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.

A pdf with embedded audio documenting the sonic investigations of Duncan Whitley and James Wyness into Seville’s Holy Week processions in 2007 and 2008.

The publication, designed and produced by Duncan Whitley, offers embedded sound files, text and images. Of particular interest to sound artists will be details of the four channel recording techniques used in the field and of how the  work was developed as a multi-channel sound installation.

Aldo Leopold ( 1887 – 1948)

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…words (a sort of sign) are not separate from nature in the pre-Modern period, but intrinsic to it, woven in with everything else to make a single cloth… Prior to the Modern framework, language and discourse are part of nature residing among the plants, the herbs, the stones, and the animals…

(according to Foucault)

Vernon Pratt with Jane Howarth and Emily Brady (2000). Environment and Philosophy, Routledge.

There are certain sound artists with whom I’d love to spend some time. For different reasons. With some I’d talk about field techniques, with others I’d share experiences; some would have much to say on aesthetics, others could keep me up to speed on geek tech talk – I love the whole discourse.

But the only person I’d actually want to follow on a field trip is writer, ecologist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold. It would be like having meditation lessons with Buddha, or at least a guitar lesson with Jimi. Unfortunately Leopold is no longer with us, but before he passed on he left behind a priceless treasure in his classic work:  A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There.

As lovers of American nature writing will know, two books in particular are frequently flagged up as essential reading : Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. To those two I’d have added Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard as well as various works by Susan Fenimore Cooper and  Thoreau, but broadly, yes, I’d agree that the two volumes in question are essential reading.

Leaving aside the issue of whether Silent Spring is nature writing as such, it would be fair to say that anyone interested in the natural environment, in human intervention in the environment and in ecology, will appreciate Carson’s courage in bringing to the attention of the world the worst abuses of pesticide and insecticide spraying programmes. She is often credited with having established the major discipline of ecology and a raft of related sub-disciplines. I’m not qualified to comment but I believe that  Carson was unique in establishing a strong bridgehead from which to launch offensives against the polluting agencies and the underlying corporate greed and institutional stupidity which supported them.

So we should of course read both Carson and Leopold diligently, cover to cover, except that I’d suggest we read Leopold twice, or, for good measure, once a year every year. I say this because I always have the uncanny sense that something else, another world,  lies behind Leopold’s writing. I can’t put my finger on it so I have to keep reading it to find out more. And I am never disappointed after subsequent readings – readings which render such a powerful representation of the natural environment that the reader might believe he or she is revisiting an actual physical location. There’s a beckoning transparency in his narrative  – we ‘read through’ his prose and in doing so are invited to contemplate a different world. If we follow the trail back to the historical roots of the word Almanac, we will find a word with a resonance of the mystical and prophetic. Perhaps Leopold has captured something of that resonance in his masterpiece.

Whatever the resonance, Leopold achieves his transparency with elegance and tenderness, without pontification, without assuming an aggressive and radical philosophical posture. Above and beyond all of this we are privileged to accompany someone whose awareness of sound in the natural environment is second to none. His overall aims converge with the aims of many a contemporary sound artist.

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Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813 – 1894)

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While writers interested in visual media have for some time gestured towards a conceptualization of visual culture, no such parallel construct – sound culture or, simply, sound studies – has broadly informed work on hearing or the other senses. While sound is considered as a unified intellectual problem in some science and engineering fields, it is less developed as an integrated problem in the social and cultural disciplines.

STERNE, J., (2003). The Audible Past. Duke University Press, p3.

If she were alive today, Susan Fenimore Cooper would be spoiled for choice. She would have the free range of any number of  careers: environmentalist, photographer, ornithologist, documentarian, film-maker, sound artist. I rather like the idea of Susan Fenimore Cooper as an environmental sound artist, out and about in the field, extending her already superlative listening skills, probing the soundscape with the finest microphones.

You’ll recognise the name –  she’s the daughter of father James who wrote Last of the Mohicans. Overshadowed for many years by her father’s reputation, she is now recognised in literary circles as an extremely gifted writer.

Her world is alive with vital energy, colour, movement, and of course sound – sound perceived and sound imagined, from the tiniest murmuring deep in the hollow of a tree in the forest, barely heard at all, to the thundering cacophony of millions of birds in continental migration.  In her writing we are invited to engage with a sensual, vibrant and beautifully balanced representation of the natural environment – most unlike the one on offer from Emerson. Her writing, like that of Thoreau, is profoundly inspirational, especially  to the sort of person like me who spends hours in the field in all weathers listening and recording. Both writers have clearly embedded themselves firmly into their respective soundscapes.  Though some would have us believe otherwise, deep listening strategies have been with us throughout the ages and across cultures.  I’m encouraged to have that confirmed.

