Had an epic adventure with Ryan Clifford and 20 Iowa State University Graphic Design students in Los Angeles as part of a field study. Learned a ton, exposed to new worlds and had a blast doing. Change is amazing.
-n 1. a noisy confused place or situation.
[This post was originally written for the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture Blog while I was the artist in residence there.]
As mentioned in my earlier post, the village is built around a lake created as the result of damming two rivers. The hydro-scheme that runs through the Bogong High Plans is a massive example of humans modifying nature for their own use. The damming of these rivers coming out of Rocky Valley and Pretty Valley create Lake Guy. I haven’t been able to forget that this recreational village populated by temporary residents is actually the result of infrastructure development.
When working with the nature sound recordings I’ve been making each morning, I am constantly amazed by the variation in bird song and critter noises that I am collected. They are rich in tone and highly variable in structure. There are a few that have really gotten my attention because of how unnatural they appear. They are reminiscent of some type of digital compression artifact or synthesizer glitch. Maybe this is the copy of a copy effect. For example, early synthesizers were attempting to replicate classic pianos and now modern synthesizers are attempting to emulate those earlier versions. Maybe it’s just a frame of reference for a particular type of frequency and structure that I don’t encounter on a daily basis other than in the digital environment. Then when I do encounter it in the wild, it points back to these digital experiences from memory. There’s also the chance that all of the bird calls are fake and being broadcast from small amplified speakers hidden in trees like some Disney resort mountain village and what I am hearing is one of these speakers breaking down from years of neglect. Interesting premise for a critical design piece or JG Ballard novel, but probably not the case. I have seen quite a few birds and as far as I am aware, our robotics technology isn’t that good yet.
The dam is a massive concrete structure. It defines the northeast corner of Lake Guy and has a narrow walkway that tunnels through. The walking track around the lake goes down into the valley on the non-water side of the wall and through the dam’s 14 separate chambers The chambers at the beginning and end are open to the outside. The chambers in the middle are enclosed and completely cutoff from the forest except for very small openings at the bottom about 2 feet high and 1 foot across. The echo and reverb within these enclosed chambers is amazing. The first evening I was here, my host took me on a hike around the lake. Walking through the dam was a phenomenal listening experience. Every small sound resonated in the chamber. Several of them had sounds of water trickling in. A couple were very silent. After thinking about this experience for a couple days and passing through the dam on various nature sound hikes and exercise runs, I knew this was somewhere I wanted to project sound compositions into and record the results.
While obsessing over the community notice boards, I decided that I was going to create an intervention that took advantage of my temporary Australian phone number ( feel free to ring me @ 043 234 7156 ) and play with the idea of man’s attempts at controlling nature. I designed and posted SHOPPERS cards in the local grocery asking people to call and leave impressions of local birdsongs on the voicemail. Since this is a temporary number, I have no issues giving it out to anyone and everyone. Seriously, feel free to call. Even it’s just to say you hate me. It’s cool. A couple days after posting on the community boards, I got 2 responses and they sounded amazing. This also solidified how I was going to present the sounds I was working with.
Inside the dam, the compositions being projected are all created using only the nature sound recordings made in and around Bogong Village. The sounds are manipulated to created new tones, textures and frequencies. This manipulation is the same as the attempts made to control and divert the water in this area. The electrical company plays a large role in how water moves and what it is used for. Streams and rivers are diverted through large pipes that cut under the mountains and pour back into areas where it can be converted into electricity. During that travel, it has not only been relocated but removed from it’s natural ecosystem and redistributed in an unnatural way. The modified nature sound recordings are no different. Presenting them inside the dam creates a relationship between the manipulation of the water ways, land and soundscape. The lake is as artificial as the sounds. The dam becomes an echo chamber literally for the sounds to reverberate and figuratively as the creator of electricity that results in noise which drives people to get away to a place like Bogong Village, which is created by the dam that created the electricity. Feedback loop complete. Inside the dam, the sounds are presented through a speaker that has been painted with black and white diagonal lines. This direct formal reference to railroad guards and caution signs serves to aesthetically connect the space to the larger infrastructure of energy production it is a part. It appears both cautionary and official. Hing on the chain link fence barrier and flanking the speaker on both sides are collages created to visually present the notion that the dam is responsible for various forms of development that we often have fluctuating relationships with. We love mobile devices because they provide the world’s knowledge in a pocket-sized object. We hate mobile devices because they are always going off in the theatre or we are being run into as some walks and texts. We love wireless technology because we can get messages anytime, anywhere. We hate wireless technology because people expect us to respond to their message at anytime, from anywhere. We love metro trains for their ease of use. We hate metro trains for their noise and traffic delays. The collages each have a small speaker attached and are performing modified nature sound recordings that align with the emphasis of the collage. One being more about communication, the other addressing urbanization. They both have images of the dominant birds from the recordings perched throughout. All of the visual elements are place on the narrow tunnel through the dam and lit by the single industrial light over head.
