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Sounding Sydney’s real times

Reproduced courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Reproduced courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

It was 9am Sydney time on August 15 1945 when British Prime Minister Clement Atlee announced that Japan had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. ‘The last of our enemies is laid low’ he said. PEACE! roared The Sun. In downtown Martin Place, massive crowds spontaneously gathered, to dance and make whoopie in celebration of the end of the War.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)’s Talbot Duckmanton was there that day to record the scenes, describing to his audience some of the finer details of the setting: a Hitler effigy being hung from the windows of one of the banks, circles of dancing women before him (‘fine looking ladies, too!’), the din of a mosquito zooming around maniacally over head.

Duckmanton’s recording captures the emerging style of documentary radio reportage adopted by the ABC’s radio correspondents after the war, as they took advantage of new, more versatile recording technologies to head out of the studio and into the streets and backwaters of Australia (Inglis 1983: 164; Thomas 2007).

Standing in Martin Place today, listening in, through headphones, to the sounds captured by the ABC’s recording of these ebullient scenes some sixty-five years ago, one feels a giddy sense of time travel, being transported to that celebrated moment as it had been experienced right here. That sense of immediacy Duckmanton had worked to establish for his radio listeners back in 1945 draws today’s listener back in, to participate with his audience of the day in imagining the scenes at Martin Place. ‘There’s no policeman directing traffic on Pitt St today’ he tells us. No, indeed there is not.

Today Martin Place is unusually quiet. It’s Saturday and the office workers who normally mill about here are nowhere to be seen. Weekend shoppers and tourists are perhaps avoiding the tunnel of wind that blows constantly up through the pedestrian promenade, making the place feel somewhat chilly even on hot summer afternoons. Duckmanton’s narration continues:

Over on my right, on one of the buildings at the back, somebody has hung out a big dummy of Adolf Hitler with a great swastiker on the front of it, and to the cheers of the crowd he was lowered down from the top of the building and – duly hung!

Today’s solitary listener might look up, wondering on which of these buildings here the spectacle occurred.

Listening to the sounds of this old radio recording through personal headphones, we join with Duckmanton’s audience of the day in imagining the scenes being described. But we’re not listening to the wireless, whether from home or work, we’re in Martin Place, separated through time, not by distance, to the sounds of this euphoria en masse of the manic joy of wives soon to be reunited with husbands, of a city jubilant with the prospect of an immanent end to war-time rations.

As we ‘return’ to this moment as it was documented here, in-situ, we are also just another person in the crowd with headphones on, enclosed, as Bull (2007) would have it, in a ‘pleasurable and privatized sound bubble’ of own own choosing.

We might consider the peculiar sound bubble of this listening experience to be hallucinatory in its effects, in eliciting ‘visions’ of that which can no longer be seen. The experience is reminiscent of a movie soundtrack, transforming what is seen into a kind of cinematic-like visual feast. While this experience is all too familiar to headphone wearers everywhere, this particular piece of audio, an old, scratchy recording of a public event that took place right here some time ago, brings back a sense of the collective memory of an invisible past.

So this audio recording facilitates a slightly different kind of audio-visual interactivity to that which might ordinarily be experienced with headphones, as the displacement affected by the auditory frame is also something of a ‘return’; an intimate commemoration with that previous, broadcast present.

Today’s listener might ‘visit’ a number of these archival recordings as one would visit a monument, or some kind of a physical artefact that describes a historical event. Further up the street at Chifley Square, our listener can hear the chants of a student demonstration. It’s 1968 and Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam is under fire. The protesters have gathered outside the Commonwealth Centre, a towering 1960s office block demolished in 1988 to make way for the Chifley Tower. She hears a voice projected through a loudspeaker proclaiming the rights of conscientious objectors to a trial by jury, muffled cries calling for Mr. Robert Kennedy’s resignation, boos and hisses, muffled and dispersed at first and then becoming louder. The listener hears these sounds through her headphones, while the ambient noises of Chifley Square bleed into her densely, scratchily archival audio space. Further down at Circular Quay, she can ‘visit’ the voice of Paul Robeson singing Old Man River to the construction workers of the Sydney Opera House in 1963.

If she heads over to the Rocks, she’ll also hear the sounds of Green Ban protesters fighting against the prospect of further high-rise construction, clashing with police in 1973; a bird sings in the background as a reporter details the scene. As she visits these recordings, the listener’s experience of these events yields a city of discrete, temporally-discontinous moments in time: a topography of events, as captured by recording technologies of the day.

Today’s s listener could chart a course through central Sydney visiting these ‘soundmarks’ as one might visit different places of historical interest. Her experience of these sounds in-situ amplifies a different historical geography to that of the ‘sculptured narrative’ (ref) of monuments and memorials. When she stands in Martin Place listening to the sounds of VP Day, she’s looking at the Victorian sandstone buildings wondering on which one the Hitler effigy hung, and may only take a passing interest in their architectural features. Down at Circular Quay, she’s imagining the Sydney Opera House as a mess of scaffolding. When the listener returns to these moments, she revisits the past as originally experienced, and documented, as the ‘present’. In these recordings, she hears journalists detailing a contemporary (now past) scene, not recollections as described by someone from a future vantage point in time. The sense of immediacy yielded by these ambient street recordings, as it retrieves an experience of ‘being there’, is in this respect quite different to a studio-based oral history recording, which looks backwards from a contemporary vantage point.

These pieces are not intended to structure the listener’s physical navigation of an environment, but simply to ‘mark’ a space-time, or series of space-times. They don’t offer the listener a structured navigation through a given locale. When you listen, you’ll hear no instructions as to which way you should walk; which way you should look. Each piece simply seeks to triangulate, like Calvino’s invisible cities, the measurements of space with the events of its past.

Each of these sound pieces experiments with different approaches to working with sound archives for a site-specific listening experience. All are relatively short – the longest is 14 minutes. All were produced using the ABC’s archives, with the exception of one piece I produced using materials identified from the National Film and Sound Archive.

Some simply present a single archival recording; others are more complex edited compositions that integrate a number of different sound sources. Some are narrated; others are not.

Many of these pieces relate to what I have called ‘resonant spaces’ in Sydney; spaces whose amplification through the documentary record illuminates sites of conflict and contestation which otherwise remain hidden from view. Listening to these recordings in-situ intends to amplify a different historical geography to that of the sculptured narrative of official monuments and memorials.

Such resonant spaces amplify the contested nature of a site’s contemporary spatiality. But other pieces are not about urban conflict at all: they simply ‘return’ to particular moments in the life of the city, yielding a topology of events and moments, as captured by different recording technologies of the day. I find some of these recorded moments particularly compelling as they enable the listener to revisit the past as originally experienced, and documented, as the ‘present’ specifically for the purpose of contemporary documentary reportage.

As compositions, these sound marks are not intended to demonstrate new methods of sound composition, or examples of context-aware media technology. They are simply intended to demonstrate what different kinds of auditory remnants might be retrieved when we listen in to the real times of space. Wherever possible, I have made these recordings available for re-use by others interested in working with street’s acoustical historical geography. I make no claims over ownership of the final compositions, but only gesture towards their possible incorporation into contemporary practice.

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