Alone in the Trees

During the summer, I stumbled across a call for contributors, for a sound art project that would be part of the Sanctuary Labs festival that takes place in the Galloway Forest Dark Skies Park each September. Sound artist Claire Archibald was looking for female audio contributors to share their memories/thoughts/emotional responses to the idea of being a woman alone in the woods and thereby create site specific installation that would be a ‘lone woman wood’ for festival goers to experience. Having grown up in a house surrounded by a small wood, the project immediately caught my imagination.

The project call out had a variety of prompts to get potential contributors thinking about the project’s areas of interest. One of the prompts involved pieces of music or field recordings, and I was reminded that I made a variety of field recordings in various woodlands over the pandemic. I’ve talked before about my adventures recording at the Merkinch Nature Reserve and down by the canal and used many of my recordings on the Ness Islands in my Out of Doors Soundscape last year. However, they weren’t the only woodland recordings. Back in April when only essential travel was allowed, I found myself in Portree for work, and took great pleasure in gathering some early morning field recordings, including in the little wood above the bay and behind the hospital. (There was a path, up the side of the hill into the trees, with a bi-lingual sign: how could I resist?) But the recordings that came immediately to mind were ones I made before that when we still couldn’t go anywhere at all, and my regular walks around Inverness, uncovered a pocket woodland just off an otherwise suburban street. Aultnaskiach Dell is a pocket wood, a rare urban community buyout, and the unusual geography of the place means that as soon as you get into the Dell proper, all sounds of the outside world disappear. As though you’ve stepped through a portal into a rather more rural area, or in my case, it felt like I stepped through a portal in time and space, back into the woods of my childhood. The perfect place for a bit of forest bathing, if that’s your thing. Even just listening back to the recordings I took that first day is transporting and soothing, like being wrapped briefly in a bit of another, safer, simpler, time and place. I knew they were the perfect recordings to accompany my forest thoughts.

Even after having filmed a short horror film in a forest as a student, I’m still less unnerved by the thought of being alone in a forest than many other people I know, regardless of gender. (As I write this it occurs to me that that is not the only time I’ve worked on a film in the forest. When I was still freelancing a few years ago, I did a short stint working on the kids show Raven in the woods near Lagganlia in the Caingorms.) After all, to me, the real fear is not that you’re alone in the woods – it’s that you’re not alone in the woods.

In the end they received 140 submissions across 11 different languages. Enough that each of the 17 trees that they were using as anchors could play a different loop of sounds, so that no two wanders through that wood would be the same, with the sounds combining, collaborating or clashing in different ways depending on the route the visitor took or the time of day they visited. Although I knew from the start that with the festival taking place at almost exactly the opposite end of the country from me, I was unlikely to be able to attend, and even if I were the chances of hearing my piece in situ during the short window I would have been able to be in the actual location, I was still a little sad to have to miss out on experiencing it first hand. The little snippets I got to experience second hand through social media, only succeeding in leaving me wanting more.

Nature Recording

One of the interesting side-effects of the various lockdowns is how much more sound recording I’ve done over the last year. Initially it was driven by an urge to capture the changed soundscape of life but it turned out that the sound of the world around me hadn’t changed as dramatically as it did in other places. If anything, I think the soundscape of Inverness was more changed by the second lockdown than the first. Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps it was the higher transmission rate in the Highlands this time around making people more cautious and rule-abiding. When there isn’t a lot else to do other than take long walks, having the aim of sound recording was at first a solid excuse to get out of the house for some fresh air, and later much needed motivation to get out of the house when the lockdown slump set in. Over time it just became a habit, carrying my recorder everywhere, whipping it out to capture a specific sound or interesting combination of sounds, rather than only taking it on specific sound recording trips.

There are lots of things that I always think I would do if I only had the time that this last year has shown me that actually I wouldn’t do – it turns out that film is primarily a collective experience for me, whether in the cinema or a friend’s sofa and if I really want to read a book I’ll carve out the time, if I don’t I won’t – and also that there are definitely things that I will do given enough time and that I should make space for more generally. Since I moved to Inverness I’ve made more of an effort to take specific sound recording trips and in doing so I’ve accidentally associated the activity with holidays and day trips – I have folders of sounds from Budapest, Riga, Helsinki and the Western Isles. Over the last year, I’ve got to know a different side of the city, the sounds of it’s different areas. It shouldn’t be surprising, given that I’ve explored a lot of cities I’ve visited on holiday via this method, but it was a surprise to me how much I enjoyed making this new map of the city. I don’t think I’ve spent this much time outdoors since I was a kid, or at least since I lived in Bournemouth, where the sea called us down to the beach regardless of weather or season.

