The Sound of Clouds and other Sonic Memories

The Sound of Clouds and other sonic Memories is an evolving archive of our memories in sound.  The project was initiated as part of UCLA SciArt Centre’s ‘Atmospheres of Sound’ residency program from June/July 2021.

The project is a research-creation process that incorporates various aspects of emerging paradigms and politics in the listening process, namely

  • the development of a multi-sensory (as opposed to ocular centric) database of personal history;
  • the attention to the affect, poetics and abstraction through sound;
  • the emerging focus on colonial legacies of listening, recording and composition;
  • and the connection of spoken word to composition that places music in service to the voice in addition to its intrinsic poetic value. 

These, coupled with developments in immersive sound recording techniques that enable us to recreate with incredible fidelity the sounds that enter our ears, give rise to the work that is part curation, part composition and all about listening – and creating opportunities for a transformative politics of such listening.  

For some time now, I have been listening to descriptions of sonic memories of people I meet through informal conversations and the occasional interview.  Some of this process has been formalized in my teaching at the University of Washington (2014-16) in introductory music composition, and in workshops that I have conducted around alternative interpretations of the term ‘resonance’ since 2016.  In 2012, i volunteered as assistant for the Blind Cafe in Seattle, advertised as a transformative experience where sighted and non-sighted patrons were invited to share a meal and enjoy music together in total darkness.  This meant optically conditioning the entire dining hall to block out any and all light prior to the meal.  The week before, at one of the volunteer training sessions, we listened to instructions from the head waitress on how to best navigate and serve (often petrified) guests in the darkened space.  She is blind, and as she gave advice to a room full of sighted volunteers about walking around tables by listening to incidental sounds of the chairs, calculating proximity and space with her voice, feeling shifts in temperature around food and people, I realized how imbalanced and impoverished my sensorium was, and I was overwhelmed with a feeling of respect and appreciation for her heightened sensibilities.  When it came to question time, I waited patiently to ask mine – “what is your favourite sonic memory”. She was a little taken aback by the question that came at the tail end of a bunch of logistical and budgetary conversations, but replied thoughtfully, almost in prose.  I didn’t take down what she said in its entirety, but I remember her saying it was the sound of rain, and in particular the sound of clouds that seemed to open up during a thunderstorm.  

The project is divided into three parts : 

1. an Oral interview where the person is asked quite simply ‘what is their earliest/most poignant sonic memory’. 

2. an Optional process where the interviewee provides a photograph of their ears.  This is then sculpted in clay and attached to a binaural recording system 

3. Field recordings are then taken and manipulated to create a composition that aligns with the sonic memory described. 

Here are some examples of previously recorded sonic memories: 

“xx’s first sonic memory contains several parts. He remembers driving in a Jeep with his grandpa in the woods. He was riding in the front seat and could feel the wind blowing in his face and the seat rumbling from the dirt road. He mentioned that the road was fairly uphill and at the top of the hill there was a blue gate that opened up to a kind of meadow. In the meadow, xx recalls hearing the buzzing of beetles and the rumbling of the engine as he and his grandpa looked at the scenery.”

“My interview subject recalled the sounds of a wooden play set that he had built with his father. The play set represented fond memories of playing and brought up nostalgic feelings of his childhood. Its wood was smooth and stained, but became more rough and splintered over time. It sat in his sundrenched backyard.”

” xx’s earliest sonic memory took place at a children’s concert when he was three years old. He was with his parents in a dark concert hall packed with other toddlers and parents. There was one performer on the stage named Raffi, singing nursery rhymes and playing his guitar with all the lights centered on him. Many of the toddlers were bouncing on their parents laps to the music. xx was taken back at how old the performer was, thinking it was very strange seeing this old man surrounded by hundreds of children. “

” I interviewed my mother, xx, about her first sonic memory of an earthquake that struck Seattle in 1965. A child of fifteen at the time, she was alone inside her family’s home when a low rumble began. In our interview, she was careful to emphasize that this rumble was lower and more powerful than anything else she had heard before or has since. The only other sound she remembers were her parents’ wind chimes sounding from their backyard. She recounted an eerie walk from a long hallway into their living room, where a large, rectangular window overlooked the front yard and the neighborhood beyond. She recalled staring out the window, watching chunks of the Earth she had been so certain of kink and split as though it were ‘many writhing snakes.’ “