Mark Peter Wright – Where Once We Walked

20/10/2011


Mark Peter Wright’s Where Once We Walked is described as a sound composition based on location recordings gathered from the Polish homes, villages and surrounding environments of Holocaust survivors of 1945, who, as children, were transported to the Lake District and cared for at the now ‘lost’ wartime village of Calgarth Estate near Windermere.

This is one of the very few sound works I’ve encountered which sets out to engage with a subject of real historical and social importance, above and beyond the historical and social importance of, say, working more narcissistically with abstract sound as an art form. We have here an extremely emotive subject, a subject overworked in the extreme by a Hollywood film industry obsessed with what can only be described as war and holocaust pornography, and of course a subject which requires sensitivity in the approach and artistic treatment.

Before listening to the work I was struck by the simple elegance of an act of compassion, people caring for other people, children in this case, and by the local link to Lake District, a link established to a large extent by the artist/curator organisation Another Space.

We are invited to listen to the work, with its five episodes, as one whole piece. Overall the work is marked by detail, clarity and transparency in the actual quality of the recordings, by a leaning towards realistic or even naturalistic representation though the framing, sequencing and gentle crossfading of the various scenes. The various elements work well to deliver an exceptionally powerful narrative whose mood lifts the listener above and beyond the mere fact of well captured location recordings.

I think we should give work like this more attention and certailnly more credit for investigating new narrative forms. Because of the weight of narrative, this kind of work always strikes me as drawing closer to literature than to music or to what passes for ‘sound art’. I say this  because the best critical theory I’ve found which helps me to understand such work comes from two discourses sharing an interest in semiotics: the semiotic branch of literary theory and analysis, and some of the excellent writing on photography. In the sonic department the only critical writing that makes sense in this context would come from some of the very clever commentators and critics working in the field of new radio art.

Bakhtin, in the contest of examining specific literary forms, writes of the chronotope, a space/time unique to every work. Where Once We Walked presents us with an unfolding tableau of several chronotopes, though the strength of the work lies in the fact that we are able to join everything up, drawn as we are into the illusion of completeness by means of narrative method. Worthy of further consideration in this context, again from Bhaktin, is the notion that we can seek out chronotopic motifs, condensed reminders of particular types of time and space which carry metaphorical resonances: church bells, train stations, water and birds, subjects which would seem to be inexhaustible in their multiple resonances and dear to numerous field recordists.

The opening episode, A Past Present, leads with the pealing of church bells, then carries us slowly and gracefully inside the church to simple choral music, to the church organ and then to what sounds like a station, where the sound fades to a lingering resonance, holding on to the quality of the earlier music. Linear and filmic on the surface, but with deep undercurrents.

In Tobacco Trails we find ourselves outdoors with water and birds, very clear and clean. Long slow crossfades reveal a train departing, a train arriving, people talking and a muted tolling bell. Everything gives the impression of being very expertly scripted, again in a cinematic sense. Passages of composed polyphony underline the fact that this is a sound composition.

Hope Transmits begins with (I assume) a Jewish religious chant. This is layered with rain – this scene in particular seems to me to be representative of something deeply emotional – then thunder, heavier rain, electronic radio sounds and an abrupt cut off, possibly a combination of narrative exigency and a sharp contrast to the earlier very effective diminuendi. On the topic of an emerging narrative, I’d say that the composer has succeeded in walking the very fine line between telling us just enough and letting us create something meaningful for ourselves.

With Witness we listen to cars and to the ambience of a town or cityscape. More church bells, this time in the distance, carrying the weight of penitence. These recurring motifs speak to me of the artist’s restrictions on his choice of materials (I can imagine the dilemma of deciding whether to introduce new material, from hours of ‘footage’, or choosing to establish repetitions). We  then hear bicycles, other vehicles in transit, cars idling. I should mention here that I particularly enjoyed, perhaps for the first time, the sound of cars idling, a sound which always seems to intrude and spoil most recordings carried out in urban settings. Perhaps it’s down to the skill in framing. The bells reassert themselves, then linger till the end of the episode. I for one could listen to bell recordings all day.

The last episode, Where Once We Walked, delivers an interesting twist on the bell theme, this time in the shape of a clock bell plus the whirr of its internal machinery. It is 9 o’clock. A voice in distance, coloured by loudspeakers, is then layered with the interior of a place of worship, an interior marked by the sound of people moving in a large reverberant space. I might be wrong, but I always associate this kind of sonic complexity, the movement and spatial cues, with Roman Catholic places of worship, where all  sorts of social and liturgical events seem to be going on simultaneously, as opposed to the more ordered and focused soundscape of Protestant churches. This takes us to the broadband noise of water, possibly rain, then to birds (because the narrative environment invites meaningful interpretation we might well ask what these birds represent: symbols of peace, hope?), the hint of an organ, bees. We end up more or less where we began, in the same kind of comforting space, a place of worship, this time with the pentatonic folk melodies of a simple hymn and its organ accompaniment. Church music is unique in delivering this particular experience, a beauty in which we can participate. The footsteps to finish invite the listener to come to his or her own conclusions.

This is an excellent work and it comes over well as a cd release. But I see this kind of work as finding its best presentation as a radio work, taking advantage of all that the radio can offer. It belongs with the the kind of work we need so much in order to overcome hackneyed documentary conventions in public broadcasting, the sort of work that, even if it doesn’t get much radio play,  is persistently highlighted by the Canadians and the French in particular as radical, (and at the same time) forward thinking, and most of all optimistic.

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