The effect works best if you listen while looking at the image.
This is an exercise that I have decided to pursue as a way of exploring inspiration in sound work and composition. It may work, it may not. It’s an experiment really and the end result won’t always work out the way you first envisioned but that’s the point.
Recently I watched a lecture with the famous sound Recordist Chris Watson who was commissioned to create a soundscape for a John Constable landscape painting by the National Gallery of London. His attention to detail was quite startling, taking into account the season of the image, the period and how this would dictate what type of wildlife would inhabit the area. It is clear Watson believes in the power of sound and how it can tell a story and sometimes connect with us on a deeper level than the image itself.
Above is a still from a Japanese film from 1966 called ‘The Face of Another’. I am not familiar with the film or the director Hiroshi Teshigahara. I simply stumbled across the image recently and was taken by it for some reason. Without doing any research on the film I wondered what is happening here in this strange picture and what it might sound like? This was the challenge I set myself. Rather than watch the film for context and inspiration I wanted to allow my own imagination do the work.
The very first inclination was the sound of feet shuffling, slowly, constantly. The image to me suggests claustrophobia. The two men face each other in some kind of recognition it seems while around them the faceless bodies gather. For some reason I imagined this to be taking place in a subway of some sort. So these were the starting points. As much as possible I wanted to record my own ambient sounds or foley. The first step was to record myself shuffling around in a circle on a concrete surface. I then duplicated this recording a number of times, randomly sequencing the starting points so the footsteps would overlap at different times. Beneath this I felt there should be a more abstract sound, a constant throbbing bass tone. Luckily I had recently recorded the hum of a fridge. By pitching this down I had my slightly sci-fi drone which would be constant I decided. This was the basic atmospheric texture of the scene; circling bodies, a monotonous, sluggish wall of sound. And what about voices? Incoherent I thought, a hubbub. I recorded my self whispering and mumbling for a few minutes and duplicated these recordings a number of times also. Rather than intrude on the piece with some kind of musical motif I decided to limit myself to the use of atonal sounds only. The two subway train sounds were stolen from you tube. I filtered and panned them to create the sense of space or distance. This could be considered as an exercise in the technique known as Musique concrete, developed by the French composer Pierre Schaeffer in the late 1940’s.
Like I said to begin with I’m not sure if this worked or not but I found it interesting and a good method to try and move myself away from regular composition. I tried to capture what my imagination told me about the image. If anyone who might be reading this is interested in trying this themselves I would be happy to post the results on this blog or if anyone had any suggestions for other images that might be interesting to soundtrack I will try this also. Feel free to send me your own version of this experiment and I will write about it here.
A few months ago I had the opportunity to write some music for the short film ‘Behind the Curtain’. Written by Colm Lennon and Rob Slattery, directed by Rob, this unique piece is a sort of character study of a motivational speaker called Harry Gold. I may be biased but I think it’s an excellent film and I was delighted to collaborate with Rob on the soundtrack. Colm Lennon also stars as Harry Gold and delivers a very convincing performance, inhabiting this unhinged, disturbing character completely. Rob and Colm are a great team and I wouldn’t be surprised to see future projects of theirs receiving wider acclaim.
Short films are a difficult medium, seeking to encapsulate an idea or reveal some kind of truth in a very limited time frame. Behind the Curtain does this for me and left me thinking there is scope for a feature about it’s main character. Although the film has a kind of reveal at the end, like many shorts, this time it was quite different, abstract almost. Rather than tying up the ends neatly and offering some kind of obvious conclusion, Behind the Curtain leaves you with an uneasy feeling, a question unanswered. This type of art is what I’m often attracted to. It stays with you after the fact.
The music I wrote was mainly made up of short cues with two slightly longer themes at each end of the film. Rob had a preference for the sound he was looking for, a vintage electric piano, which was the starting point that informed how the rest of the music would develop. I used the excellent Waves electric 88 plugin for this purpose, writing all of the melodic lines on this instrument. Other sounds used were some sampled strings which can be heard on both themes; Be your Desire and Seven Steps. Possibly my favourite track is ‘You are alone in the world’ which consisted of re-pitching some vocalisations of my own and using granular synthesis to stretch these recordings into a ghostly, inhuman sound. Thematically I tried to somehow tap into the mixture of menace and melancholy contained in Harry Golds character.
