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The strange thing about being a sound person is the way the world sounds different. It’s almost the opposite effect from looking through a viewfinder at the world. I love photography but the field of vision of a camera lens is so much smaller than that of the eye, by necessity it hems in the horizon. Photography steals moments out of time, recording sound captures vibrations, often ones you never realised were there at all. The world through a microphone and a set of headphones is bigger and noisier than most people ever notice. Once you’ve heard the world like that there’s no such thing as silence. Every room, even beyond the buzzes and hums that are the bane of every sound recordist’s life, has its own sound, its own tone.

I recently spent time on Shetland for their film festival – expect reviews soon – and given the wealth of wildlife in those islands I took the opportunity to try and get some recordings. What Shetland also has in abundance other than wildlife is wind. Good old habituation means that eventually the ears just tune out the constant background wind noise, unfortunately the microphone has no such filter so many a promising recording has been discarded due to its subject being almost entirely drowned out by the wind. There’s probably a really interesting paper to be written on the effect of wind on how sound waves travel through air or even on the effect of wind on our perception of sound direction, another day I’d probably even enjoy reading it. However, in the meantime there are few more frustrating things than having spent ages crouched three feet from a wading bird carefully recording its cries, only to listen back to a recording that consists mostly of wind, the bird’s cries inexplicably drowned by those of a disgruntled sheep half a mile away on the other side of the field….

Handily however, the vagaries of sound on the islands did inspire a bit of creative writing so I leave you with that instead.

The seals are calling. Their voices carry on the wind across the island, leading our feet to the inlet where they are basking in the faint autumn sun. Close up their cries come quieter and less often. We shelter behind the wall so we do not spook the moulting sunbathers. Carefully focussing lenses and microphone on our aquatic subjects. They seem aware of our presence regardless, and fall silent; with only the occasional discontent ‘arf’ escaping, like so many puppies, displeased by the cold. The recording will yield nothing but wind and the crackle of the crisp long lichen that thrives on the walls and the clean air of the island.

As we round the curve of the island a view of the cliffs reveals itself. On the wind the seals’ cries come again, transformed by wind and echoes into something somehow both more haunting and more human. On the breeze comes a sound like a woman crying for a lost child, it tells of loss and grief too deep for words.

Yet I know if we turn the recorder on it will capture only the soughing of the wind, the roar of the waves, and underneath only the distant, faint calls of seals. The song of the selkies has a magic of its own that defies capture or analysis. If we were to return to the loch we would not see them basking with their kin on the beach.

The selkies call us back to their loch. We do not heed their calls; we do not look back.

Mousa

Island of Mousa, Shetland

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