2013 in retrospective IX (345)

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2013: The year in retrospective. Part X
CHRIS WHITEHEAD

Sound composer. Editor at The Field Reporter.

Three triggers -or three tigers-

Text by Chris Whitehead

In a huge hangar of a toy shop, full of dead air and Christmas shoppers, I’m waiting at the returns desk to exchange a game mistakenly bought for the wrong games system (Nintendo DS3 games will not play on a Nintendo DS). It is the way things are. Obsolescence is a virus that has been allowed to spread through the cell membranes of consumer culture like sound spreads through air. Looking out across the store, acres of coloured plastic and packaging so loud it should have its own volume control, children and adults’ voices are a thin mulch spread over the bleeps of electronic card readers and rattling shopping trolleys.

We drove home via a coastal route, but a police van was blocking the road beside the sea. Due to a rare confluence of tidal and weather conditions, a surge of a magnitude not seen since 1953 was a reminder of the fickle dominance of the ocean. We had to turn back and choose an alternative route to a flooded town. Businesses were washed out and broken, chairs and tables floated out through doors and a thousand cider apples bobbed on the surface at a friend’s place.

I think about overload and how we draw lines and boundaries, standing in that toy shop with an eye scarring cacophony of colours and a multilayered, unfluctuating soundtrack formed from so many individual happenings, yet being so constant as to feel like an avenging wave, everything subsumed and detail vanishing in the whole. Modern culture thrives on this sensory deluge aimed at hacking down attention spans and substituting critical acumen with pretty, flashing colours.

I think about lines and boundaries. On the Ordnance Survey map the edge of the land is a black line, but here, with the damp wind leaving drops of salt rain on my overcoat, it is an invisible thing. A seagull nonchalantly rides the water over Endeavour Wharf car park where last week crowds thronged at the Christmas market. Flux maintains its grip on our truths, however much we state that we have conquered unpredictability by drawing a line around it and shouting at the wind.

How should we divide the natural world from this facile, human one? Why is a termite mound more natural than a tower block? Why is a beaver’s lodge more admirable as a structure than a bungalow? How can a recording made in a snooker hall be less natural than a recording made in a beehive or a rockpool? So where are these boundaries and what are their functions? Are we simply giving our ears a small holiday by finishing work amongst the tumultuous, dead weight of city noise and plugging in our earphones to listen to a frozen lake gently creaking as it undulates?

When played back, sound recordings create air vibrations distributed over a specified length of time. Patrick Farmer recorded his walk around the coast of Wales in written form, thereby transgressing the ideas of the recording being bound within a time frame (you can take as long as you like to read it) or bound within a sequential narrative (you can read it in any order and skip, skim, repeat or start wherever you wish).

Built of lines, shapes, blocks, boundaries and font specific ingots tasting of brine and brimming with air, birds, stones, trajectories, contours and personal tilting, Farmer’s wild horses think of nothing else the sea! lays across paper pages like a landscape of eroded structures. Walk in any direction and weave between the uprooted artefacts and fractures. Observations and glints picked out from wild stillness and bare waters fold and spill. Of course with a keen ear sound is laid open too. It is interesting how senses can be triggered by printed symbols, so these words arranged, sized, positioned in an architecture of singing geometry invoke sea smells, the call of gulls, a cold wind, a landscape, minerals under foot and stars circling. In some ways a field recording drives a nail through a piece of time and fixes it forever, whereas a more unencumbered and imprecise method of notation behaves like memory and sacrifices precision for something altogether more fluid.

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[Patrick Farmer’s ‘Wild horses]

I saw a film about Peter Lenaerts. Insects hurled their bodies at a metal wall, chitin on aluminium. The wind scoured a dried up salt lake where Peter sat cross legged on the chemical floor willing the air to stop moving like King Cnut’s vain battle of wills with the sea. Outside the vehicle window the outback streamed past in its vastness and solitude. Motels and underground rooms and a bright streetlight illuminating an empty stone road. The film was about the making of Quies (Very Quiet Records 2013) and the impossible need to capture silence. Like scrolling back to the prebeginning of the universe, it seems there is no before sound that we can experience. To be alive and to listen we need the blood to circulate and the air to feed our lungs and when there is little else, these functions are hugely noisy. I think we cannot breach this boundary into silence as our biological hardware is not in itself anywhere near silent.

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[Photo still from ‘Quies’ a film by Ezra Eeman]

Viv Corringham entered the debate about the boundary between the sound recordist and the field recording by singing into the London she captured (Gum and Butts, Linear Obsessional 2013). It was an inclusion policy of acknowledging that once in a location a person is a component of that location however much they wish it was not so. The future brings us things we haven’t asked for, so constant course correction is required at every point and Viv showed how to recalibrate to changing fields organically. This altered the accepted role, that of the faithful chronicler of aural worlds, into an interactive artist consciously intervening and transforming moments as they emerge.

So the lines we draw around ourselves are seemingly arbitrary marks in sand. Sea walls and our senses can be swamped and breached as if they never existed at all. I would say listen less, but when you do, listen absolutely.

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[Chris Whitehead]

* Upper illustration: David Vélez

Chris Whitehead website