Black Water, Brown Water

This is the afterword I wrote for David Prior’s wonderful phonographic piece Black Water, Brown Water, originally a site-specific headphone soundwalk commissioned from Liminal (David Prior and Frances Crow) by British Waterways for the Stourport Canal Basin Regeneration project. As conceived by Prior, “Black Water Brown Water is a cinematic rendering in sound of the characters involved in the creation of the Stourport Basin.” As a phonographic work the piece is released as a book/CD (and available to order online) by Acts of Language. The afterword is a poetic examination of phonographic technology and (un)mediated listening as a substrate to the piece.

“The water sounds today like it did yesterday”

(Black Water Brown Water)

The soundwalk originates in listening. Without fear of being “Obscured and made weak; as the voyce of a man is in the noyse of the day” (Hobbes, 1651): the Italian Futurists, “Let us cross a great modern capital with our ears more alert than our eyes” (Russolo, 1913); John Cage, using listening to bring down walls (4’33”, 1952); Max Neuhaus, stamping the word LISTEN on his audience’s hands before leading them through New York (1966).

For R. Murray Schafer, inveterate soundwalker and progenitor of acoustic ecology, there is no music in the industrialised world. “Only a brutish society would allow itself to be awaked each morning to such non-natural noises as [lawnmowers, leaf blowers etc] without a murmur of protest.” He’s right, in a sense. The Stourport Canal Basin has been colonised by traffic sound.

Yet the machine neither opposes nor is opposed to listening.

As Microscopes or Magnifying Glasses, help the Eye to see near Objects, that by reason of their smallness were invisible before. So Microphones or Micracousticks, that is, Magnifying ear instruments may be contriv’d after that manner, that they shall render the most minute Sound in nature distinctly Audible — BP. N. MARSH (1684)

The microphone is a machine that ‘listens’, but its ear must always be judged against our own. In the space between these, sound is estranged from its original context, even while the listener remains within the scene. In the headphone laboratory, sound becomes specimen. The listener’s ear audits, at an objective remove, sound bodies: at the tip of the microphone boom, water pouring over a lock; around the hydrophone, the pressure of immersion.

Sensual empiricism.

We stroked the left ear of a dummy head with a paintbrush and recorded the sound and the scene. We then presented the sound, the images, or the both to participants. The participants rated their subjective tactile experience by answering a questionnaire. The results revealed that the participants felt a tickling sensation when the sound was presented near to the head — Kitagawa and Igarashi (2005)

Microphonic estrangement begins schismogenesis (Feld), but the unfolding aural scene outside remains wedded to what is heard inside the headphones. The microphone heightens perception of sonic grain and perspective, but the fact of presence prevents full estrangement of sound from source. If one is unsure of what one hears, one looks. Seeing is believing.

Was it starting to rain? I listened, I listened again. I found the noise persisted… Was I then satisfied? Not at all. For, my ears might be ringing. I went to the window. No water on the pane. But rain may fall straight down. Consequently, I opened the window and leaned out — Spaier (in Sartre, 1936)

Schismogenesis is complete when auditor becomes phonographer. Recorded sound can be played back (temporal estrangement) in any context (spatial estrangement). Recording is documentary, but you shouldn’t always believe what you hear. Apparition. Audition.

WARNING: Using headphones can be disorienting — Soundwalk map, Black Water Brown Water

Schismogenesis allows commingling. Was and is, here and elsewhere. Dartington Estate birds in Stourport’s trees. Canal side voices from an acoustically neutral studio. Superposition is the method of the mediated soundwalk, problematising the real. Estrangement encouraging engagement. Not the same as a personal soundtrack to manage everyday life.

After a long succession of noises, as the fall of waters, or the beating of forge-hammers, the hammers beat and the waters roar in the imagination long after the first sounds have ceased to affect it — Edmund Burke (1757)

Signal processing of recorded sound furthers estrangement, induces abstraction. Fast Fourier Transforms of water recordings stretch time – allowing close scrutiny of “the babble and blot, the swash and spume” (Black Water, Brown Water) – and render spectra mutable. Water droplets or record crackle?

Abstracted still further, sound is bridled to music.

[M]achines as the means not only of producing sound but also of musical values themselves… Many researchers, well understanding the pre-eminent importance of musical value, turned to the physicists. Their values were now frequencies, decibles, harmonic spectra. With electronics they could get direct access to all this and have really precise and objective musical values — Pierre Schaeffer (1995)

Inside the machine, speech couples with a barrel organ, becomes music, births a sonorous metaphor. Soundwater. Exterior, entering the body, becoming interior, projected outwards again, to take yet unpredicted forms and meanings.

It goes in

It comes out

It rains

It steams

— Black Water, Brown Water

So the body of sound, of the listener, is located in an environment in an ecosystem in the biosphere, through the medium and metaphor of water. Sound articulates our fluid substrate. Brindley, “the enemy of each salt flood and ebbing stream”, seeks to rationalise water, “the liminal river, intemperate and unowned” (Black Water Brown Water). Sabrina obvenes. Water, like sound, is a feminine medium. Labile, unbridled, fertile, encompassing.

Each soul knows the infinite, knows everything, but confusedly. It is like walking on the seashore and hearing the great noise of the sea — Leibniz (1714)


Burke, Edmund (1757). A Philosophical Inquiry into the origin of our ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful with an introductory discourse concerning Taste, and several other additions

Leibniz, Gottfried (1714). The Monadology

Feld, Steven (1994) “From Schizophonia to Schismogenesis: On the Discourses and Commodification Practices of ‘World Groove’ and ‘World Beat’”, in Music Grooves (ed. Keil and Feld), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Hobbes, Thomas (1651). Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil

Hodgkinson, Tim and Schaeffer, Pierre (1986). Interview with Pierre Schaeffer, Recommended Records Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1987

Kitagawa, Norimichi and Igarashi, Yuka (2005). “Tickle sensation induced by hearing a sound”, The Japanese Journal of Psychonomic Science, Vol. 24, No. 1: 121-2

Marsh, BP. N (1684). Entry for “Microphone n., 1. A mechanical device”, Oxford English Dictionary Online

Sartre, Jean Paul (1936). Imagination: a psychological critique (trans. Williams), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962

Schafer, R. Murray (1992). “A Deceptive Neighborhood: The Soundscape of Toronto’s Lower Forest Hill”, Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, Vol. 3

Creative Commons License
The water sounds today like it did yesterday by Dugal McKinnon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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