The quieter we are.
Last week as I was sitting quietly in the middle of a forest that’s been designated as a nature reserve, I couldn’t help thinking about the number of people out walking there, who seemed totally oblivious to their surroundings, walking through not really looking around and talking in very loud voices to their companions. It’s something that I’ve observed many times in many different places, and is actually the concept behind my PhD. Why are they there? The scenery was fantastic; a little like I’d imagine it would be walking through a jungle. The sounds were amazing, the nearest road being several miles away meant that, apart from the occasional passing aeroplane, there was a near total absence of any anthropogenic noise.
Nature seems to be quite sensitive to our intrusion. I find that it takes a good few minutes from my arriving in a location, and sitting quietly before the wildlife there becomes accustomed to my presence, and starts to move about and make sound again. A similar thing occurs when people walk through where I’m recording, everything stops and goes quiet. The people generally tend to be behaving as if they’re walking along a busy and noisy high street. Surely the whole point of them being there is to experience the intrinsic natural qualities of that particular place?
A new portfolio project
One of the things that I’ve been busy with recently was influenced by something that I observed during a recent trip to Pembrokeshire in Wales. I absolutely love going for a walk last thing in the evening, just before it gets dark. I love the sights and sounds of everything winding down. The singing from the birds is brilliant, a little like the dawn chorus, only in reverse. I’ve read that the dawn chorus is normally started by robins, then sparrows, and finally finches being the last to join in. The evening chorus is apparently in a very similar order, but in reverse, the birds continuing singing until the last rays of light have faded in the evening. You also obviously get to hear and possibly see the nocturnal wildlife, emerging into the twilight world in its quest for food.
In Pembrokeshire I was staying in a little cottage, just a few minutes walk away from the Welsh Coastal Pathway, and not too far from one of the few places for miles where you could actually get down to the sea. Much of the coast in Wales is very rugged, with mountainous cliffs that tower many metres above the rocky beaches and tumbling breakers below. As you walked down along the pathway toward the sea, you passed on the left a pool that had been created by the damning of a stream that was making its own way down to the sea. Despite the gathering darkness you could just about see, flying about above the pond several bats, no doubt attracted by the literally thousands of midges that hung in clouds above the pool. It was fascinating watching them silently swooping down across the surface of the water, scooping up the insects. The sight started me thinking about how we hear, but more particularly just how much we don’t hear in the world, something very much concerned with what my PhD is about.
The following morning I walked along the coastal pathway to the little city of St. Davids, some four miles or so away. I was sat in a little vegan cafe, eating breakfast, drinking coffee, and catching up on Instagram; where I was staying having no internet or mobile phone signal. Scrolling through my Instagram feed, I came across a video a guy I know had posted. He’s an environmental scientist, the video One of the things that I’ve been busy with recently was influenced by something that I observed during a recent trip to Pembrokeshire in Wales. I absolutely love going for a walk last thing in the evening, just before it gets dark. I love the sights and sounds of everything winding down. The singing from the birds is brilliant, a little like the dawn chorus in reverse. I’ve read that the dawn chorus is normally started by robins, then sparrows and finches being the last to join in, the evening chorus is apparently a very similar order, but in reverse, the birds continuing singing until the last rays of light have faded in the evening. You also obviously get to hear and possibly see the nocturnal wildlife, emerging into the twilight world in its quest for food.
In Pembrokeshire I was staying in a little cottage, just a few minutes walk away from the Welsh Coastal Pathway, and not too far from one of the few places for miles where you could actually get down to the sea. Much of the coast in Wales is very rugged, with mountainous cliffs that tower many metres above the rocky beaches and tumbling breakers below. As you walked down along the pathway toward the sea, you passed on the left a pool that was created by the damning of a stream that was making its own way to the sea. Despite the gathering darkness you could just about see, flying about above the pond several bats, no doubt attracted by the literally thousands of midges that hung in clouds above the pool. It was fascinating watching them silently swooping down across the surface. The sight started me thinking about how we hear, but more particularly just how much we don’t hear in the world, something very much concerned with what my PhD is about.
The following morning I walked along the coastal pathway to the little city of St. Davids, some four miles or so away. I was sat in a little vegan cafe, and showed him carrying out a bat survey. He was using a device connected to an iPad to record the echolocation sounds, an app on the iPad showed him the echolocation as a sonogram, enabling him to identify the species.
This was my final day in Pembrokeshire. I spent most of it thinking about what I’d seen the previous evening, and most of the journey home asking my friend questions via Instagram about the gear he was using, and doing research about the various types of wildlife in the UK that produces ultrasonic sound.
The concept behind my PhD is that by and large, we tend to ignore the sonic goings on in the world. The piece is provisionally entitled ‘Super Sense’. It will attempt to take the listener to a new sonic environment, one that we usually have no part in, and for me at least; and I suspect many others, one that we possibly have given little thought to the existence of.
I’ve always loved collecting facts and figures about things that interest me. One of my first interests as a child was space and the solar system. I knew the names of the planets, their distance from us, and how long they took to orbit the sun etc. That’s how it’s been with my background research for this new piece; a soundscape through the ears of one of my favourite animals, the cat. I think cats are amazing creatures, possibly the ultimate predator. They’re stealth hunters, they wait for their prey to come to them, rather than expanding massive amounts of energy chasing after it. Their sense of hearing is phenomenal, using thirty muscles per ear, they’re able to pinpoint the source of a sound with an accuracy of about 5cm. The frequency range of their hearing is amazing, from 200 Hz, which is similar to the lowest frequency limit of our own hearing, up to an incredible 64 kHz, which is way beyond anything that we can hear.
