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.
Ludwig Koch. Image supplied by the British Library.
In 2014 Cheryl Tipp from the British Library invited me to create a sound piece that would pay homage to the German wildlife recordist Ludwig Koch. Tipp’s project outline provided a brief biography of Koch:
Ludwig Koch (1881-1974) is one of the greatest figures in the history of wildlife sound recording. He made his first recording in 1889 at the tender age of 8 and went on to pioneertechniques for recording wild animals in the field. He championed projects such as the sound book, which combined text with audio recordings and published a range of titles from soundscapes to identification guides, first in his native Germany and then in Great Britain. His work at the BBCallowed him to bring the sounds of nature to a whole new audience through the medium of radio and he soon became a household name. In 1960 Ludwig Koch was recognised for his services to broadcasting and natural history and awarded a MBE by Queen Elizabeth II.
Cheryl Tipp and David Velez invited artists working with sound to create pieces based on a specific theme. Each theme was to be informed by material held in the archives of the British Museum. I was given the theme of “Night night”. Two photos of Koch recording at night were provided to me.
The photos suggested a sense of wonder, a new age of recording and listening to the world had begun. Looking at the men in hats and coats I also felt a slight sense of menace, perhaps this merely reflected my consumption of 21st century popular culture rather than what is really present in the photos.
The sound piece uses my own recordings taken at night in the surrounding forests. It also mixes a few of Koch’s recordings, those being a curlew, wolves, and incidental crackles and pops. Unfortunately the project never got off the ground. So here, presented in two parts is my own contribution, Night Night.
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.
Rona Green is well known for her hand coloured linocuts of hybrid figures. Shitehawk exemplifies her interest in the hyper-masculinised world of men living on society’s edge. In this portrait Shitehawk is about to engage in a street fight where there can be only one winner.
Green’s larger than life figure required extreme sounds to amplify this narrative. Field recordings of a chaotic urban world merge with processed sounds to represent the scene that is being played out.
This is the final post relating to the Auditory Visions exhibition. Time for a much needed break over the holiday period. Thanks for your visits and comments this year. Till 2016 …
Threnody, a song of mourning, looks down upon a snowy landscape where stark trees break through a white surface. Named, in part, as a tribute to Peter Sculthorpe’s composition of the same title, the dominant sound for this work is a cello progressing in slow harmonic intervals. My aim was to acknowledge the musical connection identified by Bot whilst capturing the steady mood of her print.
This work was included in Auditory Visions, an exhibition of prints and sound created by myself and Rona Green. G.W. Bot is one of Australia’s most prominent printmakers. It was an honour to have her work included in the exhibition.
To learn more about the exhibition, and to view all of the works, please visit the Auditory Visions website.