This is the fourth instalment of a series of posts covering my preparation (and eventual work) for a residency at Sauerbier House in Port Noarlunga commencing in October 2018. As part of my preparation and research I am following the course of the Onkaparinga/Ngangkiparri river from its source to the sea.
Bad weather/good weather/injuries
Given that the weather in the broader Adelaide-region was absolutely abysmal on Saturday, I decided to be sensible and defer this road trip to Monday. This promised much better weather conditions and would also allow me to take it easy and do what one should do on a Saturday morning: ideally nothing at all. Another factor which moved the road trip to Monday was due to a bicycle accident I had a couple of days prior, resulting in a series of bruises on my right side and a graze on my elbow which – by Friday night – had turned into a gross and concerning infection. So, although Saturday didn’t involve observing and recording locations, it did involve trying to hastily see a doctor who could provide some much needed antibiotics.
By the time Monday came around, the infection had been banished and I was refreshed enough to hit the road once again; continuing to follow the course of the Onkaparinga River from its source to the sea.
My partner Lauren joined me this time around and given the ridiculously beautiful weather, it was a great opportunity for us to get out of the city for a few hours and do the things that couples do in the Adelaide Hills: fill the car with recording equipment; carry around recording equipment; untangle recording equipment; and waste precious time explaining to strangers what it is that you’re doing with said recording equipment.
My previous road trip had ended south of Mylor at the Valley Of Delights, as the river crashed over a weir, rounded sandstone cliffs and continued its passage through the remote (and practically inaccessible) regions of May Valley and Black Rock. Examining Google Maps, the river narrows considerably through this region before meeting a huge body of water. This body of water would be the first designated stop on Monday’s road trip.
Mount Bold Reservoir
Mount Bold Reservoir is located a few kilometres east of Clarendon in the lower Adelaide Hills. The reservoir was constructed from 1932-1938, is the largest in South Australia (approx. 3.1 sq km) and supplies the bulk of Adelaide’s water supply. The only point of public access (that I know of) is the lookout adjacent to the dam wall at the southwestern fringe of the reservoir.
Pulling into the car park, it was the valley surrounding the dam wall that first caught my attention. It’s a stunning landscape; and the scale of it (in terms of height, distance and space in between) left me slightly awestruck. Speaking of scale, the dam wall is certainly imposing. Engineering feats like this always make me marvel at the degree of human ingenuity involved in taming and withholding the forces of nature – for better or worse. At the base of the wall, a continuous roar filled the air as a continuous jet of water was discharged from the wall’s valve chamber.
We had hoped to make our way down to a rope bridge that was suspended over the water, which would have made for a great recording. Unfortunately, it was closed off for maintenance so I was left to survey the area from above. I set up my stereo rig at the southern end of the dam wall (via a walkway) and clamped a contact mic to the guard rail to capture gusts of wind that were blowing across it. These gusts of wind certainly put the windjammers on the stereo rig to the test. The wind was strong enough for me to ensure that all of my gear was secure and not partial to blowing into watery oblivion below.
The challenges of a stereo field
Since upgrading my field recording set up from a handheld recorder to the adjustable stereo rig, I’ve realised that I’ve got a lot more to learn about recording environments. Because I’d used stereo handheld recorders for most of my field recording practice (Edirol HR09 [2010-2013], Olympus LS-100 [2013-2017] I’d obviously grown accustomed to the non-flexibility of the stereo arrangement of these devices – which have the microphones set in fixed positions. Much like a musical instrument, I’d gradually taught myself how to best manoeuvre it, whilst accepting it limitations of both the device (and myself.) By upgrading to the rig I had greater flexibility: I could now fully adjust the stereo field. However, once I’d gotten over the initial thrill of this, I gradually realised that this presented some new challenges. Now that I was able to broaden or tighten the stereo field, I found myself listening to environments in a completely different way than before, and realised that in order to faithfully capture environments, I would have to pay closer attention to everything.
With flexibility comes great responsibility.
