Christmas Day 2010: the cackle of reeds with occasional crow
Christmas Day 2011: a Christmas puddle
Up at 4:30 to walk into winter and Christmas Day on winnall moors. Last year, I was disappointed to find the traffic noise arrived well before sunrise, so this year I attempted to beat the traffic and enter the moors with night still present. The first sound I heard as I walked from the streetlight of the Durngate into the moorish darkness, was a gentle and intermittent clunk. In order to locate and amplify the sound, I swept my microphone through the landscape, like a snakes licks the air with its tongue. The clunk was found to be coming from a plastic bottle, caught in the current of a water hatch, where the river Itchen spills into a carrier. This detritus of daily life had become a chaotic percussive clock, ticking away at the precise measurement of time. I listened to this rhythm, recording it from a number of positions in order to mix the sound of the river with the escapement of the bottle. By this strangely mesmeric watch, the space between seconds could expand or decrease. Normally I find the presence of litter depressingly offensive. I complain to myself about the selfishness and inconsiderate nature of the human race, people do not appear to care about their environment or about the danger and harm they leave behind. But here I was, in the moors before dawn on Christmas Day, listening attentively to the sound of an unwrapped present: a plastic bottle in a river.
This year, Christmas day in the moors was wet and dank; pools of water rising and stretching out to submerge areas normally left dry. I remember last year the temperature was below freezing, a Celsius reflected in the crispness of the sounds recorded. In 2010 Christmas cackled with the rustle of reeds and occasional crow, the sounds available seeming sparse and distant. This year too, the echo of birdsong suggests a deserted landscape of scattered voices, but there is also a sense of dampness hanging in the air. Merging puddles of water cut off the path to the pond, which has now become a hidden place, available only to the wellington foot of the well-prepared walker. There is something about puddles that reduces me to a playful child. It is wonderful to walk through a deep puddle and hear the splash and squelch of your own footsteps, without the consequence of getting wet. I feel intrepid, as if I were conquering not only land but also the confine of my senses. I bring back these sounds like Walter Raleigh brought back potatoes and tobacco.
As part of the Winchester Arts Festival, 10 Days Across the City, I composed a cycle of three soundscapes for the auditorium of the Theatre Royal, Winchester. The cycle included a twenty-minute sound walk through a year of Winnall Moors and was accompanied by a sonic river, flowing through the public address system. These wet sounds came from recordings of the movement of water through the moors. I have spoken before about the myriad voices of water in the reserve, and also made reference to the history of water sounds in experimental music (drawing substantially on the academic Douglas Kahn, who devotes a whole chapter to this history in his excellent book, Noise Water Meat). The installation of a soundscape within a particular space requires a different form of composition. When creating sounds for radio broadcast, you are aware of a pressure to not dwell on a specific sound, but to continually move through the sounds, from one event to another. In an installation context, the audience are not generally hurrying to listen: you can allow sound time. Sonic ‘events’ can linger, emerge and fade away; sound colouring the space and filtering into consciousness. In composing the sonic river, I used duration to mask repetition, emphasising the fluidity and moving stasis of river sounds. The river runs as a twenty-minute loop, with slow changes in texture and current. The river ends with the same sound as it begins, the loop appearing dispersed, organic and un-repetitive, as is the nature of watery sounds (The blog version of the river has been shortened, in response to the more narrative structure of web-based events).
What I found particularly interesting at the theatre event was how the sonic river interacted with the architecture of the building and the other events occurring in the artistic occupation of the theatre building. The front of house public address speakers provided pockets of sound so that as you passed beneath them the water appeared to be dripping down upon you. In the non-spaces of the corridors and stairs that lead you to the auditorium, the wetness takes on a distinct echoic quality that remains evasive in terms of location. The sounds appeared acousmatic as the visual source of the sound was hard to determine: the wetness of the river responding acoustically to the space, whilst simultaneously washing away certainty, immersing the corridors in a general dripping liquidity. The word ‘acoustmatic’ has something of the theatrical in its origin; referring to a pupil of Pythagoras who sat behind a curtain listening to Pythagoras’ lectures, without being able to see him. The term has come to refer to sound or ‘acoustical impressions’ whose source we can not identify or know and can now refer to the abstraction of sounds in the electro-acoustic music or Musique Concrète of composers such as Pierre Schaeffer or our own wonderful Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, who as part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop gave us the classic Dr Who theme.
