Wolfscape I

by John Duggan

One of my first ideas as Creative Arts Fellow was to make a soundscape of the college, a Wolfson collage. I’ve been interested in sound recording since the early 1980s. Back then, a decent stereo recorder cost thousands of pounds and could weigh 25 kilos or more. A reel of tape might cost £30 and could store 20 minutes of sound. Editing was linear and required some skill with a block and razor blade. To undo an edit involved peeling the spliced tape apart, reinserting the segment from the cutting-room floor, and beginning again. It was tremendous fun, and I spent many hours with my reel-to-reel tape machine.

Today, things are a little different. Advances in digital audio technology mean that I have a hand-held stereo recorder with built-in microphones and no moving parts. It weighs a few grams, records several hours of audio onto a single memory card and cost me about £200.  Over the past few months I’ve been wandering around Wolfson, recorder in hand, capturing sounds in the buildings and grounds. The erection of the new auditorium has provided a wealth of material: drills drilling, hammers hammering, generators humming, vehicles reversing, builders shouting. Around college, footsteps ring out in the quads and crunch on gravel pathways. Birds sing. In the tended plots of the gardens, I captured the sound of a bird scare – suspended jam jar lids that gently slapped together in the breeze. In hall, I put the recorder on my tray and digitised the clatter of cutlery and the murmur of voices. I noticed the change of acoustics going from room to room, the squeaks and sighs of doors opening and closing, the sounds of gushing taps, filling cisterns and hot-air hand dryers.

All this is just part of a process, capturing audio snapshots of daily life in college. The real fun begins as I bring these sounds together inside the computer. Back in the 1980s, the Music Faculty here in Oxford bought one of the first digital music computer systems. It was called the Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument) and was developed and built in Australia. It was about the size of the photocopier in the library and had a small monochrome screen and a lightpen rather than a mouse. It cost about £30,000, which at the time was the price of a nice three-bedroom house in the city. I seem to recall that the floppy disc was a staggering 10 inches in diameter and had a miniscule storage capacity measured in kilobytes. It was my first foray into digital sound and provided the means to sample (record) sounds and layer them sequentially. It was tremendously exciting, and it was a privilege to have the opportunity to use it.

Today’s PC is a fraction of the size, with a large colour display. I can typeset books, play games and access the internet on it, as well as record and edit audio. Dedicated software offers a plethora of possibilities around a graphical representation of sound as a waveform. Each sound has its own waveform and this can be layered, looped, spliced, cut and pasted with a single click or drag of the mouse. And these are just the basics. Sounds can be individually processed and shaped so that they crossfade and morph into different sounds. The computer has become a musical instrument and creative work, such as the Wolfson collage, becomes a process of learning, of exploration. Playing with the software is just like playing an instrument, requiring lots of practice and experimentation. Instead of scales and arpeggios, I work on a series of routines (like copying and pasting) that are the essential building blocks of sound manipulation. The creative process becomes a voyage of discovery, it unfolds through a balance of design and randomness: what will happen if I reverse this sound so it plays backwards, combine it with that sound, or place it in the acoustic of a cathedral or a bathroom?

In many ways, however, the creative process is the same as if I’m sitting at a piano. I start with an overarching plan (a new piece), play with different ideas (chords, melodies, rhythms), and bring them together to make something meaningful (to me, at least). What is strikingly different is the opportunity to combine, say, a piano with an underwater recording of the mating call of a pond insect. Or the sound of a passing train layered with the humming of a fridge. And you can listen to it on a train, on the top of a mountain or in outer space.

Wolfscape I is made up of recordings made solely in Wolfson College. One thing I discovered in the making of it, was that the sounds I recorded were primarily percussive and unpitched. They made interesting rhythmic passages, but there was a dearth of melody and harmony. I was fortunate to be able to use a recording of the Alternative Choir, provided by Isabel Stoppani de Berrié, and to record the Isaiah Choir singing a sequence of chords that I wrote for this project.

At the top of this page you can listen to the first part of my college collage, which is mostly made up of sounds recorded in Michaelmas term. I prefer to make music, rather than talk about it, so I’m off to work on Parts II and III.

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