Communiqué 5: Attuning

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Greetings all. I’m currently a quarter of the way through a much needed vacation. This break will be/is the longest absence I’ve had from an office environment (i.e. my day job) in over a decade. Because I’m largely based at home for the first chunk of this break (staycation is a term I’ve recently familiarised myself with) the semblance of a regular weekly routine pretty much disintegrated last week, and my grasp of time has become increasingly vaporous and slippery.

Within this pleasant fog of doing-whatever-the-hell-I-want, I’ve still been in need of a few routine things to keep my grasp of reality intact. My continued participation in the Disquiet Junto has been valuable, along with editing some field recordings and updating the websites I maintain. Along with these place-markers, yesterday I realised I’m probably due for another instalment of my Communiqué.

In this edition I’ll touch on a recent soundwalk I facilitated for my CSIRO work colleagues and my public installation, Orbits. I was going to comment on Bruce Pascoe’s brilliant book, Dark Emu, but since the word count’s higher than usual, I’ll carry this over to the next edition.

Tuning in: a sound walk and focused listening activity at CSIRO.

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CSIRO sound walk and focused listening activity – September 2019. Photo: Maree English

The ‘sound walk’ itself has its origins in the development of soundscape ecology  in the 1970s, where the pioneering artists, Murray Schafer and Hildegard Westerkamp would facilitate activities/projects with the intention of guiding and directing the listener towards unique acoustic characteristics of a given environment.  Whilst a guided tour in-situ is – I suppose – the most common example of the ‘sound walk’, it can take other forms – such as Westerkamp’s audio compositions such as Kits Beach Soundwalk (1989) where the artist presents a recording of Kits Beach and provides spoken commentary;  describing the details of the environment, their own position and notable sonic events emanating from natural elements and animal life.

Shortly before I departed on my long service leave, I hosted a (in-situ) sound walk and focused listening workshop in the Adelaide suburb of Urrbrae for my work’s ‘stop-work’ day. Within the space of an hour, I led a group of fifteen participants through approaches to listening closely to their environment, providing an overview of the ‘soundscape’ and demonstrated some microphones to scan and locate sounds.

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Ben uses a shotgun microphone to scan through the Waite Arboretum locating sounds whilst a couple of other participants listen in. Photo: TLR

Among all of my other projects this year, the facilitation of sound walks and listening workshops has been something of a constant this year. It’s been a new thing for me, since prior to 2019 I hadn’t done anything like this before. Planning and hosting these workshops has provided a great opportunity to think about my practice and approaches to listening in different ways, whilst also improving my confidence with presenting and sharing ideas.

The recent one I did for the CSIRO  stop-work day was probably the most successful workshop that I’ve done to date. Overall, I felt really pleased with the level of enthusiasm and engagement from the participants, whilst my structure and delivery seemed to work well in terms of keeping things rolling and providing just the right amount of information and prompts at given points.

One particular prompt – which I began the workshop with – folded in nicely with the broader themes of the day, specifically personal health, well being and mindfulness.

Mindfulness  – in the context of meditation – is something that I’m fairly familiar with, especially the ‘body scan’ process, where sitting or lying comfortably with eyes closed, you slowly scan through your body observing how things feel. The key to this process is to simply observe things and not to try and change how anything feels. It’s more about awareness and being present; rather than attempting to suppress or extricate. It could be a headache, sore muscle or predominant thought, the key is to observe, accept and note what is there and move along.

As I was planning this workshop, I thought about the short listening activity that I’ve used throughout the year which is intended to acoustically ‘attune’ the participants to their surrounding environment. In a similar respect to meditation, this activity can be considered a form of mindfulness, since participants are encouraged to simply observe and note what they hear.

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Beginning the sound walk with a short listening activity to attune participants to the acoustic environment. Photo: Maree English

This is how it works:

Following a brief overview of what a ‘soundscape’ is, I detail Bernie Krause’s categories of the soundscape:

  • the biophony – the sounds produced by non-human organisms in a given habitat.
  • the geophony – natural acoustic effects of wind, rain, water and the movement of the earth.
  • the anthropophony – human generated sounds, some of which are controlled; though the majority are perceivably uncontrolled. [1]

I tell participants to then close their eyes and listen to the surrounding environment for two minutes, observing these categories and noting them. Because the categories can be easily applied to a given environment (i.e. biophony = birds, dogs barking; geophony = wind; anthropophony = distant traffic) participants become aware of the constituent elements which make up a soundscape. I then instruct them to open their eyes and reflect on what they observed during this process.

What I’ve found interesting is how relaxing some participants find this process to be, whilst others will comment on how much the world appears to open up around them.

A few other prompts were given throughout the sound walk – such as applying these categories whilst moving through space; observing ‘foreground’ and ‘background’ sounds; and noting the respective temporality and continuities of sounds.