One of the main factors in my choice of replacement recorder – and also why I stuck for so long with my previous recorder despite it’s age – was the size. My old recorder came with a handy case that could be looped onto a belt, was just large enough to contain it’s cable and mic while being small enough to fit easily in a coat pocket. Having a recorder small enough to tuck into a coat pocket or the side pocket of a travel bag made it’s regular use exponentially more likely. As a wise sound recordist once told me when I was a student, the best sound recorder for making any kind of field recordings, is the one you have on you at the time. (For related reasons I did experiment for a while with Audioboo(m) on my phone for spur of the moment recordings of interesting sounds, but I abandoned that as if you lost network connectivity it didn’t/wouldn’t save the recording locally and instead it disappeared into the ether. It’s a shame the company ended up going in a different direction entirely, because it had a lot of potential it never lived up to in favour of becoming just another podcast hosting/distribution service.) My current recorder’s main foible is that it’s case is only big enough for it on it’s own. It doesn’t even fit the fluffy wind-shield – for that matter it doesn’t even fit the smaller foam pop shield – let alone the tiny tripod or the cable, which kind of defeats the point of the case and it’s belt loop. It does however mean it can live in my bag without me worrying about it getting fluff or crumbs anywhere it shouldn’t. It is, however, highly portable easily fitting into a coat pocket and that means it regularly gets grabbed at the last moment and taken along on trips for other purposes.

Until this year with very few exceptions – crows, seagulls, pigeons and woodpeckers mostly, with some honourable mentions for distinctive birds like corncrakes, oyster catchers and kittiwakes – I couldn’t positively identify a wild bird I recorded unless I literally saw it making the sound. I’m still a long way from being an expert – I’ve taken to photographing the birds I record so I can double check – but I can at least pick out individual birds from a wider soundscape so that I can label recordings more helpfully than ‘birdsong’. (The RSPB’s bird identification database is hugely helpful on this front, at least if the bird was singing, it’s not quite as useful if the bird was just sitting chirping on a gutter or branch.) I’ve gotten to know the different sounds of morning birds as the seasons change. I may never grow to love the sound of gulls at 5am, but oyster catchers parading along the roof line are a morning joy, and the crows, blackbirds and jackdaws have become friendly companions to my early morning commutes. I’ve learned to not mix up female blackbirds and starlings – though the lbbs (little brown birds) that plague all beginner birders remain a source of bafflement to me both visually and aurally.

A few years ago I wrote about exploring the local nature reserve and at the time I noted that it was Autumn and that didn’t seem to be the ideal time to go exploring there. That’s been the real theme of my recordings this last year, getting to know the sound of places through different seasons. I now have a year of changing recordings of the places close by that I like to walk and to record. I can compare my pre-lockdown autumnal recordings of the canal, with the spring recordings I made for my soundscape early in lockdown, with last winter’s crunching through the ice and snow, to more recent summery adventures when things had begun to open up again. I sort my sound recordings by date and by location, but I’ve done so much recording over the last year that this is a less helpful distinction than it used to be – however there’s a definite pleasure to searching for recordings tagged ‘nairn’ and getting results back that span several years and as many different seasons. It’s a different kind of familiarity, to know a place through its sounds, through the way they change with the season – a different but no less important sense of place.

I remember, a few years ago, setting myself the new year’s resolution of going out and getting some field recordings once a month – just an afternoon, not even a full day – in an attempt to get myself back into the habit of it. I was chuffed back then that I managed a handful of occasions. Throughout the pandemic I’d be hard pushed to think of a month when I haven’t gone sound recording. Even when I wasn’t actively going sound recording, I’ve picked up the habit of carrying my recorder in my bag, almost everywhere, so that if I hear an interesting sound in the wild – a juvenile robin singing it’s heart out on the way to the shops, the weird Doppler effect the traffic lights across from my regular coffee place make, some inexplicable church bells I heard drifting along the river from an apparently closed up church – I can stop and capture it.

Second Contact

I’ve talked before about how much I love hydrophones, the why’s and wherefores of their continued fascination for me, and the ways in which every time I encounter them I lose time researching them and debating the feasibility of getting my own. However, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately making contact mic recordings, and realised that I pretty much never write about contact mics which I’ve loved for far longer.

