Sound is Matter Singing Part 2: Touching The Sound In Darkness by Dallas Simpson Photograph: Helen Simpson The perceptual and…
Sound is Matter Singing – Environmental and Site Specific Performance
Environmental and site specific performance, is something really important for me, the process is diverse and we often work on the edge, a spot where environment and people can ‘mess up’ our plans, even ‘change’ or ‘form’ our plans. As soundart composers, we live and work with complexity, whether accidental or purposeful, the intervention of the outside world and the receptiveness of our senses and inner world becomes part of the compositional process itself.
Here in my blog for The Sampler, I set out in conversation with one of the pioneers in this field, a composer, sound artist and true sonic explorer: Dallas Simpson
Dallas started recording in his teens experimenting with tape recorders in the ’60’s (mono reel to reel). In the 70’s (mono cassette) making spoken audio diaries + soundscapes following the work of his mother. His first DAT digital stereo and binaural recordings were around 1995, using an experimental hand built microphone set and power supply. He has continuing to make live head binaural recordings to the present day using custom modified DPA4060 microphones. First commercially released binaural tracks through the Time Recording EMIT label: EMIT 2296, abha (1996), EMIT 1197, waterpump (1997). Dallas has wonderful ears, he founded dallas MASTERS, CD Mastering and Recording studio 2005 – 2015, working clients included John Foxx, Phil Manzanera, Blancmange, Rick Wakeman, Hannah Peel, Ronika, Martin Stephenson, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, John Martyn, Roger Eno, Showaddywaddy and even mastered an album Duncan Chapman and I created called Corrosion. Dallas is now retired and still living in Nottingham.
Getting into conversation with Dallas
January 4th 2018
It is ages since we were last in contact and you made a fascinating online contribution to the Salamanda Tandem Provocations in our 20th year 2009.
Since then life for me has been quite a challenge, as overlapping with the work we did on the provocations I became intensively involved as a carer side by side with my sister Bronwen, for my mother who lived with dementia, my brother a chronic alcoholic who lost everything, and my father too. After our parents passed away in 2012 and 2013, I decided to close the Salamanda Tandem office, and let go of the artists house in forest fields, to reduce consolidate etc. so that I could reduce the dependency on arts council and local authority support which had become stressful. Moving everything to our home, and into storage, to take stock for a while, and restore ourselves. In the process I inherited my father’s long cane, and all his braille books, also 2 pairs of his precious radio headphones which enabled him to tune into radio, hear music, my voice and listen to location recordings. I had played him your binaural firework recording which he loved, and had kindly sent to me when we were trying to develop the idea of a sensory seat in 2011. Around that time I went back to his birthplace in rural wales several times. Imagining I were there as he has been as a blind child, I worked blindfold in the grasses, very close to the ground, coming up in safe clearings, crawling and crouching, making binaural recordings to bring back to him. He said he felt present, and enveloped in the sound, he felt close to it. He could feel the space inside himself despite the fact that he was confined to a chair. So in the last 3 years of his life, we made deeper connections, not only through sound but also through exploring the breath and pranayama – a practice he had been engaged in all his life and I have taught and practiced for 26 years. So given our closeness, and the fact that he had been my inspiration for salamanda tandem, it was difficult after his death to consider how I might carry on and what the work would be. What was my sense of purpose now? The binaural recording experiences, my yoga practice and the live sung / spoken audio description which I’d done since childhood helped me, as I could enter the moment fully there and not think about the future. So slowly a way emerged, first from Dad’s funeral where I collected his things together, and created a tactile and auditory experience, and something for his radio headphones so that his welsh family and the people who came could appreciate what he’d been doing. A visually impaired dancer arrived here shortly afterwards and lived with us, and since then I have built upon the early work Dad and I did back in the 1990’s, developing a team of visually impaired and blind artists who I work side by side with, Duncan is still involved too, and a work called White Cane has emerged from it. This is essentially a guided soundart walk led by a blind person where audiences tune into the sound of the cane, and environs and I create sung /spoken audio description
I have thought about your work and been inspired by you in my journey, and so wanted to connect with you again.
