Recording sound. Reading Sound.

Philip Samartzis' Boleskine

CD booklet essay, Surplus 29, Melbourne, 2019

"Then suddenly, the falls appear." That's what a rich Scottish voice says right near the beginning of Phillip Samartzis' Boleskine - an audiological impression of Scottish Highlands to one side of Loch Ness. Immediately on cue, sound envelops everything; a monolithic rush of white noise takes over the blackness induced by listening to sound with no visual cues.

It's a theatrical announcement of Boleskine's inner dichotomous tension, one continually struck between the descriptive power of language and its dissolution into the sonorous landscaping of Philip's crafted 'field recording'. Yet the outcome is no rowdy violent Modernist struggle of the audial against the literary. In place, Boleskine is a decidedly holistic affair: a pastoral poem transmuted into visceral acoustics.

Composed as a series of episodic encounters with discrete sites in the highlands between the villages of Foyers and Inverfarigaig, Boleskine's narration (by Cameron McAloon) frames each space for the listener. His voice is sited through its lucid description, yet calmly indifferent in tone. It describes the surroundings factually without involvement. One is reminded of a similar state of the 'field recordist', mics in hand yet fixed deadly still so as to not mark the location of the microphone or its connection to the ground, the body and the mechanics of its recording. Field recording necessitates the silent erasure of the sonic self, for unlike the landscape painter (even in plein air) its rendering embodies the recorder.

The gushing onslaught of the falls soon cross-fades to running water. The immediate reference is the urtext of field recording, Annea Lockwood's A Sound Map Of The Hudson River (1989). In the spirit of that seminal work, Boleskine presents differing environments as 'shifted dimensions'. Through an acousmatic sleight of hand or tweaking of space, the listener feels somehow transported elsewhere. Deepening this tactic is Philip's departure from standard methods of acoustic ecology; his recorded space is no simplified 'wide-shot full-frame' capture of space. Each passage of sound seems to be layered, compacted, aerated or oxidized by details of its surroundings. Multiple microphonic perspectives shape the encoded space and render it somewhere between representation and abstraction, impression and expression. The narrated voice aids in this, subtextually intoning that what is described is a meagre marker of what one hears.

In a passage shortly after the trickling melodiousness of the streaming water fades away, the listener is made conscious of the highland's technological encapsulation within a major hydro-electric scheme. Nearing the Foyer Falls Power Station, the narrator remarks "The air is charged with electromagnetic particles." It certainly sounds so, but other sounds appear. Crickets maybe ring in the background, chiming with the electroacoustic buzz of the overhear powerlines. Then something more earthy evolves: the laboured rhythm of full-bodied clunks evoking a battered wooden pre-industrial soundscape. It contrasts saliently with the high-frequency cloudscape and its post-industrial aura.

At this juncture, one might recall the para-Zen Cageian after-effects of turning representational sound into abstract sonorous sensation. But that strategy has so often glorified an acultural positioning of 'sound alone'. In Boleskine there is neither a pursuit of pure acoustic phenomenon (though the microphones deftly capture such) nor a reduction of landscape into a vista of nature to be celebrated. These Scottish Highlands are alive with the sound of electricity.

Evidence of this comes in a passage recorded around the Boleskine Burial Ground. Its chorus of early morning birdsong is freighted with cinesonic provenance. It recalls the chilling sounds of the Victorian manicured gardens and wild grounds depicted in Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961). That film opens and closes with similar birdsong - in the closing instance it is morbidly synched to the death of a young boy in the arms of his governess. Filmed in Essex, The Innocents' sonimage of birds and death has a peculiar British peal.

