Part of the ongoing series: WAYBACK SOUND MACHINE, A CONSTELLATION OF SOUNDING TIME
A message from the editor:
In this soundtracked text, we can listen to a past, and experience the soundscape of a home for twelve years, while the author reflects upon what the recordings call up and bring him to. The medium itself, the minidisc many of us readers knew and loved, at times gives forth its own time-stamped sounding. Thomas Park speaks to the theme of sounding time with intimate autoethnographic essay on an audio archive amassed in a personal limbo. This brave work is the third in the WAYBACK SOUND MACHINE, A CONSTELLATION OF SOUNDING TIME series.
What cultural significance can be found in a series of recordings made long ago in a single urban apartment?
In one case, personal significance became cultural– one individual’s experience attained a broader relevance.
On a personal level, I, Thomas Park, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1995. Because of this diagnosis, and a series of resulting factors, I ended up living in a small, low rent apartment in South Saint Louis, with no employment and lots of extra time. This happened between the years 2000 and 2012. In a more public sense, I was known as the musical act, “mystified”. At first, as mystified, I tried creating using methods such as fractal generation and using purchased samples in sample collages.
In the early ‘oughts, a colleague recommended that I begin harvesting and using my own sounds for composition. I did some research, and purchased a minidisc recorder (which at the time was used by many phonographers).
I started collecting sounds from my environment. I shared these recordings, in raw and uneffected form, and as electro-acoustic sample collages. These works were shared online via netlabels. Releases such as “South City Spring” and “Nocturne” (Treetrunk Records, 2006) quickly became popular. It was clear that using field recordings from my urban location was becoming an artistic trademark.
Around the same time, I amassed a particular folder of field recordings. It included domestic sounds such as water filling a glass, tapping on pots and pans, a leaking tub, and ambience of the apartment itself–which, sonically, was a lively place. My building was small, rectangular and made of brick, like many Saint Louis apartments. If a person closed their eyes, they could hear all kinds of sound created by the neighbors, and indeed by the neighborhood at large.
Not only did the occupants of my apartment create their own kind of atmosphere, South Saint Louis itself was also very busy to the ear, with busses, cars, trains, trucks–and, of course, ambulances and police cars with their occasional sirens–passing by, leaving their signatures.
Because of my mental illness, I was in an ideal position to record the world around me. The paranoia associated with schizophrenia lent itself to my methods–as I was often awkward around people and had issues with human contact, it seemed natural to turn on a recording device, and “disappear”. I wanted the world around me to make the music. I wanted to fade into it.
This folder of recordings was extremely important to me as a musician. I accessed it time and time again when looking for sounds to use in compositions. The sounds themselves were very generative–and, of course, were unique to my location.
In 2017, I published the sounds I had collected on archive.org. I included only raw field recordings, so that others might experience the sense of the place where I lived–this cheap little apartment in a city that was so interesting phonographically. Now, as I look back on the many pieces of music I composed during this period of time, from 2000-2012, the recordings themselves–the raw field recordings–are the best representation. Nothing captures my experience of living in urban poverty better than those sounds.
I would like to explore several of these recordings and consider their attributes and significance, particularly from a vantage point of listening years after they were taken. I invite you to play the audio tracks as you continue to read.
The back stairwell was a place I would go to record sounds of my building. I recall fearing that this was an invasion of privacy to some degree, but I usually had a hard time discerning what my neighbors were saying. I was fascinated by this sense of lively activity, of voices and music. The sounds of my neighbors became a sonic comfort to me in my solitude.
One peculiarity of my apartment was that it had a number of leaks. For many months, both my tub and toilet leaked continuously. I could always hear the tub and toilet engaged in their conversation. This made for great sonic material, which was used in raw and processed form, in many, many pieces of music.
I became accustomed to the leaks, rust and filth of my bathroom. I really only noticed how bad it was when visitors came. Of all parts of the apartment, that room was probably most indicative of the impoverished nature of the place and neighborhood. I didn’t especially like spending a lot of time in the bathroom myself. It gave me the creeps.
The neighborhood was full of interesting sounds, as well. Cars produced most of the sounds, and I was living on a busy corner. Nature found its way through all of the artifice in the form of birds. There was a group of birds that would start singing every morning in the Spring, very early, and I enjoyed recording their song.
