Breath, Birds, and Cigarettes – Composing a Sonic Reality



00.05.39: Lowering the bed. Preparing a sliding surface 

00.05.53: Body moving to wheel chair. Attaching the armrests

00.06.30: Rolling to the kitchen

00.06.44: Finding the tin-foil-covered lunch plate in the refrigerator


More than once Alice tells the story of how she used to work at the nearby gas station. Dressed in a miniskirt, she would pump gasoline for customers. “You should have seen the faces of the men, when they saw it was a girl. They would rush out of the car and whistle around me. `Oh, let me do it, let me do it,’ the men would say. And I would die laughing... So, I've never been called anything else than `The One with The Miniskirt,’” Alice recalls from her bed.


During the editing of the audio piece, it was tempting to include biographic information such as this. However, giving detailed insight into Alice’s life story or creating a narrative-driven piece was not the intention. The intention was to invite the listener into Alice’s current life situation and add auditory material to the empirical findings of Rosenlund Lau. That is why I included parts of the conversation with the caregiver that convey aspects of Alice's social life, her relationship to her children, and her difficulties taking her daily dose of medicine.


While a written text states an argument explicitly, in an audio piece, any argumentation is mostly inherent. I aim to explore means of communicating with the listener through sensory perception rather than explanation, leaving room for open endings. In so doing, I am relying on the idea that “the story itself becomes a way of knowing and knowledge resides in the details” (Makagon and Neumann 2008: 14). Yet, telling a story of something that sounds quite uneventful can be challenging. A certain sense of richness reveals itself when one pays attention to pauses, to silences and subtle actions. But how long do we need to listen to the pauses to apprehend this richness in the most meaningful way? To create an audio piece is to create a composition. It calls upon an active, aural engagement for both the creator and listener. Simply offering recordings as they have been captured in real time carries the risk that the listener’s attention will be lost. “Instead, the realism of a soundscape stems from a willingness to enter into a sonic sphere of representation, a construction of a scene that beckons toward real voices and real sounds, but it is also a kind of imaginary space and time that exists in its own right” (Makagon and Neumann 2008: 29). In that sense, an audio piece is a creative treatment of actuality. The selection of different sound clips and the decisions made regarding their ordering and layering creates a composition that comes to represent a sonic reality.


In the following I briefly reflect on some of the editorial choices I made during the production of “Fading Quietly.” As mentioned above, I sought to convey certain information that arose in the interaction between Alice and her caregiver. As a result, this scene is proportional greater in the piece. The scene takes up nearly half of the audio piece, while the actual visit only took up a minor part of Alice’s day.


Leaving out the chit-chat between Alice and me, I tried to create a sense of Alice being alone in her own space, hoping to open up this intimate space to the listener. Sometimes sonic traces reveal another body in the room. Remarks such as “What the heck was it that I wanted to do?” or “Now that I have coffee and fags, I can cope a little longer” hang in the air, perhaps addressing that other person, herself, or, now, the listener.

Alice told me more than once that she likes to watch animal programs. This is how she spends most of her waking hours. The most dramatic volume peak in the audio piece is probably when the loud television sounds from a National Geographic show excite her two birds. A cacophony explodes in the living room as the parakeets’ noises drown out the noises of wild savanna life. “Bugger,” says Alice, sitting quietly in bed, eating a cream bun. In that moment the soundscape vibrates with an intensity that is not reflected in the visual scenery.


Shortly thereafter, she moves to her wheel chair. The sounds in this sequence are possibly the most difficult to recognize. Yet, they convey a sonic texture: the bed lowering, the rattling of the piece of plastic that helps Alice slide her body, her groans, the armrests that she attaches to the chair, the wheels rolling across the worn parquet floor. The listener does not know that Alice was once known as “The One with the Miniskirt,” in stark contrast to her current appearance. But the laboriousness and vulnerability of this simple act of picking up lunch from the refrigerator tells a story on its own.


While editing I found myself searching for the most intense moments of silence. It made me ask myself: What is silence? Working with the audio material, I became acutely aware that silence is not the absence of sound. Amanda Cachia’s perspective on silence as “a space of richness rather than a void or vacuum where nothing happens” resonates here (Cachia 2015). What I considered silent recordings indeed convey their own sonic density: Bird wings chopping through the air, wheezing breaths, sighs, the steady ticking of a clock, nails scratching the skin or in a stain on the bedside table. The home and life of Alice might seem quiet, but they are rich with sound.


The commode chair in Alice’s old bedroom. Photo by Nanna Hauge Kristensen (copyright)