My interest in the river’s sound is more concerned with the spatial acousmatics which occur through the water’s interaction with the architecture, than with the aural abstraction of sounds from their original source. However, the composed river does contain sounds evoked through strategies which can cause abstraction: the hydrophone recordings of the mini-stream encourage an almost icy crystallisation of water sounds, resulting in a hard, clinking, isolated fragmentation; by inserting an aluminum wire into the bed of the mini-stream, the current of water turns into a textured, rubbing, vibration, akin to the rumblings of mechanical motion.
In the vertical rectangle of the theatre atrium, the river seemed to move away from the speakers from whence it sprang, the architecture pulling the water up into a sort of invisible sonorous cloud hanging above our heads. I could not determine if this was a result of the verticality of the space, psychologically orientating our ears to the normal English position of precipitation, that is, rain pouring down upon our heads, or if the architectural structure of the cube was bouncing the sound upwards. Either way, it was a subtle but distinct alteration in the perceived spatiality of the river flow. In the toilets, the river broke it’s banks, overwhelming the confined space and drowning the visitors with its aural condensation. In one of the toilets it became an unintentional soundscape for a piece of experimental wet theatre (Shady Jane, Sailing On), as a shingle floor and two soaking wet women greeted visitors: the supposed damp remnant characters of Ophelia and Virginia Woolf.
Through the back stage speakers, the Winnall Moors soundscape that was filling the empty auditorium escaped, creating pockets of dawn chorus in the dressing rooms, accompanied by the percussion, piano and pedestrian sitar of Hossein Hadisi’s, Avant-garde Composers Ensemble (ACE), who were moving around the building reacting musically to the architecture, each other and the entire soundscape.
On the first floor balcony of the atrium Sam Cave, one of the members of ACE, sat playing guitar (Picture: Dave Gibbons). Underneath him the pointed drops of water dripping from the river, mingled with a choir of people’s voices describing the space as they moved through it. The guitars beautiful pluck and twang of air echoing the percussive drops of a rivers current against the electrical sensuous fret of the hydrophone.
In autumn, up in the north of the moors, I met Martin De Retuerto (Winnall Moors Project Manager) for a bit of ecological river sculpture. Over the past 400 years the chalk streams that flow through the moors have been altered in ways that changed the energy of the channel and thereby altered the way that water naturally sculpts and forms the river habitat. Since October of 2009, the HWT have been working to re-build the streams, in particular the Barton Carrier, which joins the River Itchen and whose fishy inhabitants include: Brown Trout, Bullheads and Grayling.
Many artists have used the natural environment as both a material source and site for art practice. In the 1960’s and 70’s ‘environmental or land art’ emerged as a tributary of Conceptual Art: including perhaps most notably Robert Smithson’s spectral Spiral Jetty (1970), and in Britain the poetic traces of Richard Long’s walks through an environment. More recently the sound artist Bill Fontana has re-located the submerged sounds of the Thames into an installation at Somerset House and poured the roaring pulse of Chesil Beach across the streets of London.
The chiseling of the Barton Carrier has a less obvious interaction with the general public, but perhaps a more lasting consequence for the environment.
Martin’s sculpture was assisted by tons of gravel and a small caterpillar tracked tractor with bucket. In order to create shallow pools for the breeding Brown Trout, the gravel was poured into the water, with Martin directing the pour and using a spade to make small adjustments. The stream will carry on the re-building of it’s own course.
