Southerlies. SEBASTIANE HEGARTY
Review by Patrick Farmer
Saunter. Late 15c, santren, “to muse, to be in reverie,” of uncertain origin. The meaning, “walk with a leisurely gait”, is from the 1660s and may be a different word entirely. Some suggest this word derives via the Anglo-French, sauntrer, originating in the mid 14c from the French, s’aventurer, “to take risks.”
“I have met with but with one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of walking, that is, of taking walks, – who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived “From idle people who roved around the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going, á la Sainte Terre,” to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer, a saunterer, a holy lander. [sic]”
– Henry David Thoreau, On walking
Listening with microphones changes a person, and I am speaking from experience. Here Sebstiane Hegarty has decided to ground us inside the din of an excitable audience expectant of the spiritual tonality emanating from Haydn’s oratorio, Creation. As these familiar sounds come through my speakers, I hear the squeaking of a child’s, or even a dog’s, toy. And now I understand, I remember. If I were an audience member at this event, though I realise that here I am the sole audience, experiencing a composition in which I can’t imagine anything was left to chance in the meticulous post production process, I doubt I would have thought twice about such playful colour sneaking out above the white noise that surrounded me. But as a recordist, I imagine Hegarty was smiling, his blood rushing, ensconced as he was, in his auditory vantage point. Listening with microphones brings these occurrences, not into perspective; but out, away from, it heightens them. When something pokes out, the microphone latches on; it’s almost like fishing. It’s as if this whole section depends on that seemingly insignificant event.
From the outset it’s apparent how much Hegarty enjoys jump cuts, the confusion of chronology, a timescale that, when we read about this piece, seems relatively straightforward, but when time exists solely in the ear, where are we? There is an intriguing use of the overlooked and underheard mechanisms that provide function, the automated objects that make such events as those we are hearing possible. As Hegarty never really allows the piece to build in momentum, it appears wildly juxtaposed against the crashing waves of Haydn’s epic.
I wonder what Hegarty is trying to do here? Is he trying to capture the auditory quiddity of an environment? He says:
“Sunk beneath the beach a hydrophone offers a Geiger like calculation of each sonic particle of sand”
Hegarty talks of ripping apart the totality, “the beach”, to stare at singularity, “each particle of sand”, but then how is this possible in 6 minutes? Leading me to think I would very much enjoy hearing the elongated versions of these recordings. This would give the individual events time to sink in more deeply, allowing them to gestate, and interact with the environment they have suddenly found themselves in, or is it the other way around? Who knows.
What Hegarty calls an “unheard yet clangorous alarm.” Provides the coda for this composition, and its length, its entrance appearing in an intuitive manner, almost as if it placed itself there, is a perfect contrast to the rushed elements that preceded it. The tonality and life of this recording as a thing in itself, though of course it is the product of a collision of sources, pertains to a vast spectrum of diversity and repeated listening.
Beginning with the familiar sounds of black headed gulls, I don’t feel that I need too contribute anymore description than that, one only needs look to Hegarty’s notes, the sound that flutters in and out of my vision, at first sounding like the swinging of a rusty gate, is what keeps me here – putting aside my issues for a moment, of the penchant of the recordist to constantly and doggedly seek the fantastical, to overlook what is raw and compelling about so much of the everyday – for a moment I understand what is all about, I hear this sound, and immediately I try and erase the image of any sort of gate from my mind, to try and just be here, wherever it is that I am. Who knows, perhaps it is a gate, but that is the beauty of it, I don’t know. The structure of this piece is such that the highly familiar provides a barrel of contrast toward that which is specific to location, and it evokes in me a feeling, not of being there, but of being nowhere, of enjoying feeling lost, revelling in it, rolling all over the sounds as they continue to elude me. And this is something quite unique I feel, overexposed as we are these days to whatever it is we should wish, of being able to proffer that feeling of joy, analogous to the feeling I touched upon with the squeaky toy in the audience, for Hegarty himself.
And like Hengistbury head, it is once again apparent that Hegarty does not shy away from ‘reality’, the machines that exist all around us. Perhaps he includes them as a statement, to show us what these machines are doing to our landscape, to our state of hearing in general, but I get the feeling that he enjoys them, (it would be too easy to mention John Cage here) in a manner similar to the myriad other sounds on offer, the sounds the recordist must dig for, deeper and deeper as the field progresses and the general rumpus becomes ever more grating.
Reading through Hegarty’s texts, perhaps isolated would have been a more apt description than arid? For me the former noun manifests throughout this piece, the structure eventually settling into a layered frame of predominantly surface recordings that manage to project the images of the choppy sea, without, and I feel this to be a positive, the familiar and all too frequent use of the sea itself. Sound bleeds through various surfaces as voices are heard through metal and the metal itself continues to amplify its expanding and contracting contents until briefly moving through physiological bodies in a fugue like atmosphere of the maritime past.
