Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 7, No. 2, 1994
Screening Cultural Studies
Edited by Tom O'Regan & Toby Miller

Sound histories

Sylvia Wang

Review of Paul Carter. The Sound In-between: Voice, Space, Performance. Kensington, Sydney: New South Wales University Press and New Endeavour Press, 1992. 198pp. ISBN 0868401099, (pbk) $29.95.

What are the implications of reconsidering the history of a particular site in terms of sound, especially when that site constitutes a place of meeting? What does the terrain sound like? The land, the wind, the buildings? What voices fill it, traverse it, converse it, leave and return to it? What do the echoes sound like? And how might one write such a sound history? Mr. Carter seems to have constructed such a text.

He writes of an Australia that is to be retold through historical encounters (primarily Aboriginal and European contacts), foregrounding their aural exchanges and thereby re-examining the meaning of language (that which is uttered) within the context of these contacts, of the history of this land. His writing is evocative, anecdotal, personal, poetic. He includes actual sound pieces within it. He's an architect. A builder. A voice. A radio talk show participant. And he gives good advice (more on this later).

Meeting Places...Spaces Between

As he writes of two peoples trying to communicate through mutually unintelligible languages, he points out moments of coincidence in which occasional sounds happen to match meanings that occur within the other language. Moments of understanding. Similarly I, as a reader from beyond the geographical space of which he writes, approach his text with questions such as: What is Australia? Where, exactly is he writing from? What, precisely, is he writing about?

Upon first glance, this work feels as though its place of origin can be precisely located as "Australia" in that as a non-Australian, I am aware of my position as an outsider. I don't know the lay of the land. I have no ties to a history that gently tugs at those who share some kind of a remote or recent past. I am a stranger here, aware of the fact that I have arrived within a space that continues to continue, regardless of the countless entries and exits that may have left their marks. Yet as I continue my wanderings through his text, I decide that precise locale is beside the point. His is a land/sound-scape that is suggested by markers on the move. Land-marks, sound-posts, and numerous cartographic etchings mark a terrain that is on the one hand fleeting, on the other hand very much around. Such is the state of Betweeness, located in those unexpected places that appear momentarily all at once, and then vanish, leaving you with the impression that they are perfectly willing to reappear, transformed yet still recognizable.

Throughout his text, Mr. Carter leads us through various sound-sites that seem to reverberate as in-between spaces, be they vocal or terrestrial points of contact, actual or imagined architectures. Moving through his text, I find myself gradually immersed within it in such a way that the writing itself becomes a kind of space-between. His text remains remarkably open in its simultaneous exploration and creation of a view that foregrounds the medium of sound as its primary mode of perception. Through the textual construction of particular sound-sites, Mr. Carter evokes a terrain of possibility which one is allowed to enter, exit, and traverse in a manner that leaves one's ears perpetually listening. What follows is this visitor's response to several of his sites.

Site 1: "Cooee"

A call. A term. A sound. Of mixed origins. A vocal utterance. Australian.

A call, implying a response. Something spoken to be returned. A crossing of distances where the nature of speech is such that something is exchanged. Understandings are attempted. Yet in the history of the term, between whom? It is Aboriginal in origin; it is a European invention. It is uttered between the two; its echo defines the space within which they meet. Yet something happens in the capturing of the call. It becomes enclosed, caught within confines that do not allow for reverberation - dead space. Captured within a phonographic recording, reified to a point of deadness, "cooee" becomes a call that can no longer generate a response.

Mr. Carter's performance work, "Cooee Song", returns the vibrancy to this utterance by insisting that the space etched out by the call be an active one where voices and performers move through the performance space, filling it with resonance. In this piece, he lays out a voice and movement text that interweaves two stories, one of which tells the tale of Charlotte (an Aboriginal woman) and the loss of her husband, Jackson (a white sailor) and their children at sea. The other tale concerns the sound, "cooee", addressing it as a point of Aboriginal and European contact within the context of the construction of a sound-history of the country. From what I can gather by reading rather than hearing/seeing this piece, Mr. Carter appears interested in the performance of a space that is defined primarily by sound and movement. Two sets of voices (performed by two actors and two recordings, or by four actors) are interlaid between one another, with each set telling one of the two stories. The physical movements of the live actors (playing Charlotte and Jackson) sketch out repeated comings together and breakings apart. I imagine the spectatorial experience of what one hears and what one sees would evoke a space in which the various layers of performance coalesce to produce echoed renditions of one another - each movement reflecting each voice reflecting each character - to form a reverberating whole. "Cooee" thus becomes a sound whose history takes on a multitude of past and present meanings.

Site 2: Buildings

Mr. Carter advocates an architecture that does not enclose, but remains perpetually open. In an attempt at what seems to be another way to conceptualize the history of a place, he makes it a point to veer away from marking territories and toward dwelling within them. Buildings are spaces that retain their space-ness (their life) through the very fact that they are inhabited, that they become defined by the living within. Language is also a kind of architecture. To dwell within it as a static enclosure of meaning leaves us without movement. There is no travel. Attempted understandings never really take flight. By perceiving the walls of buildings, the confined meanings of words, as permeable structures, fluid boundaries, one can occupy the spaces-between and speak vast terrains.

"Mirror States" is 'a site-specific sound installation' in which Mr. Carter envisions an 8-storey building that is constructed by two levels of sound: one level is represented by the four corners of the building, with each position embodying a voice and an environmental sound; another level depicted is that of the building's height, which I gather can be discerned by the pattern of environmental sounds repeated in cycles of four. The text for the four voices reveals the story of a city whose origins are traced to a moment of contact between outside arrivals and those who already inhabit the land. That moment is continually evoked throughout the piece in that one is left with a lingering sensation of a history that exists within the very architectural structures of the city, a feeling that beckons one to simply listen for it, as it can be heard only momentarily, perhaps not much above a whisper.

Site 3: Speaking Spaces

When faced with the prospect of creating a 'sound house', or sound pieces that are to be performed within public buildings, Mr. Carter is interested in having the building, the space itself, speak. Rather than fill it with finite, encapsulated historical data (museum-style), why not open it up so that it comes into contact with its environs: the buildings next door, the wind around the corners, people moving through the space itself? He emphasizes the materiality of sound, wanting to mold it, move it, pass through it, and have it exist as it does...fleetingly.

It is the same with speaking. Voice is a space-performed in that speaking and listening bodies become sound-spaces that send and receive. To speak thusly, one widens the parameters of language by becoming a sound-body, capable of evoking spaces of communication that remain receptive, continually alerted to listening for textured meanings, whispered histories, an infinite range of possible architectures.

Sound Advice

Travelling through the terrain of his book, having visited a few of its sites, taken the requisite snap-shots to show the folks back home, I leave you now with a few of Mr. Carter's words of wisdom, his sound advice to travellers both moving and stationary:

Master leakages. If you get bubblegum stuck to your shoes or bike tyres or your dog's furry feet, try not to be in a hurry to remove it. Make sure your pen doesn't drip in the bottom of your bag. Don't drool. Avoid chattiness. Zip up smartly. Be discreet in locating the source of smells. Tie the offending item up securely in a bag and dispose of it when no-one is looking. Park close to the kerb. These instructions may seem to you trivial but until you understand how deeply people here fear the in-between you will be alone. Remember: this is the country where, if you kiss someone on the lips instead of the cheek, you are advised to stay calm and laugh it off. (180)

New: 5 December, 1995 | Now: 24 March, 2015