The idyllic sound of a chalk stream is perhaps more normally associated with the gentle lapping of water, the gossamer buzz of river-fly, the whip n’ whir of angler’s fly-fishing and the occasional gulp of a fish taking an insect from the water’s surface. But the sounds of this river sculpture are just as fascinating to the open ear.
It is not just the bucket of (pebble) rain (heard from above and below the water) poured into the river that fascinates, the sculptural process itself offers a spatial narrative and rich sonic palette: the slow clattering mechanical gait of the tractor approaching the river, the balletic tip of a pneumatic wrist and subsequent garrulous perforation of water, followed by the brooding withdrawal of caterpillar tracks and the final organic demise of engine pitch.
This sonic landscape is accompanied by the dissonant sound of a Martin’s spade shoveling water and pebbles. Slightly reminiscent of chalk on blackboard, the sound also has a texture and metallic spatial whirl that adds to the concert of watery voices that inhabit the moors. Listen below:
In April of last year the dipping pond turned black with the seasonal arrival of tadpoles. The water was transformed into a dark vibrating jelly: a primordial tadpole soup. I had sunk my hydrophone into this broth of possible toads and heard an appropriately squelchy mess of sound: very like sucking jelly through your teeth.
When I returned to the pond this April, instead of a black blancmange of toad, I discovered a moving herd of tadpoles, a plague of aquatic locusts proceeding like water buffalo over the green foliage in the water. They moved in a seemingly coordinated rotating action and as I sunk my hydrophone beneath them I was greeted with the rough rasping tongues of tadpoles grazing (actually tadpoles don’t have tongues, so it was perhaps more of a lippy bovine mulch). The herd thinned out and the munch of straggling tadpoles faded away.
In the background there was a strange but constant ticking sound, I knew this to be the photosynthetic clocks of pondweed, occasionally accompanied by the squeaking whirr of a gaseous release.
In amongst this background noise emerged a loud, repetitive and slightly aggressive chant. I could not see anything in the water that could locate or identify it and I had no idea what I was listening to. The sound had a changing but recurring pattern: an intermittent series of calls dispersed with silence. When I downloaded the sound to my computer the extended pattern became visibly evident. After posting the sound as a sonic question on soundcloud, I was informed by @L’attrape son that the sound was in fact a Sigara Dorsalis or water boatman. Although I had seen some of these darting around underneath the water, the sound seemed far too large to be emitted by such a small bug: the water boatman seeming visually detached from its loud sonic presence. Although I discovered the origin of the sound I have not, as yet, found out why this noise is made, and other questions come to mind: Is the sound territorial or amorous in nature? Do both male and female water boatman sing? Is there such a thing as water boatwoman?
Could these sounds be the pond equivalent of the sea shanty: bawdy drinking songs, watery tales of love and loss?
We are now in the second stage of the project, the compositional stage: although, I am still occasionally enticed into the moors to have a surreptitious earful. On one such recent aural rummage, I found some gaseous ticking in the pond and bat detected the ultra sonic noise of grasshoppers: they are very loud occupants of the ultrascape.
In response to a number of requests, I have been working on a short sound walk through the moors, for the future listening ears of Radio Solent and Radio 3. Although, at six-minutes thirty, this walk is brief in duration, it offers an extended ‘view’ of time: beginning in December 2010 and wandering backwards and forwards through summer and spring to arrive under a Pagoda at this year’s 50th Anniversary of the Trust.
I have also been logging all the sounds recorded, which appeals to my slight OCD tendencies, but with over 100gb of sounds, it can prove rather a chore. The composition of the six-minute thirty vignette was a welcome and consuming escape.
The recording of a soundscape not only helps to reveal its pattern and temperament, but also allows for the subsequent re-composition of that soundscape: a shifting and pleating of time and place. Such composition allows the colour and texture of individual sounds to inform the placement and acoustic collage of the soundscape. This introduces a hypermobility and temporal plasticity, the sound walk is not necessarily limited to linear movement or narrative progression, in keeping with the nature of acoustic space, boundaries are temporal and emergent and the past mingles with the present.