This recording takes on a new image of figure and ground, but it is one that, again, I would have preferred to have been able to experience over a longer duration. The fleeting glimpses of voices snatched through the bowels of the ship admirably provide an imagistic sense of place before scuttling back into the wellspring of structure, but the progression that it implies is so very specific that this novel approach to composition ends up looking back on itself and leaves the listener unsure as to whether they are on an esoteric tour of the HMS victory or in the ears of a guide who wishes to get off work early. Thus I end up wondering if it is perhaps a judgement on behalf of the recordist on the value of the more ambient snatches of recordings, and the inaudible surface, the latter retaining its amorphousness through the filtering of vibration into unrecognisable and fantastical states of audibility.
I say this because the accompanying text, rich in imagery and sonority, promotes a sense of the time spent in this location, of the evident contemplation and stillness that might have perhaps prompted these tracts of inspiration and, dare I say it, romanticism. Perhaps I am wrong in thinking of the two as one, the text and the recording serving the same purpose, but nevertheless, that is my interpretation, packaged together as they are, and I can’t help but feel that they pertain to two entirely different locations in the manner of their delivery and reception.
Before I heard this recording, as full as it is of commonplace sounds, I started thinking of the hugely personal nature of the written word in the light of the perceivably objective nature of the invisible recording. Reading sentences such as – “…physical trauma of stillness, dissonance of departure, uncertain sound, platforms of stillness…” These descriptions help to bring Hegarty into the frame he created, they shows signs of life, but I feel it is important to perceive such from a distance in order to successfully differentiate between Hegarty’s sensation and that of your own.
As is the theme, this recording weaves neatly and fluidly through the distinct and the subsequent extractions of the distinction in which we temporarily become familiar. The recording quality of the train itself rears up in its chiefly state before succumbing to, I’m guessing, the sack trolley mentioned in the text, creating a sense of disturbance that one can’t help but revel in. This piece in particular is teeming with psychological association, sending the listener’s sense of scale reeling between the poetic, a sound that can only be described as the railway track trying to tear itself lose from its foundations in anticipation of the incoming train (this is my interpretation of the sound, and I doubt I am correct), and the commonplace, the muffled sounds of passengers, I so often cover my eyes in such a situation, as the train rears up toward the designated platform.
“The atmosphere of silence that surrounds Benedictine monks and the supposed muteness of swans, sits in counterpoint to a soundscape where voice continually announces presence and disappearance”
As a recording this shows remarkable restraint, I’m sure Hegarty could have plastered the walls of our homes with the ronking and corking of Mute Swans as they protect their nests, surging into action as they detect the slightest fluctuations of air pressure. Instead we are left with a conglomeration of densely rich and spatially varied instances that move in and out of the more familiar frame of the gliding habits of these creatures. We hear the frapping and bonking of feathers and the distinctly high-pitched calls of their young as they discover and test their environment; part of what Hegarty playfully and anthropomorphically refers to as a, “free jazz duet”. Even with his accompanying text it is easy to become lost in this strange and oddly restful series of bumps and groans, happy not to be involved in the risk of recording such protective and territorial creatures.
Hegarty makes his presence more palpable half way through the piece, introducing a mid pace gait on a gravel path, we hear what is fast becoming one of his favourite entr’acte’s, the turning key, and we are submerged, introduced to a remarkable surface, one that only a microphone, in all its reduction, could produce – Hastily shunted from liquid to solid as if the microphone were the animal itself.
The filmic elements of these recordings are hard to ignore, not that we should ignore them you understand, but in almost every piece there is at some point what Godard would call a ‘jump cut’, a jarring editing technique that the director Georges Méliès would use to compliment his filmic illusions. Perhaps it’s more apt in this context to refer to them as short cross fades, but it doesn’t matter, the point being is that no matter how lost we become in these recordings, their simulation of any sort of reality, Hegarty evidently wishes to bring us back to the reality in which we reside, the room in which we listen, ready once more to be lulled by the atmospheric resounding of these aquatic vehicles in motion.
The auditory similarity between this recording and the last doesn’t seem like a chance matter, perhaps there is a statement in there, perhaps not, pertaining to the walls that most field recordists face eventually. Telling of the limited frequency response of their contact microphones, leading to so many seemingly distinct and inaudible phenomena sounding relatively similar when served up in this fashion, leaving, in this case Hegarty, alone in post production, with the impossible consideration of how much of a stamp he needs to leave on proceedings, considering to what extent the sounds can speak for themselves, how much they need to be pushed around, forced to get on, as it were. But interestingly here I find less and less anthropic presence – perhaps this is down to clever microphone placement, which certainly seems the case over the last 30 seconds – with the exception of a voice calling over a radio, but of course even that is an illusion, it is not a ‘real’ voice, without wanting to go too far down that road of what is real in this context. This is interesting for the very reason that I hear the most evidence of post-production in this piece, a sign of a highly considered craftsman moulding sounds only to the extent that he has to, listening intently to the effects of their co-mingling, and responding accordingly. Though I would say that abrupt ending, for once, does not work here, so absorbed was I in the events that were unfolding, on occasion one does not wish to be wrenched back into their surroundings so soon after leaving them.
