(Working'Title) Art from History: A case study in using oral history recordings in the creating of a sound installation.
I would like to propose a presentation based around a recent sound piece of mine that combines recorded spoken testimony, use of oral history archives and field recordings, in the creation of a fixed media, multiPchannel sound work that treads a delicate line between documentary and soundscape composition. My recently completed piece for an exhibition in a former tin mine in Cornwall, UK will provide the primary case study, but in the course of the presentation, I will make reference to other work that either draws on similar sound materials, explores similar aesthetic or formal territory or grapples with some of the same ethical dilemmas as my own work does. Examples may include Glenn Gould's seminal Solitude)Trilogy,)Ewan
McColl's Radio)Ballads)and more contemporaneously, John Wynne's Hearing)Voices.
In the presentation, I will briefly explore the unique contribution oral testimonies have made to contemporary historiography and touch on the significance sound recording has had on various areas of ethnography and our historical understanding. While this is a significant theme in itself with regards to the conference theme of
'sensuous knowledge', my primary focus for this presentation lies not in outlining the significance of firstPhand testimony narratives or in the notion of the sound recording as a historical artifact. Rather, I will concentrate my attention here on what it is to approach these materials - and sometimes instigate their collection -not as a historian but as an artist and as a composer.
In the past five years, I have created a number of sound works that combine spoken word with edited field recordings. My work in this area encompasses pieces based on interviews, pieces based on oral histories and one piece that I have scripted in its entirety (although this script too is based on a synthesis of historical documents, biography and myth). Common themes that run through this series of pieces include the debts that they have to the texts and voices that form their substrate, their obligations to the histories they refer to and possibly the most important question of all: when working with sounds constituted by their originators as historical artifacts, what is the role of an artist in working with materials often considered to be the primary domain of the historian or documentarist? What is it, upon the topography of knowledge that the artist can uniquely contribute? What knowledge can we impart that is truly idiomatic to the process of thinking and making as arts practitioners? From these questions emerge a subset of themes pertaining to the formal, aesthetic, ethical and technical dimensions of working with sounds that carry narrative meaning, that to some extent represent the identities of people speaking and that lay some claim to an authentic rendering of history.
Associate Professor in Music and!Sound Art, University College Falmouth