The full soundtrack is now on a Bandcamp page which I will dedicate to projects like this one in the future. The music is interspersed with outtakes from the film to add context.
This post is a simple one. Just a recording of the sea from the beach at Killiney Co. Dublin. No processing or manipulation of any kind. It was quite a windy day and the waves were animated. There was a thick, almost opaque fog creeping in off the horizon. Maybe two other people on the entire beach. I sat at the far end and pressed record and listened.
Soon i’ll be leaving Ireland and taking up residence in the city of Edinburgh for at least two years. It occurred to me that perhaps my collecting of field recordings is a way of gathering memories, the sounds of familiar places before embarking on something new. When I listened back to this recording I could vividly recall the entire setting and revisit my state of mind in those moments. So that is all, the sea, nothing more, nothing less.
In Hindu music the drone is said to represent the eternal self behind all the changing forms of nature. Drone music does not always have to be pretty or melodic and to many people can seem monotonous and somewhat boring. Recently I have been experimenting with this musical form and trying to create my own drone type sounds out of different source material. Rather than attempting to write pieces of music I played around with different tonal elements. My interest here was in atmosphere, dissonance and how the drone can lure the listener into a somewhat hypnotic state if they are open to just listening without judgement of compositional form or structure.
The Bowed Mandolin
I found an old broken mandolin that is really more of an ornamental piece than instrument at this stage. Using a violin bow I spent a few minutes drawing the bow across the strings in different places, using different pressures. The sound was scratchy metallic and quite unpleasant. I recorded this and to process the audio I resampled it in Ableton using the simpler instrument. Playing this sample back at different speeds produced a harsh, dissonant sound that evolved as each sample speed overlapped randomly. To blur this into a somewhat more cohesive sound i added a multi-tap delay. The result was a disturbing, screeching drone with interesting movement and resonance. It was a keeper for me.
Drone 1 – bowed mandolin
For this example I first recorded a Tibetan prayer bowl. The playing of the bowl is not perfect and you can hear the scraping of the metal edges throughout. However I tend to like this as it adds texture to the sound. My plan was to create what is known as a binaural beat using this sound. The ‘beat’ is created when two tones are played at the same time, one on the hard left of the stereo field, the other on the hard right. I duplicated the recording of the bowl and panned both tracks left and right, detuning the right track by approximately 10Hz. This small difference in frequency creates a kind of auditory illusion that sounds like the tones are wavering or modulating. This is caused by our brains responding to the slight difference between the two tones. As there are a number of pitches in this recording there are a number of binaural beats occurring simultaneously. For me this is quite a pleasant experience.
Drone 2 – binaural bowls
This is a simple sound design trick that I stumbled across. By recording a medium sized marble rolling around the inside of a bodhran, some pitching down and filtering I created what sounds, to me, like the drone of a warplane. This could be useful…. Maybe…
By playing the autoharp with a cheap plastic beater I recorded this rhythmic dissonant piece. I then processed this recording by time stretching it. To create a continuous drone behind the recording I used Abletons granulator instrument on a duplicate of the original recording. The result is crude but presents possibilities for use in atmospheric scoring.
The rainstick is an odd instrument. It doesn’t really sound like rain to me. I recorded one of these for a few minutes, randomly tipping it back and forth. When I pitched this recording down by about 30 semitones the sound took on the character of crackling lumps of ice shuffling down some frozen steam or river. To add some extra ambience I sent this track to a convolution reverb. This particular reverb acts like a shimmer effect but instead of pitching the verb up by 12 semitones it creates a chord. I saturated this reverb to give it more presence and simply allowed the tumbling sounds of the rainstick to trigger this swirling ambience.
Using the same technique I described in my previous post ‘Water Music’ I created an instrument using the sound of wind stirring the leaves in the canopy of Knocksink woods in Wicklow. The resonance here is different to the water, softer and slightly hollow sounding.