I created a poem that very much relates to this recording, or moments like the one I recorded here. I call it, “Saturday AM”.
Early in the morning
The birds mated
Chirping loudly outside my window
Traffic sounds faded
To ambient noise, a dull hum
My pipes sang
Chorus of water on porcelain
A celebration, loaf of bread
Jar of peanut butter
From the Shop and Save
(Food stamp benefits today)
Minimum wage, but Saturday
A whole day without organizing
My work as a shelver on reprieve
As the light shone in through slits
It fell on my waking body
A whole 24 hours to be free
Listening to water go down the drain, as a result of all of the leaks, made an interesting juxtaposition with night insects. I can really sense that it is night time while listening to this recording, and I remember sitting in a darkened apartment, lit only by streetlights.
After sunset, life in this place could be very elemental, very stripped to its essence. Simply water, a few instances of nature, the growl and thrum of cars. And, of course, nighttime very much had its own soundscape.
The apartment basement was an interesting place to record. Many sounds were muted, but there was a sense that there was still a broad sonic spectrum–you were really hearing the whole building, quietly. Our furnace was very loud, and the washers and dryers also made a racket. Between the cycles of these machines, there was the captured sense of living in a city apartment, with people talking and singing, traces of music, appliances operating, and all kinds of other familiar things.
There is some music being played around five minutes into this recording. I had a neighbor who lived in the building for a short time. He was usually either at work, or alone in his unit. He had an acoustic guitar that he liked to play, and would sometimes sing along.
There were quite a few people moving in and out of the apartment–it was a bit like a hotel. So it was natural not to get to know most of them very well. So, they will remain shallow memories gradually fading, having left their sonic signature on my minidisc recorder.
This recording features the characteristic bathroom leaks, which, in my fuzzy solitude, I took months to report. There are also subtle sounds of moving about and doing simple domestic things–walking, filling and emptying cups, opening and closing doors. This place was my sole companion–it sang to me. What attention I had, I fused with the apartment itself, with all of the creaking wood, tinkling porcelain, and steady trickles of water.
What I hear in this recording is that lots of sounds were being made by people with their surroundings, but that there was little sonic evidence emitted from the people themselves–such as voices or somatic sounds. This relates to the sense of solitude I had in my apartment–that, though surrounded by neighbors, I was also quite alone. It really is amazing how much sound is to be heard here, without the adornment of a person’s speech. It relates closely with this period as a whole. There was a lot going on, but often not much that was comforting in an interpersonal sense.
Recordings like this one were staged. I consciously shook a jar full of nails, with the intention of using that sound as a sample for musical pieces. The nails became a percussive instrument, much like a shaker or maraca. I was interested in the odd rumble that made its way into the recording, which must have been from another mysterious source.
It reminds of my neighbor’s various tools he kept in the basement. He was a more apt repairman than I, and had all kinds of hammers, screwdrivers, nails, pliers, and so forth. It was nice that he trusted all of the occupants not to steal anything, and I admit that when I borrowed the jars of nails and screws for recordings, I felt a little like I was treading onto his turf.
Listening to the recording, I remember my neighbor’s female companions. I recall how they were always asking to use my phone, how they had me calling his place of employment when he chose not to go to work, apologizing for him. And how he always talked with me in this conspiratorial tone, like we were both involved in a secret deal.
These recordings have a personal significance, in that they call to mind a time of great creativity and struggle. They have artistic significance, as they became the material basis for thousands of works of music. They have a broader significance, as they are now available, in the public domain, for others to enjoy or to use as material for their own creations.
This was a decade full, personally, of bitterness and loneliness. But I believe that, in a strange way, I was never really alone. Many people suffer similarly, living in poverty and solitude in the city. These recordings are unique to my experience, yes–but also very indicative of the kinds of sounds heard by many, many people, and perhaps heard with a similar sense of bittersweet sadness.
About the author:
Thomas Park is a multi-disciplinary artist. He lives with his wife and their three cats in the Tower Grove South neighborhood of Saint Louis. Between shifts at the local library and naps, Thomas is often, if not always, working on his creations.