I have been asked to be guest editor for the month of February of a wonderful online magazine called The Sampler – produced by the organisation Sound and Music. I know you will be extremely busy in your mastering work, but I wondered if you has been doing any writing on binaural recording, meditation, movement etc in that context, or if you’d been contributing to news groups etc at the moment, and if would you be willing to write a blog or contribute to a conversation as a contributor? Your long term practice is key at the moment I believe, and a sense of your presence as a pioneer in the soundart world is important.
Growing from things I have mentioned earlier here, I’d like to make the theme for the month:
- Something like; receiving and generating the physical experience of sound. Something close to touch and sound in darkness, without sight. The sense of an expanding universe inside oneself, in dialogue with and in interaction with being touched by and touching the outside world.
I feel that your formative work in binaural recording and your approach to listening has been and is of great significance. One of the things that struck me when I first observed you out in nature transmitting a recording back to us at Unstone Grange, when we worked in Ensemble 8 was the way you moved as though in an act of meditation. You allow the sound to speak for itself, yes you must be making choices of where to be and when to move or be still, but you will re reflecting on that moment by moment. Back then, having only ever used a sony professional, stereo mic and headphones out in the landscape, I felt something was missing, so consulted you on what to buy, I subsequently bought myself a simple pair of binaural recording microphones. In using them over the last (well nearly 20 years since we met now!) I found that the process of taking the recording is affected strongly by ones breath and that is affected by ones mind. So its this sort of thing I felt inspired by when I first observed you. I know that you will be carefully considering whether to ‘make’ a sound happen ‘throw a stone etc’ or to receive what is there without intervention. Of course in the very act of recording, we do ‘make’ the sound happen as well. So we can’t tread so lightly that we aren’t present at all, we are present and but receptive, so somehow it relates to the inner soul or what Yogis call atman, and the outer world nature or what in Indian philosophy is called prakrity.
Feeling inspired to write to you, and concerned that I may be landing something unmanageable out of the blue, we could take a very pragmatic approach and communicate about this in conversation via email, so we don’t have to be formal in presenting the blog. Here’s hoping this might be a good moment for you
4th Jan 2018
I have just received this most inspiring and moving communication from you.
I was moved to tears.
I am replying immediately so that you know I have received your message and I will reply in detail soon. Yes I would be willing to contribute. Yes I have a variety of works produced over the years, including last year 3 collaborations with adults and children. The children collaboration, created in December 2017, will be released in 2018 through the netlabel Plus Timbre.
Although I have to say writing is not really my forte – I write in a personal way, frequently using my own terms and phrases generally without much ‘academic art speak’, and certainly without myriads of references to other workers (frequently none!), which in some quarters is not really appreciated.
I will respond in more detail in a few days, I’m actually retired now, but still involved with many creative things including binaural environmental sound art of course…
Thank you sincerely once again.
Best wishes to you and Duncan,
4th Jan 2018
I’m overjoyed to hear back so soon from you. I really like the way you write, from personal experience, and much prefer that to ‘academic arts speak’. I have worked on the fridges of academia, for some years, and have found the better academics actually recognise that ‘lived experience’ and personal narrative is the most useful. For my part, they’ve encouraged me to stick with that, and stay simple while leaving the academy to do what it has set itself up to do. Your experience of binaural environmental and sound art practice was pioneering and goes back decades, and what you are doing now has tremendous value too, as every moment over the years has been built upon your mindful presence. So all that said, the more personal the better in my opinion, as that is indisputable.
I very much look forward to your response
6th Jan 2018
Thank you once again for your heartfelt and moving communication. First, my condolences for the loss of your parents, and the challenge for the caring of your brother.
My life has also had its challenges over the past 10 years or so…. So I empathise and sympathise. Life throws many challenges and tests at us, particularly later in life. I’m so glad that some of the environmental work I did at Unstone was helpful in you creating binaural soundscapes for your late father. I’m also honoured that the firework recording was enjoyed.
The work you are doing with blind and disabled people (from our perspective) is of extreme importance, they have much to teach us perceptually, and creative perceptual and physical dialogues help to build a unified view, a ‘unity in diversity’ of humanity, rather than a fractionated multiplicity of different ‘others’.
And so to your request: The Sampler / Blogs / Writing.
