Sound Materials Moving


My attraction to the islands’ littoral zones came from my own explorations as well as discussions with islanders, who were generous enough to share with me descriptions of sounds they found particularly compelling along with directions on how to find these sounds. These discussions revealed some of the ways that sound matters for the Madelinots I talked with, including, for instance, interpreting seasonal changes through alterations in the “voices” of the wind and ocean, and a blending of external and internal sound in auditory experience, attributed to the ubiquity of sounds of the elements. One artist from the islands described to me a cave, only accessible by water, that she had discovered in the 1990s and that had inspired the conceptualization of a sonic art project based on the four elements – earth, wind, fire, water. She noted, however, that that particular cave has since collapsed, due to erosion. 

Recording in the littoral zone. Fatima, Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec. Photo: Nigel Quinn.

Through these conversations I learned about different ways of listening on the islands and discovered hidden features of the islands’ beaches and cliffs, where water, wind, rocks, and sand (among other things) combine and pull each other apart in provocative ways. I recorded these material processes and, in so doing, myself and the recording device became part of the processes. The mobility of the recording device, both in terms of its portability and in terms of the transduction of sound into energy and information that can easily be transferred through a technological system, including computers, tablets, phones, the internet, portable radios, etc., made these sounds hypermobile. Sound recording and this attendant hypermobility are in themselves erosive, and in ways that are more complicated than questions of fidelity between “original” and “copy.” As sonic geographers Michael Gallagher and Jonathan Prior’s assert, “audio recording inevitably deconstructs and reconstructs sound in particular ways, altering it in the service of certain aesthetic, social, cultural and economic purposes” (Gallagher and Prior 2014: 275). Such alterations and movements of sound raise ethical questions in terms of the extent and the ways in which certain sounds are processed and transformed, who is working with those sounds, who is listening, and how the relationships between these things unfold (McCartney 2016; Westerkamp 2002; Yoganathan 2017). The complexity and sensitivity of issues related to erosion both drew me to it and made me weary of how to deal with it. It became part of the work in ways that are evocative, but towards which I remain ambivalent.


One of the clearest articulations of the erosive aspect of the movements of sound can be found in the process of granular synthesis, which I used extensively in the audio composition. Granular synthesis involves breaking a sound into tiny temporal “grains” so that these fragments of sound can be redistributed in various ways to transform the original sound and produce new timbral possibilities. The nomenclature of granular synthesis – centered around the “grain” and its movement – provides obvious analogies to the erosive processes on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, as sandstone cliffs are broken down into grains of sand that are subsequently redistributed around the islands, forming continually shifting beaches and dunes. However, rather than thinking of this as a kind of realism premised on mimicking the natural world, granular synthesis is better thought of as a particular performance of erosion. This resonates with the way Gallagher and Prior explore phonography through the conceptual filter of performance, noting its potential for the “more-than-representational” and the way it involves an “ensemble cast” of “human and more-than-human actors: beings and objects vibrating in the world, air, microphones, cables, recording devices and media, gain controls, level meters, headphones, ears, eyes and hands” (Gallagher and Prior 2014: 277). The sonic performance of erosion through granular synthesis productively highlights the erosive aspect of sound-processing. Analogical terminology involving grains and particles, fragmentation and distribution help in making the connection. But what this particular performance of erosion ultimately leads to is a recognition that working with sound involves multiple processes of it coming apart and holding together as it moves through energies (acoustic, electrical), signals (analog, digital), devices (recorder, laptop, tablet, mp3 player, portable radio), file formats (wav, aiff, mp3), and various data transformations (fx processing, editing, etc.). Granular synthesis is a particular performance of sonic erosion that happens among many others. These processes “erode together.” In the case of Compositional Routes, the way that granular synthesis combines with microFM transmission is especially relevant for this eroding together. 

Mobile sound production for Compositional Routes. Fatima, Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec. Photo: Nigel Quinn.