Rose Ferraby & Rob St. John ~ Soundmarks

Soundmarks is an immersive multi-media project that exemplifies the name and nature of our site: a closer listen.  The project includes a sound work in two forms, an art trail, a podcast, a book, a blog, a short film and an installation.  Thanks to the generosity of the artists involved, one need not travel to Aldborough Roman Town in North Yorkshire to experience the excursion, although it’s highly recommended to whomever might be in the area.  The residents of the town have been well-served, as have their distant ancestors.  A huge thanks must also go to Arts Council England for the grant that made such research possible.

Once upon a time, another town was thriving below this one, the Roman Isurium Brigantum, now accessible only through archeology.  Dr. Rose Ferraby began to ask questions of how this old town might be brought to life ~ more specifically, how it might be heard ~ which is where field recordist, or in this case sound archeologist Rob St. John comes in.  (Faithful readers may remember St. John from prior works Water of Life and Concrete Antenna.)  In the podcast, one can hear the fascination of each artist with the work of the other.  St. John demonstrates equipment such as binaural mics, contact mics and hydrophones, while Ferraby excavates, explains and explores.  In the short film and book, one can also view Ferraby’s artwork, an impressionistic translation of/reaction to their encounters.

Don’t eat that ice cream cone, Rob! (Credit: Mario Cruzado, who also produced the film)

It’s one thing to see an old world as it is being recovered: abraded rocks, crumbling walls, implements left behind.  It’s another to recreate it.  Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks is perhaps the seminal work on the subject, so it’s an honor to see his quote on the Soundmarks project.  One must use a great amount of imagination, but there are also creative ways to conjure the sounds of the past.  Ferraby and St. John adopt a number of sonic approaches.  The most immediate (and easiest) of these is to record current sources, including the resonant church bells that were themselves the subject of a recent complaint.  Listening to the bells, one can’t imagine them being silenced, especially given the nature of more intrusive sounds, such as traffic and construction.  Late in the set, one tries to concentrate on the beautiful birds while planes pass in the distance.

The next layer of presentation involves the excavation itself: the sounds of digging, sifting, and (light) hammering, a sort of meta-approach that invites the listener to participate in the process, underlining the fact that this soundscape is one of reclamation and recreation.  It’s amusing to note that Ferraby slips into tempo-based percussion, a possible subconscious reaction to being recorded.  St. John’s musical additions provide a lugubrious mud that connects the parts of the path.


Another level down, the artists record “the world hidden beneath our feet.”  Here is the old wall, being scrapped; here is the sound of the river below the surface.  We cannot capture the actual sounds of the past, but we can recreate what the residents of Isurium Brigantum might have heard.  Some of these birds are likely the descendants of their birds; and when the rain falls on the same flora, a sonic bridge connects present to past.  Those who walk the audio path, pausing at eight highlighted locations, may experience a sense of wonder: this was here all along?

If one were to map the project on a vertical axis, one would begin with the subterranean level of the old Roman town, continue with the current community of Aldborough and add one final level: poetry and visual art.  The softcover and installation do more than reflect and interpret: they enhance.  Following Macfarlane, Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson, these artists realize that parable can offer even more than narrative.  The visual art ~ including the placement of the words on the page ~ creates a new form of invitation.  Those who tilt toward the mysterious might start with the book; those who prefer didactic explanation might begin with the podcast.  This being said, the most powerful part of the project remains the sound.  To play the soundscape as a single piece is to open the imagination to places unheard:  the aural treasures that escape our everyday attention.  (Richard Allen)

Website (includes full audio download, site map, ordering details and much more!)

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