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Mark Vernon, ‘Chinagraph Laughs from Yadretsey’, 2005

The ukulele session in the downstairs bar of The Cumberland Arms in Byker, Newcastle seems strangely in keeping with what’s just been happening in the function room upstairs. Here, striking Norwegian singer Maria Jardardottir has just given a performance derived from Indian breathing techniques, manipulated electronically into a mesmerising, multi-tracked raga drone, while Geordie folk-singer Clive Powell has sung more traditional but equally lovely fare.

Both artists appear on Siren, the fourth of Alec Finlay’s Bookscapes series, in which, through recordings, writings and photographic documentation, landscapes are explored meditatively, spiritually and creatively, so as to transform the existing geography both inside and outside into something and somewhere else entirely.

The underlying basis of Siren is a 141/2—minute field recording, made on an August morning in 2005 at Cullercoats Harbour by Chris Watson—nature documentarist, sometime David Attenborough collaborator and former member of Cabaret Voltaire and The Hafler Trio. It captures a sense of purity, delivered not just by two contrasting human (but other-worldly) voices, but also by the wind and the waves, creating accidental, elemental harmonies. This choir is augmented by passing gulls overhead and noises off from the seals swimming nearby.

Based on interpretations of the late singer-songwriter Tim Buckley’s majestic 1968 recording of ‘Song to the Siren’ (masterfully covered by Cocteau Twins vocalist Liz Fraser on the first This Mortal Coil album in 1984) Siren is an environmental incantation caught, like some rare species in flight, in an even rarer moment of rapture, before it swoops away into some imaginary middle distance.

In this way it sounds at least as much anthropological as artistic, with a laid-bare, call-and-response ennui at its heart. It is heard in its entirety, during a post-live-session playback in the spit ‘n’sawdust gloom of The Cumberland; and the pub’s open door allows Byker’s own natural sounds to seep into the mix—a spring dusk mash-up of urban renewal traffic flow and greenfield gap-site caterwaul. Further interventions are provided by the incessant chatter that intrudes—which may or may not say much about the ambient experience, devoid of an explicitly visual focus.

This is the latest in a seemingly burgeoning exploration of sound—organic or otherwise—by artists; and it emerges as the most fully realised of the current batch of Bookscapes . Deliciously packaged in a zigzag book of accompanying texts, it offers an even more lateral document and eyewitness approach than Finlay’s previous Pocketbooks venture.

Emanating from Dundee, dp003 converse without leaving home is a more lo-fi compilation of 12 sound artists—six from within Scotland; six from Toronto—curated, in a hands-across-the-sea exchange, by Donna Holford-Lovell and Lisa Deane Smith respectively. The third CD release from the discparc label, based at Dundee University’s Exhibitions Department, dp003 offers a cornucopia of approaches to aural exchange, its accompanying ’zine illustrating each piece, often in an oblique way.

dp300 cover, 2006 
dp300 cover, 2006
Alec Finlay and Chris Watson, Siren cover, 2006 
Alec Finlay and Chris Watson, Siren cover, 2006

Mark Vernon’s opening ‘Cinegraph Laughs From Yadretsey’ sets the tone, its restless, scattershot cut-ups plundering from a multitude of sources. The accompanying printed collage gives the game away, with news clippings documenting the Derby Tape Club, a civic-minded society of northern English tape enthusiasts, whose recently rediscovered archive can now be viewed as a slice of missing-presumed-wiped social history, its innocent, utterly guileless observations preserved like some bottomdrawer time-capsule that might have been recorded by Samuel Beckett’s crusty audiodiarist Krapp.

Amid an array of reconstituted ancient instruments, electronic improvisations and vocal treatments, Justine Montford’s ‘Always and Forever’ will spook anyone who’s ever braved the Clyde Tunnel’s pedestrian walkway after dark. An in-situ recording of the artist reading the graffiti from the walls of the tunnel, its spat-out profanities become a kind of ned speak-and-spell routine, suggesting Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ as rewritten by Arab Strap.

Jessica Thomson’s ‘subwayMU’zik’ likewise moves underground, this time to the Toronto subway, where lightly orchestrated muzak has been installed to placate civil unrest, only to be all but overwhelmed by real-time comings and goings.

As a whole, dp003 is not unlike some of the sound works produced on the Touch label (who release Chris Watson’s albums), or the early days of the subscription-based Unknown Public compilations. Both Siren and dp003: converse without leaving home relate to material heard on the web-accessible Resonance FM, indisputably best radio station on the planet.

The groundwork for all this was laid by the Italian futurists’ original ‘Art of Noise’, referenced here in Jon Knowles’ gloriously infantile ‘Luigi Russolo’s Family of Noises 1–4’; and was further developed by Fluxus. But the technology which has put the means of production within everyone’s reach has enabled a proliferation of such activity.

London’s Guestroom series is similar in spirit to both Siren and dp003, its production values falling somewhere between the two. But where Guestroom prefers to keep sound and vision free from referencing each other, in dp003 and especially in Siren, the two are umbilically, holistically inseparable.

Neil Cooper is a writer and critic