I first encountered contact microphones as a student. At the time contact mics were pretty expensive to buy – certainly out of a student’s price-range – but our course technician came across instructions to make your own and passed them on to us with the warning to be careful what you attached them to as he’d accidentally eavesdropped on adjacent offices trying to record some gurgling radiators. A course mate and I spent a delightful afternoon building some together and attaching them to things gleefully, and though they long since burned out, I still have one in my cable drawer for sentimental value.

Many moons later, though still quite a while ago, I ended up chatting about contact microphones with the then-artist-in-residence at the hospital radio station I volunteered with. We had a good chat about building our own contact mics and the way the components burned out after so long, and then he pointed out that you can now get them pretty reasonably online so you don’t need to build them yourself anymore if you don’t want to. The idea lodged itself in my brain and a few years ago I did in fact get myself a cheap little contact mic to see how it turned out. I was never particularly impressed by it, I figured either it didn’t work properly or it really needed a pre-amp, but it never did work well with my old – and much beloved – sound recorder.

However, back in the Summer of last year, I finally got round to treating myself to a new sound recorder – a Zoom H2n, I prefer the H5n but the H2n wins on portability, it literally fits in my pocket – and when I was listening to Deep Blue Notes and falling down the hydrophone rabbit hole I told myself sternly that I wasn’t allowed to buy one until I’d got my contact microphone situation sorted. I hadn’t tried it out with the new recorder, as I’d previously had enough to experiment with trying out it’s different built-in microphone configurations – it has X/Y, Mid-Side, 2 channel surround and 4 channel surround options, after years of using an X/Y set up for recording atmos on location it remains my go-to but I’m trying to be more adventurous and make better use of the surround options. In the course of my most recent hydrophone researching I’d been looking at the compatibility requirements for them and it noted that they needed ‘plug-in-power’ – which if it’s a new one on you as it was to me, is similar to phantom power, just a considerably lower voltage – and when it turned out that my new recorder did in fact have that, it occurred that that might be what my contact microphone needed. Indeed that made all the difference and while I suspect it would benefit from a preamp, I was able to once again enjoy the delightful world of secret sounds that a contact microphone reveals and make some delightful new recordings. I’ve spent the last couple of months delightedly attaching my contact microphone to everything I could imagine.

In practical terms the best element of contact microphones is the way they allow me to capture a sound in isolation. The sound of a clock ticking without the sound of the room around it, the otherwise nearly inaudible sounds of a sound desk’s faders in motion or the sound of a swing bridge clanking and rumbling as traffic trundles across it. (As you’ll hear from the recording embedded above, it does collect a certain amount of ambient noise but that is pushed into the background, allowing me to collect a particular sound without it being overwhelmed by it’s surroundings. Allowing the sound to shine, without having to remove the item from it’s context in order to record it – something that really isn’t possible when it comes to the clanking bridge, you need traffic for it to make the sound, but normally you wouldn’t be able to hear it over the traffic.) But there are also the secret joys of the contact microphone, the gorgeous, resonate bell tones of a fire extinguisher – CO2 is far superior to foam in this matter – the differing sounds of the bannisters in my office, that I have no practical use for but were a joy to capture and left me feeling as though I knew a secret about the building I’ve worked in for large chunks of the last seven years.

Deep Blue Notes

Deep Blue Notes is a three part podcast, by wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson and Professor Tony Myatt a spatial audio sound artist, released through the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast. It follows them on their quest – at the start of the year – to record Blue Whales in the Sea of Cortez – off Loreto, Mexico – creatures whose sounds have eluded Watson throughout his long career as a wildlife sound recordist. The two of them are collaborating on a sound installation for Oceans 21 – a project on the fascination and endangerment of the oceans – called Seaphony, which premiers in Berlin in May of next year.

The podcast uses their quest for these very specific sounds as a jumping off point to talk to a variety of specialists about a variety of issues around sound and sea-life, from how sound carries through water, through the impact of climate change – both human driven and natural phenomena like El Niño – to how human noise – essentially sound pollution – impacts on sealife. It’s all fascinating stuff, and I always love listening to recordings from hydrophones – I definitely spent part of at least two of the episodes looking at hydrophones online and checking specs to see if a reasonably affordable one would be compatible with my new sound recorder – but it also made me want to introduce Watson and Myatt to the fine folks at the Lighthouse Field Station. I suspect, in these travel limited times, they could probably recommend some good marine life recording spots that are a little closer to home than Mexico.

