Oblique Territories Journal – Part 4: leaving the hills

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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Clarendon

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.

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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.

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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.

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Goyder’s Line at ACMC 2017

Goyders Line 2017

My concert work forMax/MSP and vocoder, Goyder’s Line (2014-17) will be performed at Concert 2 (Saturday 30th September 2017, Elder Hall) as part of this year’s Australasian Computer Music Conference. Information regarding the conference and concert program can be found at the conference website.

I’ve been busy working at refining the MSP patch with a few tweaks and additional parameters. Rehearsals have begun in the studio and it’s sounding promising!

Earlier this year I wrote at length about the development of Goyder’s Line. You can find the post here.

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v. 4-5 of the Goyder’s Line Max/MSP patch

Notes on Goyder’s Line

I’ve submitted a proposal to perform my work, Goyder’s Line (2014-2017) at this year’s Australasian Computer Music Conference which is taking place in Adelaide this year. I’ve reproduced the text of my proposal/abstract below. Although I’ve regularily commented on the inspiration and development of Goyder’s Line in the past on this blog, I feel as though this text perfectly sums up the essence of the work. With thanks to L for her thoughts and input.

 

The plains that I crossed in those days were not endlessly alike. Sometimes I looked over a great shallow valley with scattered trees and idle cattle and perhaps a meagre stream at its centre. Sometimes, at the end of a tract of utterly uncompromising country, the road rose towards what was unquestionably a hill before I saw ahead only another plain, level and bare and daunting. Gerald Murnane, The Plains (1982)

The plains surrounding the ghost town of Dawson are situated in the lower Flinders Ranges – a vast arena of ochre-coloured earth and sparse vegetation. The presence of distant hills that stretch around the plains appear to reinforce the utter stillness of this place. As if time and motion are suspended or are just inclined to unfold at their own pace. As one spends more time in this place, its unique properties are revealed. A subtle scent carried on a breeze that sends a rustle through dry leaves, the droning buzz of busy insects, the brief relief that lies in the shadows of clouds drifting slowly over the terrain and discrete rumbles that exist just on the audible periphery.

Sometime during 1865, a few kilometres south of where Dawson would be settled twenty-three years later, George Goyder was travelling across the region on horseback. Goyder, who was the South Australian colony’s Surveyor-General had been tasked with the duty of mapping the boundary between areas that received regular rainfall and those that were prone to drought. Based on Goyder’s Line of Rainfall and the subsequent report detailing his findings, farmers were discouraged from planting crops north of the line. In most instances, this advice was not heeded.

At the beginning of the 21st Century as much of Australia was enduring the Millennium Drought (1997-2009), Goyder’s Line became a point of reference for meteorologists, climate scientists and farming communities. During the drought it became evident that the line of rainfall as identified by Goyder in the late 19th Century – whilst being subsequently regarded as a highly accurate tool of analysis and agricultural planning for most of the following century – was requiring reassessment and pointed to a southward trend in light of protracted drought, shifting seasonal rainfall patterns and the impact of anthropogenic climate change.

Goyder’s original line of rainfall and a recent 21st Century revision inform the basis of this electro-acoustic work. The lines – their relative patterns and trajectories- represent the fundamental frequencies of two sawtooth waves, which are routed as inputs to a vocoder and extended effects modules. Although each of the frequencies remain distinct throughout the work, the resulting modulations reveal expansive sonorities and rich harmonic textures. At regular iterations the lines are purposefully suspended in parallel, allowing their harmonic relationship and modulations to unfold and develop.

I regard this work as an ode to the South Australian interior, as defined by Goyder’s original line and its contemporary revision. The interior, at its boundary appears as a vast, seemingly boundless space – rich with the possibility of uncertainty, terror and fascination.

TLR, July 2017

FLEURIEU: Nodes/Old Waters

Another new realease. “Nodes/Old Waters” is a meeting of sorts – a studio improvised amalgam of live instruments, Fleurieu field recordings and samples from old red_robin tracks. Listen/purchase below.

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What’s Happening #6: Fleurieu Drift

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Handheld mic, hat and beer at Normanville Surf Life Saving Club – April 2017

Over the past couple of weekends L and I have made our way down the coast to check out a few events happening as part of the annual Festival Fleurieu program. On the first weekend we checked out longtime family friend, Ruth Eisner’s open studio at her wonderful property, Mulberry Farm; then this weekend we checked out a couple of exhibitions and attended a concert by Margie Russell at the Yankallila Agricultural Hall supper rooms. Both trips have been enjoyable and revitalising since it’s been great to get down my hometown digs and catch up with some folks I haven’t seen in a while. This weekend also provided a good opportunity to make some more field recordings for my Fleurieu Sound Map project which is now in its seventh year.

