Fed Up: the Sonic Narrative

Sound Artist, Sound Designer, and Abstract Composer Matthew Tuckey reflects on the creation of an abstract sound composition in response to the Oral History Unit & Collective’s research with the Newcastle West End Foodbank.

My practice as a sound artist is largely informed and directed by source material. In this instance, the Foodbank Histories interviews recorded by the Oral History Unit & Collective were the primary source material – the stories and voices I was commissioned to amplify. These narratives are supported by a second source material – the room tone and impulse response recordings I made at the Newcastle West End Foodbank.

The acoustic tone of the Foodbank ended up being highly influential in the sound of the piece. An often under-appreciated factor in our living and working environments is the acoustic nature of the space, and this was evident in the Foodbank’s Liliah Centre, which is essentially a portacabin with a low roof, hard parallel walls and windows and hard floor. The volunteers bring their best efforts to make the environment positive and welcoming, but there is little room to alter the acoustic environment that is undoubtedly having an unseen impact on the individuals’ state of mind. Research has shown that poor acoustics in a classroom (i.e. excessive ambient noise) can lower cognitive ability by three years, whilst the opposite (absence of ambient noise) can add nauseating audibility to our internal organs (anechoic chamber anyone?).

I have tried to draw attention to this sonic factor in the Foodbank by heightening the effect of the acoustic environment on the recordings and allowing this process to repeat itself over the length of the piece, to the point that it creates its own drone of sound with unique sonic textures. It may not create a pleasant sound to listen to, but it is an honest and creative presentation of the psychoacoustic effect of the room’s acoustic properties.

It is important to know, when listening to this piece, that its composition and design is full of intent and purpose. I have not created a realistic or believable recreation of the Foodbank. The piece opens with many voices layered over each other and moves forward into individual conversations, with little differentiation between volunteer and client, positive and negative, recounted stories or reflections on current circumstances – as this is how I experienced the Foodbank as an outsider. From where I stood, there was little indication that this building contained such important work, and little indication as to who was a volunteer and who was a client.

One of the unique challenges of sound art is it’s temporal nature. You can’t skim-read or glance-over a sonic event – it doesn’t exist as a frozen moment like words on a page or a photograph. To experience the entire piece, you have to stop and listen for the full 50 minutes. If you listen through to the end, you will hear the final soundscape, indistinguishable as the environment directly outside the Foodbank’s doors. This could be anywhere, save for the now subconsciously familiar voices and tones coming from inside.

The sections of interviews were selected for their powerful vulnerability. Their situations feel so alien to me, yet there is a universal potential that reminded me that this could so easily happen to me given the wrong events.

The piece is designed to ebb and flow through comfortable familiarities, confusing alienation, uncomfortable discordance and honest vulnerability. Plus those moments when the interviewees just made me smile!

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