One of the most interesting aspects of the whole podcast, to me, is that they made a three-part podcast about their quest to record Blue Whale vocalisations, and in the end they didn’t succeed in recording the Whales. They spent time among the whales, sometimes with them being almost in touching distance and the whales just, didn’t sing for them. Of course, that’s the reality of sound recording, especially when you’re recording wildlife. On a trip this summer to record a variety of other sounds, I came across a frog, sitting in the middle of the road. It seemed quite happy for me to crouch down beside it – making no attempt to hop away or otherwise escape – and settle my recorder close by, but while other frogs in the hedgerows nearby croaked away quietly, the one literally at my feet, remained completely silent. It’s one of the great frustrations of sound recording, that so often you’ll hear an interesting sound and the minute you get your recorder out and running, it will stop. So theoretically that’s actually the most likely outcome of any given recording trip, yet narrative documentaries have taught us to expect a final act triumph, and I was definitely expecting one right up until the end. Yet that simple unapologetic acknowledgement that these things happen, that they knew that was a likely outcome, and have learned a lot from the experience so that they’ll do better next time they try, was so very refreshing and dare I say it, quite affirming too.

An Out of Doors Soundscape

In the early days of lockdown, far enough in that it was obvious this wasn’t going to be a couple of weeks of strangeness but early enough that the novelty hadn’t yet worn off, I started making sound recordings. I think, initially I was intending to contribute them to Cities and Memories lockdown sounds or perhaps make some kind of sound walk installation with them but as time went on and I gradually collected more and more sounds, it became clear that I while I definitely wanted to make some art with them, I needed a bigger canvas for them. I needed a focal point, something to hang a piece on and do the wealth of material justice.

In July, Radio 3 put out a call for proposals for their Slow Radio strand, and one of the producers at work thought of me and my sound recordings and sent it on to me. Between us we put together a pitch – a new experience for me, as for most of the last decade I’ve generally been handed a brief and been expected to fulfil it – and submitted it off to them. This led to some rather entertaining socially distanced location recording adventures – the kind of location sound recording that I normally do is a rather solitary affair which was definitely a contributing factor to why I got so much of it done in lockdown – as my producer had come across some excellent sounds that he thought would add to my soundscape, and we got to re-negotiate how to work together on this sort of thing, within the somewhat safer space of the great outdoors.

Although we were ultimately unsuccessful in our pitching to Radio 3, we did succeed in interesting a Radio Scotland producer – who was also pitching – and so I ended up making a mini version of the programme for Out of Doors. It’s been ages since I made a soundscape that’s needed to stand alone but also told a story rather than being abstract. It was initially intended to have far less voiceover than it ultimately ended up with. I wrote the script to get the story of the piece straight in my head and essentially act as a guide track for me to edit around, but somewhere along the way I rediscovered my radio voice and a surprising amount of voice over made the final cut. Albeit after a fair amount of it had been rewritten and condensed and I definitely had to have a word with myself about killing my darlings. Having mostly worked in news over the last six years, it felt strangely decadent to have the luxury of time to work on a project, leave it to rest for a bit and then make more changes with fresh ears, rather than working against the clock. It was strangely thrilling to hear my own voice on the radio for the first time in years.

After that success my producer buddy casually suggested that I should translate my script into Gaelic and re-record it so that we could use that to pitch our original idea to Radio Nan Gaidheal. As the original programme proposal focused on my other lockdown project – attempting to upgrade my Gaelic from intermediate level where it has plateaued these last few years – it seemed a fitting way to quantify my progress, with a proper translation and something ‘real’ to work towards. I expected the translation part to be the difficult bit – usually if I’m writing something in Gaelic I’m just, writing it in Gaelic rather than translating from English so I’m leaning more on vocabulary and turns of phrase that I’m familiar with and comfortable using. This was very different; a challenge but a good one, and one that I could easily get help and feedback on from fluent colleagues. The difficult bit was reading it aloud. One of the things about learning a language as an adult is that you don’t learn to read the same way as you would as a child. You learn to read in the sense that you can read words and understand what they mean, but you do very little reading aloud. You read aloud sentences you wrote and get your pronunciation corrected but you don’t start with first principals and phonetics, so you don’t really acquire an instinctive understanding of how sounds fit together in words. Which means that often I can pronounce all the words in an individual sentence perfectly well but stringing them together is a different matter entirely.