Each of the three pieces – the designed speaker cabinet and the two collages – plays a looping modified nature sound. The overall composition is created by the three separate sounds playing simultaneously. The sounds are all different lengths. As the larger piece is heard, the individual elements are looping at different times creating a unique listening experience throughout the installations entire duration. Similar to nature sound recording, from one session to the next you might hear similar elements but the overall composition is going to be different each time.
As the piece plays, the sounds fill the chamber and reverberate around the listener. It can be heard before entering the dam. As the listener approaches, there is a distinct change passing from one chamber to the next while getting closer and closer to the source. The sound of the installation mixes with the natural sounds from around the dam. On the day of installation, this included the sounds of kookaburras, crimson roselas, the rush of the day-lighing tube that routes water around the dam back to the “river” and the gentle sounds of rainfall. Inside the enclosed chambers there were various amounts of water noise. In the chamber of the installation a small amount of trickling mixed with the composed audio. Moving down the tunnel away from the piece the sound then noticeably decreases as each chamber is passed through. One chamber was filled with the sound of rushing water. The combination of this with the composed soundscape in the neighboring chamber created a performance of two different forms of manipulated nature. The modified recordings in the piece and the blocked water from the dam. Passing through the different chambers of the tunnel created a very distinct audio representation of the infrastructure of the dam. The sound changed with each passing chamber and was mixed, at varying levels, with the other sounds occurring in that space. Each chamber takes on it’s own audible identity. It’s a small neighborhood. Each being similarly different. As the listener exits the dam, the sounds of the installation fade and the soundscape of the natural surroundings return.
Manipulating the familiar and presenting it back in this unique acoustic environment inspires thought and consideration regarding the ways we engage with nature. We put a lot of noise out into the world. We do a great deal of manipulating. It’s what’s gotten us to where we are now and that’s both positive and negative. The decisions that we make have consequences. The history of this place – Bogong Village, the Junction Dam and the hydro-scheme – represent this same sense of tension between wanted, unwanted and unexpected. As we work to find more renewable ways to generate the electricity that our modern lives depend on it’s worth reflecting on what’s been done before. Some good has come from it. Some negative things have happened too. I firmly believe that part of this process has to be about appreciating nature and working to understand how we can be better participants. It’s also worth spending time exploring the unique aspects of what has already been done. Maybe, it’s just about making time to listen.
Bird Calls (more info about where this started here on my blog and here on the BCSC blog) is an intervention to play with ideas of community and nature. While the artist in residence at the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture, I became interested in the community notice boards located at the grocery store in the village down the mountain. I poset a request for local birdsongs to generate some content for the work that I am making and these are two of the responses I received. Part of this comes from the realization that my number in Australia is temporary and giving it out is consequence free. Having a temporary number with voicemail to play with is kind of amazing.
Dederang, Vic Australia
[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.
[This post was originally written for the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture Blog while I was the artist in residence there.]
