A LISTENING AKIN TO CARE
Kate Carr is a sound artist and writer. A native of Australia, she currently resides in the Northern Irish city of Belfast. Carr has been responsible for some of our favourite releases over the past couple of years, both through her own music and through Flaming Pines, the label she curates, so we thought it was time to ask her some questions…
Fluid Radio: A little while ago you wrote an article for us about the sounds and sights of the city of Sydney, Australia, underscoring the importance of place in your work. Not long after that you relocated to Belfast, in Northern Ireland, approximately 10,500 miles away. How have you found adjusting to a new place, a new climate, a new culture? What are the differences and similarities you’ve noticed so far, particularly in terms of the sounds you’ve heard?
Kate Carr: Well of course it is a huge change, and I think because I was so consciously farewelling Sydney in the lead up to leaving, which included writing that piece about the sounds of Sydney for Fluid, I was very attuned to the differences in the soundscape once I arrived. I actually did a short EP called “Subtropical to Temperate Oceanic”, which I just did as a free digital release on Flaming Pines, in which I attempted to come to terms with some of the aural and climactic differences between the East coast of Australia and my new home in Belfast. I had some problems with my visa which meant I was staying in Brisbane, which is where I grew up, for a month before I came to Belfast, so I went from summer in that subtropical city to winter in the outskirts of Belfast. So the contrast really couldn’t have been much greater. Winter is a lot quieter in Belfast than it is in Sydney or in Brisbane, and summer in Brisbane is really loud from the parrots screeching to the hissing of possums fighting, and the really beautiful calls of butcher birds. Winter in Belfast was mostly very quiet sounds, light rain, the odd crow, the crackle of walking on frost, and the sound of smaller birds who seem to stick around or at least return right at the end of winter in time for spring. In that release I included quite a few recordings from two bird feeding spots, one in Brisbane where my mum has taken to leaving out birdseed and another spot here at home in Belfast where I started to put birdseed out for the birds at the beginning of spring, so there are lots of wings fluttering and different calls ringing out.
Birds feature frequently in your own work and in your curation for your label Flaming Pines. What is it about birds that in your opinion makes them such good starting points for a field recording or piece of music? The field recording genre, if one can call it that, is full of bird recordings, but I can only think of one recording of pigs (in Patrick Farmer and David Lacy’s “Pictures of Men”), for example.
For me birds are interesting because they use space very differently to us and because of this the sounds they make inhabit spaces very differently. They shoot across the sky, or come in and out of a particular space in ways which non-flighted animals obviously cannot. I like to think of the panning involved in replicating the flight of a bird across the sky, or the in-and-out-of-frame dart of a bird diving for food and then retreating. I’m not really someone who is particularly interested in identifying bird calls or producing really sophisticated nature recordings, I’m more interested in the way bird calls move in and out of a space, and the ways bird calls change over time, over seasons, and the ways they differ from place to place. So I suppose I don’t really think of them as a starting point for a piece, but more a way of giving a piece the resonance of a given place.
Having said that, I am interested in birds more generally just in my regular life and not in my sound work. I find their determination to survive absolutely incredible, and having raised a few birds from chicks which I’ve found fallen out of nests and the like, I must admit I find it an absolute miracle that any of them actually survive to adulthood when you look at how helpless they are when they hatch, and all the things which need to go right for the parent or parents to find them enough food to grow and fledge. It is a funny thing really, but I’ve noticed that at really big and usually quite sad times in my life I will nearly always find a baby bird on the ground which needs to be saved, it has happened so often that now when anything dramatic is happening in my life I try not to look around too much if I’m not in a situation to be able to raise a bird because I feel like it is almost inevitable I will stumble across one. So in that sense I have a very unusual and idiosyncratic relationship to them, and I’m sure this has bled into my sound work in lots of ways. But speaking strictly sonically, living on the outskirts of Belfast where I am now there are actually a lot of sounds of cows, so I’ve been getting into them, there is something really eerie actually about cows mooing as the night turns dark. I can lie in bed and hear them sometimes. This is something I’m trying to record lately, but it seems so far that whenever I have my recorder, the cows are silent, and whenever I can’t find it they start to moo, so it could prove elusive.
Presumably there must have been an origin of bird song as song — a moment when a bird call stopped being just environmental noise and was first heard as a song, after which it became impossible to hear it as anything else. What do you think happened in that moment? Did the human listener project an idea of song onto the bird’s call, or did she recognise, for the first time, an inherent song that had always already been there? Did the birds teach us what a song is, or vice versa?
