Life Is Short and Long: Wirrabara field notes (part 1)

A trip (back) to Wirrabara – July 2016, PART 1.

The parentheses in the title are intentional since I’d visited Wirrabara once before – some thirty years prior in either 1985 or 1986. Given such a considerable span of time has elapsed since my first visit, it seemed only appropriate to regard this as a second visit, but the first visit as an adult with the majority of my childhood memories lost to the chasm of the intervening years. It’s tricky attempting to consolidate disperate experiences like this.

For my first visit to Wirrabara the primary destination was the Wirrabara forest reserve (about 10km west of the township) where my dad was participating in an orientation sport event. I remember our 1970’s Ford Cortina station wagon, a blue tent and my younger brother being carried around by my mum in a harness. We were camped on the edge of a pine plantation – the spires of the tall dark trees towering up into an overcast sky. Sonic memories – from such a young age, as always – are harder to come by and are virtually non-existent.

So now in mid-July 2016 I found myself on route via Port Wakefield, Crystal Brook and  Gladstone to my destination. The purpose of my visit was as part of a rec (i.e. research) visit as sound designer for Emma Beech’s Life Is Short and Long project, which has been joint facilitated and funded by Vitalstatistix and Country Arts SA. You can read about the project on Vital’s website[1], but in summary – and in Emma’s words – the work is described as “a performance installation created from three years of travel yarns and investigation of how people respond to crisis and change.” Wirrabara is one of three locations that Emma has spent time in – the others being Port Adelaide and Barcelona – conversing with locals and discussing how aspects of crisis and change have affected their lives.

Whereas communities in Barcelona and Port Adelaide have been primarily affected in recent years by the respective crises of the GFC and decline of local industry, Wirrabara’s crisis is more reflective of the plight of regional Australian communities in the 21st Century – affected by aspects of climate change, industrial decline and dwindling populations. The main street of Wirrabara now hosts a few functioning businesses, the remainder of properties (formerly cafes, specialty stores and restaurants) are now either vacant or have been sold as private residences. I remembered witnessing a similar situation in a nearby town I’d visited several times in 2013.

Main street in Wirrabara, July 2016.

Peterborough, located approximately 50 km west of Wirrabara and situated near Goyder’s Line was once a thriving agricultural and industrial hub servicing local communities in the lower Flinders Rangers, whilst functioning as a crucial railway network between Port Augusta and Adelaide. Since the decommissioning of industrial railway services in the late-1980’s the town had since experienced a rapid decline in the intervening years, coupled with the dual-related factors of long droughts and a declining population. In 2013, the town looked broken and half-ruined – the main street had a handful of active businesses, the rest – similar to those of Wirrabara, save for a defunct bookstore and video rental outlet – were now empty and fading into the routine main street visage of threatened regional centres.

Post collapse Peterborough Railway Station.
Peterborough Railway Station, February 2013.

That familiar tableau was mirrored in several of the townships that I passed through on my way to Wirrabara – the burnt out pub in Locheil, visibly abandoned homesteads on the outskirts of Red Hill and several gutted petrol stations over a stretch of a hundred kilometres.

By contrast, my arrival in Wirrabara on a Sunday afternoon was characterised by activity, commerce and the sound of a lively community. Existence. I’d managed to arrive within the last half-hour of the Producers Market on the main street where locals sell their produce, knick-knacks and hang out with each other. It was probably the best possible way to arrive in a town that I’d been told was in considerable decline. There’s something  particularly invigorating about withessing an event consisting of groups of people within such a small locale – voices and activity spill out into the street, inviting you to engage and participate. And so I found myself being instantly drawn to the markets with enthusiasm, eager to experience this community interacting with each other and see what the market was like. It was fleeting. No sooner than I’d arrived, the market was in the process of closing up and the eventual absence of people and activity couldn’t have been more striking – the emptiness and deadening quiet of this small town rapidly encompassed the space. What energy there was had dissipated.



Simon Whetham (UK) artist talk and intensive workshop.

In addition to the show (see post below), Simon Whetham will also be presenting an Artist Talk on the Thursday (31/7) and an intensive workshop on the Saturday (2/8).

Artist Talk // Simon Whetham: Active Listening & Field Recording
Thursday, 31 July: 2.10 – 3:30pm
University of Adelaide, Schulz Building, Level 10, 10.04
Free – Students & Public

Workshop //
Saturday, 2 August: 10am – 1pm
University of Adelaide, Schulz Building, Level 5, EMU Space
$20 (student) / $30 (external) Limit 10 places

Call for Papers- Harvard

Might be time to start writing again!

Hearing Landscape Critically

Hearing Landscape Critically: Music, Place, and the Spaces of Sound

Harvard University

14-16 January 2015

Project website:

Everything that is resounds … The landscape resounds; facades, caricatures, halos, shadows dance across it. (Alphonso Lingis)

Call for contributions:

Landscapes are spaces of community and segregation, of inspiration, mystification, nourishment, and devastation. Though landscape has long been acknowledged as a foundational element of our historical and contemporary engagement with the world, the significance of sound and music in shaping notions and perceptions of landscape has only recently begun to receive sustained critical attention.

The third meeting of the ‘Hearing Landscape Critically’ research network will take place at Harvard University, 14-16 January 2015. The aim of this three-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust is to transform our sense of sound in landscape, and to document, investigate, and provoke critical encounters between the social and acoustic agents involved in the formations of…

View original post 277 more words

RealTime Arts: Adhocracy 2013

Ben Brooker has written a piece on Adhocracy 2013.  My project, Reclamation gets a mention.