The other challenge that I kept running up against is that I don’t have a ‘radio voice’ in Gaelic. I’ve had feedback and tutoring from various colleagues who all say I’m ‘almost there’ both in terms of pronunciation and radio voice – apparently I slip into and out of it as I go, and I know what they mean. I suspect it would be less frustrating if my Gaelic radio voice was further away? If I listened back to recordings and thought it was terrible, or that it had potential but not yet, I could just ask someone else to voice it and that would be that. That state of almost but not quite there is deeply frustrating. (It feels a bit metaphorical for my level of Gaelic fluency too.) I’m trying not to be too hard on myself, as it took months of being a radio trainee, doing two hours a week of talking on the radio to find my voice in English and I definitely don’t get that much solid time speaking Gaelic every week, let alone speaking it into a microphone.

So that’s where that project is at the moment. Hopefully I’ll have a Gaelic version to share reasonably early in the new year but for the moment I’m focusing I can make the soundscape itself reflect the same core truths in a different way.

Waterscape @CircusArtspace

I started writing this art exhibition review, the weekend after I saw it, when the official advice was to avoid pubs, clubs and concerts, anywhere with more than 500 people or that was confined and busy. (The Highlands had yet to have it’s first confirmed case of coronavirus.) An art exhibition, mid-week and off the beaten track seemed an ideal way to spend the afternoon on my day off – there was in fact, just me and the exhibition invigilator for my whole visit. By the Monday everything had changed and it felt weird writing this article. The exhibition itself had been wrapped up early. But part of why I went in the first place was because it might be a while before I could see another art installation and I was correct about that. This exhibition was definitely worth seeing and though circumstances cut it’s already short run down even further, it’s worth remembering.

For obvious reasons, I have fairly high standards when it comes to sound art installations. I get to see them so rarely and the subsequently high expectations mean that I’m all the more disappointed when the art turns out to be disappointing. For a while, a few years back, the best I could often hope for would be that the installation would be so rubbish that I would be so annoyed that I’d be inspired to make my own sound art in grumpy response.

Sometimes though, I come across a sound installation that is so good it inspires me for the opposite reason. Nicola Gear’s contribution to the Waterscape exhibition is definitely in the latter category. It’s an installation in the two parts. The first one Weather is around sixteen minutes long, broken into five movements (glacial melt, storm, shore, garden and pub) played over speakers in the exhibition space. The second part was installed on little portable MP3 players, with headphones so that you could listen just to it or to both pieces at once. The two pieces run in tandem to each other, you can stop and start the one on the player whenever you like and really play around with how the two of them interact with each other, moving yourself around the room, standing up or sitting down – I was alone in the space so I even tried lying on the floor, pretending I was in one of Marco Dessado’s boats on a loch somewhere – to really get the most out of the experience. If all art is changed by it’s interaction with the viewer, then it was true of this exhibit more than most.

If you get the chance, I highly recommend sitting on the floor between the two boats that make up the main part of Marco Dessado’s part of the exhibition, and listening to the headphones on one ear and the speakers with the other ear. The two parts of Gear’s installation interact in new and different ways on each loop. In the low slanting winter light, with the boats hanging close by at head height, you begin to feel almost underwater. Just lovely.

Waterscape ran at Circus Artspace @ Inverness Creative Academy from March 11th to March 18th – it continues, partially, online.

A three part collage. At the top a hand built boat lit by slanting sunlight, below a portable mp3 player and a speaker, then a small sound desk with a zoom recorder attached.
Waterscape Exhibition

Keeping Sounds Safe on #TapeboxTuesday

Is it even a Nablopomo November if I don’t end up writing at least one post about an obscure audio topic? I suspect not.

Apparently, the 27th of October was World Day for Audiovisual Heritage so it feels a particularly appropriate time to write about the continuing efforts of the Save Our Sounds campaign. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage – to give the project it’s full name – is a British Library project to preserve, catalogue and give access to rare and unique sound recordings, in partnership with various arts bodies across the UK.

In these troubled times it can be hard to remember that once upon a time twitter was full of nerds – both political and technical – getting over-enthusiastic about their respective, and occasionally overlapping passions. Much as youtube doesn’t belong entirely to the conspiracy theorists and the alt-right, but also to the DIYers and the live music streamers, if you know where to look, twitter still contains silos of folks who really care about niche areas of technology and craft. I find audio preservation twitter to be a particularly soothing place to browse. Reading and listening to audio engineers and archivists being meticulously competent, is both charming and satisfying especially when everything else seems to be screaming along at 100 miles an hour, trailing insults.

