Audio: The Sound in Silence, the Silence in sound

The space between silence and noise

Last year, as part of an AHRC funded project, I was commissioned to make a short experimental audio documentary on the subject of silence. I was given freedom as to how I explored this subject and so I set out to capture the thoughts of those who worked with sound and in silent spaces.

Click here to download it.

The result, unsurprisingly, was that silence meant lots of different things to different people and so thematically it was very noisy! This relationship between noise and silence was one I was keen to explore through the production and so the piece is filled with hiss, distortion and feedback in an attempt to echo the noisy subject matter. This was explored further through the use of interviews but also with extracts of the poem ‘Describing Silence’ which are intercut throughout. This piece written by James Wilkes was a response to his time spent in total silence and explores some of the self generated noise born out of silence.

The audio work was an artistic output for an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project exploring the role of silence in academia and other professional fields. The project was run by the Science Communication Centre at Imperial College London and the piece was featured at one of their events.

Production Notes

  • The piece features interviews with Sophie Scott (cognitive neuroscientist), James Wilkes (poet and writer), Sara Mohr-Pietsch (BBC Radio 3 presenter), Cheryl Tipp (Natural Sounds Curator, British Library) and Vidyadaka (London Buddhist Centre).
  • The idea of distortion and noise influenced the production from the early stages and as work continued I really wanted to create an intense build up of noise that would level off and really help mark the silence experienced later on in the anechoic chamber.
  • The piece written by James Wilkes ‘Describing Silence‘ – can be heard in full below:
  • The interview and reading from James was recorded in an anechoic chamber based at UCL. The space itself is very strange to stand in, the best comparison I can think of is what happens to your hearing when you travel in a pressurised aeroplane. In terms of recording audio in there, it was actually a pretty boring space to record in!
  • Although it did crop up in several interviews I was keen to avoid referencing John Cage’s 4:33 – there are some great pieces on this already (particularly here: http://www.thirdcoastfestival.org/library/1258-john-cage-and-the-question-of-genre) and it justifies a much longer discussion than I could have accommodated for it.
  • The piece was recorded on a Zoom H4n and a Marantz PMD661 with AKG D230 dynamic microphone. It was edited and composed in Ableton Live.
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On Location: Writers, Sounds and Places

Dartmoor

A couple of weeks ago I took part in the ‘On Location: Writers, Sounds and Places’ event at the British Library, which was organised in collaboration with The Guardian and In The Dark.

The event explored British landscapes, both urban and rural, through a collection of sounds, words and film and included a panel discussion chaired by the Guardian’s Madeline Bunting. On the panel were writer Rachel Lichtenstein, T.S. Eliot prizewinning poet Alice Oswald and Professor of Literature at the University of Essex, Marina Warner. The event set out to explore how writers, filmmakers and artists explore and capture the essence of British landscapes within their work – and the different approaches they take to achieve their art. You can read a lovely write up of the event by Cherly Tipp here.

To begin the event, I composed several sound pieces, which were to accompany and compliment live readings from both Alice Oswald and Rachel Lichtenstein. These pieces were designed to augment the imagery evoked within the readings and provide a powerful listening experience through the combination of spoken word and abstract sound. The pieces were mixed live under the readings, which brought an element of performance to the soundwork – something which I’d not really explored before in the context of listening events. This also introduced some lovely moments of serendipity, as abstract sounds from the compositions aligned themselves with the words of the readers.

Listening to the landscape

In darkness, Alice opened the event with a powerful reading of her piece ‘Sea Poem’, which was followed by a piece composed from an old recording of Ted Hughes, reading his piece ‘Wild Rock’ (listen below):

After this came  ‘A Whitechapel Walk’ from Rachel Lichtenstein, which introduced the sounds of moden Whitechapel into the auditorium. This was then followed by the second and final reading by Alice, who finished off with a her piece ‘Epileptic’ a piece which brought with it the sounds of night, fluttering wings and the distant tide.

 

You can hear the live recording from the event here: 

The tracklist is as follows:

  1. Alice Oswald – ‘Sea Poem’
  2. Ted Hughes – ‘Wild Rock’
  3. Rachel Lichtenstein – ‘A Whitechapel Walk’
  4. Alice Oswald – ‘Epileptic’

To close the event I’d composed a final soundscape which blended elements of both the rural and urban landscape, moving from the noise of the country into that of the city. With this piece I wanted to demonstrate noise as a feature of both the rural and urban soundscapes and so pulled out elements of both. This piece features a modified version of a previous work, ‘The Dustbin Man Cometh’ – which was produced for an In The Dark listening event back in March.

In addition to the event are a series of podcasts over at the Guardian which continue the themes of landscape literature, dedicating an episode each to the works of Alice and Rachel. You can also view the short film ‘Notes on Orford Ness’ which was screened at the event here, an aurally rich portrait of this unusual location, featuring extracts from writer Robert Macfarlane’s newly commissioned work, Untrue Island.