A GRAVEYARD in Aberdeen in November is no place for standing still. But, on the instructions of Kim Cascone, I stand still and listen. And a world of sound unfolds: the low drone of traffic in the nearby streets, a whisper of leaves in the trees, the clack of high heels on flagstones, the rattle of two pushchairs and the quiet accompanying conversation of the two mums.
Cascone, a leading sound artist and composer of electroacoustic music from San Francisco, is hunkered down by one of the ancient tombs, setting up simple, portable recording equipment. He is aiming to create a unique kind of snapshot: a portrait of St Nicholas Kirkyard in sound.
“Once you sit in a place for more than a minute you start to become very sensitive to the sounds in the vicinity,” he says. “If you’re just walking through you might not catch them, but if you’re able to stay in a place for a time, you pick up on the sounds.”
Cascone is in Aberdeen as part of a week’s residency with the Sound Festival, a month-long festival of new music in the north-east. Pete Stollery, professor of electroacoustic composition at Aberdeen University, who is one of the founders of the festival, says he’s been hoping to bring Cascone to the city for years.
Aberdeen will be the second place in the world to host one of the “field diffusions” by Cascone – the sounds of an environment captured, treated and played back into the same environment where they were collected. The first happened in Budapest earlier this year, and another is planned for Istanbul in the spring.
He explains that he became interested in field diffusions, which were first made during the 1960s, as a reaction to the recent fashion for “found sound” performances in galleries and concert halls. “There’s been a real growth in the genre because of the cheapness of portable gear. For me, it’s problematic, I find that so much of it is lacking in terms of having interesting content, and also the format of the concert hall is not really appropriate for presenting field recordings.”
The idea was sparked by a book on rhythm analysis by French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre: “He describes how every location or environment has a rhythm that is usually produced by people and their activities through the course of the day. A space also has a sonic signature. I was interesting to apply Lefebvre’s analysis to a place, to get a better understanding of the rhythmic score, and use the same field to play it back.”
Working with musicians and composers Claire Singer and Patrick Keenan, who are postgraduate students at Aberdeen, and Chris Paterson, an undergraduate, Cascone is recording the ambient sounds of the graveyard, which will then be treated and mixed in the studio. On Saturday, the sounds will be played back into the kirkyard, through speakers placed surreptitiously among the graves.
The location had to be chosen in advance, with Claire Singer acting as a kind of acoustic scout. Cascone’s main criteria were “a rich sonic environment” which was also a place where people naturally spend time. St Nicholas Kirkyard meets both: a stone’s throw from the city centre, it is a popular shortcut between Union Street and the Bon Accord shopping mall.
The area behind the church is particularly interesting sonically as it is sheltered from the thundering traffic, which Cascone describes as “the bane of every sound recordist’s existence”.
Singer, who grew up in the city, says she has been listening to the graveyard as never before. “I’m used to cutting through the graveyard but never before now have I gone in and listened to the sounds going on. It’s great to get a chance to work with someone like Kim who is so well known in the field, I’m just glad it’s not snowing, it snowed last week.”
The churchyard also has the bonus of an interesting historical background: there has been a church on the site since the 12th century, and incumbents of the graveyard include a number of famous Aberdonians, among them opera singer Mary Garden. There is a even said to be a ghost – a raven-haired woman in a white dress.
Cascone, who arrived in the city on Sunday, is thrilled. “It’s hard when you see something online to get a sense of the place. This is working out even better than I anticipated. Without getting too haunted-house about it, we’re thinking about adding some voices.”
Whether the good citizens of Aberdeen will notice anything amiss in the churchyard on Saturday remains to be seen. Cascone isn’t worried. “It will be done in a way that isn’t drawing attention to the work, which makes it transparent and part of the environment rather than a statement by an artist about the environment.
“It’s like architecture or city planning, you might be in a space, or sitting on a bench looking at a view, you’re not thinking about the artistic expression involved. We’re doing a similar thing with sound, trying to create an environment rather than make an artistic statement.”
However, it’s likely that it will prompt people to do something that most of us in cities rarely do: stop and listen. Stollery says: “I’m fascinated by the idea of field diffusions because they are about taking the appreciation of sound in an artistic way out of the concert hall and into the public domain. For me the key thing about it is it will make people listen, which is what we as sound artists do, we raise awareness of the aural environment.”
The Field Diffusion is in the Graveyard of St Nicholas Kirk, Aberdeen, on Saturday, 10am-4pm. Kim Cascone will perform as part of Revolutions per hour: a night of electroacoustic music and sound at the Lemon Tree, also on Saturday, 6pm-midnight.
For a full programme of events at the Sound Festival, go online att www.sound-scotland.co.uk
KIM CASCONE was born in Chicago and studied at Berklee College of Music, Boston, in the 1970s, then at Manhattan’s New School. He discovered a “talent for electronics” while working for a medical company which made heart-rate monitors, but his focus was always on music.
His early work was in film, working with David Lynch, inset, as assistant music editor on Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart, and on films such as Driving Miss Daisy, below. However, he was also pursuing a solo career, and founded his own record label, Silent Records, in 1986.
In the early 1990s, Silent became the leading US label specialising in ambient and electronic music. One famous release was 1992’s Fifty Years of Sunshine, a “tribute to acid” featuring Hawkwind, Psychic TV and Timothy Leary. Cascone himself worked on a variety of recording projects: PGR, Heavenly Music Corporation, Spice Barons, Thessalonians
After selling Silent Records in 1996, he pursued a career as a sound designer working for Thomas Dolby’s company, Headspace, and for Staccato Systems where he developed soundscapes for electronic games. He continues to work as a composer and sound artist, and performs his own work, mainly in Europe. His latest release is Music for Dagger and Guitar on the label Aural Terrains, and he is considered an important theorist in the field of new music.
He once said: “I’m not saying anything with my music. There is no meaning or message – the listener provides that. They construct meaning by making associations: ‘That sounds like rusted chains scraping against the hulls of sunken ships, or one hundred hummingbirds outside my window, or a misty bog at night.’ None of this is intended by me, but is called up by the listener.”