Communiqué 9: Dis/re-orientations

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We are all off balance. From the moment I open my eyes in the morning, I feel the discomfiting sensation of being suspended between the set of propositions that existed before the pandemic and the set of propositions that exist now.

Katharine Murphy, The Guardian (28th March 2020) [1]

Altered states

It seems like another age now. Three weeks ago, I was in Canberra for work, just as the anxiety surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic was hitting Australia. By week’s end, Friday 13th March, the number of confirmed cases was 156. That number would double in three days. Over the course of the week, daily life still resembled a semblance of normalcy, though it was apparent that an air of pensiveness was shading conversations with work colleagues, whilst behaviours (physical distance and hand washing) became more obvious. In our communal area, a large flat-screen television was mounted to the wall with ABC’s 24-hour news channel provided wave after wave of statistics, travel restrictions, lockdowns and medical advice. Around the streets and thoroughfares of my hotel, the collective activity of the city quietened to a hush. On Wednesday evening  around 6pm, I walked through a near-deserted Petrie Plaza. Voices – their sources out of view – came from a distance and diffused into a vague semblance of human presence. In my foreground, a cool breeze scraped dead leaves across the ground. I was struck by how clear and distinct the sound of the leaves were. I thought about how closely I was paying attention, by virtue of my own heightened state. More on that later.

Within Without

On the Thursday of my trip, following a day’s work, I decided I would take a walk across the Molonglo River to visit James Turell’s Within Without Skyspace (2010) at the National Gallery of Australia. Turrell’s work is characterised by exploring dimensions of space and light. His Skyspace interventions have been created around the world, in both urban and remote locations. Often incorporated into pre-existing architecture or purpose built spaces, a ceiling aperture permits light to fill the space. They are best experienced at dawn and sunset, as a Skyspace is gradually affected by intensities and gradients of light, colouring the space’s interior surfaces and textures. The aperture in the ceiling (most commonly in a circular and square dimension) is another compelling feature, presenting a framing of the sky, where attention is drawn to the movement of passing clouds and subtle variances in light.

Within Without is one of Turrell’s most complex Skyspace works. It consists of a large body of water, which encompasses the grassed exterior structure: a square ochre pyramid containing a smaller interior dome. A sloping ramp permits entry to the pyramid, which – without a ceiling – allows light to arrive into the space and be subtly diffused by the red ochre walls. Another body of water envelops the interior dome, with narrow, sloping sluices creating an infinite cascade.

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The sound within the pyramid space is intimate and immediate: the rough sibilance of the water cascade dominates the field and is amplified within its open conduits and diffuses evenly throughout the space. Sounds from the outside world are largely masked by the sound of water, and only loud sounds – such as the roar of an engine or a shout – can rupture this continuum and be apprehended clearly. Entering the interior dome, the intensity of the water cascade is blunted sightly, and establishes an equilibrium with the soundscape of the outside world. Seated and looking up through the circular aperture of the dome, sounds circulate within: the water cascade, mingling gently with a steady murmur of traffic, obscured voices, the distinct cry of birds.

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IMG_7627Although I wasn’t there at dusk, I sat there until 6pm, with the afternoon light waning steadily. There was something eternal about this experience, with only the dome’s aperture providing a connection to the exterior world. Within this space, I felt very gently suspended, almost afloat. My perception of time became unmoored from its familiar nodes.

Those exterior sounds, although familiar and at relatively close proximity, seemed – by virtual of the acoustic treatment within the dome – absorbed into the spectra of light, and rendered to nothing more than their physical waves: an audible tint at one with the space.

Two days later as the pandemic crisis escalated dramatically, I would be back home as life under the spectre of Covid-19 would disrupt everything and gradually force us all into a new paradigm of self-administered confinement, with only our smartphones, laptops, televisions and of course, actual windows serving as apertures to the outside world. For the majority of us, time became a little more slippery and our perception of the world altered significantly.

