As COVID-19 restrictions continue, finding art that can be fully experienced while ensconced at home requires diligence. Earlid, an online audio gallery developed and curated by Joan Schuman, presents work that lives as comfortably online as anywhere else. The gallery recently posted The Dream Had Me, a group show featuring the work of 12 contemporary sound artists who each contributed an audio file accompanied by an image. Settling in beneath a pair of headphones, I was transported by the soundscapes to spaces unencumbered by my limited visual periphery.
Under (2020) by Blanc Sceol, the partnership of artists Stephen Shiell and Hannah White, shows a subaqueous photograph of pink flower petals spreading over a surface of water. A hydrophone recording taken in London’s Limehouse Basin Marina provides a creaky, watery background track over which fragments of words spoken by a woman skitter and jump. The fitful utterances interrupt the lulling rhythms of boats rocking in the water as if trying to jolt the dreamer awake. The listener feels both soothed and agitated, poised somewhere in the transitional moment that precedes waking. Under water, under sedation, and under a spell, the power to awaken slips out of reach as soft vocalizations form a lullaby that overtakes the wordless speech. Towards the end of the piece, the woman describes a sequence of things seen in a dream. “We went into this shop full of curiosities and crystals… There is lunch. There is a holiday... There is my studio.” Listening to the piece is like inhabiting someone else’s dream. There is an intimacy to the sound of the hydrophone; the recording captures what is heard underwater, while the sounds of the land are muted and even one’s own breathing stops. Within this quiet, the vocal elements intertwine with my own thoughts. When the recording ends, I feel as if I have come out of a deep, meditative state—that I have somehow resurfaced.
In contrast to this immersive atmosphere, artist Gabi Schaffner shifts the perspective from dreamer to observer in The Lion Dreams Of Hunting (2020). The image she provides shows Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Der heilige Hieronymus (1874), a painting featuring a napping Saint Jerome, projected onto a weathered statue of a lion. In the audio file, the clicking buttons of an old tape recorder punctuate cut-up lines of text spoken by a young woman, musings of what Saint Jerome (Hieronymus) and his beastly companion see in their dreams. “The lion dreams of hunting… Hieronymus. He does not dream of God, nor the angels. He dreams of being young again.” The words have the soothing quality of a bedtime story. Schaffner melds church bells, the crunch of footsteps in snow, the hum of an air conditioner, and the wailing of a musical saw into a soundtrack that starts and stops behind the steady voice. A dog pants, or is it the lion? The whir of the tape recorder’s rewinding and fast-forwarding sounds like a stalled-out car. “When both awaken, they’ll find the space around is a poorly lit staircase.” The murmurs and snaps of the tape recorder remind the listener of Schaffner’s process. Considered in the parlance of dreams, it yields a lucid quality to the aural trance she creates. A final snap and the sound shuts off. We are at the end of the tape.
The stand-out piece of the show comes from John Roach, who masterfully orchestrates sound effects recorded in the field and files captured from 1999 to 2007 on his Sony MZ-R700 minidisc walkman (the accompanying image is a photo of the acid-green device). You’re gonna be ready to burn it as soon as you tape it (2020), unfolds sequentially, much like a narrative, through a series of audio portals, each a repository of artifacts from the past. Oral slates provided by sound recordists to identify the effects they record are used here to mark the beginning of each chapter—“Big wooden door opening and closing” or later,“Another door, it’s smaller, opening.” In the first section, staccato strings create a bed over which bird songs and wind weave in and out. A voice laughingly calls, “That is not your swimming. ” In another section, a conservatory door hails the sound of an accordion lesson and the voice of a small child saying “hi, hello.” A timer beeps. Clocks chime. Time is passing, echoing through these chambers of memory. Roach does not focus on somnolent hallucinations for inspiration, but instead turns to his minidisc journal to sift through the remains of moments gone. His fascination with the temporality of sounds both preserved and transformed culminates in a structure reminiscent of cinema in both its division of scenes and its waking-dream quality. In the final section, the strings return, and the voice of a man says, “Just keep playing it and replaying it” as Roach gently fades us back into silence.