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.
Filters, oscillators, each eliciting the hidden potential within one sustained note. Many an hour has been spent listening to the variations within synthesised tones and field recordings alike. Sitting in the darkness with headphones on it is easy to get lost between layers of sound. A gentle and gradual process of exploration where time is lost, the mind moving beyond the structure of the clock, instead we are transported by sound itself.
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.
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.