In Reclamation, Adelaide-based sound artist Tristan Louth-Robins presents an enigmatic soundscape crafted from site-specific field recordings taken in Port Adelaide during the course of Adhocracy. What emerges is a sort of living record of the region’s historical and continuing conflict between the natural and industrial worlds, Louth-Robins’ hydrophones collating a complex and contradictory array of sounds: circular saws, jet-skis, the trilling of dolphins and the clattering bows of harboured boats. Or maybe—and Louth Robins embraces this possibility—it is none of these things and, like so much else we have seen and heard over the course of the weekend, imagination, prejudice and deceit fill the spaces a reality denied to us creates.


Adhocracy weekend and Reclamation (Part 2: presentations, the industrial world and reflections)

Sunday artist talk.  Image: Emma Webb.
Sunday artist talk. Image: Emma Webb.

This time last week I was preparing the presentation of Reclamation for an audience on the closing night of Adhocracy 2013.  The preceding days of the residency had been busy with regular morning field trips, an artist talk in the afternoon, preparing a daily listening station and lots of thinking in between.   So by Monday afternoon I was nearing total exhaustion, but still carried with reserves of excitement and enthusiasm for the project.  My presentation was scheduled for 10pm and I had completed the work by 6pm, so there was plenty of time to (attempt to) relax and hang out with fellow artists and friends who had dropped by to check out the presentations and performances.

The Reclamation listening station following Monday’s artist talk. Image courtesy of Vitalstatistix.

The finalised version of Reclamation began above the surface of the water with the clamour of the Portside area around Gawler Reach – a crew trimming the sails of the One And All, the thunder of cars crossing the Nelson Street Bridge and the distant wail of  an angle grinder.  After a minute or so, a passage below the water’s surface is made via the vibrations of the bridge and the subterranean resonances of a nearby drain before the listener becomes immersed in the underwater environment.  An ‘industrialised water’ section is emphasised at first, dominated with the whirrs, drones and hiss of boats idling and traversing the water.  Despite the presence of these industrial sounds, evidence of the natural world is already present in the audible clicks, pops and snaps of the crustaceans  and mollusks  that occasionally emerge out of the mix.  Eventually these and other natural sounds dominate the work during the ‘reclaimed water’ section.  Reclamation then ends quietly with the hushed sounds of shifting sand substrates before gradually fading into silence.

I was delighted to have such an attentive audience for the presentation of the work, the majority of whom (from what I could see) sat focused for the duration with their eyes closed.  The Vitalstatistix Theatre was a lovely space to present the work with its acoustic properties scaling off and ‘complementing’ some parts of the mix that I thought could have used a little more work.  It’s wonderful when a space can do these sorts of things for you.

I haven’t posted a stream of Reclamation here, as I feel it is still a work in progress and requires a bit more revision and mixing before I allow it to be heard beyond last Monday night’s presentation.  In the meantime I’ll be posting some Portside recordings as part of the ongoing Field Studies edition.

Adhocracy weekend and Reclamation (Part 1: hydrophones, the natural world and mystery sounds)


I am currently confined to bed in the late afternoon with what feels like the beginnings of a typical winter cold.  I am also feeling rather exhausted.  It has been an incredibly hectic couple of months and I’m suprised I lasted this long and my immune system was up to the task of keeping me from crashing into a heap.  Thankfully I have enough reserves of energy this afternoon to write a bit about my recent Portside activities.

The past long weekend has been consumed with my Reclamation project for this year’s Adhocracy held at the wonderful Vitalstatistix theatre in Port Adelaide.  Reclamation was concerned with seeking out sounds of the natural world in the industrialised (and post-industrialised) waterways of the Port district.  I used my recently purchased JrF D-series hydrophones to record sounds of the underwater environment from docks, boat ramps, pontoons, muddy banks, rocky outcrops and other landings that allowed me to maintain my equilibrium whilst lowering a stereo pair of hydrophones into the water.

I find that every time I visit a given location with hydrophones I am discovering something unique and unheard for the first time, and the Port waterways were a good example of this.  From my first recording trip on Saturday morning what I discovered residing in the southern passages of the Port inlet was both suprising and strange.

A rich texture of clicks, pops and snaps permeated the underwater landscape with dramatic spatial detail in a variety of intensities, pitch and timbre.  The calm conditions on the water only made this discovery all the more odd.   Since there was an absence of any underwater currents or wave action, the clicking dominated against a muted environment.  A totally unique space.  The spell was eventually broken when a rowing boat entered the audible field with the recognisable sounds of water churning.

But what was responsible for the clicks, pops and snaps?  At first I thought it must be electrical impulses travelling through the water, but I eventually concluded that the sounds were too organic sounding.  A quick glance at my surroundings maybe provided an explanation – at various recording sites the columns, docksides and rocks were covered in mussels, mollusks and sponges – the seemingly insignificant inhabitants of the Port waterways.

UPDATE (1/7/2013): Jay-Dea Lopez suggested that this could be the sound of Snapping Shrimp (


Over the course of the long weekend I considered that these sounds represented a ‘sonic continuity’ of the waterways – the dominating soundmark of this environment.  What I found particularly remarkable about this was that I had come to the Port concluding that it would be a challenge to seek out the natural world, when it had evidently been there from the very first recording I made on Saturday morning.

Perhaps this reclamation by the natural world had already been in motion for some time?  After all, a significant part of the local industry had since left the district decades ago, along with an industrial din that would have violently permeated the underwater environment.  Somewhat ironically, over the next couple of days I would find it occasionally challenging to seek out the sounds of the industrial world in the Port’s waterways.

I’ll cover the industrial side of things (along with some other stuff) in my next post.

Love and thanks to my partner Lauren Playfair for the images.