On the way up to Bogong Village from Melbourne, the drive was quite an experience. I’ve never driven on the left side of the road and I’ve never driven a car with the driver on the right, much less a manual with the driver on the right. Doing the majority of the drive, about 3.5 hours of freeway, two-lane, village and even some mountain road was quite the experience. Interestingly, instead of relaxing and enjoying the scenery I was instead completely focused on the road markings and signage. The signs vary a great deal in both design and language from what I am familiar with in the United States but since I have a background in graphic design, I really appreciated the experience. It feels as though I’ve developed an intimate relationship with the infrastructural signage of the region. Intimate in that traffic accidents can be harmful or deadly.
Along the way, we stopped at a variety of locations as we got closer to Bogong Village to put up fliers for the listening walk that I will be doing later in my residency. The places we stopped were all community hubs of some sort. Locations visited by many different people and for a variety of reasons. We posted at grocery stores, news outlets, the post office notice board, the village info centers and even an all purpose outdoors/hardware/cookware/odds-n-ends shop. The community notice boards at the post offices and info centers were rich tapestries of local activity. There is no shortage of upcoming mountain biking events. Looking for volunteer opportunities to help prevent the spread of an invasive species? There’s a group looking for help. Interested in learning new beading techniques? There’s two classes available in which the first will make a basic snowflake hanger and the second will move on to bracelets. In the market for a high-end, lightly used road bike? Call Mark at 043 234 7156 with any questions. Also, please keep an eye on these boards for the most up to date fire and fire safety related information.
The grocery stores used a system of cards that could be filled out and slid into tracks in the wall. It’s a complete system ready for posting. There was even a high-lighter to add emphasis to the handwritten messages on the cards. There’s Craigslist but there’s also the community notice board at the local IGA. They serve a similar function. They have about the same design aesthetic. Neither seems any more reliable. It’s a message in a bottle left in a place where people know to look. Connections can form and needs can be met. There’s a sofa for sale. Call me @ 043 234 7156. Lost, black lab. Answers to the name Ringo. Please call 043 234 7156 if found. Small reward.
At Melbourne Tullamarine Airport
I had a chance to watch a group of Tibetan Monks making a sand mandala in the Drake University library in Des Moines, IA. This recording was made at 4pm on Friday, September 13th just a couple hours before the mandala would be finished and then ultimately destroyed.
The temporary nature of the work and the soundscape created from the process made for an experience that was quite powerful. It reinforced the importance of appreciating the moment. It drew my attention first through the work itself, then the amount of effort going into it, and finally as I appreciate the sound of the process and the detail of the image being created I am suddenly struck by the brief mortality of the thing itself. The internal reflection that followed feels obvious [insert statement about aging and how it requires some coming to terms with my own mortality].
The temporary and fleeting nature of the work has many connections to sound, performance and the nature of listening. The sound exists over time, and only in time. Unlike the moving image, when you freeze frame on a sound, there’s nothing. Time is required for sound to exist therefore there is no stationary. Everything about sound is fleeting, moving. We have memory. Technologically extrapolate that and we have recording devices. These can recall or replay things that have happened but again, time is required to experience them. In all of this is also why I have no issue with recording and documenting the sounds of the process. As an audio bookmark I find much value in how sounds like this help me recall larger themes and thoughts form the experience in which they are recorded. The recording and the memory exists at these two levels – the actual and the triggered.
Recently I’ve become very aware of how working on a new piece changes the way that I view the objects around me. I’ve been working for the last few weeks with scientist, archer and artist Kenji Yoshino on a new performance that utilizes archery in a sound art piece. We met at the Grin City Collective in Grinnell, Iowa while we were both artists in residence there. Kenji supplied the farm with, among other things, an array of bows and arrows for us to shoot in our free time. He also provided the instruction for those needing it. Being an Eagle Scout and growing up in a shooting family, I knew my way around the bow even if it had been over 15 years since I shot last.
As we were shooting with a bunch of the other artists on the farm, I recorded a good amount of audio from the arrows hitting the target and hay bail which later, I worked into the performance at Relish during my stay in Grinnell. But that got me thinking, what if we shot arrows into other things to hear what it sounds like? Kenji was interested in the idea. Near the end of my time in residence, we set up a bunch of random materials in a barn and shot arrows at them to record the sound and video. This became the archery chimes prototype video. Being curious about making this more of a spectacle lead to sketching out ideas for instrumentation and control. I wanted to be able to catch the sounds in real time, quickly affect them and then develop soundscapes from the force and impact of the arrows on the different materials as well as the reaction of the materials after they are struck.