These prompts were equally useful for the participants, but – much like the other workshops I’ve facilitated – it’s been the opening prompt that has had a lasting value for participants. I can appreciate how such an activity isn’t restricted to listening alone, but could also have tangible benefits in the broader scope of personal wellbeing and mental health.

Aspects of community engagement and folding my practice into other areas is something that I’ve been keen to explore this year. Mental health, in particular is something I’m very passionate about. My work earlier this year on the Equilibrium project was particularly crucial in this space, and recent feedback from these workshops has made me consider how I might continue to develop these activities and potentially apply them elsewhere.

[1] Environmental Sound Artists. “Biophonic Sound Sculptures In Public Spaces”, B.Krause. Ed. F.Bianchi & V.J.Manzo. p. 20

Orbits

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Orbits (2016) installed in the Adelaide City council walkthrough – April 2016. Photo: TLR

Orbits is a long-form composition that I developed in 2016 as a soundscape commission for the Adelaide City Council’s walkthrough space. In its original form, it was a seven-hour phase relation work consisting of chords played on a 1950s reed organ.

The chords (produced by the chord buttons on the organ) were originally sampled and then sequences of about a two minutes in length were composed in Logic, with the individual chords faded in and out, leaving silences of a few seconds in between. Two of these sequences were selected, panned left and right respectively, played back simultaneously and looped perpetually.

Since each of the sequences are slightly different lengths, a phase relation becomes apparent, resulting in changing tonal and harmonic relationships. As a process and composition, I suppose Orbits closest historical touchstone is Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, where the musical arrangements were created by employing tape loops of varying lengths.

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The score for Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (1978)

Since this reed organ had a particularly grumbly and rough timbre in its lower range, the resulting texture (especially when tones are combined) is particularly rich and dense. To give the overall sound a little more dimension and soften some the harshness, I routed the output of the playback device to a harmonic modulator and reverb module.

I recorded this playback for half a day, then selected a section which could fit on a SD card in lossless format (hence, the seven hour duration) and let the work diffuse into the ACC walkthrough. I called the work Orbits as a reference to the phase-relation nature of the composition, whilst also alluding to the in-situ nature of the work; as the daily cycles of sonic activity in the city circulated around and through the audible vicinity of the work.

An excerpt of an in-situ recording of ACC installation is below.

The co-mingling of composition and urban sound was obviously something I had anticipated when I composed Orbits, and I was pretty happy with the outcome. In particular, I enjoyed listening to the relationship between some of Orbits lower register sequences and how this interacted with the immediate and surrounding architecture and also could perceivably mask and/or modulate some of the lower frequency sounds emanating from the urban environment (and vice-versa). It depended entirely on one’s own proximity within the space (whether stationary or moving through), but this dynamic ebb and flow was something I was keen on exploring in the future.

When the opportunity arose to present the work again (with thanks to Jesse Budel’s Featherstone Sound Space), I was keen to revise this dynamic aspect of the work. I had felt that the 2016 broadcast of Orbits was perhaps too loud in relation to the surrounding sonic environment. In spite of the aforementioned masking/modulation, Orbits tended to dominate and saturate the walkthrough (like thick humidity) rather than gently diffuse through the space (like a soft breeze or swirl of dust) and get interrupted and pushed around by external influences.

This time around – in the Featherstone Place alleyway – the work was to be broadcast at a lower volume so as to allow a more balanced ebb and flow dynamic between the work and the surrounding urban soundscape.

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Featherstone Place, Adelaide CBD. Photo: TLR

Listening back to an in-situ recording I made last week, I’m much happier with the resulting dynamic. At times it seems like the composition almost completely evaporates in the air and then rematerialises in thin wisps; co-mingling elegantly and becoming occasionally indistinguishable from the drone of air conditioning and blurred thrum of the urban environment. There are of course periods where the tonal and harmonic characteristics are more present, though the presence of transient sounds within the space and those further afield (such as car horns, voices and doors) maintain this state of sonic equilibrium.

I’m pleased with both of the 2016 and 2019 realisations, but the latter has a lovely poetic quality to it, which I feel wasn’t so evident in its original form.

I’ve included a short video documentation and 40-minute audio recording of the work in-situ below.


Read/Reading:

  • Angela Carter – Burning Your Boats (collected short stories)
  • Bruce Pascoe – Dark Emu
  • Mark Woodworth – How To Write About Music
  • Ron Trucks – Tusk
  • Marc Weidenbaum – Selected Ambient Works Volume II

Currently listening to (listening obsessions):

  • Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994)
  • ABBA – Super Trouper (1980)
  • Cate Le Bon – Mug Museum (2013)

 

 

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