[This post was originally written for the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture Blog while I was the artist in residence there.]
This morning I got up to return to the dam that I walked around after first getting into town. It’s an amazing structure that carries with it a great deal of mixed emotions. Right before leaving the United States for the artist residency here at BCSC, I co-taught a graduate seminar in the Masters of Design in Sustainable Environments (MDesSE) program at Iowa State University where water was a key subject of research and inquiry. We had several discussions about water management and use in a variety of environments and scales. The dam in front of me represented a point of tension within these previous discussions. However, I wanted to go there early in the morning to record the wildlife surrounding it and get a sense for it was like to engage with the dam by listening on the back side of the structure. I found a nice spot up the hill to set up my microphones, cleared a little spot to sit, started everything up and just began to listen. The bird song was incredible. There is so much life and activity in the area. I have yet to go through and estimate the number of different species calls I captured but it was many. As I sat perfectly still, listening to the environment, I began to think more about the dam in front of me. The positive and negative effects of the dam began to swirl as a cycle of thought emerged.
The dam was created as part of a much larger hydro-electric scheme. At four different places down the mountain these systems where introduced to convert moving water into electricity. That electricity is used in the communities all down into the city. That electricity, in many cases, is converted into some form of unwanted sound. It’s the charging of a neighbors phone that goes off at all hours of the night. It’s the power behind that tram that rumbles through the city. It’s the guitar amp down the street. It’s the dance music next-door at 9am Monday morning. It’s the leaf blower before church. It’s the blender in the apartment above while you’re trying to fall asleep. It’s the large HVAC units on the way to the subway. It’s the hum of the street lights overhead. The result of this dam is the electricity that creates a soundscape that we work to ignore and that we feel the need to escape from.
The village around the damn is a resort destination. It’s the type of place that people go to get away from everything. Family holidays and fishing expeditions. Maintaining a status of tourist destination is part of the mission of the village after having fought to remain on the map. Originally, the village was intended for the workers connected to the dam and the power company. Everything had been developed with very temporary intentions. Infrastructure was all done quite quickly with no real sense of longevity. It only needed to last a short amount of time and serve a few people. Once the village had served it’s purpose it was to be leveled and allowed to be reclaimed by nature. This sounds pretty interesting as premise. Temporary neighborhoods with a plan for elimination. Maybe suburban planned communities could take not. After having been a few different iterations of functional town and then resort village for the power company employees, people fought to save it. They were successful and now it is a very small yet busy destination, especially in the winter during ski season. There’s a large ski resort just a few kilometers up the road.
The dam has now served dual roles in the complexity of our relationship with nature. It has provided a valuable resource but at some expense to the surrounding habitat. It has resulted in electricity that we convert into things that we want. The dam has created a lake and a surrounding village used to escape these very same things. The cycle of cause, effect, problem and solution folds back onto itself in a complex way in this area. The soundscape also reflects this. The space is rich with birdsong and the interactions of these sounds with the infrastructure are very compelling. The electrical hum of the transformers sit behind the dawn chorus as a gentle sustaining tone through which the wildlife punctures. The echo chambers in the dam and the parabolic feature of the valley result in a unique listening experience that connects place, memory and the consequences of man’s manipulation of nature.
Water is electricity is noise.