I think for me what is most interesting about the relationship between birdsong and human musical production is not really that debate about what is noise, and what constitutes a song or music, but rather the ways birds have inspired us to make music. And I think this stems from my broader interest in nature, which I guess is not so much nature as this place where humans are not, or which needs to be protected from humans, but nature as simply this world we live in, and the natural world as a site with which many societies have dramatically changed their relationship. And it is this changing relationship or set of ideas we have about nature which interests me, how we situate ourselves in relation to nature, the stories we invent for ourselves about the natural world, and special places we make for ourselves in sites which are more and less natural. When I did the Birds of a Feather series for example, I was interested in the personal relationships we establish with particular types of birds, whether these be birds we actually know and interact with, imaginary or mythological birds, or personal mythologies we have about birds, such as my one about rescuing birds in times of personal turmoil. These are the sort of things I am interested in, the ways we come to understand ourselves through the narratives we construct about the world, whether this be the birds and the ‘natural’ world or the ‘unnatural’.
Having said that, I think there is heaps of interesting and amazing examples of ways in which different cultures have incorporated bird song and their stories about birds into musical production, and I wrote a piece on this actually a while back for Earthlines. One really striking thing I discovered writing that essay was in Steven Feld’s book on the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea, who have a particular story about the muni bird. The story is about a boy who cried for food and was not given any, and because of this he was so sad he transformed into a muni bird. Feld is an ethnographer and one of his books is about the ways the Kaluli have incorporated the tonal qualities of the muni bird’s cry into particular grieving rituals. And there are also the Maori of New Zealand, where there were very few mammals, I think only seals and whales, so survival was intimately linked with hunting and eating birds, and to that end they invented many bird lures that imitated the calls of particular birds, and again the calls produced by these particular instruments were used not just in hunting but also in song. So to me those sorts of things are really beautiful and amazing, and I’m sure there are many others of course, these are just some I have come across.
As well as bird song, your guitar playing is also often central to your music. Are there any guitarists who you feel have influenced your approach to the instrument? How important is the ‘hands-on’ connection with a particular musical object to your music?
I definitely don’t consider myself a guitarist. I do use guitars and I like them but really I consider my guitar work a series of happy accidents when I come up with something I like. I guess not having a musical background I don’t really consider myself a musician as such, but just someone who is interested in and works with sound. I do like the physicality of instruments, I collect instruments from the places I’ve been and I like to use them in my pieces, but I guess I approach them in a similar way to my field recording, as a way of adding a particular mood or tonal quality to a soundpiece, rather than as a strictly musical endeavour if that makes any sense. Often I add instrumental elements towards the end of a piece, and when I do this I think more about the sorts of sounds or moods I’m trying to convey, what sonic elements can help me bring that out, and if I think I can create such sounds myself with the guitar, or with another instrument, then I try to do that. But just as often I might try and hunt down a particular field recording I have taken for the purpose.
I guess for me as a non-musician all sounds have a sort of equality, and I approach them all, whether guitar notes, field recordings, or other sounds, as a collection of tools which I turn to for particular purposes. I guess at the end of the day I’m attempting to create an emotional landscape, whether that is one I’ve attempted to carve out of my experience of a particular place, or one I’ve come to just through stuff happening in life. What I’m attempting to distil is the emotional essence of that moment in time or that moment in a particular place into a sound piece. Sometimes I turn to the guitar to help me do that, but I feel this definitely doesn’t make me a guitarist, just someone who sometimes makes the most of the sounds the instrument makes. I mean, there are lots of people who are proper guitarists and use the instrument in a beautiful way, like Marcus Fischer, or Cameron Webb as Seaworthy. I guess I just see myself and my work quite differently to that because I approach my work more as sound rather than music, which makes sense given I’ve never trained or practiced as a musician.
I believe that you initially had a background in visual art, is that right? How did music and sound art enter the picture? Were there any ideas you came across as a visual artist that carried over into your sound practice?
Yes I do. I actually used to be a stencil artist for a time, and I did graffiti as a kid and then later, as an adult, drawing and installation work. I was always interested in music, and did some DJing for quite a while, and along with friends put on different party nights associated with somewhat obscure music, but it was through my installation work and also through academic study that I came to the world of sound art and began to create my own pieces. I slowly began incorporating more field recording into my installation work. This was a time when I was involved in running a gallery with a big bunch of people in Sydney, but we were doing it basically illegally and without the proper council permissions and it got shut down after less than a year. So after that I did reassess a little my visual work, as the process of putting together a show, while it is rewarding, can feel very much like just putting work on a wall and hoping people turn up, whereas the sound world by virtue of the nature of the work and how easy it is to share it over the Internet is a lot more interactive and immediate. Back then I could simply put music onto Myspace and receive feedback and also listen to others, so I began to pursue sound more exclusively.