Lately, I’ve been particularly enjoying the efforts of the Keep Sounds team – based at The Keep Archives in Brighton – and their excellent blog. Covering a variety of topics from the practical like, how to repair a cassette tape with a broken reel or how best to digitize an old tape, to collating and sharing some gems from the archive they’ve been digitising, through creative uses of tape, to musings on the vital role of oral histories in preserving otherwise unheard voices.

(If your archival interests are more broad spectrum – or just specific in a different area – may I recommend the #ArchiveZ tag, where a wide variety of the archives have been sharing the A to Z of gems from their own collections.)

Perhaps it’s because I was on early radio shift last week – though doubtless writing part of this entry with a soundtrack of Na Dùrachdan contributed – but I’ve been thinking the archives that Radio Nan Gaidheal holds and what that archive means for the listenership. Since the pandemic first arrived on these shores, I’ve been spending much less time filming out in the field and much more time behind a sound desk in the studio. As a side effect of that, I’ve got to know a particular section of the output considerably better. Like most radio stations the majority of the musical output is in digital format, however unlike the vast majority they still have a decent amount of analogue music. Having largely cut my radio teeth in hospital radio, I was quite surprised how little vinyl we have on hand, but instead we have lots – and lots, three cupboards full – of old reel to reel tapes. Recordings from Mods, from ceilidhs on sundry islands, concerts and live studio sessions. Mostly singing – often unaccompanied – but some instrumental works alongside poetry and few story-tellers. In many cases the only recordings ever made of a notable singer or poet, now long dead. These are not dusty forgotten tapes. Many of them come out on a regular basis, not as novelty items but often as requests – the listeners know that they’re there and they request them. In their way they represent the memories of a generation in magnetic tape, artifacts of a changing way of life, decaying gently but no less treasured for it. The people captured on those tapes, are the parents, the siblings, the friends of the listeners – sometimes a request will come dedicated to the person who wrote it, or to celebrate the significant anniversary of a wedding the song was written to commemorate. They matter, very much, to the audience.

But the tapes are decaying, slowly but surely, in the way of all magnetic tape. A few weeks ago, a discussion about tape speeds – it hadn’t previously occurred to me that tapes like vinyl records might need different speeds to play correctly – led to my spotting, just in time that the adhesive had given up the ghost and the leader tape on the track we were about to play had come free. Emergency repairs were made and the listener got their request after all but I suspect this will start to happen more and more. Even our solid, reliable tape decks are aging out of service, the ‘spare’ deck kept as much for spare parts as it is for actual use.

What happens when they go? The ‘popular’ ones have been digitised, but what of the rest? They represent the memories of a generation, and also the dreams of another, one that thought these things were worth saving. The folklorists, historians, archivists and field recordists who saw shift in both generation and culture coming, and took advantage of the then new technology to preserve them. I don’t have an easy answer to this, or any answer at all really; it’s just that every time I use these tapes I’m reminded that these questions need to be asked – and soon.

Virtual @Tectonicsglas Festival

This weekend is Tectonics weekend.

It’s not as though I manage to attend every year, or even most years, and generally I can’t make the whole thing so end up doing only the Saturday or only the Sunday. Nonetheless, I was originally supposed to be off this weekend and I’d vaguely planned on taking the long weekend and heading to Glasgow to attend. Then of course, everything changed in March and all those plans went to dust.

In common with many other small festivals, Tectonics has made a valiant attempt at creating a virtual festival over the course of it’s scheduled weekend. Unlike many other small music festivals, because the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is involved, most of the proceedings are recorded for Radio 3 and some of the performances even get filmed, so we aren’t talking a shoogly Youtube playlist with lots of unwanted feedback and peaking. All the strange noises are intentional strange noises!

In a nice touch, they’d laid out the virtual programme in the same style and structure as the actual festival programme normally takes, with artist talks and interviews – some archive and others clearly recorded on Zoom specifically for this event – early in each day, alternating concerts between the intertwining strands that would normally take place in the Fruit Market and the City Halls, with set piece concerts later and late night experimental DJ sets to finish it off. Giving the whole thing a feel of a fantasy line-up rather than an apology.

