The Absent Listener is a ongoing series of pieces derived exclusively from unsupervised soundscape recordings made for several days at a time at my home, a rural property 22 KM west of the village of South River, Ontario, Canada.
By unsupervised I mean that the recording equipment records without my presence on site. I only check on the site about every 12-15 hours to switch out batteries and to make small adjustments. The recording process is approached in this way so that my presence has as little influence as possible on anything that might be heard in the recordings. Also, the project began at a time when I wanted to stay engaged in the soundscape of my home surroundings while circumstances in my life were causing me to spend a lot of time away from it.
The project began in February-May 2019 with an “open microphone” soundscape stream hosted on the locusonus world-wide network of open microphones. During this period I was recording directly to a laptop using AC power so I was able to make recordings that lasted uninterrupted for several days.
The great thing about this approach is that I could continue monitoring and adjusting the recording while I was away. The recording equipment was setup hidden from view of wild life and was protected from the elements. I mounted two DPA 4060 miniature omni-directional microphones on either side of a sheet of plywood and then in most cases clamped that plywood under the overhang of a small out-building. This building was located behind my house and convenient for access to a protected area with electrical power and WIFI. The winter time is quite minimal for human-made sounds so the proximity to the house was not an issue.
In December 2019 I made the first piece in “The Absent Listener” series, which was 45 minutes long and based on recordings made through the month of February 2019. It was composed for a winter solstice performance on December 21, 2019 at the Dispersion Lab, York University in Toronto.
The stereo recordings were used in the piece with only slight signal processing and structure of the piece follows the chronological order of the recordings while often layering four or more recordings from the same hour, which in the multi-channel concert performance in December 2019 were distributed spatially throughout the venue. The piece was edited and organized to evoke a sense of the natural rhythms and nuances of the events that unfold when I am not present.
After May 2019 I had stopped doing livestreaming (except for Reveil broadcasts) so that I could have more freedom to record in various locations around my property that were only accessible by battery and not within range of WIFI reception.
One result, was a 60-minute piece that is composed from a continuous soundscape recording between March 16 and 18, 2020, which was close to the start of the COVID-19 social distancing measures in my area. If my location of the recordings were in an urban setting then the difference in the soundscape would be more pronounced then it is between these two pieces. The difference in my case has more to do with seasonal changes between mid-winter and late-winter as well as the slight difference in location of the microphones with this piece being located at the shoreline rather than 1000 feet uphill from the shoreline.
The circumstances for composing this piece was also different than the previous one. The first piece was composed for a multichannel sound system which had the advantage of distributing in space several recordings playing at the same time. While this second piece was made during the social distancing measures, and not for a public concert presentation, it was created for stereo listening at home.
With that in mind I chose to make the experience more intimate and spare by avoiding any obvious layering of content. Instead I focused on sequencing together singular moments. It was an interesting period of three days as the weather shifted from high winds, to rain, and then to freezing cold temperatures with periods of sunshine and snow. Through all of this the ice on the lake was in the process of thawing and then freezing again making these distinctive low frequency “whoop” sounds at different periods. Bird life was also more apparent in this piece with woodpeckers, blue jays and chickadees all coming to visit the microphone and inspect it up close at different times.
The recording equipment for this piece used the same microphones as previously – two DPA 4060 miniature omni-directional microphones separated by a boundary. The mics were about four feet from shore under some trees. The stereo recordings are used in this piece with very minimal signal processing for equalization. The piece follows the chronological order of the recordings. Recordings were selected and arranged to evoke a sense of the natural rhythms and nuances of events as they unfolded without my presence.
After making that second piece I admittedly felt a bit overwhelmed with the process of continuing to work the way I have done for many years with manual editing of content using a DAW. Prior to the start of the Absent Listener project I had been developing a Max patch that allows me to drop a folder of recordings and listen to automated multi-layered arrangements of the content. Since December 2020 I adapted this patch for The Absent Listener and will be premiering a version of it for the Re: Flux Festival in Moncton, NB. This version will allow website visitors to access and input some of the control parameters of the patch and listen to the result which will be derived from the recordings made in this project in the spring months of 2019, 2020 and 2021. I am deliberately avoiding making a piece that is interactive in real-time. Instead I am interested in the commitment to a small number of parameters to produce a listening experience. In the month of March 2021 I have been using the patch to also generate more fixed media versions of The Absent Listener.
The Absent Listener is supported with funding from the Canada Council for the Arts.