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A Grammar For Listening – Part 1

Luke Fowler

UK, 2009
22 minutes, Colour, Separate .wav file, 1:1.33
Original format: 16mm film
Available formats: 16mm

Over the centuries, Western culture has relentlessly attempted to classify noise, music and everyday sounds… Ordinary noises and the mundane sounds that are not perceived as either annoying or musical are of no interest.

How to create a meaningful dialogue between looking and listening? Luke Fowlers film cycle A Grammar for Listening (parts 1-3) attempts to address this question through the possibilities afforded by 16mm film and digital sound recording devices. In part 1, Fowler furthers his on-going dialogues with the sound artist Lee Patterson (Manchester, England). Parts 1 and 2 evolved from filming and recording trips, whose locations were chosen based on a number of geographic and acoustic possibilities.

Silence dominated “experimental film” of the 1960s. Sound or musical accompaniment was often dismissed as illustrative, manipulative or redundant. Instead, a return to the experiments of early cinema, concentrated on rhythm, structure and material and thereby considered films potential as an art form with its own unique grammar.

Prior to this tendency in film, composer John Cage had foregrounded “silence” within his 1953 composition 433. Purging concerts of conventional musical content, he allowed the sounds from outside to come inside and become the focus of the audiences attention. These foundational ideas, (in parallel with conceptual frameworks outlined by music-concrete pioneer Pierre Schaeffer in France, and latterly with the introduction of the R. Murray Schafers world “Soundscape ” movement), have led to a burgeoning music scene focused on environmental sound and field recording.

Pierre Schaeffers early use of music created entirely with tape recorders and found sounds, posited the concept of the “acousmatic ” (or reduced listening). He suggested that sounds should be perceived in and of themselves, stripped of instrumental and cultural contexts, in order to develop a language of purely sonic descriptions. These attempts to cultivate a focused and more thoughtful listening practice frequently supplanted a dominant visual order.

Lee Patterson has been making recordings of various forms of underwater life (fish, aquatic plants, insects etc) using homemade hydrophones : “Ive come to regard such places as special, self contained acoustic spaces with very specific sonic and biological qualities”. Within the film these environmental recordings are complimented by performances to camera involving found objects amplified by contact microphones. Patterson evokes complex, harmonic overtones in electro-magnetically “excited” springs (often found in discarded lighters) to the exploding and shifting micro-sound of burning walnuts.