The short walk begins at 6am on Christmas day, the ice crackling in front of my steps as I walk across the frozen boardwalk. My steps lead back into the dawn chorus of the summer solstice, overlaid with the spring bird ringing.
The movement of water through the moors serve produces a chorus of voices, which include the scientific sounds of measurement and observation as Dr Ben Rushbrook performs a Kick Sample, walking up the mini-stream rolling the riverbed with his feet and catching the disturbed creatures in a net. Ben is an expert in fly larvae, the diversity and quantity of which indicate the ecological health of the river and the broader reserve.
The moors are a maintained environment and have been so for hundreds of years, the maintenance and repair of the moors is an on-going process. Volunteers carry out much of this work and the noise of their labour introduces its own rhythms, conversations and narratives. The sound of a fence post being sunk into the ground, makes the moors resound with hammered percussion.
The use of contact microphones and hydrophones provide a form of electrical clairvoyance allowing the discrete sounds hidden beneath the surface of the soundscape to emerge; here are the sound of rain falling on barbed wire, the subaquatic gaseous songs of pondweed; the territorial rhythmic patterns of a water boatman.
The short acoustic excursion ends beneath a Pagoda on the 50th anniversary of the Hampshire Wildlife Trust. The Pagodas provided shade for different events (such as the creatures from the pond dipping, being put under the close-up lens of a camera). But for the contact microphone, the Pagoda offers an Aeolian shade, as the April breeze passing over the them, is amplified into a dissonant but glorious creak.
This short walk through the Moors provides me with a preliminary survey of the recorded temporal and acoustic geography of the reserve: a form of listening reconnaissance. From this point I walk forward, listening for the seasonal soundscapes to be found amongst the recordings made in a year that now has passed.
As with the water vole survey, the small mammal survey takes place in the autumn, in order to avoid disturbing breeding and catching pregnant animals. Unlike the water vole survey this survey uses traps and therefore takes place in two parts over two days: first laying the traps around the moors and then collecting the traps the following day and documenting the mammals caught; species, gender and weight.
Natalie was conducting the survey and I met her as she started to prepare the traps, filling the steel compartments with straw bedding and food: carrots, seeds and blowfly larvae. As I switched the microphone on and slid the headphones over my ears I was enveloped in a wonderful acoustic rain. The carrots were covered in short reverberations as they were dropped in the miniature metal echo chamber of the trap and the seeds and blowfly larvae poured out static descriptions of the enclosed space of the trap. Sound has a symbiotic relationship with space: at once describing and being described by the space surrounding the acoustic event. As the traps were laid out on the ground, the acoustics of the metal cubicles formed part of a wider sonic landscape and the sound events of filling, moved between each trap; cells of sound mapping movement and revealing the unconsidered but almost geometric pattern in which the traps were laid. The final filling of the traps with straw bedding muffles space with a soft crackling texture, before the metallic rhythms of the traps are loaded into the steel-carrying box.
The recording of these sounds obviously places them out of sight, hiding them from view and placing them in a sympathetic relationship with the concealed nature of the trap. As I followed Natalie around the moors placing the traps and hiding them in amongst the vegetation, I was struck by not only the textures of sound but also the sonification of this act of spatial concealment. The scale of the soundscape shifts from the enclosed sounds of trap preparation, to the tacit appearance of distance, as voices pass by, disappearing out of earshot and beyond the acoustic horizon. Ironically, the audible act of placing the trap was concluded with the tying of a high visibility orange bow.
As with the water vole survey, Natalie drew a map of where the traps were laid, ensuring that no traps were left unchecked and that caught animals are not kept for longer than required. A series of lines trace a movement through the landscape and the numbers are our pause or rest, where the traps are placed. These lines and numbers are reminiscent of the graphic scores so popular with avant-grade composers such as, John Cage, Cornelius Cardew and Earl Brown. Cage is recognised as ‘opening the doors of music to the sounds that happen to be in the environment’. For Cage ‘The World is a score’ and here we are walking and listening through it.