And beyond these more practical considerations, what I’ve always liked about sound and music is the emotional impact of the heard, of course this can also happen in visual art, but I think there is something about sound and affect or the emotionality of sound which really compelled me to pursue it. I liked and still like the idea of spending my time trying to produce 10 minutes of distilled emotion, and that connecting with the listener somehow. I think there is something very intimate and remarkable about producing a piece of sound and having listeners give it their time and in doing so produce their own diverse narratives and experiences in those few minutes of listening. For me I really think about listening as akin to care, if you care about someone you will give them that time to really listen to them, and for me there is something very beautiful and profound about the sharing of sound, whether it be words or music or sound art, and I think it is the unexpected and unreproducible nature of those unique moments of listening and sharing an intimate space shaped by sound which keeps me interested in making work. I’ve actually been reading R. Murray Schafer’s book on Soundscape recently, and there is a passage in it where he writes about the frequency at which sound becomes touch, when it ceases being an audible phenomenon and interacts directly with the body. I think for me that idea of a medium with such a direct connection both physically and emotionally to the body makes it very special. A medium which gives you the opportunity to tell stories without words, and to caress someone without touching, is a pretty special one I think.
Do you think that field recording and music that makes use of field recording falls under an existing category of artistic practice, for example landscape or land art? Or does it constitute an entirely new category? What would you say is distinctive about it, if anything, particularly in terms of artistic intent and aesthetic effect?
Well I think there are lots of different types of field recordists, and consequently there is a great diversity of work being produced, so in that sense even though the starting point is the same the outcomes are so different that I wouldn’t put all field recordists into a single category. I think the work championed by 12k — for example Marcus Fischer, Simon Scott, Taylor Deupree and Seaworthy, who all incorporate field recordings of particular places of importance to them into a largely acoustic-driven sound setting —certainly do have parallels with land art. I think for someone like Francisco López this makes a lot less sense given his interest seemingly purely in the sonic character of field recordings, rather than their origins. Then there are artists like John Kannenberg who has completed two albums based on field recordings taken in museums. So even in that small sampling there is a great diversity of not just approaches to field recording, but conceptual approaches to the medium. For me it is probably the divisions between field recordists which I find most interesting. For example, I think there is quite an interesting divide between field recordists who are happy to have human sounds, or the sounds of their own bodies in their recordings, and those who pursue recordings devoid of human sounds. I find this quite interesting as I think it represents two quite divergent conceptions of the natural, and also different approaches to the transparency of the field recording art itself: one approach emphasising nature as the non-human and seeking recordings without the aural presence of not just other humans but also the recordist, and the other seeing some sort of the connection or incorporation of the human into the natural and also perhaps in this incorporating the sounds of the recordist’s own body. I definitely seek myself more in this latter category.
I think one thing which does unite field recordists is an interest in listening, whether that be to our day to day soundscape, or something more unusual like the dawn chorus somewhere in the Amazon jungle, or the underwater sounds of ponds. This emphasis on sound, on our internal and external soundscapes, is I think a valuable one for a few reasons. As I think I said before, I think listening is an act of care, so taking the time to listen, or placing the process of listening at the foreground, is a powerful act. I think it is an act of stillness in a world which is not very still, an act that emphasises the fragility of the soundscape and our connectedness and place within it. I think it also can focus our attention on the types of sounds we are at risk of losing, and also on the ways our soundscapes have changed over time. For me it is this emphasis on listening which is the most valuable contribution field recording has made as an artistic medium.
You’ve experimented with different release formats for both your own work and for Flaming Pines — you recently released “Overheard in Doi Saket” on SD card, and both the Birds of a Feather and the Rivers Home series featured shorter works released in pairs or as sets. Do you think that changes in distribution methods and listening habits are encouraging artists and labels to look beyond the traditional album format? How do you usually listen to music at home?
I think definitely some people or labels are looking to diversify the ways they offer music, I mean certainly the proliferation and convenience of digital music has changed the context for releasing music physically. There is more of a sense of purpose in some ways behind some of the physical offerings, almost as if what you are selling is something beyond the music itself, but also the experience of owning these specialised and limited run objects, and it seems to me there is demand for that sort of thing within the ambient, experimental scene. Personally, I think packaging which adds something either to the context for listening to the music or to the conceptual basis underpinning the release is valuable in terms of communicating the intent of that release.
