Tallinn, Estonia, 2013. Early in the morning listening to the traffic below the hotel window. The sound of the quotidian sounding exotic in this unfamiliar terrain.
The act of recording that morning has deeply imprinted that simple moment into my memory. I remember a light layer of snow in the gutters slowly melting under a weak winter’s sun, the sound of traffic drifting according to the changes in the traffic lights.
It was the only recording I made while in Tallinn. I preferred to walk the streets without the feeling of urgency to capture sounds.
Years later, on the other side of the world, I listened again to that recording. With the aid of filters I pushed the recording beyond its original form. The traffic droned and washed past in previously unrealised pitches and tones. Somehow this distortion mirrored the evolution of memory, it established a new truth.
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.
Sound entwines itself within our memory. Our adult selves are transported into emotional states from childhood through the exposure to sounds connected to past experiences.
Sound, like memory, is intangible yet it has the ability to haunt us. States of being rise through buried layers of personal history when exposed to soundmarks from the past. Although sound passes swiftly it leaves raw emotions floundering in its wake.
… and so it is for me. Sitting by streams the gurgle of water unlocks a deeply hidden reservoir of childhood emotions.
As a child I grew up in a valley filled with farms, patches of forest, and trickling streams. In one sense it was quite ideal though as a queer youth it wasn’t without its problems. Verbal and physical homophobic harassment was something to endure on a daily basis and its shame was something to bury and keep silent about when at home. A sense of insecurity prevailed.
But there was a refuge. On the outer perimeter of my parent’s farm was a place where the anxiety of the school week could wash away. A stream flowed under the shade of trees which lined its bank. It was a space where I could sit alone allowing the week’s accumulation of fear to sail downstream. The sound of the stream allowed me to move beyond those experiences.
At the time I didn’t know that the sound of water was burying itself inside my subconscious, becoming an emotional memory, a personal soundmark. I sit by streams today and feel myself transported into the past. This familiar childhood sound provokes a confusion of sadness, anger, quietude. I walk away from streams feeling unsettled.
This is just one soundmark however there are so many more tugging at these barely hidden emotions from the past. And so it is with us all.
Which sounds reverberate inside your personal history?
The return of the liquid tones of pied-currawongs in the eucalyptus tree outside my kitchen window is a sound marking the change of seasons. Each year, as the cold teeth of winter lose their bite, the mornings are often punctuated by the sudden call of 15-20 currawongs. What I love about the currawongs is the way in which they appear from nowhere and, for a brief period, rule the the garden’s soundscape, only to disappear as quickly as they arrived.
What is it for something that endures to remain? (Ricoeur. 1984)
Listening to my archive of currawong recordings from previous years it is surprising how clearly the sound transports me back into the past. This experience is shared by many others.
Personal field recordings act as a portal to distant memories, triggering the ghosts of long forgotten thoughts and emotions. The process of recording sounds embeds subjective temporal memories within them. Upon subsequent listenings field recordings tunnel their way through our auditory system and unlock the resonance of the past. The dominant sound of the recorded object thus becomes secondary to the psychological layers present at the time of the recording.
It has been a year since I last ventured outside to record the currawongs at a local creek. I remember being sick at the time, feeling the guilty pleasure of not going to work, realising that my illness had granted this tranquil moment.
Listening to the currawongs I am also reminded of an earlier walk through snake-infested waist-high grass in order to record the birds’ mercurial calls in a small grove of trees. It was windy that day and I imagined the sound of snakes with the movement of each stalk of grass swaying in the breeze.
And this recording? It too will capture something of the essence of today, the experiences of this present moment to be unfastened in some distant future.