The impact. The force. The chaotic motion that eventually settles back into place when the targets are hanging. Visually the reaction of the materials was stunning. The sounds tend to be harsh and jarring. The goal of the performance is to make them less so. We also want to demonstrate the accuracy of Kenji’s arrow and explore how that can become a structure for instrumentation. The live recording and modification becomes a way to hold it all together and create something new to experience in a different time scale than the audio exists in the archery unaffected.
Then comes the question of what to shoot. We’ve played with various materials and while many sound amazing, many are also very destructive to the arrows and so they won’t work. I’ve started scouring around for things that we can put on display and then destroy and have found some pretty interesting things. I won’t get into too many details before the final performance is set but one thing that has happened is that as I am at home, school, the store, driving down the street, everything around me now begs the question “what would that sounds like if it were shot with an arrow?” It makes me wonder how things will break when hit and how different strike locations on the object might have different results altogether. It really changes how I situate things in my mind as I start categorizing the things I see. The groups become characteristics like: will resonate, will make a single thud, will be one shot only because it will break, might get more interesting as gets more destroyed, we shouldn’t shoot that, etc. It’s a completely different set of criteria by which I am viewing these objects. One of force, destruction and creative sonic potential of that force.
Compositionally, it makes me think of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique for composing. Except in this case it becomes even more strict. After each note is used, that key of the piano is obliterated.
Bernie Krause writes in his book about this idea that each individual has their own set of totem sounds. These are sounds that a person is somehow deeply connected to for what might be unexplainable reasons.
Based on my ever growing interest in filed recording and assembling audio compositions from these recordings, my totem sounds are those that I discover or continue to return to with renewed fascination, intrigue and an unexplainable attraction.
I’ve always enjoyed building fires. It doesn’t mater if it’s in a backyard fire bowl for chilling after a cookout, a campfire to use for cooking or a spectacle to enjoy as the sun goes down. In Boy Scouts it was one of the things that I could do really well. A regular challenge was to start a fire with wet wood and a single match using only the dry tinder that you packed in. No liquid fire starting fuel allowed (A rule I abide by to this day). I built up some pretty good skills. Recently, I’ve been able to put these skills to good use again through a series of bonfires and campouts around Iowa. It started in Grinnell, IA during my artist residency at Grin City. Each week they have a potluck. Weather permitting and participants so inclined, this regularly transitions to a bonfire. The first one I was there for, I jumped in to help and was quickly handed fire duty. I really like it. I’ve always loved how it looked but it wasn’t until these Grin City bonfires along with a recent camping adventure with Mrs Formalplay that I realized just how much I also love the sound. There were so many textures, so many clicks and hisses, and a subtle roar that still wasn’t enough to mask the birds in the distance.
It’s that thing were you can’t help but stare into the fire. The colors, the light, the warmth and the sound. It all harkens back to something much older than any of our conscious memories. It connects to a world we are now entirely removed from. The energy. The power. The ability to change – positive and negative (and even positive from a negative like natural forest fires). When thinking of totem sounds, I feel a strong connection to fire from my youth as I developed into an adult, partially from the process of earning the Eagle Scout award. I am also filled with a sense of wonder at all of the things that have and still come from fire.
Yesterday I worked in the csa garden crew in the morning, raced around prepping the farm for a major storm which included helping to put a new wall on the turkey coop, and gave a sound performance at one the best restaurants in town. This may have been my best single day of the farm residency.
During my time as an artist in residence at the Grin City Collective, I was invited to perform at Relish in town. It’s a small restaurant inside of what used to be a large house with several rooms and an outdoor patio in front. On Wednesday nights they have musicians come in and perform. Mostly singer/songwriters from what I could find online. So I wasn’t sure what the response would be to what I was doing or what the turn out would even be for a night billed as a sound art presentation and performance. The audience was amazing and the turnout was really good. The two adjacent rooms of the house/restaurant were pretty well full and a couple folks were milling around in the bar area too.
