Apologies for the lack of regular correspondence in this blog. The last two years have been spent establishing the ecoPULSE.art platform for my project work.
My body sways to the four-beat measure of my horse’s walk—slightly slumped in the saddle, hands resting lightly on his whither, necks soft and heads bobbing rhythmically—his on a loose rein. Behind closed eyelids, phosphenes dance.
The bit jingles at the end of the rein I’m holding, hooves thump softly in the sand below, kookaburras cackle ahead of us, up high in the box trees, and a raven ahhhs from a fence post as we pass. The remaining distance to our destination – a gate, is marked by a change in the sound of my horse’s unshod feet – a grinding, metallic clip then the soft crunching sound of sand beneath hard hooves returns. I picture this all vividly without needing to see anything. There were no mobile phones or social media to capture the moment then.
This scene took place many times over many years more than 30 years ago. From the age of about seven into my late teens, I used to ride home from a day of stock work in the paddocks or yards, often with my eyes closed, feet dangling free of the stirrups. The wide, flat dirt Australian back road in this scene is now unrecognisable but I can describe in detail every tree, gate, causeway and change in vegetation that used to exist there in the 1970s and 80s.
Mosses and Marshes
THE MARSHES SOUNDWALK WAS CANCELLED DUE TO WET WEATHER. A WALK IS IN PLANNING FOR LATER IN 2022.
Sound walks are something of a novelty here, but as I’ve discovered through this project, they’re fully embraced in places like the UK and Europe.
On 21 May, I’m leading a guided sound walk of the Macquarie Marshes, where I’ve been working on a project that’s part of an international collaboration, called Mosses and Marshes. The sound walk is part of the project’s public programming. As far as I know, this is the first guided walk in the Marshes dedicated to just listening to the wetlands and surrounding floodplain.
Sound walks are something of a novelty here, but as I’ve discovered through this project, they’re fully embraced in places like the UK and Europe. It’s been incredible to find a tribe of sound artists and field recordists through the various international networks I’ve become part of over the last five years.
It all began with a love of radio
…sitting in the quiet of the sound-proof room, often with my eyes closed, scrubbing back and forth along the tape listening carefully for edit points…
My career basically started with sound. By the time I was 21, I was on my way to becoming a radio journalist, being appointed the first ABC Radio rural reporter at a newly established station in Dubbo. The region had previously been covered from the well-established and much loved ABC 2CR station in Orange, where the rural reporter covered an area about two-thirds of NSW. This listening area was split and the ABC Western Plains station was established to cover everything to the west, almost to Broken Hill, and north of Dubbo to the Queensland border.
One of the things we did a lot in the 90s, when the station was still analogue, was spend days on the road, covering hundreds of kilometres, gathering stories with a Nagra reel-to-reel recorder, along with sound effects to use when packaging up stories for the NSW and National Country Hours, Radio National, and various ABC Radio current affairs programs.
I was always on the hunt for unusual sounds and sometimes played them back in my morning program as a teaser for the stories coming up or as guessing competitions to encourage listener engagement. I also loved editing them into stories on the big, clunky reel-to-reel machines in the production booth —sitting in the quiet of the sound-proof room, often with my eyes closed, scrubbing back and forth along the tape listening carefully for edit points to mark with my chinagraph pencil before cutting and taping the edit point on the splicing block. (I still have my field editing kit.)
Digital audio opens new worlds
The sounds I’ve recorded using highly sensitive microphones have revealed a sonic world that can’t be heard with the naked human ear.
Fast forward 26 years and I’m now doing very similar things with digital audio in my art practice. Field recording is still one of my favourite things to do, but I probably spend as more time just sitting quietly, listening. This is about preparing yourself to listen or ‘ear cleaning’ —as legendary composer, acoustic ecologist and environmentalist R.Murray Schafer liked to call it, before hitting record. I’m lucky that where I live is conducive to this, however the irritating noises of periurban life do intrude more and more.
The sound walk field trip to the Macquarie Marshes with a group of people keen to not only see the Marshes but hear them, is an exciting development in my life of sound. The sounds I’ve recorded using highly sensitive microphones have revealed a sonic world that can’t be heard with the naked human ear. My memories of the Marshes go back to my primary school days, but it’s the moment I first heard the gurgles and rumbles inside an ancient coolabah on the floodplain, the fizz and pop of plants photosynthesising underwater in the afternoon sun, and the whirring cricket-like sounds of water boatmen whizzing beneath the water’s surface in the wetland that my mind keeps going back to. You don’t need microphones to hear the cacophony of birds and frogs, but it was my microphone that captured the distant boom of an elusive bittern in the early evening.
The guided tour will start with exercises to heighten our awareness to our presence in the landscape. Humans are an incredibly noisy species — something you become painfully aware of when using audio recording equipment. Then it’s about widening the listening range, increasing awareness of layers of sound and their placement in relation to you. This also tests your reliance on seeing to understand what it is you’re hearing. We’ll also be getting an understanding of what our presence in the environment does to the sounds generated around us, the reciprocation of sound making. How does the natural world respond to us?
There’ll be time to hear the ‘hidden’ sounds of the wetland as well. I’ll be bringing those special, sensitive microphones and audio recorders to share the sub-surface sonic world of the wetlands I’ve enjoyed so much over the past few years.
Places in the guided sound walk are limited due to the nature of this event. More people equals more noise and less hearing what we’re there to experience. Bookings close at 12 noon Friday, 29 April.
This event has been supported by the NSW Government through Create NSW, and is also supported by ecoPULSE, Outback Arts, the Macquarie Wetlands Association and the Window on the Wetlands Centre (RiverSmart).