Her work demonstrates fine listening skills allied to subtle narrative technique. She possesses the rare skill of being able to  inhabit clearly defined yet detailed settings, conveyed to the reader by means of allusion to a variety of perceptual strategies, listening being of the utmost importance. In my reading experience, the distinctive subtlety and clarity of her style is matched only by the likes of fellow American Ernest Hemingway and the Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner.

Most readers will head directly for Rural Hours and rightly so. I chose to wander along the path less trodden, investigating instead A Dissolving View, Later Hours, Otsego Leaves I – III and A Lament for the Birds, all brought together in Essays on Nature and Landscape.

In A Dissolving View she writes of ‘the music of the woods as the seasons change’, observing how each season has its own sonic characteristics:-

There is a difference in the music of the woods as the seasons change. In winter, when the waving limbs are bare, there is more of unity in the deep wail of the winds as they sweep through the forests; in summer the rustling foliage gives some higher and more cheerful notes to the general harmony; and there is also a change of key from the softer murmurs of the fresh foliage of early summer, to the sharp tones of the dry and withering leaves in October.

A year’s work summed up in two sentences.

Otsego Leaves is an exquisite series of three pieces, each going further back in time. The final piece, The Bird Primeval, is remarkable for its quasi-cinematic treatment of the subject and its consideration of sound in the narrative. The reader is invited to occupy a particular  space, that of a dominant and nurturing elm tree, and at the same time to look at it, and listen to it, from a variety of vantage points . Susan Fenimore Cooper is clearly writing here from direct experience. The richness and legitimacy of sonic detail is incomparable – we are treated to the sounds of birds entering and leaving the hollow upper part of the tree, to the murmur, roaring and rumbling of swallows as they breed and raise their young, to the elm as resonating chamber.  Finally in a passage of the utmost elegance, we witness passing deer, bear, wolf and panther who pause to wonder at and listen to the tree. Wild nature as a listening Narcissus, self-absorbed in the act of listening to herself.

I’ll finish by mentioning another astonishing passage, this time from A Lament for the Birds in which she refers to accounts of the roosting grounds of native wild-pigeon, ‘the uproar from this roosting ground being heard at a distance of three miles’. Her imagination is drawn to the sound of reported flocks ‘covering 240 miles of country in length’:-

so vast as to obscure the sun at noon as though the country lay under an eclipse, while the ceaseless rapid motion of millions of wings produced a loud roar like an approaching tornado…

I invite the reader to take time to read her work at leisure.

Next up, Aldo Leopold….

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Throughout my preparations in 2008 /2009 towards a sound installation based on a local archive of environmental field recordings, I decided to delve into the work of some of the classic nature writers, initially because I was beginning to feel a strong affinity with artists from other disciplines whose primary objective, as I saw it, was the representation of nature. For some reason I was drawn towards the American canon: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Susan Fenimore Cooper, Aldo Leopold and John Muir. I should point out that this is not a chronological order, but the order in which I read them.

Something else appealed to me. These writers stand for something particularly inspiring. Thoreau, Leopold and Muir, perhaps also Emerson, seem to me to embody wholesome values and attitudes which America and Americans still have in abundance. They offer alternative histories which resonate with all of us, but which have over the years been seriously eroded, corrupted by corporate greed, media amorality and the abuses of various political systems. In other words, many people continue to read these writers because they adhere to or would like to have the opportunity to adhere to the values they promote in relation to the natural environment.

After a second read I became interested in how each writer approached the world of sound in the natural, and to a lesser extent, the human environment. At the time I was also reading various Marxist, feminist and other ‘ideological’ critiques of the arts and wondered about the validity of a new criticism which put the author’s awareness of listening and sound at the heart of the critical process. Why not? Much has been written about sound as the poor sister of sight throughout the ages. Might there not be in our culture, in some abstract sense, a bias which can be expressed in terms of politics or gender, towards sight and against listening? Could this be a new way of reading certain literary genres? Perhaps not in the long term, but the fantasy entertained me and still does in my reading and research.

This approach – looking at writing form a sound artist’s viewpoint – is naive and leaves me open to the sort of criticism levelled at an extreme Marxist, feminist or structuralist positions in that I’m only looking at the text from one very narrow angle. But that is the nature of the text and critics have done this for centuries. It’s a function of the inevitable culture -specificity in both writer and reader. Read the rest of this entry »