Fleurieu Sound Map beginnings

From 2011-2012 the Fleurieu Sound Map gathered momentum with a flurry of activity as I darted all over the region with a handheld recorder in tow. This was an exciting time as I found myself revisiting familiar places and redicovering them with a fresh aesthetic appreciation. At the time I had an Edirol HR handheld recorder for my captures, and whilst it was up to task most of the time, its flimsy windshield and noisy preamp prevented me from capturing certain environments faithfully – where winds sheared over the microphone’s diaphragm, or conversely where environments were so quiet that the noise floor of the device would be the most prominent feature in the recording.

Beyond the recorder itself, I started building my own hydrophones as a way of capturing sonic activity in bodies of water. I went through a number of hydrophone variations incorporating piezo transducers enclosed within pill boxes, film canisters, shoe polish cans and on one occasion, a condom. What I realised – each time I heard the DIY hydrophone fill with water – was that I probably wasn’t up to the task of making hydrophones that are reliably water tight and that I should get around to buying some, which I did later on. Still, a couple of my inventions worked for a while and captured some nice sonic activity in water and beneath sandy substrates.

“Nancy” the hydrophone in 2012.

One of the reasons why 2011-12 was such a fertile period for skipping all over the region and making hundreds of records was because I was engaged in an art project with the WIRED Lab and Country Arts SA which would culminate in the latter half of 2012 with the National Regional Arts Festival, Kumawuki in Goolwa. Our work, Southern Encounter was a group multimedia work and my headphone installation, Echocline featured field recordings from around the region.

With this project behind me by the end of 2012, in the following years I managed to keep exploring the region and expanding the sound map, largely thanks to routinely visiting the sculpture I constructed south of Lady Bay and compiling an album of Fleurieu-centric field recordings for my 3Leaves edition, The Path Described (2013).

Five Year Itch.

Prior to heading back down south for the Festival events this month, I realised it had been over a year since I’d last updated the sound map. The last update in February 2016 included a dearth of material from a weekend in Carickalinga the previous year and a single recording made in Yankalilla during January 2016. In spite of finding time to get down to the region I was finding it to be a struggle to find new locations to capture, let alone finding reason or motivation to capture particular locations.

It didn’t help that some of the locations I found (when I had a recording device with me) just weren’t very interesting at all:

Why bother recording this location? Why am I here? Nothing’s happening at all! OK, I haven’t documented this particular location, but let’s be honest there’s nothing going on here and I believe that nothing is going to happen. I’m wasting my time here.

This was happening a lot. I’d arrive at a location with the best intentions and nothing would happen at all, or – to an equally frustrating extent – a potentially good recording where a chosen element unique to the location was clearly emphasised would be compromised by a human (I presume) cranking up a chainsaw, angle-grinder or techno album somewhere nearby. I was caught between two extremes on an axis of a) nothing or b) too-much-information – the former is a waste of everyone’s time, the latter is a blemished document.  I was becoming fed up with the whole process and the limitations of what I could achieve with my equipment on hand. I was still restricted to a handheld recorder since I didn’t have the motivation to invest in more high scale equipment due to my growing discontent with my sound practice at the time (see What’s Happening #1: Therapy for more on this.)

So I purposefully took a break from updating the sound map. When L and I went down to visit the Nude sculpture in August 2016 it was the first time I hadn’t taken my recorder with me, instead opting for my camera to document the state of the largely destroyed sculpture.

Solastalgiac

Diverging from the sound map, over the years I’ve watched the Fleurieu region change in visible increments, noticing prominent swathes of vegetation reclaiming the hills and gullies whilst conversely land is cleared and houses pop up in towns and on their outskirts. The tension between nature and human activity is particularly felt on the Fleurieu. It occasionally causes a measure of anxiety in me.

I remember the first time I felt an unease towards changes in the surrounding landscape. In the early 1990’s a large parcel of agricultural land was sold off near Lady Bay and a large scale housing development covered the hillside and a golf course was carved out of the ground. The Links Lady Bay took a long time to get going and for its first decade it looked like a geniune folly with only a few houses constructed and the golf course stalled at nine holes and situated in what looked like a cow paddock (which is what it was previously). Now, over 25 years later it has the semblance of something like what the original scale model looked like when myself and the locals saw it proudly displayed under perspex outside Normanville’s shopping centre. Elsewhere, other pockets of land have been sold away and a combination of residential and holiday houses spread over plains near the town.

