I was very excited when I came home from Shetland and Mark told me all about the new film he’d read about – “Silence” by Pat Collins – and asked me if I’d like to go and see it.
The blurb explained that the film features a sound recordist searching for quiet places “away from manmade sounds”, meaning that from the outset I felt it might play out some difficult field recording tropes; a paradigm in which a (male) sound recordist goes on a lone quest to have a “pure” encounter with the natural world. (Caleb Kelly has written a very interesting series of posts problematising this paradigm here.) However since I often think critically about my own activities in relation to this established archetype of the sound recordist, I was interested to see how the film would deal with it. I wanted to see whether “Silence” would be questioning or critical in its exploration of the sound recordist’s world, and also to see how the activity of field recording would be treated on the big screen.
The film’s protagonist (played by Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde) lives in Berlin, and is returning to his home turf in Ireland, which he has not visited for 15 years. Although there are indeed many images of him as a lonely wanderer in the beautiful, vast wildernesses of Connemara, he is refreshingly un heroic in his quest, and his encounters with other people along the way humanise his field recording activities, and place them within a thoughtful set of conversations. Eoghan’s meetings with others are funny and well-observed; recordists everywhere will relate to such exchanges as one where a man chances upon Eoghan and asks him what he’s doing: “television?” “radio?” and the puzzlement that ensues when the answer is “I am just listening to the sounds.”
For me, the best snippet of dialogue went something like this:
“I am recording places away from manmade sounds.”
“And you’re here.”
“Yes… but I’m keeping pretty quiet.”
I would like to know how much of the dialogue between Eoghan and others during the film was improvised or scripted; there was a very fresh, natural quality to these encounters, and I loved how they set Eoghan’s activities within a sort of sparse biography of his life, and related what he was doing with sounds to the more general and shared context of being human.
I also loved the aural consequence of diverting our attention so often to the activities of the sound recordist, and how watching Eoghan record sounds framed whatever I was hearing at that moment in a very particular way. Something about Eoghan’s puzzled face captured in a pose of listening drew my attention to what he was hearing, and allowed all the weather and texture of Connemara collected in sound recordings to come to the fore.
The soundtrack is not – as the title suggests – at all silent. In fact it is full of wonderful sounds (which I expect is the point, with reference to John Cage’s eponymous work). I really enjoyed the way that the visual component of the film was used to highlight so many sounds of ocean, wind, grass, trees and birdsong, and was intrigued to see that a “quiet places” consultant had been employed for selecting locations for recording the footage and sound used in the film. What I loved best was the use throughout of incredibly long capture recordings – scenes in which the sonic texture of a place was really allowed to be present for much longer than is often permitted by filmic conventions. This technique allowed the differences between grassy places, forested places, spits of land near the sea etc. to be heard in a really detailed way. I also loved how the acoustics of indoor spaces were contrasted against the often wet and sometimes inhospitable conditions outside. A kettle being washed out was a particularly lovely, meditative moment, and I feel I know the delicate worn character of that aluminium pot as well from its sound as from the nice domestic scene it was depicted in.
It is a romantic paradox to suggest that we can take man-made technology which must be operated by a person and which is a product of the post-industrial era into the landscape and therein discover something of the world before man. I appreciated the film’s acknowledgement of this paradox, particularly the shots of Eoghan driving in his car whilst listening to music loudly, and his prominent use of digital recording technology throughout. I also thought the ways in which the soundtrack highlighted its own carefully constructed nature was genius. A prime example of this appears towards the end of the film, where Eoghan hears his own footsteps going up some stairs well before we see this sound explained, creating a particularly haunting effect: present and future sounds are cleverly edited together to give us a fictive sense of time, and the way this has been done is beautifully blatant.
I did wish I had a bingo card for the TECH on display; Sound Devices 702? DING! Aquarian Audio Hydrophones with rubber cups to be used as contact mics? DING! Sennheiser HD 25 headphones? DING! …but even as I chuckled at this idea, I also found myself thinking about how this conspicuous equipment identifies the sound recordist, (much as knitting needles identify the knitter) and how interesting it was to see these highly visual and performative markers being used as cinematic devices for framing sounds, and conveying Eoghan’s identity. It is inevitable that in the move to the audio/visual language of cinema, the activities of The Field Recordist must be considered visually, and the film is very interesting here.
In a Christian Marclay exhibition I went to in 2005 in The Barbican, I remember being especially delighted by a series of posters which drew attention to the different graphic conventions associated with gig posters and record covers. The series used typefaces, colours etc. to re-cast the artist in each one as a ROCK artist, a JAZZ artist, etc. and I loved the commentary they provided on visual references as a framework for understanding and decoding the meaning of sounds. I have never forgotten those fictional posters, and think of them often when I am wondering how to represent myself as a field recordist for my own posters or when galleries require from me an artist photo.
Readers of this blog will know that in this vein I enjoy riffing on – and emulating – the classic photo shot of The Field Recordist in The Field with Microphone, and that I experiment often with this particular genre of self portraiture. I enjoy these explorations into the visual depiction of myself as The Field Recordist, but one convention which I find troubling in the depiction of field recordists listening (including my own ones of me) is a tendency towards frowning seriousness. It’s very difficult not to frown when you are listening, as it requires extra concentration, but an unfortunate consequence of this fact is that photos of recordists feature almost universally unsmiling faces, which somehow convey that making field recordings is Very Serious Business, rather than a practical craft which anyone with sufficient interest can master.
In fact I find that making recordings is Amazing Fun, and this comes back to my only real criticism of “Silence”, which is that it is a bit too serious in places; it contains actual sounds of beard scratching at one point, FFS! The notion that the sound recordist is a grumpy, humourless male who is constantly shushing the assembled company, busying about with Expensive Kit, and fiddling ponderously with his beard needs challenging, because it downplays the fun and wonder that field recording can be, and the joyful way that we can play in the landscape. I am sensitive to and critical of the idea that LAND is a man’s place, to be conquered and explored by MEN, and therefore sad that the first film I’ve seen which deals in a significant way with the subject of field recording features an almost all-male cast, a beard, and an utter dearth of mischief. For me these factors mean that the film continues to perpetrate entrenched ideas about who gets to make sound recordings, and how that activity should be approached. Take note: if I ever make a film about field recording, there will be laughing in it, and plenty of shots of me skipping around in fields and by the sea, lugging the annoyingly heavy kit and pointing microphones at sheep. The phrase “that sounds amazing” will have to feature at least once.
Just a single shot of Eoghan looking delighted by what he could hear through his headphones would have lightened the mood of the film significantly and perhaps made sound recording appear more accessible and fun to new audiences; it would also have been great to see some women out in the countryside too, with philosophical words and opinions to offer to the questing man on his journey. However it is unfair of me to charge the film with ignoring the aims of my personal feminist revolution when it has done such a fantastic job in other ways…
In the end Eoghan’s gentle, lined face, unassuming manner, and apparent bewilderment mean that he can’t reasonably be charged with being a grumpy old patriarch. The film’s soft mood of memory and biography would also admittedly be spoiled were he cracking out a few thumbs up gestures and ear-splitting grins while making his recordings. I related more to Eoghan than I thought I might, and find I am still thinking fondly of the film, and – above all – excited to see that field recording has become the focus of such a thoughtful and well made film.
Conclusion? Go hear/see it; I think you will enjoy.