A cat walking through a back garden would be privy to a soundscape of amazing ultrasonic sound. They would be clearly able to hear not only bats in the evening, there also many small mammals that produce ultrasound; including rats and mice, as do various insects including crickets, grasshoppers and moths.
I have so far recorded two species of bat, including Daubenton’s feeding over a lake in my local park, and Pipistrelles flying around my back garden. These were both producing echolocation at a frequency of 45 kHz. I have also recorded grasshoppers on a hillside in Wales at 30 kHz, there sound was totally inaudible to me. Other insects whose sounds we can hear, are also producing sounds outside of our hearing range. The buzzing of bees for instance extends well up past the limit of our hearing, I have recorded them at 25 kHz.
I started using an iPad in my compositional work
My workflow has recently progressed to incorporate the use of an iPad along with several iOS based applications. With my background as a musician and composer, one very much used to working with pitched material and physical instrumentation, I initially felt a sense of detachment working with just a trackpad, sound-material and a MacBook, there was a perception of a loss of the physical connection between myself and the music that I was producing. I feel that with its touchscreen and finger gesture recognition the iPad offers both a sense of tactility, whilst also allowing a degree of expression that I found to be lacking in normal digital compositional work. In reality now, I have a growing sense that actually electroacoustic composition is more of a creative event; the sound is merely that, the art is in taking the abstracted sound and reimagining it, moulding it and recreating it.
The iOS apps that I use within the pieces include:
Using an iPad and iOS in field recording
I’ve recently made what I consider to be a gargantuan leap forward in terms of the gear I found I was carrying around with me. My MacBook Pro is an amazing and fastidiously reliable bit of kit, hailing as it does from 2012 though, it’s unfortunately quite a hefty item to carry with me, especially on top of everything else necessary for a period of time away from home.
I wanted something lighter, yet still reliable, and affording me the ability to download, audition, store, and edit my sound recordings, and also upload them to the internet; I use the iCloud as a final means of backup, which also allows me to access my files on any Apple device. I also like to upload edits onto Soundcloud, and post links from my website. I finally settled on an iPad, it being the perfect size and weight, and at 128gb it offered plenty of storage potential.
After some research I also bought a really superb, cheap yet easy to use app from the App Store; AudioShare. The app lets the user perform basic audio file editing; trimming, fading in and out, normalisation etc, it also allows you to record directly into it via the iPads microphone, and to share the uploaded files with drop box. It also offers inter-app functionality.
It’s been quite a journey of discovery, surmounting the various problems that my new venture has thrown up. The main challenge I soon discovered was getting the audio files from the SD cards of my recording devices onto the iPad, and then into AudioShare. An iPad doesn’t provide enough power for you to simply plug whatever recording device you’re using into it, as you would do with a MacBook or laptop. I bought an SD card reader designed specifically for use with an iPad, then discovered that iPads can only read photos or videos from SD cards, they can’t see audio files; either wav or mp3s.
More research later and I discovered this rather nifty little device from Kingston, the Mobile Lite wireless pro. It’s a device battery charger, it gives 64gb of data storage, though more importantly for my purposes it enables the iPad to wirelessly access the sound files stored on an SD card; you just need to download a simple to use app from the Kingston website.
Sound or music
The photograph shown alongside is of the doors to the Vlaanderen Opera House in Ghent, Belgium. It was just across the road from the hotel that I was staying at, giving the hotel its name. I was walking past on my first afternoon in the city when I saw it, and took the photograph. I posted it on Facebook and provoked quite a discussion amongst a few people.
What’s written is actually just an abstract, the full quote reads: ‘Music is about people. It’s not about sounds. It’s about putting people into challenging situations. For me, challenges are opportunities’.
It’s sound that really excites and enthrals me though. Sounds that are often to be found in the most unlikely and mundane of places; the wind whistling through the window of a speeding train, or the metal loops of a flag ringing symbol-like in the wind against the flagpole. For me personally, music is all about sound. If I’m listening to music, then I’m not particularly concerned who it is that actually created it.
I tend to follow labels that release music of a particular genre and sound. As a musician/composer I find that I’m working more and more with abstracted sound material, rather than with pitched material. It doesn’t really matter who or what produces the sounds that I record and use. If it’s a person they probably aren’t even aware that they are being recorded; I mean who on earth sits outside in the bitter cold waiting for a tram to rattle over a wooden bridge and ring its bell? The driver of the tram could have phoned in sick that morning, and their replacement would have been driving. It would have been them who rang the bell; almost certainly unaware that it was perfectly timed to sound straight after the last chime of the bells in the ancient church bell tower. They don’t even know that they’re being recorded.
I was sat in the medieval cathedral in Ghent on Friday afternoon, surreptitiously recording the beautiful ambient sounds present there, I was somewhat in awe of the most amazing and totally natural cathedral reverb. I probably shouldn’t have been recording the goings on, but my little Zoom H2n recorder is quite small and inconspicuous, perfect for such covert recording, and nobody there was taking any notice of me anyway. Someone somewhere knocked something over, you had this huge crashing sound reverberating around the around the magnificent building for several seconds, the sound mixing with the sounds of the tourists talking and walking etc. That was just chance, they didn’t do it deliberately and again didn’t know I was recording.
I sometimes become aware of an ‘awakening’ following a sonic event such as a bell chiming, a thunderstorm, or in this case the sound of something being knocked over. In reality I suspect that it’s actually just that I had been concentrating so hard on the main sonic event to the exclusion of whatever else was going on around it.
Going back to Zorn’s quote. Acknowledging that all sound can be music is probably a challenge to many, acceptance will open up the opportunity to discover the music that lies for the most part undiscovered all around us.