Aural Transposition, Psychogeography and the Ephemeral World

Katt Hernandez

The Transposition of Memory onto Place


Perhaps it’s that you can’t go back in time, but you can return to the scenes of a love, of a crime, of happiness, and of a fatal decision; the places are what remain, are what you can possess, are what is immortal. They become the tangible landscape of memory, the places that made you, and in some way you too become them. They are what you can possess and in the end what possesses you. - from Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost. [1]

As you record a place, it records you. Your memory leaves a talisman, and when you return there, it's waiting for you, if you listen.


August Strindberg wrote one of only a few psychogeographical books about Stockholm: Ensam (Alone). Strindberg is one of Sweden's "worker movement" writers. At the end of his life he was very isolated, having been a pretty terrible husband to his several wives, and lived as an ex-pat for many years because he was persecuted for his writings. This work gave the memories of his life to the streets and parks he took three walks through in rotation. [2] The walks he took had different characters. One walk he dubbed "doloroso"; it wended past the apartments of all his former wives. Another walk followed, through the bucolic park on Djurgården, seeking solace in nature. Finally there is the walk down Strandvägen, a grand boulevard along the water. As he came to be more and more alone, he made what contact he could with people in silent passing, inwardly telling stories he imagined about them. On the momentous day when he really connects with another human being, it is a ghost of present past – a woman, begging, who looks into the face of the main character, who is Strindberg, and instantly recognizes the cold water flat youth of abject poverty he grew up in, in a moment of commonality. Even then, Sweden was in the beginning throes of modernization, which would come to wipe out the kind of environment Strindberg and the woman he meets in this scene of Ensam both knew in their youth with almost stunning force. The totality with which Sweden modernized is a fantastic human accomplishment in most respects. But it is complicated as well, in that there is a lost past.

A century later, I was part of a group that took a walk with present-day psychogeographer Magnus Haglund, where we followed the same walk. [3] Passing an apartment on a side-street near Strandvägen where Strindberg lived briefly in his youth, we found people standing on the otherwise deserted street, trying to enter the very same building, at which point we told them where they were. Walking down Strandvägen, we found the spectral twin to a woman Strindberg passed each day. Ghost upon phantom, memory upon transposition.

It is important to return to the source of this pursuit; to the minute, everyday sounds that make up some essence of a given place, or place in time. Nguyn Thanh Thuy discusses memories of lost sounds, and describes what one heard in Hanoi in the days before motorbikes came:


You would hear the wind in the leaves of the trees, the noise of the cicadas, the ghost stories told by the older boys, and sometimes grasshoppers jumping in the grass around the pond as well. During this time I had some secret corners out in Mai Dch where I could be alone … We visited my uncle’s house many times in this period. Làm Xáo is a local expression in Bc Ninh for the practice of working the raw rice, and, traditionally, this was part of the work you would do in my uncle’s family. This was considered women’s work, as an extra task alongside the main work on one’s own rice field. When I was a child and would come to the village in the summer, the sound of the huge mortars you use for Làm Xáo was a very distinct part of the soundscape. There are two main parts of the process: first the crushing of the raw rice with the mortar, and then the sorting, which creates a sizzling sound.


Thuy goes on to say that these sorts of sounds have disappeared with modern housing and industrial farming. [4]

Like Feaster's ghost voices coaxed from traces, or Wishart's landscapes built from voices, the đan tranh that Thuy plays in both traditional and experimental contexts pulls a phantom-scape out of the sonosphere, possessed both by memory traces and their still-present life.


In sound, we can return to places that have transformed, still finding departed times and imaginary futures, resurrected from the detritus of their absence. Thuy speaks in detail about the time before motorbikes, but even if the memory sleeps unarticulated, it lives in anyone who was there. Strindberg’s walks are the psychogeographical form of return. Sound and Psychogeography, melded together, transpose themselves onto cityscapes at every moment. We can re-imagine place through practice in music and sound, through this continuum from the most intimate hermitage of daily practice on an acoustic instrument to more public or performative forms of aural transposition using an array of acoustic, mechanical and electronic technologies, reflecting on the re-understanding and re-creation of remembered and imagined place.


The physical act of playing the objects and entities I transpose becomes an embodied memory; a bit of a place I carry in my hands, and on into the next places I play my violin, transmuting into new ways to play and listen, and hiding secret stories of place in my instrument. To watch Lisa Gerholm and Bruno Anderssen take up this practice in the Deuterium works we made from transposing field recordings was to find those reimagined places made even more solid for a fleeting moment. In finally sharing this psychogeographical way of listening and playing, I found those places reflected back in subtly convincing illumination.


The act of using spatialization techniques to layer some places onto another is to cast off all the material demands of architecture, and leave only the structures of the imagined place intact; the most quiet memories or imagined gatherings meeting invisibly in the newly created ephemeral space. Within that practice comes the juxtaposition of different places to affect transposition, just as we do in the day-to-day act of walking through those sites where something momentous, beautiful or secret happened once, last week, or long ago. Object transpositions, with electromagnetic devices, contact microphones or extended speaker techniques, reverse object and space and creates soundscapes out of minute details; layering abstracted imaginary places back onto sites, halls or rooms. Field recording itself is a basic form of transposition, stripping away the editorial propensities of the naked ear, and illuminating all the things we thought we never heard, but which are suddenly familiar.


All the transposition practices described here layer imaginary places upon real ones, and back onto remembered ones, through music and sound, transmuting them into forms of aural psychogeography. They are a set of ways to map and remap the city, layering the ghost of memories and imagined events onto the ways we take in daily traversals; over what we see, and what we do not, on the streets we cross. The stories we see in our private cities, layered upon the physical, shared boulevards, cross at points where we rarely meet. But these practices create music and sound work about just those secret meeting points. Like the transposition of memory onto place, these sonic acts of transposition are metaphors to that ever-building, sleeping map within each of us. They leave no lasting structures. They walk with no trace, which in turn makes them gently immutable. Sound is ephemeral, so we can build things with its materials that require neither brick, nor mortar, nor title to land. Its longevity lies in its impermanence. It is in the ephemerality of these pursuits that remembered, disappearing and imagined places endure.


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1950s mural at Konditori Kungstornet, dismantled when the konditori closed. Photo: Katt Hernandez, 2012.

Entrance to the Skandia theater before its demolition.Photo: Katt Hernandez, 2017.

Bredäng at sunset in spring. Photo: Katt Hernandez, 2014.

Bredäng in the afternoon in winter. Photo: Katt Hernandez, 2014.

Stockholm from Münchenbryggeriet. Photo: Katt Hernandez, 2011.