Sonic Erosion and Radio Bodies


In addition to the fragmentation and redistribution of grains of sound via digital signal processing, the coming together and breaking apart of sound also operates in a highlighted fashion through microFM transmission and the affordances of portable radios. The field recordings that have been composed and processed through granular synthesis are transmitted to multiple radio receivers on the move, distributing the sound over a continually shifting acoustic territory. The signal is sporadically overpowered by white noise, creating an audible sense of erosion. This plays on the social and cultural significance of both radio and the ocean for islanders, whose local radio station CFIM 92.7 has as its tagline “le son de la mer” – “the sound of the sea.” It also connects to ideas on radio from artists and theorists such as Anna Friz (2011) and Ellen Waterman (2007), who emphasize the embodied, collaborative, and material processes that are involved in radio art practice. Friz describes “bodies resonating in wireless space, acting in temporary ensemble with other kinds of bodies human and non-human” (Friz 2011: 73).


Compositional Routes follows up on this notion by creating a piece that transmits the sounds of a body of water (the Gulf of the St. Laurence) through the airwaves while also creating a sonic space that examines notions of collective responsibility through the moving bodies of soundwalk participants carrying portable radios. 


Two store-bought transmitters (intended to connect mp3 players to car radio systems) are used to send two channels of sound to the eight radios carried by participants – four radios are tuned to each channel. The limited power of the transmitters creates a sort of amorphous zone of reception, recalling – at a vastly different timescale – the constantly shifting contours of the islands through processes of erosion and redistribution of sand. As participants, acting as roaming sound sources, move through the forest, they continuously modulate the sonic space in relation to each other and in relation to their proximity to the microFM transmitters; at the edge of the invisible zone of reception the signal becomes too weak and dissipates into white noise. The hyper-local phenomenon of microFM opens up onto a broader vista in the soup of noise, which potentially has more in common with the ocean than the sounds of water that were recorded and sent over the airwaves. The way participants’ movements contribute to the work, navigating through the continually moving zone of reception, connects with Heather Contant’s discussion of the significance of mobility for the radio practice of Tetsuo Kogawa, where different forms of mobility bring new attention to the airwaves through what Constant refers to as “kinetic interactions with the material conditions of radio” (Contant 2018: n.p.). In Compositional Routes, participants’ mobility creates a collective space for radio sound and radio signal. Like the mobility of eroded grains of sand that is involved simultaneously in the breaking apart of the islands’ sandstone cliffs and in joining the islands together through the formation of continuously changing dunes and beaches, the mobility of participants plays particularly on the blurriness and changeability of boundaries invoked by “eroding together.”

Samuel Thulin – Compositional Routes of the Magdalen Islands (2016). Fatima, Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec. Photo: Nigel Quinn.

It is not only the interactions between participants, radio signals, and transmitted audio that are key to this sonic erosion. It is also the way the sound comes materially into contact with the environment on the walk, further questioning the stability of boundaries. Portable radios tend to lack bass and emphasize mid-range frequencies. Various radio models with differing audio frequency responses were used, but in all cases this absence of bass was a characteristic. Not basing the work on “transparency” of sound reproduction means that the radios themselves come to the fore. That is to say, we are not just listening to the composition of field-recordings being transmitted, we are also listening to the radios – the plastic resonating bodies of the sound reproduction devices. This connects with artist and researcher Otso Lähdeoja’s call for greater attention to be paid to the material relations through which sounds are reproduced and his critique of the way the assumed high-fidelity of loudspeakers allows sound “to be considered as an autonomous object, independent from the medium of diffusion” (Lähdeoja 2018: 61). The limited frequency response of the radios also links Compositional Routes to the work of other academics and artists who have sought to complement the recurrent focus on the affective and cultural significance of bass frequencies and high volumes with analysis of other frequency ranges (Madden 2013), especially more trebly sounds, and lower amplitudes (Chapman and Wilson 2011; Marshall 2014). In the case of Compositional Routes, the characteristic sound of the radios becomes central to how the work brings composition and the surrounding environment into contact through an erosive process of sonic dispersal and interpenetration. The low volume and restricted frequency range does not overpower the environmental sounds encountered on the route – including birds, insects, squirrels, and branches breaking underfoot. Instead, it positions the radios as particular, contingent sound sources among many, with all of these sounds breaking up and coming together in specific ways.


At any moment in such a work, it is important to ask how and why this particular sound comes into contact with these particular surroundings in the way that it does – to ask after this instance of eroding together. I provide one short example of the significance of the materiality of radio sound sources in relation to the materiality of the path through the forest. At the beginning of the walk, processed ocean sounds are audible through the radios, sounding midway between radio static and waves rolling on the beach. These sounds lack the bass frequency force that is often associated with the sea meeting the shore, and they are hardly louder in volume than the footsteps of participants through the forest. Against this sound, a low frequency drone gradually grows in volume, seeming to suffuse the sonic space. The ubiquity and low frequency of the sound is made all the more remarkable by the contrast with the tinny sound of the radio bodies. This low frequency drone is not coming from the radios – they would be unable to reproduce it – but instead is emanating from a remote water treatment facility located near the trail. The digitally processed sounds of the ocean transmitted through portable radio speakers meet the sound of the physical processing of waste water. 

Recording of 22 June 2016 performance of Compositional Routes of the Magdalen Islands.

This uneasy juxtaposition of sound sources draws on the different procedures and operations effected through different materialities of water in relation to human activity and ecological sustainability. This part of the route is closest to the shore, which is visible in the distance, also subtly hinting that in the future erosion might necessitate the re-location of these aerating ponds (there are already nearby placards cautioning people to beware of the erosion in the area). There is no clear message transmitted through this encounter, but there is a meeting of sonic, environmental, social, cultural, and technological materialities in a way that is difficult to parse out – an erosive mattering of and through sound.

Sign indicating erosion: “Fin du Sentier – Erosion” (Trans. “End of Trail – Erosion”). Fatima, Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec.