Audible Fields

Last Sunday I made a journey to Bristol in the evening to attend Audible Fields, organised by Matt Davies as part of the All Around You festival.

Audible Fields was presented in the cube cinema and involved all the seats in the tiny auditorium being fitted with a headphone jack through which binaural recordings could be played to members of the audience. Having been instructed to do so, everyone in the audience arrived with our own headphones so that we could sit together and plug ourselves in to experience the intense sonic detail of various binaural recordings, presented throughout the evening.

Binaural microphones are a complete revelation to me; they sit inside your ears like regular headphones picking up sounds as you would hear them with your own ears. The spatialisation of sounds when they are recorded in this way is incredible because the recordings faithfully replicate the way that your human ears – with your head in between them – pick up and locate where sounds are coming from. Additionally, when wearing binaural microphones, you cannot hear what is being recorded and I find that when I am out making binaural recordings, I am therefore listening very carefully with my natural hearing, and not to the amplified version of reality that I hear when I record using the edirol’s built-in microphone and listen as I go, through regular headphones.

My discovery of binaural microphones is relatively recent; I have been borrowing a pair of soundman headphones in order to create some recordings of my locale for the soundtransit website and am enthralled all over again by the evocative power of sound-recordings. Can I share something here? Can I reveal that I have never gotten over the magic of recording sounds, and that I never cease to be totally enthralled by crisply detailed recordings of reality in all its sonic details? If you have headphones to hand, you can see if this is the same for you. I have attached two recordings below, both made using binaural headphones and recorded at two very familiar sites for me; the lift at Reading Station and the place by the Kennet and Avon canal where the birds gather. I featured this place in Love is Awesome in the assignment, find beauty in the city. If you experience aural wonderment at these recordings, you may understand how much delight it gave me when Dallas Simpson introduced Audible Fields to us. Wearing binaural microphones himself, he spoke directly into our earphones in tiny whispers, moving his hands in front of his face slowly, to demonstrate how soundwaves move and travel in space and are picked up by our ears. He announced carefully that binaural recordings are ‘a celebration of human hearing’ and explained how binaural recordings work. Then the lights were dimmed and we were treated to a 25 minute long binaural recording made by Phil Harding, of a train journey.

At first I found myself asking ‘Why am I listening to this incredibly banal sound? Is it going to change into something else? Is this all there is on this recording; a train journey? For 25 minutes? I always record train journeys. I know how it sounds. Why am I here?‘ etc. but as my mind slowly stilled and my ears opened to the listening experience I found myself becoming deeply absorbed in the details of the recording and its evocative recreation of a journey. I listened intently to the specific textural sounds of turning newspaper pages and the muffled, unconscious sounds of commuters sniffing and clearing their throats. I found myself picturing the very exact sensation of eating crisps as I listened on the recording to this sound, and visualising the view from the windows as the tinny, processed, disembodied voice of the station-announcer listed distant place-names and destinations. I heard with a sense of recognition the squeaking sound of the rubber sections that cushion the carriages against one another and the shifts in the overall drone of the train’s movement when it entered or exited a tunnel. The recording made me think of all the train journeys I’ve ever taken and all the moments I have spent recording those same sounds themselves and the things I have been thinking about at those times… the visits I’ve been making, the quest-like feeling that accompanies a long rail-journey and the trudge, too, that can sometimes accompany the sense of constant travel. I thought about all the boring parts and all the exciting parts that attend rail travel, of the desparation to be done travelling, and the contented feeling that accompanies the rare and occasional perfect railtrip, where you make great progress on an enjoyable knitting project, decent inroads into an interesting book, and where you have strong coffee, no delays, and where there is enough space for everyone on the train. But more than that, I thought about the simple being of train journeys; the nothing-special journeys that take up so many hours of life, and the recognisable familiarities of the soundscapes that attend those uncounted and unconsidered moments. There was something redemptive about a recording of a very normal and everyday situation being presented in this way, with minimal tinkering. I found myself thinking this is what a train journey sounds like, this is what we hear at many times in our life, this is how it sounds, let’s experience and reflect on that for a short time, together…

In the half-dark, glancing around the auditorium I could just make out the shapes of others, also listening in rapt silence, to this recording of a train journey, and I realised that what made this listening experience different from others I have had, was the fact that we were all listening to it in the same way, at the same moment in time. This individual/collective experience of sound was fascinating to me; the fact that we were all listening at the same time to the same sounds, and the difference between this experience and the one I sometimes have when I am travelling alone, of listening by myself to the world around me. Listening to ordinary sounds is an intensely difficult experience to share since we are social creatures and often fill the soundscape up with words when we meet up. Listening to each other speak is different from listening to sounds; when you listen to words you are dealing with explicit meanings and ideas, but when you listen to sound, you aren’t necessarily dealing with anything beyond the sounds themselves, their aural qualities, their materiality. I have never shared an intense listening experience with a room full of other people apart from at musical concerts, and I found it to be a very intimate and life-affirming experience to listen, with others, to an incredibly ordinary sound and to share this sound-encounter.

I also enjoyed Dallas Simpson’s video piece in which he and his friend had explored an environment sonically. To make the video, Dallas and his friend had explored the area around a canal that was local to them, sounding out this space by touching, striking or in other ways sonically exciting objects along the way. Dallas had then used the binaural recordings made during this first soundwalk as a guide and returned to the site with a video camera to visually capture the same spaces. The result was fascinating to me, since it involved much close-up footage of specific bricks, pipes, surfaces and objects. Where film is normally highly visual, I felt that this footage had been organised according to ideas of touching and listening and not around considerations of appearance or our eyes. This film was rather a sound-led document, with the eyes following sounds and surfaces to create a very different kind of film.

Extreme closeup and the sense of touch…

I remember trying out Kate’s camera when we were walking in New Lanark back in the Summer, and being struck at this time by the tactile nature of macro photography. Many of you who read Kate’s blog will know how beautiful her photographs are, and how they evoke in their close-up detail the specifically tactile and haptic qualities of things, whether this is the cold roughness of a stone or the springy wholesomeness of some wonderful UK yarn. I think there is a certain way of experiencing place as both a knitter and a sound-artist that has a lot to do with surface textures and the way things feel to touch. I think because so much touching was involved in the creation of the source-sounds, the video Dallas had made involved many closeups of different kinds of bricks and pipes which reminded me of how we touch things in the world around us, and how sound and surface are intimately connected. This is connected, for me, to the way that I was thinking about sound, surface and place when I made the Swaledale sea socks, which are now finished.

Regrettably I had to leave Audible Fields early in order to catch my train home, but I found the whole experience of going to this concert very inspiring and it gave me new ideas about how we perceive things, about the role that sound plays in our understanding of places, and about how listening can be enjoyed in a shared environment.

I cannot wait to hear what Matt Davies, Phil Harding and Dallas Simpson get up to in coming days; you can hear Matt Davies this Saturday in the Cube Cinema, performing as part of the Compost and Height evening. Details at the following places;

5 Responses to Audible Fields

  1. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Blog Archive » Steam Sounds - for my Pops

  2. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Blog Archive » Soundwalk 1: researching the pathways

  3. Pingback: Binaural in Practice « Binaural Audio, Recording and Implementation

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