Sound Inspirations

I wanted to write something about sound that was making me feel inspired at the moment, because, well I’ve not been feeling particularly inspired recently and I need to remind myself of what inspires me and reconnect with it.

People Doing Excellent Work Within the System

I’ve not been to the cinema very often this year, and mostly only to see big blockbuster efforts which is pretty much the opposite of the ideal circumstances to hear good film sound. Everything’s painted in broad brushstrokes, soundscape just as much a characterisation and plot, and in most cinemas the soundtrack will be played Far. Too. Loud. (Turning it up to 11 doesn’t always make it better) Which is why of course I ended up seeing Gravity in 2D at an arts cinema where you can actually find an human being to adjust the sound if its gone wonky.

As any sound geek will tell you (and as the film tells the viewer in its opening moments) due to space being a vacuum its not possible for sound to be heard in space, so following that school of thought almost all the sound we hear in the film is strictly subjective; lots of breathing and radio transmissions. The sound traps us into the suits with the astronauts too, giving us the full claustrophobic experience. The sheer weight of the silence outside their little bubbles is like a physical weight pressing down on them, as relentless as gravity, and the astronauts’ communications, narrating their actions (especially after they lose contact with Earth) and telling each other – and the ether – stories to fight off the silence is a vital part of the film’s atmosphere as well as its soundscape. The way the radio broadcasts act as lifelines just as much as the tethers do, from Matt’s country music and stories told to keep Ryan from passing out as she runs low on Oxygen, to the banter and warnings from mission control (especially the astronauts reporting back to ‘Houston in the blind’ just in case they can be heard back on Earth, to Ryan’s two-way incomprehensible conversation with a Chinese farmer/radio operator, it says a fair bit about the human urge to communicate and reach out to each other even when they don’t/can’t understand and manages to be rather emotive as well. The sound is subtle and rarely foregrounded, the score is barely noticeable – and when it is briefly noticeable it feels grating and wrong – and all the more powerful for that. Less is more after all, but when it needs to be my goodness it packs a punch.

(I knew Glen Freemantle’s name was familiar from somewhere, he’s been sound designer on almost all of Danny Boyle’s films, include Sunshine which has frankly excellent sound – I can’t believe I haven’t written about it before, must remedy that and soon.)

People Being Experimental and Adventurous

Soundry. In their own words, ‘an online creative listening laboratory and magazine…[that]…publish existing work and help artists create new work with the aim of sharing sounds that enrich and transform ways of listening to the noise and silence of everyday life’. Essentially they’re collating all the weird and wonderful sound projects and experiments going on out there that you might otherwise miss. They’re mostly on tumblr, which is a nice change, as it means their posts just show up in the flow of my dashboard when I’ve had a long hard day at work and can’t cope with anything more complex than a flow of pretty pictures but could really use something strange and imaginative to kick me back into gear. (There’s just so much on twitter these days that it’s easy to miss the good stuff)

I first stumbled across them via a posting on, I think, Central Station, calling for submissions to their postcards project. Essentially, you submit a photograph with a minute of sound that captures the atmosphere of the place you took the photo. It’s a really simple idea, but there’s something really evocative about the way the sound postcards capture little moments in time and place. Proper slice of life stuff.

Edinburgh Water of Life. Stumbled across on the Scotland Introducing podcast of all places, its Tommy Perman of FOUND (and weird and wonderful composing efforts for the Riverside museum fame) and singer songwriter Rob St John, recording and sampling the sounds of Edinburgh waterways with underwater microphones combining natural and unnatural sounds and making music with them. If you pop over to their website you can hear some of the source recordings (which are rather fascinating in their own right), some samples of the finished tracks and read all about the research and adventures they had on this arts/science project of theirs. I’ve a deep abiding love of contact microphones but having listened to this I really want to experiment with hydrophone microphones now. I had a pretty good summer this year, but I kind of wish it’d been more like theirs…

Mark’s Sri Lankan adventures. Actually this one needs a bit more explanation. So, I run the Production Team at the radio station based at Forth Valley Royal Hospital, Radio Royal. Last year we were lucky enough to have an artist in residence Mark Vernon – well, actually he belonged to the hospital itself but we got to work closely with him. Which led to the Channel 604 project, which in turn really fired up my production team about the potential to do interesting things with sound. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work of the production team, making jingles, promos and adverts, teaching new starts the basics of audio editing, and forget that actually the point of the team is to do ‘different’ stuff. Having Mark around and hearing the positive responses from people to the project (whether as participants or audience members) were a timely reminder that there is in fact an audience for something that wee bit different out there. It made us get out there with our giant headphones and tiny recording devices, interview people and record the world. We made things and tried things and generally got very excited and geeky about sound. But of course things tailed off, the residency finished, deadlines reared their ugly heads and generally we got distracted. But lo, a few weeks ago an email appeared, turns out that Mark’s out in Sri Lanka on residency working on a project for the Colombo Art Biennale next year. He’s sent back a sound diary of his adventures and once again weird, mundane and wonderful sounds are filling the room, snapshots of adventures half the world away. I can feel my inspiration waking up, looking around blearily and fixating on that one patch of blue sky amongst all the heavy grey.

It’s time to stop talking, grab the giant headphones, put fresh batteries in the Roland or the Marantz, get out there and listen.

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