13 May 2012

'gull lines, at a slope of conduction (for waiorua shoreline, violin and shortwave)' in TIK festival of ecological media arts, Brussels

gull lines, at a slope of conduction (for waiorua shoreline, violin and shortwave) was recorded during early May on Kapiti, as a contribution to the Time Inventors Kabinet (TIK) festival of ecological media arts (11 - 13 May 2012) in Brussels. It emerges from my current research into the area of Kapiti Island, supported by Creative New Zealand and the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

Both as a contribution to this festival and within the wider parameters of my current project, the piece extends the sounds of a remote place to listeners in the heart of an urban sphere across the other side of the world, taking as part-provocation R. Murray Schafer and Bruce Davis's concept for a 'wilderness radio' : “the plan was to put microphones in remote locations uninhabited by humans and to broadcast whatever might be happening out there; the sounds of wind and rain, the cries of birds and animals – all the uneventful events of the natural soundscape transmitted without editing into the hearts of the cities. It seemed to us that since man has been pumping his affairs into the natural soundscape, a little natural wisdom might be a useful antidote”. (R Murray Schafer, 'Radical Radio' in 'Sound by Artists', ed. D. Lander & M. Lexier, 1990)

(It should of course be pointed out that Kapiti is in fact inhabited, albeit sparsely, as many such places are).

"As every child knows, the shell has its own song, which is the song of the sea, the rising and the crashing of waves. Only later, at about twelve, does one learn that one has been listening to the blood rushing in one's head." - Philip Kuberski, 'The Persistence of Memory : Organism, Myth, Text'

"The subject of the listening or the subject who is listening (but also the one who is “subject to listening” in the sense that one can be “subject to" unease, an ailment, or a crisis) is not a phenomenological subject. This means he is not a philosophical subject, and, finally, he is perhaps no subject at all, except as the place of resonance, of its infinite tension and rebound, the amplitude of sonorous deployment and the slightness of its simultaneous redeployment – by which a voice is modulated in which the singular of a cry, a call, or a song vibrates by retreating from it (a “voice”: we have to understand what sounds from a human throat without being language, which emerges from an animal gullet or from any kind of instrument, even from the wind in the branches: the rustling toward which we strain or lend an ear)." - Jean Luc Nancy 'On Listening', pp. 21-22

"An elemental concert / all the more delightful for its restraint and reflective bent / has been playing there through all eternity for no one. / Since its formation through the spirit of persistence / which blows now and then from the skies / and acts upon a boundless platitude / a wave / rolling in from afar unimpeded and unreproached / finally for the first time comes upon someone to speak to." - Francis Ponge, Sea Shores, from 'The Nature of Things'

"To me the islands were felt, not said, and although these islands had their voice I would never learn how to speak with it. I could only describe it with my own. Just as I could try to write it down, even though I knew there were no New Zealand words possible in English letters, only the traces of its sounds left in our language where we'd made our attempts." - Hamish Clayton 'Wulf', p. 225

Walking along the coast of Waiorua bay, at the North end of Kapiti Island, I arrive at the site of a decommissioned coastal warning light tower whose few remnants - a lichen-encrusted concrete foundation and various planks scattered around the stones - are slowly biodegrading, becoming indistinguishable from the rocky beach and plentiful driftwood heaped in drifts metres high, in some places including whole trees, as the seasons of rain and sun take their toll.

It seems the text of history is crumbling, its memory of human inhabitation falling away as the rapidly re-foresting island claims all traces, a complex palimpsest underneath its current identity as a place where New Zealand’s remaining birds can replenish their populations without pressure from introduced mammalian predators. But the traces are everywhere, if you look closely, if you listen. For instance, before the lighthouse existed, this coastline was the site of the battle of Waiorua (aka Whakapaetai), dated at 1824, in which Ngati Toa fought off, against the odds, the re-claiming of Kapiti from displaced tribes returning from the mainland, warriors arriving in myriad Waka over the sea, never to return. As one commentator puts it "Perhaps 2,000 men with a great fleet of canoes assembled on the beaches of the coast, and, when the time came one day before dawn, converged on the North end of the island, one wing from Otaki and one from Waikanae. Hundreds of canoes 'darkened' the water, perhaps the largest fleet to go into action in the long history of Maori warfare in New Zealand." (Barbara Macmorran, 'In View of Kapiti, Earliest days to the late 1970s, p.30) Writing about this event in his poem ‘Sanctuary of Spirits : a Pattern of Voices’ poet Alistair Te Ariki Campbell says of Kapiti: “This island is alive with ghosts. / Tonight, every leaf is an ear / attuned to your heartbeat...”, a folding of the present into the past, figuring the shoreline as threshold, as space-between.

 Returning to the site over a few weeks, I make location recordings, I take a radio and search the shortwave, finding a paucity of signals registering in the aetheric sea, and just before midnight I play the violin in the freezing winds, folding the sounds of the instrument into the wider instrumentation of the place, its harsh tonalities, shrieking seabirds and the ongoing crash of the waves, the night calls of forest birds. It seems that sometime during this process the violin itself loses its memory, or perhaps regains it, becomes tidal and avian, full of a voice tuning into the site, in and out of signal.

I imagine it is the sound of the site speaking to itself, but of course, it is my own unfamiliar voice that rings in my ears, my own listening that I am listening to.