Amplifications: Poetic Migration, Auditory Memory
I live right in the middle of Wollongong, in an old weatherboard house surrounded by trees. On a quiet day you can hear the ‘bupbupbupbupbup’ of the pedestrian crossing on the main street. You can also hear wattlebirds calling and cockatoos cracking nuts and the construction site three doors up and traffic, and passers-by, and now and then I can hear frogs – frogs! – and our next door neighbours’ band practicing for a gig (they’re very good, and never play later than ten. They’re called Los Pintar, if you want to check them out). ‘Soundscape’ is the word R. Murray Schafer used to describe an environment or ecology of sound in his book The Tuning of the World, published back in 1977. Here’s another useful word, ‘periautography’. It means writing about or around the self. This is a handy word to have when reviewing Amplifications, because the book is a series of chapters that discuss Carter’s own life events, including death and bereavement, sexual love, being a child, being a parent, migration, work, all that – although the book is not about these events. The book is about sound. And one way for a person to approach a subject so big is by chipping off little, periautographical bits. Carter uses a punning neologism, periotography, a ‘writing around the ears’ to describe his Amplifications.
As a young man, Paul Carter migrated from Great Britain to Australia. He has worked into this experience, distance and separation being one subject he returns to, and aural and cultural dislocation in a new country another. What makes Carter’s work on migration powerful is that he begins with sound – the sounds of landscape or country, and the sound of language. Carter is especially interested in the resonances between the sounds of ‘nature’, like birdsong and the sounds of ‘culture’, speech and music. There are things about Carter’s work that I wish were different. As an anglophone and British migrant, he was also intensely interested in colonialism. Reading back through his writing on colonialism now, I think his work on this topic includes too much wishful thinking, a desire to uncover colonial encounters that tend to redeem or exonerate individuals and processes involved in colonisation, to look for the exceptional moments of exchange rather than the relentless pattern of destruction and exploitation.
Amplifications lets the reader know what it’s like to listen consciously. If you’ve ever recorded sound you will notice the difference between what shows up on the recording and what you experience with the naked ear. A microphone picks up some frequencies better than others, and a microphone doesn’t have a brain. If we can hear, we are processing sound all the time, consciously or unconsciously. Imagine a playgroup: parents sit drinking tea and chatting while the babies feed and cry and the toddlers and pre-schoolers play. There’s lots of sound – teaspoons in cups, sobbing, burbling, the crash of blocks, kid conversation, the occasional high-pitched scream from a two-year-old. The parents tune out all that and tune in to the adult conversation. Another adult comes into the room – let’s say she’s there to check and tag the kettle and the microwave. To her, the sound in the room is unbearable noise, a cacophony, how can anyone hold a conversation with all that noise going on? Then suddenly, one parent leaps up and rushes over to a child to help or comfort them. Not completely tuned out, then. These parents can discern a cry of distress from their children even while they are apparently attentive only to the conversation of the other adults. Our beautiful brains, always processing the signals that arrive via our ears, whether we think we are paying attention or not.
The best two chapters of Amplifications are at the beginning of the book. One focuses on Carter’s childhood and family of origin in the UK. The other is an account of a time spent back in England, looking after his mother in the last weeks of her life. The interest in these chapters is not that of ‘a story’. The events related are simple enough – paying attention to birds, tracing the influence of his parents’ taste in reading, recorded ‘letters’ sent from a father to his adult child on the other side of the world, digging in the garden, conversation and its absence, listening to the sounds of another person in the house. What makes these chapters good reading is Carter’s experience of events through sound, and his use of sound, whether it is birdsong, human language or the distressing abject sounds of retching and laboured breath, and his lively mind linking these audible things to ideas, feelings, histories. I’m never waiting to see what will happen next. I’m following an account of thought and experience, all that usually unconscious processing of sound slowed down and considered.
Thanks to the twentieth century phenomena of radio and tape, all kinds of changes in our aural world happened, changes that were once novel but now feel natural. Sound recorded onto tape could be cut up and stuck together. Sound could be broadcast to whole cities, and across continents. Sound could be recorded, manipulated and shared. The aural experiences of speech and music are the most codified and analytically approachable parts of the world of sound. So once we get into that R. Murray Schaefer thing, the soundscape, the terrain becomes a little wilder. A soundscape is something we can experience live – it’s the experience of being in my resonant, leaky wood and tin house and listening to frogs, traffic, shouts from the street and all that, the experience of being at playgroup and tuning in and out of the vocal sounds and the incidental sound of material objects bumping against each other – but since the development of recording and playback technologies, artists can deliberately construct soundscapes, whether for a space or the airwaves. Carter and his colleagues in the field recognise that this kind of work has been the most marginal of audio formats. Carter created many works for radio, and his practice has also been situated in art galleries and in museums. He had a long and close working relationship with the late Martin Harrison, poet and radio producer. The field in which Carter works has been affected by digitisation of audio cultures, a concerted policy of consolidation into conservative radio formats by the ABC in particular, new forms of interpretative and participatory mediation of the museum and gallery experience, and the increasing precarity of artists and the networks and infrastructure that could support a diversity of arts practice over decades, rather than relying on a constant but brief blooming of ‘emerging artist’ energy and optimism and financial juggling. Here’s how he puts it,
… change occurred, scarcely perceptible at first, eventually a landslide: the cultural, institutional and technological settings supporting these sound histories eroded and at length collapsed. (4)
The works created and co-created by Paul Carter that are listed in the back of Amplifications show the importance of the ABC as a commissioner of work and also as a locus for sound culture in Australia. The ABC had the money, the gear, the people and the audience to sustain this fragile field of art making. But funding was reduced, policy shifted and programming changed, with the result that ABC radio formats became more conservative. Carter says that his focus had already shifted.
An optimist, I seized on the evaporation of radio into digital listening platforms as another creative dispersal; my own immersion in public culture had already migrated from radio to public art; I looked forward to revisiting the radiophonic work in the context of a new dramaturgy of public space. (5)
Carter does not make any detailed discussion of ‘digital listening platforms’. My own observation would be that, while sound production is cheaper and more accessible and artists can make their work available online, in sound art, as in other art forms, digitisation has made explicit the power of distribution models in creative practice. We get our music from streaming services, maybe Bandcamp downloads if we’re conscientious consumers, and we get our talk from podcasts, using formats we’re familiar with, interviews, panel shows, documentary. Even documentary audio is often presented in a narrative format – ‘telling stories’ is assumed to be the unarguable purpose of audio culture. Story is hard to define, but easy to endow with vague significance, to treat as a transcendent, essential, or originary. The possibilities of treating sound spatially, cutting, mixing, layering and disrupting, the potential for structures other than ‘story’ to play out in an audio work are not much talked about by people making work for digital platforms.
It took me a long time to read this book and I spent an even longer time thinking about it. It’s not difficult or dull but it’s dense, close-packed. The aurality of Carter’s thinking means he has insights into experience that are fresh to those of us who don’t listen in the same way. These essays look back and there are memoir moments but remembering the self in times past is not this book’s reason for being; it’s not elegiac or nostalgic, but summarising and concluding, the preparation of a vital, perversely optimistic legacy.
Paul Carter, Amplifications: Poetic Migration, Auditory Memory. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. ISBN 9781501344473