Sound Stories — a Selection
The morning is cool and crisp, the light as clear as crystal, the grass glistening with dew, cold and wet underfoot. I strike a path straight up a steep hill behind the pao tent village where I know the view will give a panorama of the entire alpine valley. It’s early, and aside from the sounds of birds conversing high in the pines and horses ripping and munching grass on the flats below, the valleys are peaceful and still. I find a roughly level patch of grass at the top of the wooded peak and am preparing a camera position when I hear sudden shouts and whoops echo across the valley. Hooves thrum and drum the ground as several horses canter up the flat to avoid a couple of Kazakhs, harnesses in hands, running behind to saddle them. Out of the blue, from within a distant yurt, a boom-box is switched on and a deep bass beat, like the heartbeat of Tian Shan, thumps out loudly into the stillness. Like a cock’s crow the signal is sounded for the rest of the village to greet the day and suddenly the valley is alive with children’s voices and distant laughter, with deep and shrill sounds bouncing off the hills. Transfixed by the drama unfurling below I’m suddenly surprised from behind by two swarthy Kazakhs mounted on horses. With querulous smiles they look at me intently, then wordlessly gallop off in a rhythm of hoof-beats to the flats far below.
In Tokyo, Keiko took me to a Western style coffee bar below street level. When the door closed, a draught blew through a gap at the bottom of the door and a haunting chord of sound came through into the room.
Later I dreamt of a large door that was slightly ajar and when the wind blew through it, a divinely haunting chord of sound came through it into the room.
Much later I was in Wellington’s City Gallery theatrette watching silent films. But the films were not silent, they were accompanied by a continuous and divinely haunting chord of sound, which my ears gradually traced to the theatre door. The door was large and it was slightly ajar, balanced by the pressure of a draught outside and the air-conditioning within, and as the wind blew through it, a haunting chord of sound came through into the room.
Through a bedroom window
A quacking duck monologues endlessly
A lone hammer knocks dully
Men’s voices indecipherably rise on the breeze
A rhythm of multiple hammerings, breath-length pauses between
An electric saw sings an alluring microtonal melody
Solo knocking projects through a rumbly cacophony of background traffic
Hammering now on metal (a nearby factory?)
Car horns parp, one high, loud and long
A travelling fragment of whistled tune
Birds chirp and chatter a regular ostinato
An electric plane sings short downward-swooping glissandos
An irregular handsaw joins with slow to quick, low to high cuts
A clear whistle rises and fades as fast
A man shouts
Dogs bark up a long pause that the frequency breadth of the city fills in waves
A high squeal of distant brakes
A bird, or maybe dripping tap ricochets
A dog woofs high-pitched in reply, abrupt and childlike
The voice of the city flows into the gap
In distant perspective, a siren and a horn duet
And close by, a varying pitched bleat or could-be bark
A mystery of blunt pitches cascading.
(in bed recovering from food poisoning, 24.5.13)
Lively amplified devotional singing and drumming, spiced with echo effects is being broadcast from the Gujjar temple next door to the lakeside hostel I’m staying at in Pushkar, so I whip around into the temple courtyard to check it out. A drummer, two finger-cymbal players and a trio of singers sit cross-legged in the forecourt. A charismatic older man wearing a suit jacket and an orange turban stands in the centre, leading the singing in a call and response style, his gravelly voice reverberating into the night and across the lake.
I was welcomed into the circle and shown somewhere to sit. The music is trance-inducing, with its 3:4 rhythms repetitively underpinning half-spoken, half-sung vocals. Some heavy smoking is going down, ganja I assume. A recording is also in progress, the drummer occasionally flipping a cassette at the side. Suddenly a veiled, sari-clad women gets up out of the group to dance. Her style is alluring and provocative. She takes the mike from time to time and sings huskily and seductively. After a few minutes I realise the woman behind the veil is a man, laughing and camping it up. Two young guys arrive and join her, partnering her one at a time and then together. One song stops and another starts up almost immediately with the same relentless 3:4 rhythm. I make a donation to the musicians, but it comes back to me through about 10 hands, my appreciation acknowledged with its return. Later back in my room the live music stops and the recording, just made, loops and lulls me to sleep.
Tiritiri Matangi is a rare island sanctuary where all things native are nurtured and preserved and anything introduced removed or eradicated. It has one of the best native bird populations in the country with Tieke, Kiwi, Keruru, Korimako, Tui, Wihi in abundance, birds whose names alone evoke a dawn chorus.
