I was first introduced to the notion of recorded silences (or 'quiet spaces') through a friend, who at the time worked at the British Film Institute in London. He was receiving requests from someone to access all the recorded ‘minutes of silence’ available from the archives. These typically would be moments of great weight, respect, and heaviness; loaded with meaning and an often-unbearable sadness (a state funeral, or the yearly archives of remembrance day). However, these recordings more or less amounted to a complete emptiness in terms of recorded sound and mainly showed up the flaws in the recording machinery (hiss, dust, mains hum), in terms of sound, the vague shuffling of an awkward crowd, distant involuntary coughing, birds that did not partake in the notion of historic significance. At the centre of this, was an interesting thought – that ‘meaning’ could only be implied on recorded sound, and was not implicit or inherent in any of the recordings themselves. That did not stop the listener from attempting to provide that meaning, in fact it intensified the meaning being supplied by the listener, being starved of context in which to put these ‘dead’ sounds. The fact that the person collecting these sounds was looking to find the actual recordings, and that only the recordings themselves would suffice, also said a lot about the notion of Walter Benjamin's ‘aura’ being present in a recording. To re-contextualize these remembrance day silences outside of their noisy parentheses and in context of other silences was also a brilliant idea.
Much later, as I became involved in production audio, and began having to source these kinds of empty backgrounds and beds for the sound design elements in cut-scenes, cinematics and in-game background ambience, I found myself doing much of the same kinds of research for suitable, empty backgrounds upon which I could build up believable sound design. These backgrounds couldn’t of course be ‘empty’ or ‘silent’, they needed to have a ‘tone’ and an ‘aura’ of realism to them, something that the listener could relate to about an ambient space that made the scenes feel real. Traditional sound library research left a lot to be desired, so one Christmas weekend, around 2002, when the buildings in which I used to work in were largely empty; I started methodically recording the empty spaces that I was familiar with every day.
This collection is of roomtones, both interior and exterior (known as air tones), that I have augmented with various subtle tones and forensic details. This is in an attempt to nudge them slightly into a more narrative state, without detracting too much from the mood (or aura) of the locations.
This form of recording, and composing, has become an ongoing obsession; whenever I travel I find myself grabbing 3 – 5 minutes of whatever hotel room or space I find myself in. Every room has a different resonance, whether it is provided by a filtered exterior traffic, or proximity to air conditioning units within the guts of the building itself, but each room has different sounds at different times of the day. Different frequencies kick in at different times, often resonances occur that are not very pleasant, for example when two slightly out of phases AC units compete and create an unpleasant rhythmic effect. Every room also has a different way of filtering out sounds from neighboring rooms or spaces, or the materials used in construction have unique ways of conveying sounds occurring in other parts of the building.
Listening back to many of these recordings, it is clear they are still recordings of ‘something’, there is activity that just about be heard in nearly all of these recordings. What that barely perceptible activity is, I usually have no idea, and even though it could just be traffic, or construction, there is a human narrative element behind everything that we hear. And every listener's story is different. In the same way that those historical ‘minutes of silence’ represented a very significant moment, the muted, micro sounds, carry a strange human significance beyond the recording that we will never understand because it's context is always changing.