Ambient Perfection

Although soon to change, my home is a small caravan in the middle of a farm paddock. I’m not quite sure I really want to return to a conventional dwelling – I have learned a great deal about what is really required for quality of life.

The farm paddock on which I live is not used for stock – it is being developed as part of the Garden of Eden that the owner of the property, a notable NZ horticulturist, is creating on his 7 acres. This particular paddock is largely given over to cabbage palm trees and an assortment of other native trees and flaxes. Cabbage tree palms make the most wonderful rustling in the wind. The not quite pleasant sounds of Pukeko (NZ swamp hen) pierce the air night and day. A quiet stream runs through the property, eel-filled, ducks and swans paddling. The way to the stream passes through the owner’s home garden where fruit trees and flowers abound, beehives housing the bees that provide organic honey for mead-making.

In the next paddock there’s some cattle, all known by name. Across the road there’s sheep, further down, horses. A rooster announces each new day (frequently feeling the need to announce it for most of the day).

From where I sit I can hear the surf of the nearby beach – ten minutes walk away. This end of the beach has a substantial river estuary. By the river mouth the beach is predominantly pebbles, ranging to rocks. Further down it is sandy. It’s amazing how much pebbles and rocks add to the sounds of surf – an earthy rumbling sound.

The river ranges along its length from narrow and deep to broad and shallow, with every permutation of the sound of moving water. Water birds abound, each with its own special cry. The estuary is a natural wetlands area, being protected and developed by local volunteers as a home for the many bird species that thrive on it.

On the way to the beach there is an old pine forest – wind sweeping through pines is a wonderful sound.

Twenty minutes walking, two by car, there is a small township with the sound or rural folk. The same time in the other direction arrives at State Highway 1 – the main road running the length of the country. Every manner of vehicle passes through, tourists stopping to enjoy the sidewalk cafes.

The major trunk railway runs parallel to the main road – unheard above the surf from our paddock but a reassuring sound of continuity from the main road.

Beyond the main road, maybe a thirty minute drive, there is the Tararua Forest Park and the confluence of two rivers, the Otaki Forks.  A smorgasbord of native sound and sight. Many years ago I enjoyed an overnight trek from Otaki Forks to Kaitoke, the Southern Crossing – not being as fit as I thought I was at the time I was almost crippled for the next couple of days, but what an experience!

All of this is a one hour drive from Wellington, the capital city, where I have spent most of the last 30 years.

New Zealand is a paradise for photographers and field audio recordists alike.

This gets me to the AVS point to this story.

While I have every opportunity to photograph or record pretty much anything one might imagine, I prefer not to have a piece of technology between me and the environment I’m in at the time. I’ve been an obsessive photographer since I was about twelve – I have thousands of photographs that I don’t look at – the memory of the whole experience recalled is much more alive than the slice of time that a photograph records. Likewise, recording of nature and humanity lack the fullness of being there.

I record ambient sounds on request for commissioned work. In such cases I have a brief that tells me that the client likes to identify with a particular environment through its sounds. All good.

For blue-sky or open-brief work I prefer to create synthetic sessions. There is a plethora of new-age/ambient content available. I’m not particularly interested in extending this genre. When I supply sessions, I tag the MP3 with the genre “AVS”. The primary purpose of my work is to communicate directly with the brain/mind and bypass personal aesthetics, prejudices and predilections. 

Unless I am told by the final listener, I have no way of knowing what memories, correspondences, a person might have. For most of us the sound of a roaring, crackling fire means warmth and security – not so for one who has lost a loved one to fire. Crashing surf may be the perfect natural white noise for one, the sounds of being torn away from the shore by a rip to another.Whale song that brings tears to the eyes of a marine environmentalist, will be the sound of lunch to a whaler.  And so it goes on.

And on, to man-made sounds. Bells, bowls, drums, flutes and so on have acquired cliché status. Pleasing enough in themselves, rarely adding to AVS anything other than associative response – think Pavlov’s dogs. Some commercial AVS developers have created a mystique about their particular style – usually by heavy marketing  rather than any intrinsic virtue of the methods employed. Emulating these techniques is easy enough and I have listened to sufficient to recognise “emperors new clothes” syndrome when I hear it. I have written about homeopathic AVS – stimulus so weak and so masked by other sounds that the effectiveness of the session relies on placebo effect and the requirement that the listener develop sufficient calm discipline to be able to get through the same monotonous session day after day. Nothing wong with that – a key benefit of any AVS is the practice of taking time away from worldly influences.

The advantage of synthesis is neutrality. Left to my own devices I create unique audiovisual experiences. Even when I do use nature sounds or musical instruments, I alter them in ways that prevent immediate identification with their common usage. While the eyes and ears are the conduit, it is the naked brain to which I speak. Beyond the direct effect of clearly defined stimulus there is the ability to see without looking, hear without listening can be cultivated. This skill can lead to an exquisite detachment from the world of sense, the vision of no difference, that can be usefully applied to all matters of living.

What do I look forward to in our new abode? Hot water, an indoor toilet and broadband better than the slow, expensive cellular required where there’s no hard connection available.


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