Conversation with John Griff about the ‘Making Presence Felt’ project, on BBC Radio Northampton’s afternoon show 23.04.15. From BBC iPlayer.
A series of acoustic encounters
In the gallery a collection of quizzical material objects act as thought provoking ‘clues’ and the audio content draws on memories to make connections and encourage imaginative sense making…
Below you can listen to an introductory footsteps soundscape from the project, with a beautiful piano composition and playing by Pietro Bonanno, ‘Ferma la Danza’ ( Stop the Dance) from his album ‘Komorebi’.
There are 10 interrelated tracks including this one in the audio component of the exhibition, ranging from 1 to 3 minutes in duration, just over 20 minutes in total. The audio content is pitched on the borderline between sound and music and includes documentary field recordings with more experimental collage. Each soundscape involves a different approach to conveying traces of presence and identity in acoustic form. In this track footsteps are heard moving over wooden floors and the recordings were made in contemplative, public spaces: museum, art gallery and including in a church. As I edited and mixed, I let the music guide me and tried to match the footfall cadence, tone colour and timbre to the piano’s.
You can hear the resonance of floorboards: the spring in the wood and voids beneath; the creak of leather; the acoustics of space and place; sounds of intention, emotion, mood, gender, weight, velocity, force, character; in motion…
(use of headphones is recommended).
You can hear more of Pietro Bonanno’s compositions at http://www.pietrobonanno.it
Here are some images of visitors moving, listening and looking in the Northampton gallery on the first day of the exhibition. The lighting is designed to allow individuals’ shadows to play onto the gallery walls to add a further layer of ambiguity and motion to the atmospheric environment.
A collection of material exhibits have been designed to cross the senses and to work as prompts or ‘clues’ to a series of sound stories. The audio and visual elements combine to connect listeners to traces of human presence that can be heard and felt, rather than only seen.
Visitors listen via headphones to the acoustic rhythms of footsteps on the stairs, city pavements, rush hour in the subway, running, dancing, wandering in woodland. Haptic, immersive audio combines with the static material exhibits to trigger imaginative mental imagery and bring attention to the body in motion. On another level, the ambiguity of the shadowy gallery presentation offers the potential to cross over into less conscious, metaphorical themes: of containment and release, escape and pursuit, repetition and the random. Where fact and fiction merge…
Project research and development: exploring the Museum’s archives and listening to the sounds of footfall.
I began developing this project over 18 months ago following an invitation by the museum, and a big influence was time spent in Northampton’s footwear store, where I was able to get up close and to actually touch just a few of the amazing shoes in the collection. As I opened some of the boxes, I seemed to experience a sensation of a lived life that ‘jumped out’ as I lifted the lid to explore the contents. The effect was most noticeable with shoes that had clearly been worn over a long time. This feeling I had of the kinetic energy in the boxes, as though the materials were still charged or energised through repetitive stepping when worn, has stayed with me as I developed the work and made the sound recordings. I also enjoyed the fact that the road and pavement surfaces were being replaced in Northampton’s Cultural Quarter – the timing of the street renovation works seemed to join in with the project, by revising the acoustics of Guildhall Road, outside the Museum.
The heavy boots in the images below, with their metal hobnails and irons: protective elements on the soles (boots c. 1940), really got me thinking about the sounds wearers would have generated as they made their presence felt when working, walking, moving on different surfaces and materials, in and through different locations and acoustic spaces. I wondered how the sound would have affected the wearers’ own sense of presence and identity and the interpretation by others.
Following this time to touch, and get close, I found that the weight, construction and purpose of this footwear suggested a paradoxical tension between protection and damage; defence and attack… where the floors or the surface of the ground walked on or in, would ‘suffer’ the damage due to the force exerted, rather than the shoes. Of course various forces (frictional, horizontal, vertical etc) would have entered the wearer’s body due to the lack of what we now understand as shock absorption. It would have been very difficult to run in a fluid motion when wearing these heavy, stiff shoes, particularly when moving on hard surfaces for instance. Wearers must have adapted, more consciously at first and then unconsciously, to the shifts of momentum necessary to change the downward motion to an upward motion for the following stride, through their deportment and gait, to compensate and minimise the shock affecting their bodies. It also got me thinking about perceptions of the weight of footwear and resulting footfall that can imply notions of character, gender, status and even class: where sounds are heard and translated as being indicative of other human qualities. A heavy, repetitive step with less random nuance, may be perceived as dull, intimidating, sombre or more ‘down'; whereas a lighter, brisker step may be perceived to be less threatening, more ‘up’. Hearing is a sensory and perceptual event: where the ear, brain and the entire body are involved in listening experience. I began to consider how acoustic qualities cross over via the senses to affect the concepts and systems we use to think: sound’s role in the formation of language or music and how it plays into peoples’ qualitative judgements, aesthetics and even systems of social ‘stratification’.
I will be regularly updating information about this new project over the next month while it is installed at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery.
Opening this Saturday, 25th April.
In the meantime, here is a short video that gives an insight into one aspect of the project’s research and development phase. I’ve been listening to and making audio recordings of qualities of footfall over several months and in many locations: people walking, running, climbing, meandering as well as dancing. Here I’m having a fantastic time recording at a popular and high achieving dance school, in the city where I live.