In this essay, artist Cara Farnan reflects on musician Hatis Noit's words which state that “the voice is full of history,” and the transformative performances by Hatis Noit and Joe Rainey at Rewire festival.
With a crash of waves the stone pillars of the church start to dissolve. Sound can do this: take whole rooms and wash them away, leaving you afloat in the far-off place being conjured.
Talking about their collaboration in Nieuwe Kerk on Sunday morning, musician and poet Patti Smith describes the possibilities brought back to her by the recordings of Soundwalk Collective’s Stephan Crasneanscki. She says she is no longer able for the kinds of travel Crasneanscki undertakes, hiking mountains just to catch the harmonising of an environment at that particular moment. But by listening back, she can feel her way through the atmosphere that the sounds create, and can walk through the spirit of the place – a cerebral, mental journey. For one of the pieces, which is performed later that night in Amare as a part of Correspondences, Smith recalls how she spent time studying and reading all she could about Medea, the daughter of King Aeëtes in Greek mythology. Smith never wrote down a word, but when she went to the studio and listened to all the sounds that Crasneanscki had brought her back – sounds from places connected to Medea’s story – it drew out of Smith a whole monologue. Those sounds, she says, pulled her into Medea’s spiritual world, allowing her to speak out of it.
This untethering that is so much a part of field recordings can be transformative, but also holds the possibility to elicit boredom. Being washed out of the room by hums and whirrs, divorced from their sources, can leave us little to hold on to. Boredom can feel like our attention is simply sliding off the surface we are trying to understand: we need “grip.” Absence is at the centre of field recordings; someone was there, in real life, recorder in hand, reaching out to the depths of their surroundings, but we, the listener, right now are not. There is always something that the one who made the recordings experiences that the listener can’t have. This is not to say that the sound of something can only be fully appreciated when we understand every detail of its creation, because of course not. But we need context, any kind of context: this is the grip. The recreation and reshaping of a context around a field-recorded sound when it is replayed in a new environment is what can ignite transformation.
The voice is full of history, says musician Hatis Noit, talking in The Grey Space on Saturday. It carries information. The voice is DNA, it is our genes. I sound like my sister, or at least I used to – so similar that at one point people could rarely tell us apart on the phone. We learned to speak in the same places. We learned our sighs, pauses, and inflection from mum and dad and each family member, from school, from teachers, from watching the same TV shows. But as time moves, our lives change, our bodies change, and our voices begin to diverge. We have both moved to new countries; met new friends; learned new patterns, sighs, and inflections from the new accents we are surrounded by.
“The voice is full of history,” says Hatis Noit, and later that night she is allowing that history to fill the walls of Grote Kerk with extraordinary power and delicacy. With just her mouth she sends out the sounds of vibrating strings. She lets a breath loose into the microphone and it resounds like thunder; repeating itself back this one breath is now a drum beat, keeping time under the vast vaulted ceilings. There are notes as light as air, notes which cry and whine, and more which growl and rumble.
Then she stops and speaks, to introduce the next piece, this piece she explains, is the only one that uses something more than her voice alone. The piece, “Inori” – Japanese for prayer – makes use of a field recording of waves and sand at the shore in Fukushima, with the whirr of construction in the distance as the region is rebuilt and reopened. Hatis Noit herself made this recording when she was invited to perform at a memorial and reopening ceremony for the area around the nuclear power plant. This alone is a gift of context, but in this piece, it is not the story that walks us through. With a crash of waves the stone pillars of the church start to dissolve. The building starts to shimmer, becoming a mirage. When Hatis Noit walks barefoot across the stage, you can believe she is walking barefoot along sand, just at the place where it is kissed over and over by incoming waves. But a tight string reaches out to prevent us from being completely washed away. She starts to sing a single trail out into the air, then on top she begins to speak, the chattering of conversation, and on top of that again, deep breaths, long notes. Layers build one on top of the other, time on top of time on top of time. Each new layer of sound takes up the role of guide, leading us further and further, until the room around us is filled to the brim. We are lifted to the eaves, without ever losing our place, without ever dropping away. We are carried up by her voice, through the heights and depths. The waves wash our feet at every step.
Why is it that the voice works so well as a mediator between listener and field recording? The voice gives context. The voice is something to grip on to. The voice is a thread that one can follow and that one can connect to. We have a voice too and we all know what it is to make noises, to choke and breathe and laugh and scream. Our bodies respond. In her performances, Hatis Noit explains that she always wants to leave space for the room, so that as she sings she can translate the energy of the space and the audience through her body and into her voice.
