Memoir

Silence is the song

Listening inwards

DURING THE LONG winter of 2020, and due to fortunate happenstance, I found myself locked down in a somewhat ramshackle cottage in the forest in the Otways off the Shipwreck Coast of south-­west Victoria: leaky roof, windows that wouldn’t shut, red-­gum wood fires, beanies, long johns, scarfs and old jumpers for warmth all the hours of the day and night. 

The tin-­roofed, mudbrick and timber house looks down through a valley to the ocean 500 metres away. This is Gadubanud King Parrot country, a substantial but neglected part of Victoria. I’d never heard of the word ‘Gadubanud’ until moving down here, was not familiar with the people or the land name. Ridiculous considering that the Otways host one of this state’s great national parks. It is also the wettest part of the state. I tallied rainfall figures daily as part of my new regime: solar power, tank water, slightly frustrating wi-­fi and minimal phone coverage. After living in marvellous (slightly smug) Melbourne for over fifty years, my time was up. This was a long-­desired move.

Here our closest neighbour is nowhere to be seen. The wind through the Otway forest trees – eucalypts, beech trees, blackwood – is an omnipresence, like an orchestra in a surround-­wall of sound: all variants of white noise. Wild and invigorating, it ebbs and flows, swirls from one side of the valley to the other, and then down through the gully. It sounds like restless spirits and ghosts: the approaching storm, the trembling sky, the aeolian sound, the harmonic whistle when the wind blows through the gaps in the slat windows or the corrugated-­iron woodshed. The sudden squalls, violent winds, dull roaring sounds. Sometimes the trees at the top of the steep hill are wild with fury: the branches the koalas frequent are violently thrown about. They should break, but they don’t. The music of the wind is in the topmost branches, while down the bottom of the gully it is still.

I shut my eyes and listen to this directional song.

On a still night I can hear the waves hit the distant shore on Three Creeks Beach. They fall through the night every twenty seconds. The waves beat and echo up the valley, reverberant and atmospheric, the hit and then the long descending tail. Like the drums on Peter Gabriel’s epic song ‘Biko’, these waves crash constant, repetitive, metronomic, permanent. The rise and fall draws me in.

I don’t meditate but if I did…I could shut my eyes, lie on my back and before I knew it, two hours could have passed.

But not just any two hours.

 

I AM HIGHLY sensitive to sound. I am constantly aware of it, always taking note of which direction a sound is coming from, its components. When mixing albums and soundtracks this is the attention to sound that is required. Such constant attention is not necessarily irritating, although bad sounds are amplified, whether that be Guy Sebastian playing in a restaurant, or the high-­pitched mechanical brake noise as a plane is landing. I am assaulted, but not always badly, by a wall of noise, but I am also liberated by silence – by the lack of sound, by the space.

Because silence is a song in itself. And any note or rhythm has to come out of silence. Space in music is something that is glorious and peaceful. Less clutter, more space: this is a wonderland, another dimension, a world you can always go to.

Integrating non-­musical sounds with conventional instrumentation and working with space have always been part of my practice, since the first Not Drowning, Waving album Another Pond in 1984. When I first travelled to Papua New Guinea in 1986, I learnt a Tok Pisin word – bilas – that resonated with me. Bilas means extraneous decoration: it applies to feathers and bush trinkets incorporated into face-­paint designs and traditional costume. In music, bilas is the peripheral sounds – not the violins, the main vocal or the guitar parts, but the echoes, the textural parts. It is also the scratchy guitar, the harmonic wind through casuarina trees, the synthesiser bloops. Bilas is the conversations in a train carriage, echoes through concrete pipes.

However, bilas is substance also. It is what makes a cultural song exceptional and unique to the people of the song’s language group. Maybe it was the conceptional word; maybe it was the way bilas made me get Papua New Guinea. I’ve applied the bilas principle to my studio and compositional work ever since.

There is a musicality in bilas: a rhythm, a harmonic, a texture. A melody occasionally, a layering: it’s all music. These elements belong. On a record, at a live gig, as film soundtrack, in an art installation.

I’ve done a fair amount of film soundtrack composing over the years and there is no doubt that collaborating closely with the sound designer/editor is vital. Your roles merge. It’s hard to delineate where music ends and sound begins. Or vice versa.

Found sounds trigger memory, they give a definite sense of place. They transport the audience. When you hear a recording of tram ambience – the conversation, the metallic track noise, the squeaky brakes – it transports you onto that tram, no matter where you are. As a listener, this sound is experiential; it’s evocative. It triggers our chemistry at a biological level. The memories summoned by the sound can be joyful or sorrowful – the emotions overwhelming. Or they can be just about the daily trudge to work, or a childhood fear of being threatened by local hoods.

The pleasures of public transport.

