Third Workshop: Sounds

The third workshop in our series of four (following the group’s first visit to Nottingham Contemporary to see the Jack Goldstein and Anne Collier exhibitions and our session making Text Totems at Bilborough Community Centre last week) involved a bit of preparation the night before. Specifically, it involved rummaging through the ever-present pile of records found at car boot sales, markets and in charity shops for some that wouldn’t be missed, then sticking white paper labels onto them for a reason that will become clear below. (Note to fellow record collectors and vinyl obsessives – no records that weren’t both commonplace and in some way damaged as items to play were harmed in the making of any work that is illustrated below).

With these and a selection of collage materials that might offer some inspiration and raw material packed, it was time to head to the gallery and meet the gallery’s associate artist Jo Dacombe and the Write Here mentee Aimee Wilkinson for the short trip to Bilborough Library, where the Community Centre is based. Once we’d set up our table, we found the usual mix of familiar and new faces taking seats – with no fewer than three new people joining in, along with those who’ve attended both or one of the previous sessions. This tendency for the group’s membership to evolve between workshops suggests that our decision to focus on fairly self-contained exercises – offering a way into the material, without demanding prior knowledge, but leaving room for those coming every week to draw on their previous experiences – gives us a necessary degree of adaptability.

For this third session, we decided to draw on the impact made on many people during the initial visit by Jack Goldstein’s records, sound-works pressed onto coloured 7″ vinyl records and featuring natural sounds recorded as though for use on a film soundtrack: in Two Wrestling Cats we hear the sounds of cats play-fighting, while A Burning Forest presents an audio-image of flames raging through trees. For our own exercise, we thought that a good starting point might be to take a blank record and try to imagine what sounds it might contain (a trick used in Goldstein’s own The Planets of 1984, his final work to use records as a medium). These could be music, speech, or – as in Goldstein’s works – more generally evocative ambiences: a clock ticking, birds singing, a breeze in summer grass or the first footsteps taken in a pair of new shoes.

For some, the sounds that came to mind were immediate and vivid. One lady looked at the Hawaiian girl on an LP cover and immediately remembered The Girl From Ipanema and the look (and songs) of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s ‘road’ movies of the 1940s and 50s. These led to other associations, and the final piece – after many further swerves and diversions – was based on the nursery rhyme ring a ring of roses, a pocket full of posies… with a picture of yellow primroses on the record label, circled by the words. Like most of the things made in these workshops, the finished product was really the tip of a very large iceberg of songs, stories and narratives that had been related verbally while finding a way to the final image and text (and had the session been longer, I expect it would have changed again).

But where some alighted instantly on sounds that evoked such stories and associations and looked for the materials to represent them, others worked in reverse, looking through the gathered materials for images that suggested sound. This led to some surprisingly disparate results, with one lady exploring the sounds of water in its many forms – bringing together images of ice, waterfalls, liquid poured from a glass, still pools and raging rivers. Her finished record read ‘falling water’ on one side, ‘frozen water’ on the other, with many variations gathered on the sleeve: the kind of process that I expect Ian Hamilton Finlay might have followed in making his own works of the 1960s and 70s. 

One of the more surprising efforts is that seen above, which took its cue from an advert in a late 1970s Woman’s Realm magazine for a Doctor Who related event. On seeing the images of a Dalek and the Tardis the distinctive BBC Radiophonic Workshop sounds that accompanied them came to mind, and the course was set: having created a cover showing Tom Baker’s Doctor and his assistant in a desert landscape, pursued by various enemies, the labels were inscribed with a few survivals from earlier thoughts – Running River, Breaking Glass – before Exterminate! appeared alongside them and took things in a fresh direction. 

The simulated sound-world of music also proved inspiration for a ‘jazz’ themed record, in which an intricately cut-out 1950s band was teamed with models from clothes adverts (their poses adapted to look like dance moves) and found pieces of texts invoking the sound: ‘they used sticks’, ‘beat’, ‘dance’ and so on. Another found the image of an owl and began to build a list of words evoking its night-time sound, and birds would soon prove a popular set of sounds to evoke: one group collaborated near the session’s close to make a whole series of records invoking the songs of different birds and a more general summer atmosphere.

The potency of sound as a cue suggested visually became the subject of one man’s piece, in which the LP sleeve he’d chanced to look at first, with gradations of orange, red and yellow suggesting a Biblical landscape, brought to mind the Cairo he’d experienced during the war. Desert images were gathered and added to his record, alongside a list of sounds evoking the deserts: ‘a hot dry wind’, and so on. Only a few words appeared on the finished record, but split between the two sides – one showing footprints on a circle of sand, the other green hills under a blue sky – they were wonderfully evocative: ‘plot a route’, ‘cross waves of sand’ and ‘winds on the way’.

Other approaches played with contrasts: one of today’s newcomers began with the hiss of an iron letting off steam, the domestic sounds of a toaster, washing machine, vacuum cleaner and kettle, but then decided to contrast these with a brook, explaining her choice by the way she would think about calming sounds like that when immersed in the housework herself as a younger woman. A greyhound bus on another record sleeve brought to mind holidays and travel – some journeys taken and remembered, but others existing only as the possibilities strongly suggested by that waiting bus, as though stepping aboard it could take you anywhere.  

A list became the basis for a familiar Nottingham figure to make his debut in these sessions: after thinking of a sleeping squirrel, the cries of gulls, the sound of rainfall in a garden and songs like I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas and When I’m Calling You  the idea of the forest as a totality of sounds began to take shape, and the Robin Hood imagined by Walt Disney in the early 1970s as a fox was chosen to represent it on one of the records (the yellow flowers seen elsewhere were on the other side). What fascinated me about much of the work done was how varied the things evoked by sound were and how unexpected some of the images chosen to represent sound could be.

Certainly, when placing one lady’s beautifully simple robin’s ‘tweet’ alongside a photocopy of Jack Goldstein’s A German Shepherd (featuring sounds made by his own dog – also the star of his film Shane in the exhibition) the links between the work done by our group and the material in the galleries became clear, even if it remains slightly oblique. And while it might seem that not much writing was done, these single words and small clusters of phrases emerged from much larger bodies of material, most of it expressed verbally rather than on paper. Even those who did make lists and add other written material to their pieces were making very sparse notes, merely hinting at the richness of what had been said.

For this reason, the process was similar to that discussed last week: much ground covered but usually in conversation, where the real writing seemed to be taking place. This time, everything from stories about Cliff Richard (based on a still from his Birmingham-set film Take Me Higher, as seen in the pages of a 1973 Photoplay film magazine) to accounts of growing up in London’s East End (within the sound of Bow Bells, no less), wartime experiences in Egypt, threats to part-time jobs arising from current cuts and cinema-going in Nottingham during the 1940s and 50s all made appearances, among many other topics.

It’ll be interesting to see how responses to the exhibitions have changed since the first visit when the group return to the galleries next week, and for some – those who have joined us in Bilborough for the last two sessions – it will be their first opportunity to see the works they’ve been responding to. Now what remains is to think of an exercise for that last session that will allow time for another viewing of the shows and somehow tie everything we’ve been doing together. Whether anything quite so neat is likely (or even desirable) is an open question, but it would be good to relate the Text Totems and Sound-based pieces of these last two weeks to the works that will be seen in the galleries during our final couple of hours together.


NOTE: Aimee Wilkinson’s own account of the first two sessions is now on her blog.


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