3 Jul 2014

three inclements (the ocean does not mean to be listened to)

the wonderful experimental music imprint Consumer Waste records has been kind enough to release (29.06.14) a set of three short pieces (as CW13) whose various component sounds I recorded while NZ Dept. of Conservation / Creative New Zealand artist in residence on Kapiti Island in May 2012, and finished editing on headphones in the unlikely sound-studio of Fendalton Community Library, located just down the street from my parents' house in Christchurch, very soon after returning from the residency that June. It's a wonderfully anonymous, hands-off public space, where i'm unlikely to be interrupted by anyone I know. Almost two years to the day, I am again sitting in the same place in Fendalton Community Library typing this, listening to the recordings and looking at various historic photographs which have, for me, become attached to this set of sounds. A return, of sorts.

Upon re-listening, the release - now called "three inclements (the ocean does not mean to be listened to)" after quite a few other working titles (the language, unlike the pieces, wasn't instantaneously obvious) - seems jagged, its vignettes reflecting its topographical variety of sonic spaces and collecting methods, a rocky and uneven terrain alive with the rawness of the island's own life. For a sonic document made on an island bird sanctuary, there are very few birds to be heard, apart from those incidentally in the background of some of the location recordings. This CD is not a literal representation of birds (other projects from the residency focusing on birds can be found elsewhere on this site), but a listening-in to the wider context of the island, its histories, its politics, and its absences. As part of the residency's wider focus on radio as fieldwork, this project gathers three "field tunings" into the frequency spectrum, which were all recorded on one day - the 9th May, 2012, around the area of Waiorua Bay. The receiver - a retired Maritime multiband radio - was cast as a listening ear within fields and shorelines, and its tunings layered with sounds also recorded in the same locales with various kinds of microphones. 

The three pieces are all concerned with the everyday sonic spaces of the island as I found them, and are partly an attempt to understand the idea of signal as a widely interpreted historical locatedness, a dense, if invisible palimpsest within these seemingly "empty" or "natural" spaces. The notion of signal was approached in the broadest possible sense, drawing on many of the historical nuances of island-to-mainland communication made known to me in the residency's six week duration, by various of the island's Maori and Pakeha residents. I learned that one of the historic non-technological communication methods between the island and the mainland involved a system of signals read via mirrors, which were held up on the beach toward the corresponding beach on the other side, winking bright sun-pulses of information. This was reflected in the coastal warning light which had been a beacon along the Waiorua shoreline, until it was knocked down by the Government to the general disgruntlement of the locals, who used it as a wayfinder and landmark. The second track, "study for lighthouse (a coastline re-considered without its monument)", which is recorded on this site (both via radio tuning, and under the water with a hydrophone listening in to the mysterious sounds of feeding gastropods) is locatable here.

Then there was the 1930s bakelite dial telephone which served as a direct link between the island's two inhabited locations, the house at Waiorua Bay and the Whare at Rangatira, in the early twentieth century, a historic materiality still there on the fridge in the latter's kitchen, c.2012. The specific radio history of Kapiti includes the elaborate radio cabinet Ororua (Te Reo Maori for 'imaginary voices'); a gorgeous piece of woodwork carved in the 1930s by Hona Webber, supposedly burnt to ashes in the fire which also destroyed the grand Webber house at Waiorua Bay, although I had it on authority from local resident 'Boysie' Barrett that this had in fact survived and was currently "in a shed somewhere." In the present Boysie (who is over 70) still casts his own signal, in the form of a radio report from the island, via CB every week to Beach FM on the other shore, the North Island mainland (or "New Zealand" as he jokingly calls it). 

Radio tracking of rare birds is also utilised by dept. of Conservation scientists on the island, and myself and Kapiti guide Rochelle Hopping spent a day in the bush at Rangatira following two Kiwi scientists engaged in this form of beacon-finding, transmitters on the birds deep in their burrows in the earth made audible from the shoreline, where the scientists hoisted their large aerial arrays against a pristine blue sea. Kapiti Island nature reserve was established in 1897; much of it bought for the purpose from Maori owners; such environmental histories are not simply a story of saving threatened bird species, but bound up with the wider colonial history of the politics of land acquisition. The descendents of the one family who did not sell to the government are still resident on the North end of the island, meaning Kapiti remains partly privately owned, a contested territorial space which has in practice become one contemporary model of Government and Maori working together as co-guardians of the land. I drew on the vernacular knowledge held by island inhabitants and workers from both of these spaces. Vicky Waihi, who worked at the Waiorua (North end) Nature Lodge, took me on a few ghost-finding walks around the area, which included an extended period sitting, listening, on the shore of Waiorua Bay near Okupe lagoon, a place I later returned to record. Through such experiences, I became interested in the connection between radio and the Maori idea of spirit voice, or Irirangi (also the name of the Royal New Zealand Navy Communications Station between 1951-1993). The first track, "a lagoon considered against its archival image" which is also a meditation on close-mic'd hailstorms and lonely aircraft buoy signals, depicts the sounds not visible in this landscape. This image has a corresponding poem which completes a triptych of forms of recording:

'a lagoon, considered against its archival image' 

stepping into the where of the photograph, its 1920s shoreline
only just separated from the driftwood-piled
forest bracketing the actual

ocean, remnants echoed by an upright set of ex-
jetty sentinels marking the sepia, pre-
forestation of naked farmlands, and what

looks like three people
holding hands in the foreground. propped against
the present, shelduck-honked sounding

of its shoreline, a palimpsest
of stilt-steppings, gingerly marked for ongoing
erasure, in the sun’s tidal worrying of mudflats, thick

and long in un-accounted memory,
prior to what. they are still here, the depicted blanks,
unreadable also in the photo-graph’s breeze-blown object-

fragilities, and still behind them, brackish
with seepage, the lagoon equally riverless
,tidal resignations being what they are 

The final track "1897, detail (song for Richard Henry)" references both the year of the sanctuary's official founding and one of its first caretakers: the visionary naturalist Richard Treacy Henry, who was the world's first state sponsored conservation worker. Henry came to Kapiti in 1908, after fourteen years on Resolution Island. By this time he was a broken man, having recognised early on that the recently introduced populations of stoats were killing off Aotearoa's flightless bird populations with alarming rapidity, alone, he transported hundreds of flightless birds by boat from the South Island mainland to the coastal island, only to realise, upon finding stoat tracks on the beach, that his decade-plus work had been futile, and that the birds he had shepherded to safety would all die. I imagined him contemplating this failure while staring at the night stars from Kapiti, unaware that his methods of saving flightless birds would still be used by conservation workers in this very location over a century later. 

One night, when all the other residents had gone to the mainland for supplies, and I was literally the only person on the island, I played a broken violin I'd brought with me from Wellington in the kitchen of the place I was sleeping, which was also the house where Richard Henry had once lived, still used for conservation work, with the generator off, the sound of a stove-top kettle boiling with the crackling of wood under it, the small roof of the Whare lost in an infinity of darkness resounding with the night calls of forest birds, the metallic shrieks of Little Spotted Kiwi and the ghost-cries of Morepork, the massed voices of black backed gulls, under a canopy of bright, bright stars. The sounds of the room and the sounds of those stars make up this piece, as well as a shoreline radio recording being cast back into the room via radio cegeste's Mini FM transmitter; the instrumental expressions of the violin drone seem, perhaps, more Romantic-interpretative than the more ostensibly empirical field recordings and radio tunings of the prior two pieces,  although I would say, in all honesty, that that night the violin also became a radio: I tuned it in, in the same way as the shortwave, with the same searching sense of listening, the same dial-foraging for just-audible traces.