I don’t generally write much…. I don’t really feel qualified to comment deeply on other people’s work, whereas I’m fully qualified to comment on my own. Virtually all my writing is either centred around descriptions of my releases, or very occasional proposals for works that I am offering to ‘open calls’ at conferences / symposiums, although I don’t think I’ll be doing any more of those – its simply ridiculously expensive – … and from my perspective totally unsustainable on a personal retirement pension!
I am in dialogue with Robin Parmar about some conceptual / philosophical aspects of what I call the ‘Soundbody’ – this is ongoing…
Blog – never done one.
Works – I tend to release about 1 a year, occasionally more. There is a considerable back catalogue scatted around the world through various internet labels…
OK- so to the topic you suggest.
- Something like; receiving and generating the physical experience of sound. Something close to touch and sound in darkness, without sight. The sense of an expanding universe inside oneself, in dialogue with and in interaction with being touched by and touching the outside world.The paragraph you have written:
‘I feel that your formative work in binaural recording… and the outer world nature or what in Indian philosophy is called prakrity.’ is extremely insightful and I can certainly develop these and other ideas.
Given the above, the only writing I’m really comfortable about is to describe my own work from the perspective of sound and in relation to a framework of artistic practice as a means of personal and collective evolution and maturation within ourselves and in relation to the environment that we are both the custodians of and reliant upon for our continued existence, if that makes sense? (probably not the best form of words, but I hope it conveys the spirit of what I am trying to say). Of course that relationship involves the inner realm of the spirit as well as the outer realm of the physical.
Thank you once again for your inspiring communication. I hope there is something here that can be developed through conversation, or writing.
With best wishes,
6th Jan 2018
My sincere condolences for the loss of your mother, and so recently, we are at that age when suddenly we are carers, then orphans, and I believe we begin to become closer to nature.
I’m very keen for you to talk about your practice, … I relish the opportunity. If you can weave around 1. or invent 2, 3, 0 that’s fine – I’m not a fixed person by nature I’m keen on organic growth, and am confident that our journey in practice is worth exploring. I love the way the sentences go in your last paragraph about your own artistic practice: I quote
…. a framework of artistic practice as a means of personal and collective evolution and maturation within ourselves and in relation to the environment that we are both the custodians of and reliant upon for our continued existence…. of course that relationship involves the inner realm of the spirit as well as the outer realm of the physical….
yes exactly we are custodians of and reliant upon for our existence. I am interested that you picked up on prakrity. In the my original mention of ‘prakrity’, at first I considered whether to write the word ‘atman’, too which in Indian philosophy means soul, here you mention the ‘inner realm of the spirit’ and that’s it exactly! The moment by moment receptivity between what is out there – nature – we can’t help but take in Oxygen all the time, it is a gift and one day that gift is no more. Then a process of involution, I know from practice how the breath can change my state of mind.
I’m very happy in connecting with you, it is just what I need. Maybe we could continue like this for a bit, the conversation is emerging. I wrote this yesterday (attached) about the importance of sound to my father, and how we connected though headphones; I realise as I was writing it that I felt both sad, and energised in having the opportunity to communicate, I think you’ll know what I mean
With Best Wishes
8th Jan 2018
Thank you Isabel for the email and your condolences for our losses, and also for sending the writing about headphones and your father.
Obviously there is a deep significance between headphones as a communicator channel, ‘conduit’ as you say, re-establishing communications between you and your father, whilst also providing a channel to the radio and music, and notwithstanding connection with Welsh culture. I am touched that you have shared this intimate and personal journey and also the stirrings of those emotions and memories as you describe.
And so to talking about my practice. I’m going to write something outside of these mails initially. I don’t often write, so I need to work through some thoughts rather than write unedited straight to email.
I’m actually house sitting for my son in Derbyshire for a few days. Unfortunately I slipped and fell today while out walking. Nothing serious, but I’m a bit sore and need to recover a bit in order to focus my mind. I will put something together over the next few days… and we can roll from that.
25th Jan 2018
A sincere thank you for a remarkably interesting and beautiful piece of writing. I’ve read and re-read several times, as it is in simple words but conveys many years of embodied research and communication.