A lot of my compositional and production works in PNG are centred in place (ples) – with artists such as Gunantuna singer George Telek and Chambri Lakes composer Pius Wasi. The subject matter of these songs is very much grounded in its village-­based surroundings. The lyrics concern spirit of place and ancestral (tumbuna) stories. The vocals and instrumentation mimic and play off immediate natural surrounds. Instruments like the tinbuk, a melodic bamboo percussion instrument that sounds like crickets when multiple beats are played close together, or how the mambu (harmonic-­based bamboo flute) expressively replicates aspects of the Gunantuna (Rabaul) life or its Sepik/Highlands surrounds.

More often than not we record outside, or in thatched house dwellings. We cannot block out the sound of the tropical rain or late-­afternoon insect surges even if we wanted to. Tropical rain is intense. The sounds of chickens, pigs and children playing are hard to avoid. Around volcanic Rabaul, gurias – or earth shudders – are commonplace. The earth moves, the water tanks spill: you feel the ground slip like a skateboard. There is a low guttural sound. Back in 1994, before eruption, the Tavurvur volcano let off a boom like an industrial air-­conditioning vent every fifteen minutes. These sounds present unavoidable recording intrigues in a place where so much life takes place outside. There is a lot to love about that.

I’ve been drawn to remote locations all my life. Moving to the Otways was logical – for artistic reasons foremost, but also because it’s good for my head, for my difficult-­to-­still neurodiverse brain. I like the quiet, I love the hours of travel to reach anywhere, I love the stillness. I sometimes joke that I’m heading towards being like the rich old Simpsons scion Montgomery Burns when he goes all Howard Hughes and withdraws from the world to his bedroom. Except for the deafness and the money – I am a musician after all.

In January 2022, I was supposed to head to Australia’s Casey Station in Antarctica with video artist Keith Deverell as part of this year’s Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship, supported by the Australian Network for Art and Technology. We were going to research, record and film for an immersive art installation and album. We were also going to collaborate with paleoclimatologist Dr Joel Pedro in an ambitious joining of art and science – and I was going to keep a sound diary for this edition of Griffith Review about the project.

My gear was laid out neatly on the couch – ambisonic microphones, multitrack field recorders, battery packages and headphones. And of course two pairs of thermal undergarments that my daughters bought for me. We were ready to head into isolation – Covid-­world quarantine – for two weeks prior to the flight down to Casey. At the last minute, we received a phone call: our trip would be postponed till January 2023 thanks to the pandemic and subsequent limitations on movement this past summer season.

The dreaded lurgy strikes again.

And so I’m still imagining what the adventure to the vast white desert of Antarctica will entail, what I hope an installation and soundtrack formed in the end of the world – and perhaps about the end of the world – will be.

 

ANTARCTICA APPEALS TO me for many unique reasons. It’s the only continent on the planet without a First Nations people. It has no innate language or lived experience through which to describe it. While this is remarkable, my sense is that it also means that, as a continent, it belongs to all of us – appropriate when it’s a continent dedicated to science and peace. This is an important thing to think about at a time when science deniers seem have the loudest megaphones at their disposal.

Keith Deverell, my artistic collaborator on this project, is a Hobart-­based visual artist who works in sound and moving image. Keith’s work reflects on the tapestries and politics of place. Utilising slow-­motion video and performative strategies, his artworks play out as multi-­layered reflections on the contradictions of current and historical, social and environmental situations.

My science collaborator, Joel Pedro, is the lead project scientist of the Australian Antarctic Division’s Million Year Ice Core Project, which aims to recover a continuous Antarctic ice core reaching beyond 1.2 million years, mapping climate from that far-­distant point into contemporary times. Joel’s goal is to improve our understanding of how and why climate has changed in the past and to help us predict and prepare for how it may change in the future. My take on this is that his work is essential to help us all understand the rates of change – and that the data is scary. The ice-core work is critical in proving that the carbon-dioxide rise is linked to fossil fuel burning and that carbon-dioxide levels are now alarmingly high – and rising faster than at any time in the past 800,000 years.

As scientists work to decipher the climates of our past and fathom our possible futures, it is perhaps the artist’s role to translate that science into emotion, to illuminate and to encourage action, reflection and agitation.

The work we are planning will be an installation involving multiscreen floor and wall projections of abstracted films and photographs: these will be presented in an enclosed room with an accompanying ambisonic surround soundscape and compositional recordings. We want to film micro and macro, to capture the desert, the whiteness, the simplicity – and to capture Antarctica’s unity as one vast physical system: ice, rock, air and sea. From expansive horizons to miniature ice cracks; from blinding storms to slow-­motion ice drops.

As the pianist Arnan Wiesel has noted, ‘sonically, an extraordinary silence embraces much of Antarctica. In this regard, my most profound listening was inward.’

I imagine being in such a vast white landscape, dressed for protection from the cold climate, acutely aware of my breathing, the crunching of my feet on the ice, the sounds that I am thinking about when the wind is dead.

