I have been looking at the role of sound in photography and as a possible accompaniment to my research project.
I started with the artist and academic Angus Carlyle and his many works involving both photography and sound such as In the Shadow of the Silent Mountain (Carlyle 2015). This led me on to what I might describe as the psycho-geography of sound on websites such as Favourite Sounds (Favourite Sounds 2020) or Soundcities (Soundcities 2020) and even on commercial sites such as Atlas Obscura (Atlas Obscura 2020). I had not realized that mapping places by their sounds was so popular or so rich in possibilities.
Some of the world’s big cities have now been mapped by their myriad of different sounds, with each audio clip geotagged and then inserted into Google Maps. Thus, the viewer can navigate a city by its sounds simply by clicking the star points on a Google street map and listening to the attached clip. This has certainly set me thinking that it would be possible to do that with Oxford. So far as I know, no one yet has sound-mapped Oxford and doing so for me would mean little more than taking a recorder on my photography shoots and geotagging the clips with my smartphone.
However, using sound in this way may be fascinating but it is also a documentary and firmly indexical approach. My research project is not documentary but more poetic and conceptual. Sound, if I used it in my research project, would need to be carefully woven into the images until it had become part of the story and not, as with a documentary approach, offered simply a parallel aural track.
This has led me to consider Andrei Tarkovsky’s very careful use of sound in his films, mainly with the Russian composer Eduard Artemyev. In fact Artemyev’s soundtracks for Tarkovsky’s films are so highly regarded that they have been released as stand-alone albums. There is a fascinating paper by Metin Colak, ‘The Functions of Sound in Tarkovsky’s Films’ (Colak 2013), which suggests how Tarkovsky used sound in his films to reinforce, suggest or subvert the story lines of, among others, Solaris, Stalker and Mirror. A key point is that natural and composed sound is so carefully interleaved that it is sometimes difficult to know whether one is listening to water dripping or to Eduard Artemyev’s score.
It is clear that Tarkovsky treated sound like poetry and used it as delicately:
‘I find music in film most acceptable when it is used like a refrain. When we come across a refrain in poetry we return, already in possession of what we have read, to the first cause which prompted the poet to write the lines originally. The refrain brings us back to our first experience of entering that poetic world, making it immediate and at the same time renewing it … By using music, it is possible for the director to prompt the emotions of the audience in a particular direction, by widening the range of their perception of the visual image. … Perception is deepened’ (Tarkvosky 158).
Properly employed, therefore, the sounds we hear in a work of art are ‘the sounds of a person’s interior world’ (Tarkovsky 162). This is where sound and my research project meet.
Using sound in this way is both exciting and challenging. It also connects to Mark Fisher’s essay on art of all kinds in connection with the weird and the eerie (Fisher 2016). Fisher covers Tarkovsky but he singles out Brian Eno in connection with sound, particularly Ambient 4: On Land (Eno 1982) which embodies the British landscape. A soundscape that accomplished for a project like mine would be a dream, although soundscapes are not hard to come by. MyNoise, for example, offers 200 different sound generators on a single webpage (myNoise 2020) and the result could easily be inserted into a project.
However, to make images and sound work together artistically is another story. An excellent example is the Border Cantos, a marvellous collaboration between Richard Misrach and the composer Guillermo Galindo (Misrach 2020) using instruments made from discarded items on the US-Mexico border. The result is, again, ‘the sounds of a person’s interior world’ (Tarkovsky 162). It is also a good example of how a traditional fine arts photographer like Misrach is moving into new artistic territory made possible by more sophisticated internet tools..
I do plan to continue thinking about this idea. I suspect it is too complex to be folded into an MA course at a relatively late stage. A soundtrack of poor quality would be worse than none. However, for a post-MA, expanded project I think it could be brilliant. Everything would be deepened and the possibility of an audio-visual display rather than a conventional gallery show would become possible.
ATLAS OBSCURA. 2020. ‘Atlas Obscura – Curious and Wondrous Travel Destinations’. Atlas Obscura [online]. Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/ [accessed 8 Nov 2020].
CARLYLE, Angus. 2015. ‘In the Shadow of the Silent Mountain’. Angus Carlyle [online]. Available at: https://www.anguscarlyle.com/in-the-shadow-of-the-silent-mountain.html [accessed 8 Nov 2020].
COLAK, Metin. 2013. ‘The Functions of Sound in Tarkovsky’s Films’. Paper presented at Audio Technologies for Music and Media international conference,-Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey, 2013. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281837007_The_Functions_of_Sound_in_Tarkovsky’s_Films [accessed 9 Nov 2020].
ENO, Brian. 1982. Ambient 4: On Land [sound recording: CD]. Perf. Brian Eno et al. Rough Trade. Available at: https://www.roughtrade.com/gb/brian-eno/ambient-4-on-land [accessed 2 Oct 2020].
FAVOURITE SOUNDS. 2012. ‘Favourite Sounds’. Favourite Sounds [online]. Available at: https://www.favouritesounds.org/about.php?projectid=55 [accessed 9 Nov 2020].
FISHER, Mark. 2016. The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater.
MISRACH, Richard and Guillermo GALINDO. 2020. ‘Border Cantos’. Border Cantos [online]. Available at: http://bordercantos.com/ [accessed 9 Nov 2020].
MYNOISE. 2020. ‘Background Noises • Ambient Sounds’. myNoise [online]. Available at: https://mynoise.net/noiseMachines.php [accessed 10 Nov 2020].
SOUNDCITIES. 2020. ‘Soundcities by Stanza. The Global Soundmaps Project’. Soundcities [online]. Available at: https://www.soundcities.com/ [accessed 10 Nov 2020].
TARKOVSKY, Andrei. 1987. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Austin: University of Texas.
Figure 1. Richard MISRACH, 2020. Website landing page for the ’Border Cantos’. From: Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo. 2020. ‘Border Cantos’. Border Cantos [online]. Available at: http://bordercantos.com/ [accessed 9 Nov 2020].