Firstly, I find the way you write poetic, it is a meditation in and of itself, so has taken me some time to spend time with. I’ve started by choosing a few phrases which I think could be the beginning of further reflections, and then of course I notice I’ve left other important ones out – but it is a start
“Our senses also allow us, through the agency of memory, to transcend the barriers of time”
My thoughts…….. body memory, muscle, bone ancestry, inherited in our posture, childhood falls, scars held in every step as we go through time, then what we leave behind on an energetic level in the world, both emotionally and physically. Do we tread lightly on the world,
“Sound is matter singing, revealing its other self, its soundbody”
“My behaviour is tempered by how I perceive the location, the proximal and distal (near and far) soundscape and my engagement with them. I use the terms ‘proximal and distal’ from their medical origins – the proximal and distal tubules of the kidney, the process of filtration, of recovery and disposal. We interrogate the local and distant acoustic by stimulating it, through our physical activity, with sound which is discarded, disposed into the environment. We recover and preserve in our memory the responses we perceive. Those responses bring joy, respect and reverence”
“It is a sonic conversation ladened with meaning, a musicality of timbre and texture, of rustle, scrape, slap and boom. Yet all the while the environment speaks through the wind, the water….”
“Responses must emerge from the mind, the soul and the heart”.
These quotations I have taken from your writing, inspire me. They are deeply respectful, and suggest a gentle, nurturing and humanitarian approach to your work in environmental performance. Our relationship with our environment has become dehumanising, a throw away commodity as we use and destroy it, we don’t take notice or listen. So with your concept, of “soundbody” and “matter singing” we must consider the way we listen, we are active listeners too, we have to clear stale air, stale thoughts away to listen to receive. You describe how sometimes you might make sound in that environment, using what we carry with us;
“elements such as one’s own voice, limbs and body surface, which can be used both to stimulate the locality and to elicit sounds in their own right. (the hand clap, the shout or call…)”
and thus you describe a dialogue, between the ‘soundbody’ speaking, and us listening, as well as the “soundbody’ responding to our sounding. As the moment in time is a trinity of past, present and future, all this is held there in the “soundbody” and in ourselves, a fascinating and complex whole; as we listen and tune into that. Such a creative process is spiritual, as we respectively open ourselves to this, in the knowledge that we are simultaneously laying down and making that very present and future.
One thought I have too is the parallel in these ideas with the Koshas, these are 5 layers on consciousness, starting with the coarsest layer and moving inwards through a state of involution to the most subtle layer; Atman or soul
I only have one question a part from these responses as its not something you have mentioned directly
How long have you been working with binaural sound? and what role do you think binaural recording has in particular for you here? For example if you were out in the landscape with a boom microphone, rather than the binaural in ear microphones you use. Do you think binaural recording changes your pace and depth of perception
26th Jan 2018
Thank you for a detailed and beautiful response. You have great insight into my work.
This morning I have written a response to your question, and thank you for asking.
The choice of binaural recording came about through a trajectory of recording styles starting with mono, then stereo, then pseudo binaural, and finally in ear live head binaural. Environmental recording, both listening and performance aspects, are very personal experiences for me. And it is that personal perception of the environment I am inhabiting, which for me is so powerful, that provides the motivation for my perceptual explorations. The three-dimensional sonic reality of the environment and myself in it is the communion, the engagement, the raison d’etre of my being. It is that spatial connection through my senses with the environment around me that becomes an extension of my self and simultaneously an interpenetration of the cosmos into me, which represents the highest transcendence. The Blending. The Onement, as my mother called it.
In-ear binaural recording uniquely preserves my spatial perception of this communion, allows others to glimpse its reality, and hopefully the recordings may act as a calling for them to develop their own relationship with the Cosmos. This has the most profound implications for our custodianship of the planet.
So to return to your question, mono, stereo, boom mics and the like capture ‘the sound of’, ‘a recording of’, whereas in-ear live head binaural captures the essence of my communion, my being and perceiving, my responses to and interactions with the locations I inhabit. It is a sound recording ‘of me’ in a very literal sense, in full engagement with my surroundings, and the conversation of my surroundings with me. It is, in that respect, sublime.
With sincere thanks,