(To add to the verisimilitude of my own experience, I only discovered that the virtual festival was happening, a few days before, after spotting a stray post on twitter.)

One of the available gigs is Syzygys from 2018, which I actually saw live at the Fruit Market and were the highlight of that year’s Tectonics for me – the kind of gig that if you have to leave before the encore, makes you seriously contemplate missing your last train home just to hear one more song. They make such strange and wonderful experimental music, with such confidence and competence. However off the wall the results, it’s never random, the music has a clear internal logic that I appreciate – I find both serialism and minimalism compelling rather than cold when it comes to modern classical music – and there were definitely elements that were pleasingly reminiscent of the medieval end of Western Early music, along with some rather more learning toward the Middle East. Such a pleasure to hear their set again.

I was particularly delighted to see that the sound installations got their moment in the sun too, with extracts from Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drums and Acoustic Pendulums and Sounds from the Farmyard both of which I’ve written about previously – in fact at the start of the clip of the latter, the more eagle-eyed of you may spot me in the audience!

The whole programme has been a delightful companion this weekend, whether I’ve been actively watching concerts in the evenings, or letting the audio only recordings run in the background while I’ve been working from home. All the clips are available for the next 30 days, so if you didn’t get a chance to watch the festival as it unfolded over the weekend, you’ve plenty of time to enjoy something charming, challenging and occasionally baffling, in the coming weeks.

Soundscapes and Binaural Radio

Back in the late spring/early summer of this year, when I was gleefully falling down a rabbit hole of radio drama on BBC Sounds, I also took a detour into the non-fiction parts of its output. While the iPlayer algorithm has never really thrown me anything that I wouldn’t otherwise have stumbled upon, Sounds regularly throws things into my feed that I wouldn’t have thought to go looking for but nonetheless really enjoy. Perhaps it’s simply a data volume issue, not only do I listen to more radio than television, perhaps more of the people who like similar content to me are using Sounds than are using the iPlayer? Alternatively perhaps the people making/programming Sounds are also radio geeks who listen to a similarly wide range of audio sources and genres so have taught their algorithm more realistic suggestions?

Soundscapes was one of those serendipitous discoveries – I seem to recall it being a ‘suggested listen’ after a slow radio episode recorded in a bog somewhere in Wales – as it’s a late night specialist music show out of Radio Ulster/Foyle so realistically something I would never have come across of my own volition. It’s mostly a modern classical music show, but it covers ambient and electronic music as well, and more importantly from my perspective, it contains a weekly soundscape. Usually the soundscape centres around an interview with someone – generally an artist or poet or historian, but also just people with interesting life experiences or specialist knowledge – layering their voice and the sounds of their environment/specialist subject, in with a piece of music. Sometimes they feel like very beautiful oral histories and other times like abstract art.

It somehow managed to feel both like very old-fashioned radio and also like something ground breaking and adventurous. Over a six-month period the show wormed it’s way into my affections, becoming my favourite regular radio programme that I looked forward to listening to each week. So naturally of course it came to an end in the autumn. (Although the show has finished, the soundscapes are still up online, and I highly recommend giving them a listen while you can.) The presenter Stephen McCauley has been rewarded with a longer more prime-time slot, and while I’m pleased for him, I shall miss this strange little show; it was like nothing else on the radio.

In search of a new radio love affair, I’ve recently stumbled across the show Between the Ears, which despite having run since 1993 and having its own podcast has completely escaped my notice. One of the driving forces behind the series is to make innovative use of sound in telling stories. At the moment they seem to be focusing quite heavily on binaural sound, which works better in some cases than others. While some episodes just feel like they’re in really good stereo, the episode Living in a Box felt as though you were in the protagonist’s head with him and M1 Symphony left me feeling as though I might drown in sound.

It’s also through this series that I made the surprising discover that Radio 3 are using binaural sound techniques to create a more immersive sound experience for the increasing number of listeners using headphones. I can’t say I’d ever noticed radio via headphones sounding ‘flat’ but perhaps that’s attenuation from years of listening to podcasts via either built-in laptop speakers or cheap ear buds. I certainly prefer to listen to audio drama with headphones, as it’s always felt more immersive, like I’ve stepped into another world.

I normally listen to Radio 3 output on an actual radio – either the hi-fi in my living room or the radio alarm clock beside my bed – so unless I’m listening to a podcast on a bus or train, headphones don’t really come into it. However, increasingly when travelling for work, I’ve taken to using the BBC Sounds app and the hotel Wi-Fi to enjoy whole radio programmes. Clearly next time I’m on the road I need to pack my good headphones and tune in with my phone to see the difference between stations!