Our soundscape will immerse our audience in the ambience of this wilderness, in the bilas of this place, to provoke thought and action in our audience. Because we must act; that is a given. This has to be a work that fights, that merges sound with images, statistics, graphs, spoken word, rhythms, light; that melds art and science; that takes a stand. This is not a portrayal of Vaseline-­lensed penguins or harp music for a yoga session. This has to reflect the shock of startling truth – both shocking and beautiful, challenging and expansive. Art with agitation – because when you delve into the research done by Joel and his teams, the findings are stark.

Our soundscape will be a poetic composition comprising the recorded natural sounds of Antarctica, as well as archival wax-­cylinder recordings, morse-­code samples, the sound of fluttering canvas melded with composed music, spoken-­word pieces and perhaps a couple of songs. Recordings and statements by influential Antarctica explorers, writers and historians will also be projected and heard – voices of the past, and of the science we ignored when we had more of a chance to act.

 

I’VE HAD THE chance to think about sound and place and silence in Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay) in the Great Sandy Desert many times – this is almost as far away from anywhere as you can get in Australia. It’s been home to the Pintupi people for thousands of years and possesses a rich history and culture and language that describes it. I’ve sat with the way the wind sounds as it bounces off the plains, the salt lakes and through the rock gaps. This is a strange and rare place on the Earth; the sound is pristine.

To understand the deserts of central Australia requires first viewing them through the knowledge, language and song of the Pintupi, Warlpiri, Pitjantjatjara and Arrernte peoples. They frame it, they have known it for more than 60,000 years. To understand Papua New Guinea is to view kustom, song and place from the perspective of the more than 850 Indigenous language groups that inhabit the eastern part of the massive Papuan island.

If this is true of most places on Earth, then it is not only unwise not to listen but is profoundly disrespectful. First Nations languages are full of historical descriptions for the lands on which they are grounded. The ancestors’ perceptions have been passed down through words shaped and formed over 60,000 years. Custom, song and ceremony are part of this language; they are certainly instrumental in the way it is used. Landscape shapes the language: the language shapes the way you see and feel the landscape.

But unlike the Pintupi of Wilkinkarra or the Tolais of the Gunantuna lands, Antarctica has no First Nations people. So its language is new. It is experiential. In a continent devoted to science, it is also numbers, graphs and reconstructions. Maybe the rare sounds, the katabatic winds, the creak as ice breaks, the slow drip, the roar and the silence, maybe this itself is the language of a continent with no First Peoples.

Maybe this is Antarctica’s bilas.

Writers and artists of all kinds have a key role to play in this translation. Writing in the Antarctic Journal of the United States after his own two trips south with the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, the late great nature writer Barry Lopez noted: ‘Our Antarctica experience leaves us with no other impression but this one – that we are alive in a particular place, that our existence is precious and that to be vigilant about any threat to our wellbeing is wise.’

If sound and nature are inseparable, so too are silence and nature. Sound and then no sound. Nothing. These parameters of our world are often neglected. The peace, calm and emptiness. Down there, silence will be the song.

Near silence removes competition, the small sounds we otherwise don’t hear, the subtleness of minute sounds, acute hearing. The glorious little things, the clicks, cracks and harmonics, the flutter of a small bird, an echo through the valley. Silence in a vast environment reduces an individual to a speck of dust, an insignificant entity. Small noises come to the fore: we hear aspects of sound we’ve never heard before – like my new listening in the Otways. We’re not tuned to listen in such a manner anymore. Urban life is clutter, noise: we listen as a scramble, the car alarms and sirens invariably dominate because of their ugly frequencies. We struggle to hear the tails or the undertones.

In 1915, Sir Douglas Mawson published a description from Common­wealth Bay of ‘a hurricane of wind roaring for weeks together, pausing for breath only at odd hours’. These pauses, which he called ‘lulls of a singular nature’ were, he wrote,

a welcome relief to the dreary monotony, and on such occasions the auditory sense was strangely affected. The contrast was so severe when the racking gusts of an abating wind suddenly gave way to intense, eerie silence that the habitual droning of many weeks would still reverberate in the ears.

The Antarctic environment, with its extremes of climate and environment, the silence and the howling, offers up a new adventure, a unique opportunity to listen and capture. It is also, in so many ways, the canary in the coalmine for climate change: if climate change is truth, then Antarctica is the scientific arena where much of that change is laid out.

 

IT’S A FULL-­STAR night down in the Otways: often the ocean mist dulls the stars but not tonight. I could be west of Alice Springs. It is completely still. Out of the silence a minute gust grabs the branches, some obscure rhythm from a frog comes down the valley. Bilas all around me.

In working with Keith and with Joel, I’m hoping that the boundaries between the disciplines of art and science can meld in a joint quest for some holistic understanding and communication. The science will help shape our art. We’ll sample its space together. I’m curious too as to whether our film and soundscape will, conversely, emotionally and demonstrably shape the science as well.

I will report back.

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