James Wyness; Figure and Ground

Undertaking a PhD can be an isolating experience as I imagine many of you know, so a few weeks ago I started a thread on the yahoo phonography board to see if anyone was interested in participating in a sound-based correspondence. The idea was to swap CDs and to offer detailed feedback on each others’ work. The postal strike arrived in time to complicate this exchange but I managed to get one CD of my work successfully sent to James Wyness in exchange for one CD of his – Figure and Ground.

Listening to and thinking about this CD have been rich processes for me. Comprised entirely of environmental sound-recordings created in North Northumberland and the Scottish Borders, Figure and Ground evokes the forces of land and weather and ideas of wilderness and feels remarkably free of post-production processing. The sounds that have been recorded to create this release remain very much themselves and have been arranged sensitively, allowing you to listen thoughtfully and appreciatively to the weather and its many variations. I am extremely interested in how everyday sounds can be framed or presented with minimal processing in this way, because I think that recordings which contain recognisable elements of life can change how we think or feel about our experiences.

In the context of this CD, for instance, it is interesting to be able to listen attentitively to the detail and the beauty of the sounds of weather in the warmth and comfort of my bedsit and to relate this to how I feel about the weather when I go outside. Rarely when I am walking to the post-office to post a letter or standing at a bus stop in the pouring rain do I pause to consider the complexity of the sounds which surround me; indeed my main thought in the wind and rain is how to get out of it into the warm and dry! In contrast, I remember vividly how Mark and I paused at certain points specifically to listen to the wind or the rain when we were walking along the West Highland Way, because far from the dominant roar of traffic, the complexity of weather sounds can be heard in detail, and this is very enjoyable. Also, whilst specifically out walking for extended periods of time, you are somehow much closer to the weather and this CD reminds me of that closeness.

Figure and Ground makes me think about the soundscape of cities because where I live the main sound when it rains is the swishing roar of tyres on tarmac. I enjoy listening in Figure and Ground to a place where the rain sounds different; to the barn at Highgreen Manor, and to the mountain, moor, river and forest by Harestanes in the Scottish Borders, and the way the rain sounds in these recordings makes me consider the way that rain sounds in cities, and draws to my attention the sonic consequences of our streets, our transport and our buildings.

At first I was uncertain about the minimalist packaging of Figure and Ground, but as I have listened more to the CD and thought about its contents I have decided that the subtlety with which places are depicted and described in the liner notes is wholly appropriate. The half-glimpsed trees, fences and shelters depicted in small, black and white photographs in the cover, the list of field-recording locations given in the liner notes and the almost haiku-like definitions of figures (a solitary bird, a tree creaking) and ground (volumes of wind and water in motion) have that lovely quality of a book or a poem. These brief glimpses and words allow you to create a rich picture in your mind of the landscapes described by the CD; it is like when you are a child and you read a book, and you imagine the world in the book without having a full complement of illustrations or a televised version of the story to rob you of your own images. The suggestive qualities of certain phrases in the CD liner (hail falling gently on a dry leaf) remind me of Richard Long’s stylised textual representations of landscapes, and of the many ways that sound, language and image can be combined to conjure and describe a sense of place.

So I love listening to this and appreciate the opportunity to listen in more detail than ever before, to the weather. I find that the lack of interruptions in the sounds combined with the subtle suggestions in the liner notes creates an impression of sparsely populated places, filled with trees, stone and creatures, and I am very happy to be transported there whilst sitting on my bed and knitting socks. I love the bravery of the release; the lack of tinkering with the sounds, the respect for the specific textures and tones of a particular landscape, the conjuring powers of sound, and the awesome sense of natural forces retained in the recording. I like the challenge of actively listening to the CD and not just drifting off in my mind to let it become only a background sound, but I also like using Figure and Ground as an atmosphere, and literally bringing the outdoors inside, through sound. Finally I like how it has fostered my appreciation for the way the weather sounds during a very wet, drab, grey couple of weeks during which, not being able to physically change the weather myself, I can at least change how I think about or listen to it.

Tonight, when I walk to knitting, I will try to find a quiet route where I can hear the drops hitting my umbrella as I go along, and I shall imagine that I am with Mark back in time in our tent along the West Highland Way, where we listened to the rain falling like sparks on us as we camped.



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