Communiqué 11: spatial delineations

Communiqué is a semi-regular instalment on my blog, providing a generous berth for observations, musings and rumination concerned with my encounters with sound and its signification. On occasion, I’ll incorporate broader themes and the minutiae of daily existence, but you can rest assured that I proof read these posts at least three times before publishing.

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Re-sounding work

This week I partially returned to working in an office space following three months of working entirely from home. This was a good thing as far as I was concerned, since the ‘space’ between work and home was being reinstated in a geographic sense. A four kilometre gap now lay between my first coffee of the day and hitting the power button on my workstation. Less effort would be required to mentally keep those work/life demarcations intact within the 100 square metres of my home, let alone finally having an excuse to wear shoes indoors again. Now for two days a week, my home studio could again feel like a studio from dawn to dusk, even if I wasn’t there for much of the time. Speaking to friends in recent weeks, some had remarked that it really hadn’t felt like x amount of weeks since they last inhabited in their respective employers workspace. Indeed, for me that slippery sense of time warping and wefting deceptively seemed very different from a month of long service leave last year; which had felt like several months away from the grind. Of course, I hadn’t actually stopped working this time around and this is most likely where this perception of not being away for very long at all factored in. Of course, 2020 has been a lot weirder than just this, but I’m not intending to go into that. That’s what the previous Communiqué’s of 2020 have been for.

On the Tuesday I drove up to work, I would be only one of two staff working in our building that day. As I swiped my card at the door, those sounds characteristic of my workplace reintroduced themselves in succession throughout the day. Sounds – transient, droning and repetitious in nature, emanating up close, near and further afield, often punctuated by long passages of quiet. In lieu of co-workers, it felt at times as though I was having a cordial reacquaintance with the sounds of my workspace; moving through some, or reanimating others with single or repetitious gestures.

A sonic chronicle of a work day, Tuesday 9th June 2020.

The swipe card at the side door emits a single beep, followed by an internal ‘clack’. I push the door open and disinfect my hands at a newly installed hygiene station. The pump action is silent and immediate. I walk past the empty desks of my colleague (some are cleared) and down the darkened corridor to the open plan space where I work. I flick the lights on with a click that reverberates through the space. I note the discrete whirr of the heating system, which has probably been running for the past hour (it’s approximately 8am.) I plug my laptop in its docking station and beyond the window I hear lorikeets twittering in the centurion gum trees that run adjacent to the road. Later, in the staff kitchen: the resonant hum of the hot water tap; the cranky rattle of the old microwave, followed by a singular ping. Passing through more doors to the bathroom: clack, a scrape across low-weave carpet, the clack behind me. The bathroom door: its creak sounding like a crusty theremin sweeping across two octaves. Rather than passing back through the same doors, often on my way back to my desk I take a different route, enjoying a very brief walk outside before activating a pair of sliding doors, before: clack, scrape, clack. At the desk, it’s a procession of clicks and taps. I listen to music through headphones for most of the day unless someone calls with a query. We no longer have phones and are instead called, messaged and prompted via our computers. It’s 5pm and I log off, pack my laptop away and flick the lights off to the open plan space. The heating system will take care of itself. I walk back down the corridor, disinfect my hands, swipe my card, open the door and walk to the car as the side door close and lock inaudibly.

Spirit of the stairwell

During the pandemic lockdown, councils around Australia have been struggling with a huge spike in kerbside waste as households have gone mad with renovations. Last week, my partner Lauren and I were also bitten by the reno bug as we tore the carpet covering our staircase off, revealing a series of wooden steps in need of a good sanding and oiling. With the carpet gone, what immediately became apparent was how much the acoustic character of the stairwell and adjoining spaces had changed. There’s a large, flat void in the stairwell which can result in some peculiar flutter echoes and diffusions. Now, in a carpet-less domain, those acoustic phenomena are amplified significantly and embody weird modulations that have been a little disorientating. Already our footfall on the steps has become purposefully lighter, for risk of over-stimulating the acoustical affect of the stairwell.

Aside from the human condition of acoustic adjustment, spare a thought for our beloved cat, Neko-Radish who has struggled with the change. Naturally, cats are not good with changes of any sort, but the acoustic overhaul of the stairwell – which (in its carpeted form) she delighted in grappling with claws and thundering up and down – had become this alien surface of hard reflections which would easily spook her already-heightened acuity. Thankfully, she’s no longer attempting to descend the staircase along the wall mounted guide rail anymore. So we won’t have to install a DIY’d pull-lift with a bell at either end after all. Though that would have been kind of cool.

Beached

Warwick Thornton in The Beach (2020) [Image courtesy of SBS]

We’ve been watching Warwick Thornton’s six-part documentary, The Beach on SBS On Demand and it’s an engrossing and especially escapist experience in these times of home-bound hermitage. In The Beach, Thornton, a celebrated Indigenous Australia director and screenwriter, documents his retreat to a remote beach shack at Jilirr, on the Dampier Peninsula in the far north of Western Australia. Here, he hunts for food, converses with his chickens, prepares meals and sits in silent contemplation.

The visual attributes in The Beach are stunning, with striking use of natural light, opening up the rich colours and vivid textures of Baard country. During the day, the landscape appears to visibly crackle beneath the harshness of the sun, whilst in the evening, the environment is tempered by the diminishing light as a subdued atmosphere envelops the space.

Sound is key to being immersed in The Beach, and at times the vivacity of these sounds are especially potent and can overwhelm what’s being visually apprehended. Within the shack, the corrugated iron groans and heaves with subtle changes in temperature; Thornton’s bare, calloused feet scrape particles of sand over a worn wooden floor; when preparing his meals, knives are sharpened, spices are ground, oil crackles, and curries bubble in a huge wok. Against the quietude and solitary-ness of this (very) remote location, the sound is at once intimate, yet confronting – as if we are inhabiting and experiencing the space with Thornton himself.

One of the more curious sonic events involves Thornton’s guitar – which features at several points. Thornton appears to have a slightly hostile relationship with the guitar, which aside from it being occasionally strummed, is unceremoniously chucked from the shack into the sand dunes and abandoned for a time. In the first episode, The guitar sits by the open door in the slanting sunlight. At one point, he hears an ethereal humming, accompanied by several piercing overtones. His attention is drawn to the guitar and a light breeze, which appears to be vibrating the guitar’s strings sympathetically and gently rocking it back and forth. However, there is surely a post-production sleight-of-hand at play, since the sound that the guitar elicits is not quite like that of the guitar’s resonance, and instead possesses (and perhaps suggests) an otherworldly quality; as if something beyond the immediate vicinity of the shack and the beach itself were communicating itself through the guitar.

It’s a strange and arresting moment in this beautiful documentary. Beyond the realm of the sounds which are innately familiar to us – such as those elicited by ourselves or by nature – the guitar and its hum suggests something else altogether, and seems to transcend the immediate environment. In that respect, the use of sound in The Beach feels particularly poignant at this point in time. Confined to our own domestic spaces during the pandemic, against a stalled and quietened world, the modest sonic world we inhabit has become all the more intensified; revealing a heightened awareness and sensitivity to sound.

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What I’m reading / have just read:

  • Tyson Yunkaporta – Sand Talk (2019)
  • Sophie Cunningham – City of Trees (2019)

Watching:

  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Season 3, 1994-95)

Listening:

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