Walking and Listening.

Thanks so much everyone for your help in identifying the mystery bird from my last post! I think you are all right and the sound I heard was a Great Tit singing. The first few files that I found through google relating to the birdsong of Great Tits didn’t sound at all like what I heard. But this page from the BBC had a recording of a Great Tit with the same characteristic ‘tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher’ phrasing as on my recording, plus some information about the wide range of songs employed by the Great Tit male bird in his defence of territory. One theory is that they sing many different songs at the various corners of their patch in order to confuse other birds and make them think that many different birds live there. Today the birdsong I heard mostly belongs to pheasants.

view across the fields near Stoke Talmage

We went out walking in Oxfordshire in search of the enticingly titled ‘lost village’ of Standhill. Wiped out by the plague in the 1400s, this small village has been reduced to a few stones and a great stand of conifers in a field. As we walked, I was so entranced by the sounds encountered along the way that I went slightly insane and recorded 67 different files to the beloved Edirol that I use. That will take some editing.

Mark’s boys were delighted at the ice and if I’m honest, the sonic potential of this marvellous substance was in part the fuel for my recording frenzy. We had crisp, fully frosted grass to walk upon, puddles iced over to crack and sploosh in, and the incredible game of throwing stones onto a large and totally frozen over pond. We stood for quite a while flinging rocks and listening to the skippy, echoey sounds produced as they bounced across the pond’s glassy surface. I’ve attached some sounds at the bottom of this post as I am really interested in the role that sound played in our encounter with the landscape today. From the giddy joy of the boys at smashing icy puddles to my delight at the almost mystical harmonics produced by stones skimming over ice, our contact with our walk was largely shaped by sound.

I am not the first field-recordist to get excited by the sounds of Ice; Peter Cusack’s recording of the Baikal Lake melting is a fascinating project featuring lots and lots of melting and cracking ice etc. I certainly captured nothing of such epic dimensions today but I do think that ice has some amazing sonic qualities.

Frosted Oak Leaf

I also found myself thinking a lot about knitting while I was walking today. Sound puts me entirely in mind of the physical and tactile qualities of an environment in ways that even the most visceral image can’t. Soundwaves bounce between surfaces in ways which mean that distance, size, space, and surface quality are all described by it. An image can be cropped to edit or omit visual elements, but when you take a recorder out into a field there is no way of cropping the sounds that you will capture with it… no edge of frame beyond the borders between which the soundwaves themselves move.

Take, for instance, the crisp sound produced by walking on frozen grass. Does it not have a certain substantive or material quality about it? Does the sound not suggest iciness, a brittleness of substance and a glassy fragility beyond that alluded to in any image of the same? To me the sound of walking on frosty grass is full of rich, tactile information. The recording literally evokes coldness in my toes and fingers and the sense of walking on compounded, frozen mud.

This very physical quality of sound is remeniscent to me of how certain yarns can evoke a sense of place through their tactile qualities. Take for instance the yarn of the Rough Fell Sheep that Prick Your Finger used for the development of their super sign and which I used to create a scrubber/potholder. Prick Your Finger’s Handspun Rough Fell yarn has quite a relaxed twist in it and is pleasingly crunchy. I wouldn’t want to make pants with it but for outer garments or household knits, it produces a very structured fabric. I like the way it is scratchy and the way it reminds me of walking on rough terrain, because in this way it retains a tactile connection to the ‘Rough Fells’ that it comes from and it is full of rich imaginings and haptic associations absent from a luxurious but anonymously produced ball of cashmere. It seems I am not the only person to perceive this exciting link between the Rough Fell Sheep and its habitat; To quote from the fell sheep website:

Over the past few years Rough Fell breeders have increasingly recognised the special feature of their sheep: namely its connection with the distinctive landscape and culture of their area. A video, “Rough Fell Heritage”, celebrates the life, work and landscape of the Rough Fell sheep farming community.

Obviously I do not want to confuse or blur too much the regional specifics of Oxfordshire and the Lake District or to make totally crass observations (the wool goes crunch, the frosty grass goes crunch: how about that?) but I do enjoy the relationships between memory, touch and landscapes that can be perceived, and I am interested in teasing these half-formed ideas out into some kind of designing philosophy for myself.

I have been recently trying out a design which uses the tactile qualities of Swaledale with some of my ideas about a certain landscape. As with the frost and the Rough Fell, this design is largely sound-based. I cannot say too much here because this endeavour is part of a still-quiet project, but let us say that my experiments were foiled so far by the lack of a chart (lazy I know) and an inability to count stitches.

Unsatisfying Swaledale thing

I wanted to let you know that in among all the listening and photographing and thinking and writing and sound-diarying, there has still been knitting happening. And sunsets. And sleeping. And stuff.

5 Responses to Walking and Listening.

  1. Susan says:

    Ooooh! The sound of rocks on a frozen lake. One of my absolute favorite sounds ever. Thanks for capturing that one. (And I do like the sounds that I’m guessing accompanied the search for suitable rocks to throw….)

  2. Kate says:

    loved these wintry, icy sounds. And enjoyed your observations about sound, place, and materiality. Poor unsatisfying swaledale thing!

  3. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Blog Archive » Start as you mean to go on

  4. DaveX says:

    I love the recording of the kids throwing stones on the lake. That’s good stuff– much more human than the frozen Lake Baikal, etc… I may have to see if there’s a frozen lake nearby on my next trip up northward– it’s rarely cold enough here for these kind of sounds, at least not unless you want to monitor the lake on a daily basis!

  5. fun sounds too with the voices of kids playing. yeah!

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