April 24, 2020

Writing = processing (and the other things).

WFH: DAY 25. 8.00 am: A communion. 8.45 am: Inbox interrogation. 9.00 am: A day is the studio (and the garden). To begin: I reacquainted myself with another text from Edmund Jones’s collection of testimonies to spirit encounters. This one has features in common with the account on which the composition entitled ‘Such a Noise as if the World About Him Was Going to Pieces’ is based. The audient, on this occasion, was one David Griffith (a carpenter in the parish of Caerwent). Around 1757, he witnessed ‘such a noise as if all the hedges about were tore to pieces’. Griffith was also terrified by ‘a sound in the air — like the braying of an ass, but more disagreeable’.

10.00 am: The focus of the next two days’ would be on developing source material for recreating the noise of a disintegrating hedge. It would involve me, quite literally, beating about the bush in the back garden. I wanted to capture the sound using both analogue and digital recording devices. In preparation, I configured the microphone in conjunction with my Revox A44. It struck me that the last time I’d plugged a microphone into a reel-to-reel tape recorder was forty-four years ago.

In some respects this was like returning to a film-based SLR camera after years of using a digital version.

11.00 am: Outside, there was no wind to ‘pop’ the microphone, no sound of traffic in the distance; only the call of birds. Ideal. Thus, while the lockdown had constrained the context of my recording, it’d improved the conditions for such. Not that I would’ve relished schlepping the tape recorder much further afield than my garden. Like many devices built in the 1970s, just because it has a handle didn’t mean it’s portable.

As I ruffled the garden foliage with my hands in search of a sonority that was congruent with Griffith’s audition, I went into Goldilocks mode: ‘This bush sounds too soft, and this bush, too quiet. But this one is “just right”.’ A heap of crisp-dried twigs and branches that our gardener had pruned evoked the sound that I’d had in my head when reading the account. Sod’s Law: as soon as I started recording, one neighbour began mowing their lawn and another commenced DIY with a power-saw.

12.00 pm: ‘Silence’ (of a conditional, Cagean sort) reasserted itself. By lunchtime, I’d laid-down something usable.

2.00 pm: A time for reading. 3.00 pm: A sorting. I listened, first, to the digital recording with a view/audition to disentangling the unwanted blips, bumps, clicks, and pops. 3.30 pm: The analogue material was converted into a digital files: the first, played at one 7 1/2 ips (full-speed) and, the second, at 3 3/4 ips (half-speed). In analogue recording, pitch is tied to speed. Therefore, when a tape recording is played at half-speed, its pitch drops. A distant bird call, took on a haunting quality; ambient noises sound sickly and depressed. I’d forgotten the beauty of half-speed playback.

4.30 pm: From the cemetery you can hear the train leave the railway station. I wondered how many were travelling, and why. Did they sit further apart than before? (One person per table was often the norm.) The familiar toot of the horn was reassuring: a vestige from the ‘old-normal’ that spoke of continuity.

7.30 pm: Having fallen in love with analogue recording devices (again), I pulled out my collection of old cassette players and explored their distinctive deficits. The background hiss of tape summons a sense of times past and, with those times, places (time and place are inseparable) where I listened to music quietly on a monophonic device, under the blankets, late at night, with one ear close to the speaker.

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April 25, 2020

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