It is true to say that most sounds we hear are made up of many different frequencies and in my experience natural sounds contain a multitude. This was the case with recordings I made recently up in Glendalough Co. Wicklow. I captured the sounds of the famous waterfall and also a particularly animated, bubbling stream that ran off it. Even while recording I found myself tuning into the many different notes rippling out of the waters. Each time I go out to do some field recordings the experience becomes more meditative and immersive. It’s a unique way to experience a certain place by taking time out to really listen to it.
Later I took these recordings and used a technique I had recently learned to emphasise the notes within using EQ. It’s quite a simple process but basically it allows you to make a playable instrument from any source audio file. By applying an EQ to the water recordings I picked the note A3 which is found at 220 Hz and boosted this frequency using a notch filter until the note began to ring out. To further accentuate this I applied another notch at 110 Hz and 440 Hz. This gave me an octave below and above A3. I then duplicated this EQ to raise the volume of the boosted frequencies so I could now clearly hear a note emerging from the water. I then bounced this audio out and re sampled it, setting the root note of the sampler to A3. This new sound was now spread across the keyboard and I could play back the sound of the stream like a kind of water organ. I used the same technique with the waterfall recordings to create a hissing pad sound. Below is an example of this technique. Every sound here is created using the water recordings as source. It still needs some refining but I can see many possibilities in this process.
Djouce Woods in Wicklow is a place I have known since childhood. My parents brought my brother and I there many times when we were younger as they believed in the benefits of engaging with our natural environments. It’s hard to explain but I feel a connection with this forest and each time I go there I feel slightly better. After a walk my mind is clearer and I feel I have gained some perspective. The natural world is always there waiting, growing, dying away, rejuvenating itself. It will be here when we are gone (hopefully). Lately I have been re-visiting Djouce with my parents, my brother and my niece and nephew. Oisin and Fiadh are approaching fours years of age and I can see how much they enjoy being out among nature too. I believe they are now establishing their own connection to this environment and that it will be a lasting one.
I brought my handheld recorder on our last walk and captured some sounds; the forest ambience, voices, birds high up in the trees. Later I mixed these recordings to create a subtle 5 minute piece of audio. This relates to a recent article I had discovered about the practice of field recording and how it can be a form of composition. We choose which sounds to record while out on location, how we record them, and later can sequence these recordings in a linear way if we wish. Nothing much happens in this piece. It’s just some of the sounds that occurred while I was there but personally I am becoming more appreciative of simplicity and how sound in it’s raw form can sometimes be enough.
Two days ago I caught the DART to the seaside town of Howth. I’d forgotten what it was like out there as it had been years since I visited. It’s a pretty town with a large harbour, multicoloured painted houses and a cliff walk. The horizon in Howth bears an Island and great stretches of ocean. There’s a plaque on the wall of a bungalow claiming W.B Yeats lived there for some time. In 1890 he published an essay in a London magazine called The Leisure Hour stating ‘At Howth, for instance, ten miles from Dublin, there is a ‘fairies path’, whereon a great colony of otherworld creatures travel nightly from the hill to the sea and home again’. Now it seems the place is inhabited daily by tourists. I wanted to record some sounds from this place and it was a task to keep away from the chatter of visiting rotarians taking selfies. I picked a few of the recordings to include here.
20 seconds in you can hear the feint clamour of a bell from the town. To my ear this recording is peaceful and quite evocative.
There is something very seaside about the accordion…
I applied some processing to water sloshing among the rocks. Some interesting patterns of resonance occurred….
Nice crunching sound from this very Irish beach…
Re-pitched seagulls with reverb. Quite haunting…
The simple ambience of the harbour…
A passing boat heads out of the harbour…
To conclude, there is something quite meditative about travelling somewhere with the purpose of collecting sounds and as I listened back to the recordings I was instantly transported back to those moments of capturing. This excursion will be one of many and I hope to hone my skills in field recording as this new obsession develops.
This site will play host and document my exploration of sound and what it means to me. I will be sharing field recordings, music, audio experiments and basically anything I find interesting relating to these areas.
From here in I will be heading off to various locations to record a cornucopia of different sounds. These will then be found under the Field Recordings menu. My hope is to build up a library of found, natural and acoustic sounds first which I will edit and process in different ways.