Bogong residency 4: Vibe
The word “vibe” accounts for much more than a decorous English language would like it to. The Australian predilection for the term, as canonised through The Castle and its fighting of court cases based on the “vibe” of the constitution, has a wonderful casualness, that signifies an implicit reception, rather than explicit inquiry, of a diffuse and tacit knowledge through its interface with one’s body. It is a tuning-inward rather than a tuning-in, a communication through the self, absorbed and processed through non-semantic means.
To undertake a residency like this invites a certain sensitivity for, and appreciation of place. This is expressed most outwardly through community engagement activities radio interviews or artist talks, saying hi to the locals. As an inward contemplation, the engagement of place and self is a complex and rich flux of embodied knowledge and mutual comprehension, that as I suggest in this post, is best understood as the vibe.
To consider the comprehension of place as the vibe means that it can be understood loosely as having similar characteristics with the vibratory nature of sound. “It is the vibratory essence that puts the world of sound in motion and reminds us, as individuals, that we are alive, sentient, and experiencing.” (pp. 136–7)
Brandon LaBelle, in his beautiful book “Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life” (2010) traces the trajectories of sound in a variety of spaces: under the ground, on the street, in the home, over the air, as sites of auditory knowledge. Through this framework of audition, he traces the vibration through the skin and the womb, in the car, in the footstep, in the wind. For LaBelle, the vibration is a “sensual elaboration… affirming the body as a sensing whole.” (p. 161) This sensual ambiguity, somewhere between the intimacy of touch and the mutuality of sound, has been described as “touch at a distance,” yet it is more profound than a simple physical encounter. Some vibes have an intense, unforgettable resonation that reconfigures the relationship between the self and the world. The vibe is “a movement that comes forward, and in doing so directs itself toward me, as if always there and to which I am always being called.” (p. 133)
This isn’t to suggest that the vibe is restricted to one’s own body alone. “Sound might be heard to say, This is our moment.… This is our moment is also immediately, This is our place.… This is our place is also potentially, This is our community.… Sound is promiscuous.… Sound explicitly brings bodies together.” (pp. xvii, xxiv) Mutual vibration is not only pleasurable but is a site of learning, of articulating a vocabulary of sensation, like “when babies discover the ability to hum or blow against their pursed lips, causing bubbles to fall across their cheeks, and parents to reciprocate, rubbing noses and vibrating together — brrrrrrrrrrr … brrrrrrrrrrrr …” (p. 135) The vibe traverses bodily lines, our common reception of which develops magnitude through interconnection.
Field recording as a practice requires a receptiveness to the vibe of a place. I don’t doubt for a moment that every recordist can pick up on that. But so often, the vibe isn’t carried across to the listener, abstracted from all the signifiers of place that the recordist was exposed to. The reality is that the vibe rarely transmits along that simple trajectory. There are so many more mediating factors at play, so much of that vibe drained away by the nature of contemporary field recording as an acousmatic medium in close association with imperious sound art aesthetics, touristic exoticism and, arguably, ineffectual environmental activism. The vibe that I get from many of these works is that of disappointment and unfulfilment — I’d like to know what the vibe of such a place is like, but I’m just hearing sounds that you think are interesting in the classic, timbral sense. I don’t feel like I’m “being in the being” of the place itself, as Heidegger might have said.
There aren’t many field recording-based works that I feel articulate the vibe with a succinct understanding of these aesthetic challenges, such to employ or circumvent them in a fresh way. The saccharine miasma of the casino in Adrian Rew’s Slot Machine Music (2011) is one of them. Christopher DeLaurenti’s recordings of protest demonstrations, self-described “combative audio,” are another. Beyond these two, little else really connects sound with place with any vibratory coherence for me. This is a real bummer.
Oddly enough, this leads me to a return to music (like, normal music, y’know?) as a transmissive agent of the vibe of a place. This is in part because our cognition of music as sociocultural demarcation (our appreciation of certain genres over others, for example) is an integral part of how we formulate communities, place, and so on, and musicians have the understanding and tools to work with these at times rigid aesthetic territories to communicate a vibe that transcends them. Most of my favourite albums ever are extrinsically associated with place, a certain space and time, even if I haven’t experienced them in situ. Richard Skelton’s Landings (Touch, 2009), with its cyclical timelessness and its melancholic, yawning strings seems to latch on to so many salient associations of place that it’s difficult for me to not vibrate with it, in that place and time, imaginary and elusive it may be. Is it possible or even desirable to dissociate the harrowing vibe of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops (2002) from the disaster it arose from? That shared vibration of mourning and disbelief remains an overwhelming experience.
When I listen to music, I try not to listen to the music, I’m trying to sense the vibe. It pains me to write such a hippyish sentence — it’s a bit more complex and ad hoc than that, and it certainly isn’t an holistic principle. This mode of sensing helps me to situate music not only on strictly musical terms, but in terms of all the salient factors in its transmission: the people around me, the venue, the artist, my insobriety, the program note or background, the hours prior, the hours hence. Or, presently, fawning over the trajectory of an album in relational context with all the other albums on my hard drive, as I type on my laptop, wrens hopping around out my window in the damp catharsis of post-rain.
We all have a keen sense for the potency of the shared moment of sound. The vibe, and its sonic, haptic, and aesthetic territories, can deliver so much sophistication and nuance through its sharing of ideas on being together, in this space and time. This is our moment, This is our place, This is our community. Visual artists, writers, “producers,” “bands,” etc., tend to understand this better than “Composers,” or “Sound Artists” do.
The experiments I’ve done at Bogong haven’t really engaged with the vibe of Bogong and the Victorian Alpine region — to be honest I don’t care to try communicating that vibe as an end in itself. It’s visually stunning, but its sounds don’t interest me much as signifiers of place. This isn’t to say I don’t have a vibe that I’d like to share, but I think it’d be better conveyed from the studio. This residency has been a fertile, constructive time for practical and theoretical tinkering, mostly the latter, from the warmth of the annex and from wandering in the bush. To return to the opening of the first post, I’m still sort of disillusioned by field recording as it has been deployed in the past, but there’s so much territory being uncovered by brilliant minds towards giving synergy to engaging practice and engaging creation, and I’m really excited by the trajectory of the medium. I hope my experiments have opened up some novel processes in support of that momentum.
“[Sound] can only communicate by always already disappearing into the environment. It thus supplies communication with a vital medium — to truly hear the world and each other — while unsettling signification with instability — to listen is to also confront the voluptuous richness of ambiguity.” (p. 200)
Deepest thanks to Madelynne Cornish for her generosity and effort in coordinating this residency; and Philip Samartzis, Hamish Sinclair and Anthony Magen of Naturestrip for their assistance and funding.