Speaking for myself, with my latest release “Overheard in Doi Saket” which was put out by Ákos Garai’s label 3LEAVES, it was Ákos who came up with the idea of releasing it on SD card, and I really loved this idea as it echoed the themes of travel and discovery which were central to that release. I recorded all the sounds for it with a portable recorder onto SD card, so having such a portable format for the final release I thought really emphasised the themes of the release. I’ve had someone contact me to say he was going to listen to the release on the exact same type of recorder I recorded the original source material with and I think there is a really nice symmetry to that which the packaging has enabled.
With Flaming Pines, certainly the most elaborate packaging is the bird boxes for the boxed sets of the Birds of a Feather EPs. In going that route I was trying to emphasise the personal aspect of these releases, and reflect on the ways we as humans have interacted with birds, so I thought a bird box, and the care and appreciation for birds the object represents, was really a good way of underlining some of those themes.
For myself, I mostly listen to music when I ride my bike, so I put music onto the SD card in my Zoom [portable recorder] and shove it in my pocket. This has the advantage of meaning if I hear any good sounds I can stop and record them, but I really enjoy listening to music while riding, even though it perhaps isn’t the safest practice. Where I live now there are epic bike rides up through hills, and fields, streams, cows, amazing relics from a thousand years ago all bundled together so having a terrific soundtrack really adds to amazing immersive experience! Even if every now and then it is interrupted to record some moos or horse’s hooves and the like.
You’ve also started making installation works for gallery spaces. Your work “Pipistrelle Bat Drones” was installed on a first-floor window ledge at GV Art Gallery in London, with the listener stood in the yard below. In other words, the bat sounds (songs?) were heard as if they were coming from high up in the trees or eaves, as I assume they would be in the bats’ usual habitat. To what extent do your installations seek to recreate the experience of hearing sounds in their normal environments? What happens to those sounds as they are transplanted into a gallery space?
I think that work, “Pipistrelle Bat Drones”, was certainly aimed at firstly rendering audible the Pipistrelles’ calls, but also obviously manipulating the call into a drone rather than a quick-fire series of pops, which is actually how it sounds through a bat detector. So it was I guess a sort of surreal interpretation of the bat calls, and how it would sound cascading from the trees if we could hear it as an audible drone. So while it couldn’t be said it really recreated the experience of listening to Pipistrelles via a bat detector, it was a work which attempted to have that experience foregrounded, and then tweaked I suppose. At that time I had recently been to a talk by Steven Connor, a UK-based academic, who was talking about the characteristic sounds of animals in particular urban environments and this is something which has always interested me. One interesting point he made was that with the rise of the more globally universal sounds of traffic, the sounds of animals in cities have become one of the few sounds which distinguish one city from another. The parrots of Sydney, for example, along with the cockatoos and the flying foxes, really characterise that city. Here in Belfast I would say it is the robin’s click, the sounds of backyard oil burners, and church bells which are for me the sounds which distinguish the city from others.
The exhibition I did the Pipistrelle piece for was called Noise and Whispers, and I thought that in lots of ways the call of this bat could be seen as a whisper, a sound inaudible to human ears, but how would it sound as a noise? So that is how I came up with that piece. Another aspect of animals’ noises which interest me is the notion of urban winners, which refers to animals that are able to find and exploit niches in the urban environments we are creating in order to prosper, and to me it seems the Pipistrelles have been able to do this in London, so that was another reason I decided to focus on them. I liked the idea of real Pipistrelles flying through the sound field of Pipistrelle drones I had created.
But my work isn’t always about these sorts of things. I was recently in the “Fermata” show at the Artisphere gallery in Arlington, VA where the asked each participant to respond the theme of Fermata, or a pause, and my work for that was centred on the stasis of ponds and breath holding, so that was quite different again from the Pipistrelle piece.
Finally, what projects do you have on the horizon that you’d like to mention?
I’m continuing my work with cityscapes, mapping, and the movement of sound in and out of particular terrains. I’m currently working on a release which is based on recordings from dead spots in different parts of Europe I’ve been to since I’ve been based in Belfast. One thing about Europe, particularly for an Australian, is the pure wonder of flying for just one or two hours and experiencing a whole different culture, so I have been trying to make the most of this. On these trips I’ve been making recordings of run-down sites, empty sites, sites with no phone reception, that sort of thing, and I hope to develop these recording into a release. I’m also at the beginning of a project examining the soundscape of Sydney, which I hope to develop into a phone app, so I will be heading back to Australia soon to work on that. In November I’ve been lucky enough to receive funding from the Australia Council for the Arts to attend Francisco López and James Webb’s recording workshop and residency program in South Africa, so that will be two amazing weeks of field recording, and then hopefully I will have a new album in not too long on the French label Soft.
Thank you Kate for your time!
http://gleamingsilverribbon.com/ (Kate Carr’s website)