The next day I joined Natalie, Rachel and members of the public to retrace our steps and unset the traps. There are three main species of small mammals in the moors (mice, voles and shrews) and the traps revealed different kinds of these species; common shrew, wood mouse and yellow neck mouse. Members of the public got to open the traps and take part in the measuring and identifying of the animals caught, before releasing them back into the moors.
One wood mouse made a wonderful (hidden) aural appearance as it managed to escape from the hands of measurement. The spaces that these animals can disappear through are incredibly minute, quite at odds to their visually apparent size. The audio recording of a mouse disappearing from the confined space of a trap and into the surrounding vegetation landscape, which of course we cannot see, seems to me a fitting end to an aural investigation of sound, space and concealment. Listening to something you cannot hear is one way of developing listening skills and poeticising the soundscape. My favourite description of a sound that poetically extends beyond our audible horizon is from The Pillow Book of Sei Shõnagen: ‘I have never come across anyone with such keen ears as Masamitsu…I believe he could hear the sound of a mosquito’s eyelash falling on the floor.’ Some sounds are better heard without our ears.
In October I joined Rachel and the volunteers on a water vole survey in the north of the moors. The water vole has the unenviable privilege of being the fastest disappearing mammal in the United Kingdom. The decline began in the 1990’s and by 2005, 90% of water voles had disappeared from our waterways. However in recent years there seems to have been a modest recovery. Surprisingly, I have seen more water voles in the publically accessible area of the southern moors than in the inaccessible northern moors, where this part of the survey was taking place. The vole has a subtle presence: a small dark smudge on the surface of the river, leaving a signature wake across the water as it swims to the other side. Their audible moniker is even more subtle, a sudden unobtrusive splash as they detect my presence and dive for the cover of the river. Recently I suffered an extremely frustrating vole incident on the boardwalk of the mini-stream. Testing a new hydrophone I monitored the sound of the river: a red light flashing as the recording process was held in pause. I heard a rustle of gravel and looked down to see a water vole appear from under the boardwalk and swim casually over the hydrophone to the opposite bank: I swear it was doing breadth-stroke.
The autumn and winter provide a good opportunity for surveys and maintenance in the moors, avoiding the disturbance of species during the breeding season. The survey involves looking for evidence of water voles, which includes, burrows, runs, feeding remains and that natural scientist favourite latrines. One surveyor dons waders and walks up the river whilst another joins them on the bank, both call-out their evidence to a third person who draws a map of the survey, annotating what evidence was found where? These maps are like conceptual drawings: process proceeds form and form follows function. I like them.
From a sonic point of view the survey offered an interesting collision of soft wet river sounds and the crisp textures of reeds. Accompanying these aural textures the call and response of ‘evidence’ provides a choral spatiality and a spontaneous narrative of movement through a landscape.
On the way back to the southern area of the reserve, Rachel took in a visit to the cows in order to ensure all were present and accounted for. As I approached I could hear the tearing and chewing of grass, but my presence must have alarmed the cows and their calves as a lowing chorus began around me. Apparently, there are many different kinds of low, which can mean different things depending on tone and duration, but mostly cows low because there is a cause for concern. The chorus that lowed around me had some similarity to the vole survey in its apparent call and response and the spatial aspects that this lowing pronounced. The lowing of one cow announced its presence in relation to the low of another and my[recording]self: the herd acoustically appearing and disappearing in space. At a distance you can hear the sound of voices drifting up from the playing fields.
The cows often attempt to feed on grass on the other side of the wire fence field boundaries, and this causes the square metal mesh to bend and warp. As we wandered back, Rachel pulled the fences back into shape and I recorded her tensile voice as it disappeared down the line of the fence.
There is something soporific in the slow disappearance of sound, it is as if an audible movement into distance takes us away with it: perhaps this is why when we attempt to sing someone to sleep we gently lower a voice as if we are drifting into absence. Even the harsh metallic sound of the wire fence has something of the lullaby for me.
