Physical formats have seen a great deal of attrition in recent years, but the Unfathomless label has remained consistent. Their CDs are released in pairs, sent into the world like animals leaving the ark. Their high quality recordings, sonic diversity and unified design make them a standout in the field. This season’s releases only underline our high regard.
Picture now the lonely field recordist, walking a path by North Dublin’s Royal Canal, armed only with handheld devices, a sense of curiosity and a desire to capture the breadth of his sonic environment. But perhaps Fergus Kelly is not so lonely; after all, he meets many people along his way, who work their way into the recording. They are as much of the sonic environment as he. Yet while Local Knowledge‘s source material may be field recording, its form is soundscape ~ a meticulous collage that welds rain and wind to trestle and horn. The tone is slightly foreboding thanks to occasional drones and sudden, unnatural stops (such as interrupted precipitation). Yet an approachable warmth is also visited upon the set, thanks to the announcement of a nearby engineer and the cries of children at play.
What then do Dublin locals know? It depends on who you ask. Kelly identifies fourteen varieties of local bird, folding as many as possible into his recording. It rains, and it rains, and it rains. Traffic passes nearby and overhead. The sound of industry intrudes. Local knowledge may be this: that the area is a crossroads between nature and commerce, wildlife and humanity, the memory of landscape and the illusion of progress. And to Kelly, it’s home. The artist echoes the nature of our site by encouraging “focused listening”, but our listening is different from his. We’re listening through a second layer of interpretation: not just the birdsong, but the consistent circling back to birdsong, reflecting a desire to hear more of the same; not just the local populace, but the looping of their yells until they morph into sonic pollution (part 4). The recording also challenges us to define our own values. Are the fireworks in part 5 a lovely celebration of community, a terrifying disruption to the birds, or both? Do they interrupt our listening reverie? When the sirens sound, one cannot help but think of a celebration gone awry. Yet, this is what it means to be part of a shared community. We desire to escape the roughness of humanity and lose ourselves in the comfort of nature. Then we remember that nature can also be cruel, and we yearn for the comfort of our friends.
Kelly also suggests that his area may be pushing into the red of sonic overload. When piercing tones overwhelm the sound of water in part 6, one imagines a child with sensory sensitivity cupping his hands over his ears and curling into a ball. Have we already allowed too much? Have we pushed the crayons so hard into the paper that we’ve ripped the page? Does our home no longer sound like our home? These are the sort of questions that a field recordist may answer, if only we might take the time to listen to what they have discovered through their own listening. “Are you a news person?”, Kelly is asked at the end of part 7, followed by resonant bells, implying a holy awakening. (Richard Allen)