3 September 2020
Audible Lockdown (2020 Glanville-Hicks Commission)
Ania Reynolds and Carl Polke's Peggy Glanville-Hicks Commission 'Audible Lockdown' was born out of the first COVID lockdown period in Melbourne, and the changes in the sonic environment of the city. Audible Lockdown will premiere on Youtube at 7pm AEST on Friday 4 September. Find out more about all 13 Glanville-Hicks Commissions, initiated by the AMC in response to the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the most striking features of the first Victorian COVID-19 lockdown was the dramatic change in the soundscape of the city and suburbs. The constant underlying rumble of traffic, machinery and motion disappeared, replaced by a stillness from which birdsong began to emerge; the earth finally had a chance to breathe. Exploring the sonic make-up and identity of place forms the basis of our ongoing This City This Sound series; we quickly seized this unexpected opportunity to explore the Melbourne CBD and record how the lockdown had affected this city, our city's soundscape.
Listening through a microphone with headphones allows you to become acutely aware of every incidental sound, and the general noisiness of places. Interestingly the relentless rumble of traffic and industry (you could call it 'sonic sludge', common to cities the world over) was still present in the CBD, with construction sites on almost every corner. The noticeable absence, however, was the sound of human movement and interaction, the sounds of voices, the sounds of conversations. Empty streets looking like a ghost town, other sounds came to dominate the sonic space, particularly those of machines - the sound of trams was constantly in the background. We'd never noticed how many traffic crossing signals there are until that expedition, their rhythmic beeping was a constant presence. There were many more birds: mynah birds chortling from makeshift nests in the rafters of the Vic Market sheds and the roof at Flinders St station; seagulls squabbling in the large open spaces of Bourke St Mall and outside the State Library; and a flock of rainbow lorikeets in the eucalypts of the Haymarket roundabout whose frenzied chirping was remarkably akin to a Moog modular, no additional processing needed!
The absence of human chatter attuned us to the detail and complexities of mechanical sounds - comparing the different clunks of automatic doors opening and shutting in Southbank and Royal Arcade, getting to know the beeps and squeaks of EASI delivery bikes, the constant rhythm of the escalators at both Collins Place and Flagstaff Station. We rode those escalators over and over to fully capture the sound, the steady rhythm was both soothing and comforting. We were alone on the escalator at Collins Place, and two of only a handful at the normally bustling Flagstaff. It was interesting to observe that, even when the presence of humans had all but disappeared, the machines continued, dumbly ticking over as usual even though no-one was there. It was calming, lulling, almost reassuring, listening to this continuous motion.
Of course some places seemed not to have changed at all. The Vic Market was full of vendors' calls, and cafes were as busy as ever - takeaway only, of course.
In creating the composition, we started with a specific sound from a specific place, and played with audio manipulation - warping samples, looping, harmonising/melodising - to create a new sonic palette of sounds from which the composition could be built. Starting from the realistic and slowly morphing into other imagined sonic worlds, often sounds would become larger than life by accentuating a specific element - for example, the ding of a tram (normally a fairly short attention-catching sound signalling arrival or warning) stretched, layered and echoed becomes a rich, deep, warm chime like that of a church bell.
Making the video was a similarly interesting endeavour - the absence of people meant that inanimate objects were the focal point and became characters in themselves.
As composers born and bred in Melbourne, before COVID we actively sought to travel to different cities around the world, to explore their soundscapes from the perspective of outsiders. We weren't sure how the project would work in our home city that was so familiar that we wouldn't be able to listen with the unbiased ears of an outsider. But Melbourne under lockdown was a totally different city, and exploring it enabled us to tune in to sonic elements that probably would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Discovering the wonky sound of the Bourke St traffic signal was a particular highlight, as was sitting at the empty Vic Market recording the different polyrhythms created by flagpoles clanging in strong autumn north winds.
We are very grateful to the AMC's PGH Commissions which has allowed us to compose this work. The whole process has been immensely fun and we hope you will enjoy our audiovisual portrait of Melbourne in Lockdown.
© Australian Music Centre (2020) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Ania Reynolds is an award-winning composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and installation artist who works and collaborates across a range of disciplines. As a composer, she is interested in the power of music as a story-teller, conveying narrative and emotion. Her work seeks to uncover the extraordinary within the seemingly ordinary.
Carl Polke is an Australian award-winning composer, musician and sound-designer with over 30 years’ experience in the music, circus and live theatre industry. His current performative practise involves free improvisation utilising digital audio effects with alto saxophone and interrogates the relationship between society/the individual and the digital realm.
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