Conversely, the constancy of sonic information can also lull us into retreat. The first recording I made on this day was the dripping of the previous night’s rain, which continued to fall from the clogged up gutters of the hay shed. The drops fell chaotically yet rhythmically onto a floor of autumn leaves. The dripping of autumnal rain has a harsher staccato sound, rather like the quiet static between radio stations: a sound that does not move; an ever-changing constancy. Listening to this precipitate stasis accompanied by voices that linger at the edges of audibility, I find myself acoustically attuned to disappearance, unconsciously inclined to sleep and nothingness.
Up early to find the dawn and the moors covered in the first frost of autumn, a mist held over the river, slowly lifted with sunrise. The soundscape was strangely sparse and silent, all sound seemed distant and vaporous, small sonic details suspended within the particles of water. The sound reminded me of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, and in particular Nostalghia (1983). Tarkovsky’s films lack dramatic events, they proceed slowly, character and place seem to hover somewhere between presence and absence, time appears suspended. So to, here in this first frost, I listen to nothing much happening.
From the bridge over the Itchen close to playing fields, I made a recording of this uneventful silence. At this early hour, silence is usually solitary, but around 7am on the park side of the reserve, the sounds of dog walkers often drifts over into the moors. The voices of people calling their dogs back are reflected again in the architecture of the Art School: an echo of presence in an empty landscape, interrupted occasionally by early morning runners as they approach, arrive and disappear, bringing with them a moment of nearness in an otherwise vague and distant landscape. To add to the spectral qualities of this soundscape the squeal of a Water Rail rents a hole in the fabric of silence.
To listen requires the silence of a listener, and so in listening, we remove ourselves from utterance. This is also the case with recording, I normally attempt to remove my own acoustic presence, I feign stillness and try not to speak, at a technical level, Low-cut filters are switched on to avoid accidental handling noise. But walking brings us into the soundscape and this morning the sound of my steps on the frosty ground is very tempting. In particular the sight of frosty grass just makes me yearn to tread upon it and hear, perhaps even ‘feel’ the textural collapse of grass covered in spicules of ice. Even the grit of the path sounds glacial.
The frost also alters the sound of the boardwalk over the reeds. In fact the variation in the sound of footfall on the boardwalk, describe and are themselves described by the changes of the seasons. With the frost the wire netting covering the wood sounds brittle, a cracking noise slightly amplified by the sounding board of the wooden boards underfoot. As I walk out across it I hold the microphone close to my steps to hear my movement through the soundscape, accompanied by the crisp whisper of a cold breeze moving through the reed beds. Listening back to the recording, I try to keep my feet in time with the rhythm of my previous movement: walking with my own ghost.
My steps are not the first, at the mini-stream the frosted boards record the paw-prints of a fox pioneer. Perhaps, like myself, the fox could not resist the temptation to walk over the cold and saturated air and hear the crush of it’s own presence.
Repairs now complete, the river returns to the mini-stream and spills into the reeds. The pondweed in the dipping pond hangs from the dried out stems of the reeds, but the river is returning to fill it once more. The sound of the mini-stream has changed since its repair, the water is gushing through the Hatches, although as the streams join the sound is quite delicate, the hydrophone reveals a more tumultuous sound as the current throws the water around, offering up other voices for the river motet of Winnall Moors.
In early October there was a sudden interruption to the landscape and soundscape in the moors. The collapse of a ‘hatch’ diverting water from the river Itchen into the water meadow meant that emergency repair work had to be undertaken. A section of the path around the moor was closed so that work could be carried out safely and a fence was put across the path at the footbridge leading into the moors from the rugby fields and another across the wooden boardwalk over the reed beds just up from the Durngate entrance. This seclusion put the area beyond the fences out of sight and out of earshot.