I know that ASMR has become the go to trend/obsession for tech fixated Internet folks over the last few years, but for my money binaural sound is far more transformative. (Possibly because the actual ‘response’ part of ASMR doesn’t actually work for me, I find good ASMR soothing in the way a white noise generator’s rain sounds are soothing. The closest I’ve got to an actual ASMR experience is that binaural barbershop haircut you can find on YouTube.)

I was fascinated to discover the strides that have been made over the last few years to create immersive binaural sound for VR environments, combining the techniques of surround sound with binaural recordings to create a responsive sound environment. Personally I’ve always found the few VR environments I’ve tried out, to be quite disconcerting and alienating, but I can see how properly immersive sound could make it actually immersive. Also I appreciated Click presenter Spencer Kelly pointing out how sound could be used to draw the explorer’s attention in particular directions, which does answer a floating question about narrative that I’ve been left with after previous discussions on the increasing crossover between films and video games. How do you draw the viewer’s attention to the correct place to pick up narrative clues without breaking the fourth wall?

Also I clearly need to go back and watch that Doctor Who episode they did with binaural sound while wearing headphones, because based on a clip I just watched that’s a whole other level of immersive and creepy.

The Sound of Trees

On Saturday I stumbled across a radio programme about trees, more properly a love letter to trees, or at least to the sounds that they make. It starts with Thomas Hardy’s assertion that it was possible to learn to identify trees by their sound alone, and speaks to arboriculturalists, poets and composers along the way to testing this hypothesis.

The Susurrations of Trees is the kind of programme that I most strongly associate with Radio 4 – though it’s particular use of music means it could have slotted easily into Radio 3’s output. A gently fascinating programme well suited to being background listening while you work on something else – something perhaps repetitive but necessary, that can be easily paused when the presenter tells you something particularly interesting you need to focus on. I found myself searching for a task of that kind barely a few minutes into listening, and ended up listening with my head out the window as I pruned back my winter-bare herbs, while Bob Gilbert’s reassuring tones drifted up to me. I needed to be able to concentrate on listening but also to be doing something with my hands.

It got me thinking about how different a process it is recording the sounds of the natural world as opposed to recording the human world. Despite having grown up in the countryside, I am primarily a recorder of urban soundscapes. Perhaps it was because when I first started to make my own location recordings, the sound of urban environments were more novel to my ears so more likely to pique my interest and therefore get recorded. I first started making my own recordings while at university in Bournemouth, where my locations for recordings were shaped and circumscribed by not having a car. If I wanted to record something or somewhere, I needed to be able to get there by public transport. The earliest recordings I have that were worth keeping were made inside Christchurch Priory and outside in it’s graveyard, though I distinctly remember filling in a risk assessment for taking the recorder out to record the waves on Bournemouth beach. This seems a sensible reason for why it rarely occurs to me to take my recorder when I’m driving somewhere, but associate it more with trips that involve at least a couple of forms of public transport.

So perhaps it would be more apt to say that I’m a recorder of in between places, transitory places, seashores, graveyards, and public transport. There are so few places that are truly one thing or the other these days. Most location sound recordists have a story about having to call a pause in filming because despite standing in a field in the apparent middle of nowhere due to a plane or a distant quad bike. (Aircon units are my personal bugbear – as if they don’t cause enough problems indoors, their outlets will often ruin the soundscape of an alley or wooded space behind a building with their omnipresence.) Equally though, for every time distant traffic has interfered with my nature recordings, I have been plagued by nature in urban environments – mostly seagulls, but pigeons, cats, dogs and once, memorably a heron, have all made my recordings seem rather more rural.

Last month I spent some time recording – or attempting to make recordings – in Merkinch nature reserve at the edge of Inverness. I probably picked the wrong time of year for it – I’d perhaps have had better luck in Spring rather than Autumn – but despite being a peaceful and pleasant place to walk and feeling like a respite from the surrounding city, the sounds of urban life were obvious and intrusive the moment I turned on the recorder. Recording nature requires much more stillness and patience than recording the human world. Man-made objects are far less likely to stop making a noise the moment you point a recorder at them. The audio cycles of clocks and traffic lights or automated announcements are much more predictable than those of birds or foxes or storms.