Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The strange stories of sounds — Kinokophone at MadLab

Last Thursday I spent the evening in the Northern Quarter immersed in strange sounds and unusual storytelling. 'Kinokologue 1: Sound spore', a temporary sound art installation in the exhibition space at MadLab, was the culmination of a Cornerhouse/Paul Hamlyn Foundation Micro Commission, followed by Kinokophonography upstairs, a regular listening event which showcases sounds sent in from all over the world.

'Kinokologue 1: Sound Spores' was an interactive collection of sound specimens arranged as 'spores' embedded in different objects. Spores were tucked in drawers and filed neatly in a cabinet ready to be opened, or presented as threaded images, interpreted by embroidery artist Akiko Yanagimoto, framed in glass as if in a collaged scene. At the same time as vintage objects were reused and reinvented as listening posts, everyday sounds plucked from their context took on a new meaning as part of a growing sound archive. Listeners were invited to borrow headphones, wander round and get ready to listen closely, then help classify sounds by suggesting categories or turning dials to bring sounds together into compositions and writing down instructions based on successful combinations for future visitors. Although samples included recognisable sounds and even those we might conventionally call music — the meandering of a violin, piercing whistles — the most exciting sounds to explore were those that did not have an obvious source. Burbling water and crunching leaves are atmospheric, but more elusive sounds such as faint 'put-putting' or vaguely familiar scraping are the most interesting as, rather than placing you directly in a scene in your head, they make you listen again and again to try to remember back to the situation in which you've heard them before (if at all).

The origins of the word 'kinokophone' are drawn from both cinema ('kino') and sound ('phone'), and it's easy to build a mental story around each spore. Some sounds stand on their own
— such as the simple, repeated onomatopoeia of the Japanese word 'nyokinyoki', but the recordings presented on the night were not heard in isolation. Contributors either introduced their recording in person or sent a description and context for their sounds, whether a reminiscence about a visit to the dentist that brought about a recording of a dentist's drill and suction — "my pain is your listening pleasure", an anecdote about the conditions in which the recording was taken — conjuring up the exposed, windswept discomfort of hanging around on the side of the mountain to record a pile of rocks, or more technical descriptions about how the sound was achieved — as in 'Growth of reverb', a recording taking advantage of the effects of footsteps on the acoustics of a stairwell at the University of Manchester, a place that was well known to some of the audience. Even those recordings that feature the presence of people are disorientating once stripped of their context: you wouldn't have guessed the setting for a conversation between young people unless told it took place at a goth festival in Whitby.

Sitting in a room of neatly arranged rows of chairs listening to recordings might seem like a strange concept for an evening, but the host described it as a way to "find out about the world by listening to what's around". Whilst my expectations of what an ice berg in Australia would sound like (sparse, barren, windswept) were confounded (it actually sounded bubbling, watery and alive), the recording of a busy, noisy, early morning in Mombasa sounded as if it could have been taken from any urban dwelling or office block with the window open on a summer's day. Recordings such as the Amazon rainforest, taken from the British Library, with its variety of sounds and array of natural wonders (including a bird whose recurring call descended a scale in a way that was almost comical and another bird whose insistent brilling made you wonder if it was the inspiration for the telephone's ring), and an amazingly evocative amplification of tree roots creaking in the wind like groaning wooden furniture, achieved in Lithuania using contact mikes, were beautifully observed. However, my favourite recording was of a sound so ordinary you would not normally think to stop to listen to it. A recording of the shaking of a tin roof on the Manchester University students' union, caused to move by the reverberations of the bass and drums-dominated practise session of a heavy metal band, couldn't help but make me smile.

Find out more about the work of the Kinokophone collective at www.kinokophone.com.

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