I believe that through this process, I’ve become far more aware of just how weirdly sound can behave in particular environments and how much care I must take with regard to the recording process. I’m not simply pointing, recording and capturing sound anymore; I have to work with it, manoeuvre with it sympathetically, whilst monitoring and listening more attentively. In my previous post, I’d observed the peculiar phasing effect that was apparent whilst recording beneath the Princess Highway bridges. I’d attributed this to a combination of factors: my position in relation to the underside of the bridge and the river; the positioning of the mics; and what I was hearing via the rig against what I heard with my naked ears.
A dam wall situated in a narrow valley is a unique acoustic space and its slippery characteristics were certainly emphasised by the way the roar of the water below could be perceived, depending on the position of your body/head in relation to the source of the sound and the erratic behaviour of the wind. In a given position, only a low resonance could be perceived; in another, the roar enveloped my body; then, the wind would pick up and it would appear as if frequency bands of the sound were breaking apart and swirling around. With complex and volatile acoustic properties like this, a humble stereo set-up doesn’t stand any chance of faithfully capturing what’s occurring. For this situation, something like a binaural dummy head or one of Rode’s new innovative ambisonic microphone arrays would have been more appropriate.
Obviously, a stereo field (fixed or versatile) will not replicate what we apprehend with our ears; and at best, can only render a faithful impression of an environment.
What did the recordings with the stereo rig sound like? Messy. As I was monitoring the recordings on the dam wall I realised I would need a good couple of hours (and possibly consultation from expert peers) to figure out how to record this location satisfactorily. At the very least, I did have an impression of the roaring water to the south, the relative tranquillity of still waters on the other side of the wall, and a hell of a lot of wind in between.
Whilst we couldn’t visit the site where the Onkaparinga River flowed into the reservoir (near Black Rock) we could certainly see where it left the reservoir: just a bit beyond the roaring jetstream below, forming the semblance of a crooked river and continuing its passage through the valley.
As we made our way to Clarendon we encountered the river flowing beneath a shallow bridge leading out of the wider reservoir district. I set up the recorder to capture the river’s flow and surrounding birdlife, whilst Lauren took pictures of a dozing possum in a nearby eucalypt.
Upon arriving in Clarendon, we were less than enthused to find that the bakery was closed. Following a good pummeling by the wind and energies spent wandering around the reservoir area, a pasty and doughnut seemed like the world’s best kind of sustenance. Instead, we put our grumbling stomachs aside (not literally) and wandered down to where the river passed through a large reserve.
Ah, Clarendon. This is a beautiful little town that was established in the early days of European settlement. The last time we had been here was on my birthday earlier in the year. We feasted on pasties and doughnuts, inspected the local buildings, and then drove onto Kangarillia to down a couple of beers. One of the things that I like most about this town is the steep hills and valleys that surround it. Without trying to sounding too whimsical, it definitely has an enchanted feel to it; like a small Ye Olde Village with faeries and sprites hiding just out of sight. Of course, I’m certain it’s got a dark underbelly radiating some seriously bad vibes. Everywhere does.
As I made a recording just above the banks of the river, I spotted a burnt out car slumped near a fat concrete pipe which led to an imposing wall laced with razor wire. Indeed: venture off the main road in a given town and the enchantment of a place ends there.
This observation was however a minor schism within the overall loveliness of the place. Further downstream, a school group on excursion were exploring the river with nets and notebooks, mucking about and trying to scare the shit out of each other. Despite my initial concerns, this actually made for a good (albeit, slightly obnoxious) recording. The whimsy of children can only sustain so much patience though, so Lauren and I made our way around the reserve to a secluded spot surrounded by reeds with steep cliffs looming above.
In this spot, I set up the recorder, put my headphones on, blissed out slightly and gazed up at the cliffs dappled with ivy, bushes and little nooks. On top of the cliffs, thin clouds passed slowly though the clear blue sky as craggy old olive trees rustled in the breeze. Birds sounded out around us and frogs at either end of the creek started up in tentative bursts. Eventually the kids finished up their excursion and approached on the periphery. Through my headphones their approach sounded terrifying! Then I realised I’d had my headphone volume up way too high in relation to the actual (real world) volume level. Such was the lovely ambience of the riverside, that I’d gradually cranked up the volume to further immerse myself in it.
Beware the seductive quality of microphones and headphones in the real world. The ontological slippages can occasionally be a little unsettling.
Next time: The final approach – Onkaparinga National Park.