The Gothic reveals itself once the soundscape shifts to the underground pipes, tunnels and shafts ferrying water from the loch to the pump house in the hills. Spatial perspectives become fractalized in these passages, as dripping, gurgling and splashing water mingles with echoic and reverberant self-replications of those sounds. The tunnelling of the Foyers Pumped Storage Scheme is a sonic 'hall or mirrors', amplifying, distorting and denaturalizing the sounds of water as we expect them to appear 'in nature'. The Gothic undercurrents here relate to how sound can be itself but also its Other, simply through existing in a refracting space. Proximity to the pump station and its mechanical infrastructure introduces increasingly complex layers of sound. In doing so, sonic spectres start to haunt the recorded space. Water and reverb abounds, but a distinct solitary tapping evokes a long-forgotten prisoner interred in these cavernous confines, still attempting a flight to freedom. The slow fade-up of roaring water nearer to Loch Ness obliterates the prisoner's hopeless tap.

The multi-phonic chordal ring tone of Loch Ness affords a dense semiotic reading. The myth of the Loch Ness Monster textually conjures the unknowable energy of the loch and its voluminous body of water - meaning, the idea that such a monster exists secluded in such a formidable landscape suggests how people have long acknowledged nature itself as being mysterious, unseeable and unfathomable. The infamous prank photo is a clear signifier of the desire to know, see, and touch not just the monster, but, by extension, nature itself. Inevitably, the act of 'field recording' - of capturing the sound of a space assigned to the terrain of 'nature' - will also encode the structural, technological, cultural and political parameters which frame both an understanding of visible land and a definition of audible landscape.

The loch here sounds like the ocean: infinite and timeless, yet present and rhythmic. Boleskine does not simply record the environment: it sonically images how falls, rivers, lakes, and lochs are signs of potential of energy transference. It captures a more expansive 'wide-shot full-frame' acoustic image by embracing a collapse of landscape definitions. By merging, overlaying and cross-fading the overground (the tensile ringing of high voltage power lines) and the underground (the low cavernous rumbling of interconnecting water passageways) it argues them to be ecologically and technologically interconnected.

After being transported from the loch through wintery scrub, rustling ferns, buffeted wind and mysterious smouldering bracken, the narration announces our arrival at Boleskine House. Steeped in dubious spookery courtesy of former owners like Alister Crowley and Jimmy Page, the former hunting lodge was nearly destroyed in 1925, and finally all but burnt down in 2015. Boleskine describes the current emptiness of the vacated site through the detritus that remains as mouldering evidence of its former cycles of desecration. In an extended passage, the galvanized security fencing and its networked metal wires demarcating the former zone of the house are allowed to freely and ominously resonate, played as it were by slight wind drafts of fluctuating pressure. Superficially, it sounds like an onkyokei extended guitar improvization, employing a guitar to conjure sonimages of anything but its recognizable identity. More appropriately, this is a meta-guitar being played by nature itself.

In this post-human sonorum, one can imagine the ghosts of a hundred forlorn guitarists, numbly fingering their strings, barely capable of energizing any vibrations from their instruments. Picture the sound of necrotic flesh on skeletal hands scraping a giant unplugged full-body electric guitar. With Jimmy Page long gone, this deadened randomised plucking is the sound of rock's death being slowly extended. Are we still in the Scottish Highlands? Or is this the sound of a band miming with no guitar leads or amplifiers on Top Of The Pops. A series of rich beating square-wave tones evoke an eternal feed-back loop of bad acid and faulty electrics. The discord of rock has devolved into the distant clangs of a hairy hand thumping a spring reverb box, and short squealing screeches of rusty trolleys packing gear into a PA van. The feedback tones rise in intensity and presence: the band has rested their guitars against their amps, plugged-in while they walk off into the wings. Their sound continues like a ghost of itself. The security fencing rings infinitely like the cordoning of the stage in an unending outdoor rock festival.

Following the electric bacchanal of Boleskine House, Boleskine concludes with nature as you imagine it to sound most of the time: quiet, beautiful, natural. Birds chirping in gardens, flitting between bushes and scurrying on the ground. It might make you forget all that preceded this bucolic closure. Hopefully not. For Boleskine is part ecological portrait, part aural grimoire; part pastoral hymn, part acoustic nocturne. It is how nature sounds when read.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Philip Samartzis.