Sounds from dangerous places. PETER CUSACK
(ReR Megacorp 2012)

Review by Patrick Farmer

“Dangerous places can be both sonically and visually compelling, even beautiful and atmospheric… What can we learn by listening to the sounds of dangerous places?”

The means that we posses, within sound, to facilitate wider discourse, I realise the irony present in the use of the adjective when talking about sound, so often steeped in environmental tragedy or concern, is seldom more aptly displayed than here. Before we can exhale, Peter Cusack’s introductory text to this evocative release provides a compelling platform upon which the passion and knowledge of his calm writing style slowly warms up the cold mind and ears of the reader, without drenching them in lines of dogged polemic.

Already well known for his forays into foreign locations, this release continues the Sounds From Dangerous Places project in ghost towns of Chernobyl. Cusack groups his recordings, admittedly this is a trait that often irks me, but on this occasion it feels well warranted, into sections, such as sounds of work, electricity and radiometers, and Svetlana Tsalko, a local poet who on a number of recordings made by Cusack provides further witness to the state of being in the history that relives itself in the Ukraine. There are also recordings and pictures made in a Caspian Oil Field, and various UK sites directly and indirectly related to the preceding tracks.

The recordings are presented as snapshots, from walking on glass bottles in a kindergarten in Priyapat, to Sheep subject to radioactive fallout in Snowdonia, and are part of what Cusack calls his, aural journey; fragments lifted from the environments he passes through. Many of them I have found to be by and large quite, insipid, but far from that being it, I find it begs the questions of their purpose, are they even supposed to be interesting? Magnified electronic reductions as they are, field recordings will I believe always raise more questions than they can answer, and as vast as this practise is, it would go against the grain to assume that all recordings are meant to astound or even please. Many of them deal with difficult topics, and will sound how they sound regardless of what one might hope for.

The reductive environments here are a testimony to what Cusack calls, Sonic Journalism. After scrawling a few derogatory sentences I backed up and re-considered these sounds in the light under which Cusack had presented them, recalling his line – “When the focus is on their original factual and emotional content” – which Cusack has indeed laid out for all to see. I hope you will forgive me this indulgence, and will read on regardless of my initial distaste, but I feel it is necessary to include my initial criticisms in order to fully explain my latent realisations about the nature of these recordings as I now understand them.

His track, Ferris wheel, makes me think of the numbing monotony of the field recordist’s proclivity, to listen only for the bucolic. Birdsong, contact mic’d abandoned metal structures and the symbolic detriment of agribusiness, minute elements of a landscape amplified beyond all proportion. Truly, the amount of people that have done this now is astonishing! It’s surely akin to hundreds of people releasing a 50 minute recording of record static, qualifying their releases by stating that the record players were situated in different parts of the world, the recording equipment is different, etc. Perhaps it’s time to move on? 

So, having read that, and reiterating Cusack’s, “When the focus is on their original factual and emotional content”, perhaps the listener, myself, is in need of developing new ears and processes of listening, inspired by Cusack, that do not so often fall prey to a prejudice of field and jaded sense of experience. I repeat to myself, and will sound how they sound regardless of what one might hope for. 

Early on he asks the difficult question:

“When faced with irresolvable issues on this scale, how can an individual artist, or any concerned citizen, respond?”

To which his answer is, “…To listen to the small voices”. Most of what is laid out in the book, factually, is nothing new, indeed, many would say that it is just plain common sense, though try telling that to the powers that be. To this I would ask how many of us possess the drive and ingenuity to match this common sense, and to not manipulate it. I can well imagine this release, marketed as it is, reaching an audience of quasi-benevolent, horizontal chin scratchers who may now be inspired to, “listen to the small things.”

A work that, beyond its established base in acoustic ecology, provides deeper questions into the subliminal dispositions of the listener.


[Peter Cusack, photo courtesy of the KHM]

Peter Cusack website
ReR Megacorp