But the fences also introduced their own acoustic elements into the soundscape. I was not allowed into the secluded area of moors to record the replacement of the ‘hatch’, but I noticed how the autumn leaves falling upon the fence and the vibrations of people walking over the footbridge, which had a fence panel attached to it, had their own sonic consequence. Too small to record through the vibrations of air, I attached my contact microphones to record the vibrations of the fence directly. The metal fence acted as a form of echo chamber, the sound squared and dispersed across the wire mesh. The steps of people walking over the footbridge grew in scale: huge footfalls absorbed within the cathedral acoustics of the resonant mesh.
At the boardwalk, the fence hummed in response to the wind blowing through the mesh, whilst leaves dropped occasional metallic interruptions and branches scratched across the surface of an cacophonous intermittent drone.
The autumn equinox took place on September the 23rd and I rose early to record the first dawn of autumn. The autumnal equinox is that point at which the sun passes southerly across the celestial equator (the imaginary line of the equator projected into the sky), This moment of transit results in equal hours of day and night. The word equinox itself literally means equal night. Most languages when describing the phenomena refer to equalities of night, although in Russian the reference is to day: ravnod’enstviye, splendidly and literally, ‘equidayishness’ (Chambers Dictionary of Etymology).
Autumn dawns quite quietly, the birdsong sparse in comparison to the chorus of summer and spring. With sunrise occurring much closer to the rush hour the background hum of traffic begins to intrude upon the delicious sounds of birdsong.
I follow my habitual anti-clockwise wind around the moors path, the occasional leaf adding a texture of dry crackle to my footfall. At the end of the wooden boardwalk at the mini-stream I could hear the whispered babble of water. I stood still and let the dawn pour in.
There is something meditative in the mingled sounds of water and birdsong, something that seems to promote remembering and idle thoughts. By idle I mean that lack of purpose and agency that allows one to escape from intentional thoughts and the need for accomplishment or organised progression: to idle, to stand still, to tick over.
The rivers babble provides a constantly changing stillness. Listening to it we are occupied by an ‘abiding now’, a moment paused, a nunc stans or now [ever] standing: ‘the instant that knows no temporal articulation, where distinctions between now, earlier and later have fallen away or have not arisen.’
As I resumed my walk around the moors I was splashed with the sounds of paddles pulling through water and propelling canoes and kayaks up and down the Itchen. The Winchester Canoe Club meets every Sunday morning (and Tuesday evening) on the river Itchen, which provides a damp boundary between the moors and playing fields. The auditory wake of the canoes brings with it another vocabulary of watery sounds. Unlike the constant stillness of the mini-stream, this wetness moves in and out of audition providing a spatial and temporal space: sound appearing here and disappearing there. The voices of the canoeist add to our aural mapping of the environment around the river’s edge, whilst my Hydrophone captures the submerged propulsion of paddles.
The sound of water has created a whole thesaurus of onomatopoeic words that simultaneously describe and imitate the wetness we hear. These ‘words’ exist somewhere between language and meaning in the non-sense of babble, splosh, splish-splash, drip and plop. Birdsong too has been verbalised in the concrete poetry of such words, although as with the drip of water these have often fallen into meaning, most specifically in naming birds: the cuckoo, the chiffchaff (the first bird to be identified (by Gilbert White) from it’s sound rather than it’s anatomical appearance).
In their book Songs of Wild Birds (1946), the naturalists and sound recorder, E. M. Nicholson and Ludwig Koch, composed an extensive list of onomatopoeic verse translating specific birdcalls into human speech:
Common Snipe: tik-tik-tik-tuk-tik-tuk-tik-tuk-chip-it; chick-chuck; yuk-yuk
The Linguist Otto Jesperson has questioned our assumption that the original purpose of speaking was to communicate meaning and thought:
‘It is perfectly possible that speech has developed from something, which had no other purpose than that of exercising the muscles of the mouth and throat and amusing oneself and others by the production of pleasant or possibly only strange sounds’.
The onomatopoeia of language evidences listening and mirrors the world around us. Through listening we unite ourselves: ‘with the soundscape […] echoing back its elements. The impression is taken in; the expression is thrown back in return.’
(R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape, 1977)