Hydro Cello (Junction Dam) / Bridget Chappell for Bogong Centre for Sound Culture
On Saturday I performed in Junction Dam here in Bogong village, Jaithmathang country. During my residency here, I’ve recorded each power station in the Kiewa Hydroelectric Scheme and their infrastructure using condenser, hydro- and electromagnetic microphones and determined each station's fundamental frequency. Each station hums a unique note ranging somewhere between G and G sharp. This piece, developed at Bogong, plays with these notes and their harmonics and uses the cello to vocalise the impact of the anthropocene on the alpine region and its waters. It was a very, very nice experience playing cello inside the dam, with acoustics as good as any concert hall, for such a great audience. It was also a good chance to get our heads around putting together a car battery-powered sound system – if not kinda counterintuitive, being in the middle of a huge power scheme.
To explain a bit more about the station’s frequencies, here’s a lil map I drew of the Scheme, which runs through Alpine National Park, including some figures about each station. I became obsessed with the finding that each station’s output hovered somewhere between G and G sharp but were slightly out of key with each other. If you play them one after the other, starting at McKay (the highest station on the mountain range) and finishing at West Kiewa (the lowest, in the foothills) it plays a short but pretty sweet tune that resolves at the end:
For nerds: to collect these sounds I’ve been using two Rode NT5 condensers, a D-Series Hydrophone, the LOM Priezor, and the WR-3 Natural-VLF Radio Phenomena Receiver. Field recording is the closest I can get to guided meditation – sometimes it feels even transcendental, focusing your attention on the phenomena and naturally-occurring music around us that can be pushed to our peripheries by other senses. Listening to the world through a nice mic feels like putting a special pair of ears on (almost like a superhero) – especially with electromagnetic (EM) listening.
After my search for infrasound last week, the Priezo and Phenomena Receiver were great tools for more signals inaudible to the naked ear. The EM spectrum encompasses a range of frequencies of EM radiation: radio waves, microwaves, terahertz waves (or THW - “Tremendously High Waves” and I’m not joking lol), infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays. This week we hiked out to the remote Mount Jim on the High Plains where a magnetic anomaly occurs – probably caused by a huge basalt deposit beneath its devonian granite exterior. The anomaly throws the compass out by 20 degrees (confirmed by switching between magnetic north and True North modes, and allowing for magnetic declination). Though it seemed like a perfect spot for an EM recording, there was almost no reading on the mics. Put this down to how much I still have to learn about EM and what alchemy our equipment was using to translate its presence to sound waves – and what band of the spectrum they can pick up. The magnetism that affects the compass may still not be “audible” to our receivers. These microphones feel a little bit like a device for enabling synaesthesia – that is, the neurological trait that merges senses not usually connected – like hearing colour or seeing sound (in this case, hearing something our senses can’t immediately detect at all).
Everything at the source end of field recording is really cool – the ghostbusting equipment you get to use, the incredible places it gives you an excuse to stop and sit, its power to focus you on the present as it unfolds (which is what meditation is, I guess), and the way it turns everyone into an excited little kid frothing on the sound of a kettle boiling or a moth near a lightbulb. The process is more than enough. For those seeking an “outcome” beyond the experience though, it can get tricky when you try to translate the work into, well, a work. Maybe it’s egotistical of us to think that after admiring the musicality of everyday sounds occurring together in real time, that we can scoop them up and arrange them in a better way.
As a musician one of the things I make and love is weird dance music – stuff that makes you wanna dance but feels kinda too fast, or too slow, or it’s in an “unusual” time signature, or full of cooked samples that aren't just the window dressing on the music, but the music itself. Your body’s determined to move but confused about how. I also love weird sample packs – downloadable collections of sounds (usually loops and one-shots) specially designed for electronic producers to use as building blocks in their music, instead of using hardware (like a synthesizer). So I collated some of the best sounds I found up here in the Hex Mountain sample pack - click to download. Maybe we can’t arrange sounds we gather in a way faithful to their context and do them justice, but we can have a lot of fun taking them out of context. All the sounds have been gently EQ’d and compressed, but otherwise they are as I found them. You can hear immediately hear the musicality of the mountains and the hydro scheme. If you don’t have an airhorn there’s a deer honking, and if you don’t have a Massive-generated dubstep 'wub' there’s a blowfly landing on your mic or the electromagnetism of a hydro power station.
My work here was done on the unceded lands of the Jaithmathang people. I pay my respects to elders past, present, and emerging, and acknowledge that genocide is ongoing and sovereignty was never ceded. Deepest thanks to the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture and Madelynne Cornish for hosting me and humouring all my lines of thinking and facilitating my work; to Bogong village for hosting my performance and everyone who came along; to Alpine Radio for having me on the air to talk about my work; and to everyone who's followed my residency here. It's been a very very good start to 2019.