As part of the evening, I brought along four pairs of headphones that I have with me on the farm and at the beginning, I simply left them on different tables in the hopes that people would pick them up without too much prodding. I never know if people will be willing to put them on. It’s something that comes from the workshops. Some people are hesitant but usually it’s just that they don’t want to be the first ones to maybe look silly or awkward. No issues with that here. Many people were interested in them and excited to put them on to experience a portion of the performance. I really appreciate the confidence and security that this represents. It’s also about a willingness to take risks and have new adventures which probably aligns with the fact that they went to a “sound art show” at a restaurant in town. With the headphones on, people began investigating the pieces that I was presenting but they also started to explore the space and each other in different ways. I love it when this happens. Moving beer classes to listen to the resonance on the wood, jingling pocket change near the pipes, and even playing wine glasses as harps all broke out later in the set once they knew it was ok to move around and make noise. I forgot to do my “please turn your cell phones on” bit at the beginning. I like it best when I can just start and then answer questions and provide more context later. I feel this sets up the best relationship between the listener and the sound. It’s more important that the audience listen and develop their own relationship with what I am making as apposed to me first telling them what they should be listening for. It also makes for better conversations afterward because they are going into the piece with their ears more open if I haven’t framed it before starting.
I played a set of 3 pieces that are part of a new series of works that I’ve been making. The material used is a combination of things that I’ve been playing with before coming to Grin City and things that I have been collecting and working with since being on the farm. As people started filling into the rooms to find seats (at 9 promptly… this is the Midwest after all) I just started making noise with the headphones being already laid out on some of the tables. I was pretty immersed in getting everything going but I’m pretty Joe Lacina was the first one to put them on. Then I quickly saw from my periphery that they were circulating around the room. I also noticed that everyone was working really hard to sit still and be quite so I knew that I needed to talk a little between sets. I wanted to break the tension and remove this reverence for the performer. It’s not about the guy sitting there turning knobs and moving sliders (my friend Anna joke-seriously told me it looks really boring and she is totally right). It’s about the development and projection of the sound and how it is sculpted within the space. In between sets the audience had really good questions and I had a chance to say my piece about noise, listening, design and audio ecology. They also asked if I wanted them to be quite so I tried to let them know that I just wanted them to be comfortable, whatever that means. I don’t have any expectation that the performance is treated as some sort of sacred thing that everyone must sit still and face forward. Although I was very pleased that the event was set up so that it could be a seated performance, it seemed like the audience really dug getting up and moving around to explore the features of the room.During the break, people were wearing the headphones around Relish and made their way outside. I finished just in time for a train to go by the nearby tracks. Immediately the headphones were scooped up as everyone headed outside to hear. The train line is about 1 block from the patio and from their the train sounded amazing. Listening to it with the headphones on in real space, not a recording, reaffirmed my fascination with trains. I’ve discovered that “foamer” is a term for someone who sits and waits for trains to come by so that they can, usually, photograph them. Turns out, I’m a listening foamer. Maybe I need a better term for that. Even though my friend Anna had heard all these tracks before, I still was able to use a few different chickens throughout the evening.
I’m really glad to have had this opportunity to perform as a way of turning my time here as an artist in residence into something that people could experience. The performance at Relish was a combination of things that I’ve used in the past and new things that come straight from Grin City. It was a piece of phonographic fiction created from a series of experiences that many cities, a few road trips and a couple weeks as an artist in residence on a farm in Iowa. It was a fun way for me to synthesize the things that I’ve been working on here at Grin City. All that mixed in with a great audience, new friends, one of the best restaurants in town and my wife secretly showing up for the entire show without me even knowing it until the break made for a pretty amazing night. For this I am really grateful.
All content ©2014 Alex Braidwood unless otherwise stated.
- mysterious hum
- sonic fiction