The role of sound in the creation of place and identities

My interdisciplinary practice-based PhD is primarily concerned with sound’s role in the creation of place and identities, and I explore some of these themes within the context of a silent expeditionary film shot in North Western Australia in the 1920s.

In 2019 I spent time field recording in the Kimberley region where my attention was taken by the ancient landscape and how something of it might be captured in sound.

In sound acquisition we have numerous tools at our disposal. For example, geophones can be used to capture the seismic activity of the earth, contact microphones capture structure-borne sound and hydrophones can capture underwater sound. I find the acoustic properties of spaces particularly evocative, and so a high-quality condenser microphone that renders airborne sound is what I chose to deploy.

Old Broome Jetty Site (Groyne Area). Photograph by Rob Hardcastle.

I was struck by what I heard when lowering the microphone into cavities in rock formations. The resulting recordings gave me an immediate sense of a connection to something ancient, something relatively unchanged – a sonic bridge to a different time. The resonant nature of sound lends itself to this bridging with the past, and when combined with country this can become particularly evocative, as Ruth Gilbert of the Wiradjuri people observes, “I feel most connected to my country when I stand still and listen. I can hear the voices of my people, my ancestors.”

Coulomb Point. Photograph by Rob Hardcastle.

In addition to the more creative experiments above, it would be interesting to capture the acoustics of geographical spaces that we understand to be relatively unchanged since the first humans passed through them. Caves would be an obvious candidate, particularly as we often have evidence of a past human presence in the form of cave art, remains and artefacts, but also open plains where the topography, flora and fauna might have seen little change in over 40,000 years. Resulting recordings might eventually serve as acoustic artefacts for a landscape changing through human intervention, such as those imposed by climate change or the destruction of significant sites like Juukan Gorge.

One purpose of ANU’s Research Centre for Deep History is to “formulate imaginative ways of conceptualising the past”. With this in mind, I would like to return to the region with more time, and perhaps as part of an interdisciplinary team to explore some of these concepts further.