Performing on Sunday afternoon, pow wow singer Joe Rainey carries many voices into Nieuwe Kerk with him. Accompanied by a string quartet, he sings over Andrew Broder’s growling, buzzing electronic beats. Among all these elements, are sampled field recordings from the countless pow wows he has attended since he was a child. He has been making these recordings since he was eight years old. “I would record pow wows on my tape recorder and go home and listen to them religiously. I’ve found a lot of my techniques come from the singers that I usually listen to.” This is what a voice is, it is a story of what the mouth, ears, and body have encountered and taken in.
The recordings alone have incredible depth; there are so many different voices singing, and there is also laughter and casual conversation in between. But when Rainey joins in with them, combined with the intensity of Broder’s production, something special happens. There is a difference between voices coming out of a tape recorder and the voice of someone right in front of you. Voices in the room with us are haptic, felt almost as a kind of touch. They are produced inside one body and travel inside the bodies of those listening. When someone sings in your presence they are physically reaching out to you.
When Rainey sings he is transporting us with him to all those many layered moments in time. We follow him through, and he is showing us how to listen to the recordings. He is singing into them and with them, and they are being animated by his living breathing body. We are generously brought into the relationship he has with all those voices, and we can hear how they have taught him. There are many bodies in this church, and Rainey’s voice reaches out like a thread, directly connecting to each of us. His body and ours are together in time. There is also tension between completely leaving the room – being lost in the other places that the recordings belong to – and being completely fully here. It is not an easy position to hold an audience in: letting them drift just a little but never letting them out of your reach.
Being in a room with a voice, live, right there, is being in the room with the whole history of the person singing, speaking, calling, shouting, or crying. This is true in conversations, in lectures, in speeches, and in karaoke bars. You don’t have to know that history. But when your eardrums vibrate with the waves created by another person, you are taking a little bit of that person inside you. What the live voice captures is a sense of presence, of sharing space and time, and this is what makes it so well suited to guide us through the gaps and absences that field recordings so often confront us with.
I cried three times this weekend. Not delicate, light catching trails running down my cheeks, but deep, revulsive, embarrassing sobs – like really embarrassing. Like “feeling strangers turn away because they don’t know how to respond to your tears” kind of embarrassing.
I’m adding this postscript weeks later. I didn’t want to mention it at first, like, maybe writing about something that made me cry isn’t acceptable? Objective? Reflective? Critical enough? I’m not quite sure what it really tells you now, to add this in at the end. But I guess I have to tell you, because in the end it's the only thing that happened over the weekend that I could possibly imagine is worth writing something about.
The first time I cried was when Hatis Noit began to sing over the Fukushima recording. It wasn’t for the story she told, it was something in the way the crashing of waves and the layers of voice hit my body all at once. The second time was when I was standing in front of her after the show, hands quivering, trying to thank her for the performance. Trying to say that I was grateful I had been there, and grateful that she had opened up and led me into a portal I hadn’t expected. I couldn’t get words out. The third time was during Joe Rainey’s performance. At the moment when Rainey’s voice lifted up and joined the chorus of recorded voices he had carried with him. I can’t tell you exactly what it was that brought the tears up; I cannot name the feeling. Maybe it was something like looking at the sea at night, impossibly vast. At the edge of the largeness of the world. At the edge of feeling endless time. A sudden feeling of connection that moved back throughout history. And I think that it was exactly that tension that arose, between live, present voice and recorded pasts that sent this feeling flooding into my body.
Cara Farnan is a visual artist and writer from Dublin, Ireland currently based in Den Haag, The Netherlands. Cara is curious about the way we use language; written, spoken and haptic, to communicate in very intimate ways. She explores the tactility of reading books, how we use physical touch to communicate, the way ideas move between bodies and how relationships appear within written texts. Small-scale collaboration, often within her own close relationships, forms the foundation of much of her research. Through performance, writing, drawing, sound and textiles; she makes tangible the processes by which we interact with those we love. She has a BA in Fine Art Print from NCAD Dublin and completed a MA in Fine Art at the HKU, Utrecht in 2021. Her writing has been included in publications by Bloomers Art, Metropolis M, Mutual Support Platform and Simulacrum Magazine.