A short walk from where I work, the 100m-long Egbaston Tunnel runs under Church Road. It’s really two tunnels: one for the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, and an adjacent one for a railway line. Following the canal towpath into the tunnel, sounds are transformed by the curving Victorian brickwork structure: footsteps echo; drops of water falling from the ceiling hit the surface of the canal with a gloop; a train hurtling through the tunnel next door sounds like an ocean wave funnelled through a hosepipe. If you should be passing through at the same time as a canal barge, the whole space vibrates with the chugging, rumbling roar of the diesel engine, a sloshing wave of ripples chasing the boat all the way to the half-moon of daylight at the tunnel’s far end.
If you were to record these sounds out in the open — the footsteps, the train, the barge — and then, by some technical magic, subtract the open-air sounds from their tunnel-sculpted equivalents, you’d be left with — what? The ghostly aural imprint of the tunnel itself? The sound of air fluctuating under various changes of pressure? I’m not sure this hypothetical experiment would actually produce anything interesting, but in my imagination it conjures up something that might in some small way be related to the ‘aural mist’ that gives Eric Thielemans’ new album its title. I imagine this mist to be the audible dampness that hangs in the air around the thing that we normally consider to be ‘the sound’, that clings to sonic objects and softens or blurs their edges. A sort of becoming-audible of sound’s medium, air. I imagine each place — be it a city street, a suburban wasteground, or a Victorian tunnel, or anywhere else — as having its own specific shade and density of aural mist, forming part of a set of subconscious cues that shape our awareness of and feelings towards that location.
Perhaps this flight of fancy dwells too much on the phenomenal aspects of sound, however, because Thielemans is also clearly interested in how they can be combined and organised. Softly ringing glimmers and gentle resonances have a subtly rhythmical feel to them. The movement back-and-forth between ‘empty’, never-quite-silent spaces and thrumming, orchestrated sounds produces structure. While I found the music to be particularly effective at eliciting the same kind of intense yet channelled concentration that the act of field recording often induces, I find it hard to classify this work as simple field recording in a traditional sense. Only the occasional snatch of voices and the frequent passing swoosh of vehicles offer direct, unambiguous links to field recording’s primal scene. Many of the other sounds — the tappings, scrapings, draggings, chinkings, hummings, and so on — have their source in Thielemans’ practice as a percussionist, though the ‘mist’ around them subtly evoke the sensation of being in a particular space.
That space, as it turns out, was an artist-run space called Stadslimiet in Antwerp, where this version of “Aural Mist” was recorded. If the same approach was used in Egbaston Tunnel, no doubt the results would be very different. The album not only produces a convincing illusion of a space, but offers a way to experience and perceive space differently, not as a dry conceptual construct but as a material capable of changing and marking what passes through it. To do this through such a musically engaging form is quite an achievement.