Landscape and Amnesia: Is Anywhere Authentic?

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(The below is my initial response on 5/4/13 to an examination for the ‘Audio Research Article: Landscape and Amnesia’, currently underway at writingfix.)

In designing the sound for the radio play ‘Under the Forest’, and the sound poem ‘LadySwamp’, the immediate question in each case became – what space is to be created? Is it to have fidelity to something known, something ‘real’, something from memory?

This is a problem of the authentic. I would argue that one is never able to create an authentic ‘anything’. One’s view is always mediated by the attributes of culture; sites prey to the operations of power, embodiment and history. Likewise, the object in question is also constituted by its own set of contingencies, rendering it impossible to describe as authentic. Far from this being a difficulty, it is in fact a liberation; one can (and must) choose a position to work from, a set of biases to shape with, which opens up many possibilities for the designer.

In abandoning the authentic, one necessarily creates a contrivance. I decided from the outset that this position should be self-evident in the sound design, that the listener must be aware of the constructions. This is attempted in the first few seconds of the radio play by chopping(!) the sound of wind, slicing it into audio snippets to disrupt any sense of a ‘real’ landscape, and hopefully demonstrate that what is to follow is knowingly an assemblage. These introductory few seconds are intended to momentarily unsettle the listener and place them in the same position as the makers, that is, of having to contribute to the realization of the work.

This is all well and good, designing a sonic space with these knowing assumptions, but this space is not static. The moment one introduces a narrator, the scene becomes markedly more complex. From what position is their revelation given to us? Is the narrator reliable and omniscient, or flawed and partial? Understanding this terrain, and what Patrick refers to as the ‘scale of resonance’, was key to my task of rendering sound for the radio play.

One key discovery in this task was the realization that the narrators of the radio play must not speak from a nowhere zone, a place absent of sound. It would’ve been too easy, and very disconcerting, to have them speak from a place that does not have a particular sonic identity – for they also need to be embroiled in the diegesis. In this case, their sonic identity is non-diegetic, that is, the audio that accompanies their spoken words does not belong to the world of the forest, of now, or of 1870. This accompanying sound is an oscillating sine wave, a pure electronically generated tone having no relation to any sounds of the forest, (apart from a Lyrebird in fine form, who must at least hear it once!). It is intended that this would not only situate that narrators ‘somewhere’, (not left in a silent void), but signal to the listener that the narrators are speaking from a constructed position, somewhere other than the action described, yet from a place every bit as locate-able as the action.

This sound then becomes the sound of memory, the memory from which the narrative originates. It is a sound that at once distances the narration from the action, from the ‘real-time’ historical drama, and contrasts it with the ‘elsewhere’ of memory. Do these memories, being from an ‘elsewhere’, bring us close to the condition of amnesia in ‘Under the Forest’? Are not amnesia and forgetting different things?

Tom Kazas



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