floods in the future.