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It’s a delicate topic of discussion for a town like Normanville. After all, a significant chunk of the region’s economy and employment has relied on tourism and development since the 1970s. The resort at Wirrina Cove was one of the first developments of this kind in the area. I completely appreciate this reality and that this sort of progress in regional towns around Australia is a vital component to keeping communities intact.  The Links development and its golf course are hugely beneficial to the area and it employs plenty of people including some I knew in high school. The compromise is, of course trading off bits of the landscape (and potentially the environment) for progress. Within the scope of my experience, this can be summed as a solastalgia of sorts and has comprised a large part of my ongoing relationship with the region when I was living there and when ever I’ve returned.

The term solastalgia was coined by Australian,  to describe the emotional impact on the inhabitents of a community who experience significant changes to their immediate and/or surrounding landscape. Albrecht’s case study that derived this term related to the impact felt by communities in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales where the large scale expansion of open cut mines had radically altered surrounding landscapes whilst impacting aspects of the environment – such as the air quality and wildlife. Aside from communities’ ongoing concern with open-cut mines, unconventional gas extraction and a certain coal port development threatening the Great Barrier Reef, a significant issue for communities is the sprawl of suburban developments which encrope into native vegetation or agricultural land.

In the case of sprawl, this is what one will see as you make your way  to the western coast of the Fleurieu. From Noarlunga through Seaford to Aldinga and Port Willunga, expanses of large houses pop up, creep and rub against pockets of farmland. So again we return to that onerous issue of progress and what we’re willing to compromise for it. From the vantage of what’s been happening in and around Normanville over the past 30 years, this is small fish compared to things like the current aberration that is Seaford’s Vista development which saw a huge chunk of farmland progressively covered with McMansions and an obligatory Aldi supermarket. Enough said – I won’t go there for risk of steering this post into rant territory; my cup of tea’s not strong enough to clearly articulate where that particular thread is heading. Another time, maybe.

Thankfully, nobody is mining for coal or extracting gas in or around Normanville, there aren’t plumes of coal dust filling the air and there are no spikes in lung infections or cancer in the community. All that is really happening is that more houses are being built to accomodate growing families whilst fufilling a demand for more holiday accomodation in the area.

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Normanville Heights, as seen from the Bungala River running through the local caravan park.

When I reflect on such a thing it seems like the term solastalgia was custom built for such a dramatically nostalgic individual myself – one who is so acutely affected, moved or piqued by the slightest of change to an environment. I believe this is one of the reasons why I started the Fleurieu Sound Map – where photographic media failed to adequately document (and in some way preserve) a place, the audio option would come in.

The here and the now

Given the struggles with my mental health this year, my lifelong tendency to get so hung up on the rampant scourge of humans and their prediliction or expand their turf across and into everything might not seem like such a good thing to ruminate on, especially when I’m making an effort to clear my head of particular anxieties. However, to my suprise (and relief) I found on my recent trips to Normanville that my concerns relating to this have diluted somewhat and that I’m comfortable accepting it as more of a drift of ‘stuff that happens’. I’m cool with it – as long as everyone looks after the native vegetation, sand dunes, animals and stops pumping vile shit into the Bungala River.

 

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The places we inhabit hold a deep significance for us. We feel connected to them through memories, objects, landscapes as well as the mysteriously intangible – the things we can’t quite put our finger, eye or ear to. Familiarity and change are part of this drift. There’s such a strong poetic to a hometown and through the Fleurieu Sound Map and its various field recordings I found myself slipping further into the mystery of the town I grew up and its surrounding areas. Since it continues to change and unfold, I don’t see any reason why the Fleurieu Sound Map should end – or ever end for that matter. I’ve just got to scope out some interesting locations and wait patiently for the angle grinders to abate. Unless of course the recording emphasises the angle grinders. It could happen.

So, with that in mind there will be some new additions to sound map shortly. It’s something a little different and it may potentially raise some new questions and possibilities for this project. But more on that when I get around to posting.

In the meantime, drift on.

Goyder’s Line v.3 in the works

I’m currently in the process of revising the Goyder’s Line Max/MSP patch with the intention of streamlining the drawing process and adding some additional features to the interface.

In addition to this, the work will be expanded with the incorporation of a video component for a potential exhibition/performance of the work in the future. A summary and audio of of v.2 (2015) can be found below.

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A snippet of the revised Max/MSP patch

Goyder’s Line Version 2 release notes (accompanying the Maurilia Sound Studio Volume 4 edition):

“Goyder’s Line” – recorded in April 2015 – is a composition for Max/MSP, vocoder and effects modules. For its structure and form, the work references the geographical boundary (or isopleth) pioneered by George Goyder in the mid-1880’s to denote and determine patterns of rainfall in South Australia. The work’s sonic character (derived from sawtooth waves and the feedback of a Moog MF-108M module) results in a continuous drone; consisting of rich, wavering harmonic tones and textures which are intended to be evocative of the colours, climate, topography and relative stillness of the landscapes that Goyder’s Line passes through.