Winnall Moors: a short walk through a year
Not wishing to labour a point, though I fear it’s too late, but being as this is billed as a soundwalk project, it would have been beneficial to not know what the sounds are, to let them exist in a state of unknowing, letting their interactions form images and opinions that were not coloured by the images already placed in my mind by Hegarty’s careful descriptions.
As is so often the case with field recording, issues that dwarf the sounds themselves arise, and here we have the ringing nets. One listen to the distressed calls of the (Moors Warbler?) that is caught in the net, used to monitor fat content, age, sex, etc, and any empathy in the mind of the listener is drawn sharp, alongside a hefty dose of ones own awareness, or not, of their own contradictions in mind of the implied scientific connotations relating to the managed landscape in which the bird resides. This is not the time or the place to discuss this, but just briefly, as I have often written in my own time about field recording existing as a practise that, although originating in sound, can so often end up as far removed from sound as it is possible to get – relating to the omnipresence of in/au/dibility perhaps. I have often marvelled at our knowledge of the world around us, sitting and reading for hours about sexual dimorphism in deep sea creatures, or closer to terrestrial life, the mate choice hypothesis of Mallards, but, just like many facets of the meat industry, it is often best not to know how such findings arise. An ethical consideration best discussed in another forum I agree, but such is the diversity of sound that I felt compelled to quickly bring this up.
With brief swoops once more between the claustrophobic worlds ordinarily existing beyond our hearing range and the, in comparison, more mundane chatter of workplace conversation, accompanied by the sounds of dragged scaffolding, I assume, we are back into familiar territory and I am left reeling once again at the imagery, what the poet Ezra Pound referred to as, Melopoeia, if I may re-appropriate, that is suffused around the bodies of sound given to us, charging them with a strata of meaning and interpretation where we cannot help but be thrust into the imagery of the dedicated field recordist purposely caught in a blustery rain storm, sticking it out with a smile on his face due to the sheer and perpetual craziness of amplified minutiae.
Hegarty does an admirable job of encapsulating his year-long list of experiences into a concrescent audible bower, pulling together various senses of wonderment and nostalgia, and attempting to encapsulate the diversity of life over and under the surface at Winall Moors. From the loudest insect in the world to yet another presentation of those elements in our lives that we can so often take for granted. And it occurs to me that the previous sentence seems to surround Hegarty’s aesthetic as it in turn surrounds the listener.
I have listened to these recordings a number of times now, and having extracted many threads from the garment, so to speak, and with this in mind I decided to try and listen in a manner befitting a whole in which I would attempt to perceive a sense of commonality, or reoccurrence. I think it is testimony to Hegarty’s ear that having now attempted this I find many elements that appear in most of the compositions on offer, the human voice, lapping water, etc, that when listened to up close, don’t appear quite so plainly.
I feel this speaks of the importance of listening as a totality of experience. Of not only the much idolised close listening, but also of the, not only ability, but willingness, to let an environment wash over you. To not feel the need to pinpoint each exact sound, to know what it is, to know why it is, thus forgetting so much. Of each to its own occasion, of feeling over intellectualising.
It is my opinion that these recordings would have been better served without their textual counterparts. Imagine residing in such wonderful environments as these, only to have an individual reading to you, over the top of your experience, of the environment they themselves are receiving. Jack Spicer once wrote, “The sea does not suffer diminution”, and I find this to be a similar experience. The recordings themselves are full of the joy of discovery, as are the texts, which of course one could also claim to be recordings, but placed together they can create a misaligned composite, highlighting what Roland Barthes tended to call an “Extreme disparity of structure”.
However, if we imagine the text as subtitles over a series of still or slightly fluttering images, then things begin to make more sense. This release pertains to an individuals methods of perceiving a world in all its multiplicity, once it is out in the world however, it is up to those who receive it to act accordingly, to ignore or follow, to eavesdrop or place their fingers in their ears.
As I follow accordingly, I consider that for me it would be germane to consider the text as post interpretation. A review of Hegarty’s recordings by Hegarty himself in an attempt to evoke in the reader similar sensations to which the environments initially aroused in the recordist himself.
The difficulty of translation, of correspondence, can also lead me to conclude that these depictions, whilst pertaining to the same experience, move beyond this and comment on the impossibility of exactitude, the feasibility of the near miss and the metaphysic that each perception is always in need of its own method. That although the text and the audio refer to the same environment contextually, they were created at different times thus they refer to different environments, to flux and external conditions. I am typing out loud here of course, but it is a method of understanding that I am after, a comment on the presentation not only of that which we hear but how we hear it, how the recordist may expect us to listen, and what to listen to.
[Sebastiane Hegarty; photo courtesy of WEC]