A mobile phone feels especially foreign on the island but I have a necessity to call home shortly after arrival and leave my phone on, half expecting a reply as I walk a coastal ridge track. Blissfully absorbed in the absence of urban sounds and the superbly clear light, a sudden discordant signal, like a mal-functioning inter-com on echo-delay shocks me out of my trance. I automatically dive into my pockets for a malfunctioning mobile, only to find it mute, and the strangely electronic noise bleeping on. Confused and swivelling in all directions, my ears direct me to a barely concealed hole close to the track. Expecting to discover an electronic monitoring device, I go down on all fours for a closer inspection. The continuous bleeping blares out even louder and no amount of peering or tentative probing reveals the source. The only clue is a poop encrusted entrance. Later I’m told it’s the sound of hungry kingfisher chicks deep inside their burrow squawking for food.
We have a cat called Bella who has the loudest purr, a vibration low and deep, but with high burbling overtones when she’s excited. Intrigued about what mechanism of the voice box produces such therapeutic rumblings, I set out to find out how. After researching a bit I began practising and found I could breath in and out making a comparable rumbly purr. One morning, early, when Bella jumped on me in bed to sprawl on my chest, purring as she often does, I joined in with a resonant deep-throated purr. She abruptly stopped and vanished in fright.
About 10 years ago I made a journey to the Opihi River valley in South Canterbury to see Maori rock art first hand, and on the way there and back was drawn like a magnet to the mighty Kaikoura. The sea ran hard and the shingle sang as it surged up and down the beach, reminding me of my childhood in Napier where sounds of sea on shingle were ever within earshot. Within yards of each other I found two smooth, perfectly ovoid stones, one black, one white but as opposites they resisted pairing. The black stone I later found a mate for on the shore of Lake Tazawako in Japan, and a partner for the white one on Tiritiri Matangi. Song stones have personalities and are fussy about who they mate with.
In 1985, after many years of long distant contact between Akio and myself swapping images and sounds through the mails, he and his wife Junko come to NZ. Our knowledge of each other’s language is zero, but our sign language is great. On the day of Akio’s departure I pull a gift from my pocket, two song-stones found in the Hokitika river, and in perfect synchronicity Akio pulls a gift from his, two stones from the Na Chi river in Japan. Neither of us knew of the others intention, but the stones were in clear conversation.
TE MATAKITE TE AOTEAROA
I was working on a film documenting the Maori Land March, a protest demanding the return of traditional lands. The march involved a month long trek down the North Island, from Te Hapua in the Far North to Parliament in Wellington where the protest was delivered. Every night the group was invited onto a different marae with the full sequence of traditional protocol: the Karanga and welcome, speeches, songs, feasting, and communal discussion and sleeping in the carved house of the ancestors - everyone together on mattresses on the floor. I awoke one morning, around 4.30am to the sound of an old man in the darkness, reciting a karakia, a sacred Ringatu chant, accompanied by an orchestra of around one hundred people snoring - a vocal solo over a dense tide of harmonic breathing - as if ancestor spirits were communing on the breath of the living.
I travelled to Slovenia to visit close friend and ex Scratcher Neville Hall, now living in Ljubljana with Mojca his wife. Two packed days in Nev’s car followed as he drove me from one corner of the country to the other, exploring famous sites above and below ground, from mountains and caves to rivers and coast, all the while accompanied by a wide and variable frequency band of pure whistling harmonics that resonated somewhere in the upper region of the car. The exact source of the sound was something of a mystery given the unusually wide range of pitches. Every time the acceleration changed so did the pitches of the harmonics, with very subtle shifts in acceleration making often dramatic changes. When the window was down the volume increased enormously. Nev’s roof rack seemed responsible, but something more than just a tube of stopped pipe spanning the width of the car was causing the melodies and I determined to find out what it was. A thorough inspection followed. The roofrack was for transporting skiis and included a fitting with a slot. As we drove the air moved over the slot at varying velocities activating and shifting the harmonics with changes of acceleration. I discovered, while travelling, that if the slot was partially covered with my fingers the harmonics abruptly stopped. For those who enjoy harmonics, the design of this could undoubtedly be improved on, maybe as a substitute for the car radio.
I have an intermedia practice that foregrounds sound in numerous ways; designing, building and performing with experimental musical instruments and sonic objects; producing digital video, sound and photo works, notated / graphic scores, drawings and sound stories. In terms of pure sound I am attracted to intricate texture, - the microscopic, the unexpected, the naturally rhythmic and the adventurous – to sound atmospheres and layered perspectives (distant to foreground), sounds that conjure association, mood and imagination, that convey ideas and express mind, heart and soul.