Contained capture

Two weeks later. The realities social distancing and working-from-home were becoming more apparent. Back home and leaning against our balcony railing, I listen intently to the soundscape of my neighbourhood. It’s 8pm at night and our suburb is quieter than usual. Contained within the dark stillness: distant murmurs, a solitary vehicle, the trill of crickets and a soft breeze coursing through the trees. Familiar sonic continuities are apparent, but it feels as though – through the disruption to everyone’s lives – certain presences were missing; and in their absence, otherwise suppressed sounds and patterns are asserting themselves.

A few days prior to this, already I’d noticed that the morning thrum of rush hour traffic had dissipated considerably. From my studio with the window open, I listened as the birds communed cheerfully and a gentle breeze brushed through the trees. Joining this occasionally were sounds produced by humans: voices, footsteps, doors opening/closing, objects being moved.

I pondered the relative stillness of this morning soundscape and thought about those missing presences – especially the collective drone of vehicles. I thought about the audible presence of the rush hour (as well as the morning flights from Adelaide airport) as an anthropophonic smog of sorts, similar to the visible aura that envelops a modern city. Now it appeared as though this sonic smog was clearing by degrees, affording other parts of the soundscape to be heard, in some instances with striking clarity. It seemed, at this extraordinary moment in time, that the sonic Utopia that soundscape pioneer, R. Murray Schafer had envisaged in the 1970s had come to pass. If only for a few months, perhaps.

With this in mind, I thought that it would be an interesting idea to record this urban soundscape, from a vantage of confinement: my balcony. For a week I set up my recording rig in a fixed position and recorded a morning and evening soundscape each day – at approximately 7-8am and 8-9pm respectively. What became particularly apparent on these recordings was how disparate everything sounded and how unique and every morning and evening was. However, I caught onto my Utopian speculations and pulled my thoughts back to Earth: for as long as I’ve lived here, has it always sounded like this?

Yes, there was a noticeable absence of certain sounds at both morning and night (no doubt conversely permitting other sounds to be heard more clearly), but perhaps these newfound observations might simply be attributed to a state of heightened awareness to my surroundings? I recalled the strange experience of walking down an empty Petrie Plaza in Canberra two weeks prior. The absence of perceived noise (to be understood as undesirable sound) was perhaps only facilitating an opportunity to hear things already there, with a sharpened focus and clarity. I’m muddying things a bit here, aren’t I?

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Of course, this is a largely philosophical take, with a light sprinkling of poetics. That’s the spirit of these Communiqué posts after all – a considered, albeit protracted series of musings. That said, there’s rigorous research planned for these observations and recordings. With these recordings, I intend to closely examine the spectra and dynamics of the soundscape from morning to morning, night to night, to identify acoustic continuities and unique occurrences. This will be followed with some comparative analysis of similar recordings I’ve made in the past from the balcony. That’s the extent of it, and I’ll certainly be documenting this process and research again in the near future.

For the time being however, I’m enjoying what is looking – at this stage, at least – to be a protracted period of reflection against a perceptibly quietened soundscape. In light of the widespread impacts that the pandemic is having on every aspect of our lives, there’s been a lot of commentary on what things (i.e. the good stuff) could come about as a result of this – e.g. virtual connectivity, social frameworks, big government, universal basic income, reaffirmed faith in science and expertise, etc.

It’s vast and all-encompassing, and I think we must be especially cautious before we get too Utopian. Millions have been, and will be adversely affected by this disruption – much like the 2008 GFC or any global economic downturn.

I’m still formulating my thoughts surrounding the apparent transformation to soundscapes – be it perceptual, actual or a combination of both. I think for those of us who are keen to closely observe and listen to the world, this momentary quietening provides an unprecedented opportunity to hear the world anew. I’m in no doubt too, that when we emerge from the other end of the pandemic, this closer attention that we pay to our acoustic environment will persist for some time.

[1] “After the coronavirus, Australia and the world can never be the same again”, Katharine Murphy. Published on The Guardian (AU), 28th March 2020. Link

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