From the ether, from the static: spoken words and found sounds

Back in 2013, a Toronto-based arts group called Labspace Studio threw out a creative challenge to anyone who cared to listen. I pricked up my ears, responded to their call and joined in. For the next four months, I worked on their global art project, Noise Intercepted. Here are the results of my labours.

From the ether, from the static is a collection of ten audio pieces made from spoken words and found sounds.

They were manufactured in response to a series of creative challenges dispensed by the Toronto-based arts group, Labspace Studio, as part of their Noise Intercepted project. In their own words, Noise Intercepted was “a series of ten experience-activated noise challenges that prompt participants to listen, observe and interact with their urban soundscape in new and unlikely ways”.

Over 200 people from across the world joined in, and I was one of them. Each challenge, distributed periodically during spring 2013, could be completed using any means, but each had to be submitted within one week of the brief being issued.

Having no audio expertise whatsoever, it therefore made no sense at all when I decided to answer each brief by creating a sound recording – but I pressed on regardless. All my pieces were recorded on a mobile phone and inexpertly edited using the most basic software you can imagine. And believe me, you can tell.

In spite of my sonic shortcomings, I’m proud to say I completed all ten challenges (I think I was the only participant who did so) and one of my pieces, called Heavy Rotation, featured in the final Noise Intercepted exhibition at 99 Gallery in Toronto.

In summary then, these pieces are 100% ham-fisted and as lo-fi as your life. But I hope you’ll still listen in.


Track one
We are hardcore: listening to the music, myth and magic of Sheffield

Daver Steels, Sheffield, 1985

This is a spoken word piece that engages with Sheffield’s primal noise, and features certain sounds recorded illicitly on a mobile phone, under cover of darkness, at The Big Melt, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 12 June 2013.

I’ll also add that I took this photograph while on a walk round the Kelham Island area of Sheffield in September 1985. At the time, I feared I could hear the gasp of a consumptive city desperately trying to catch its breath, and I worried that the deepest silence of all might soon fall.

Fortunately though, it was no death rattle. So put your ear to the ground and listen…

Track two
A word from myself: the promise of an excavated eavesdrop

Tape cassette

Eavesdropping is many people’s guilty pleasure, but here I listen in on my own unconscious ramblings – the unguarded thoughts that habitually spill from my mouth. Or more accurately, I attempt to eavesdrop on my own solitary, one-way conversations, but as you’ll hear, it turns out to be harder than you might think.

Although… with the help of an old audio cassette, whose secret monologues were last unleashed in 1982, perhaps I’ve found a way…

Track three
Repeat to fade: a sound sketch for Liverpool and the Mersey ferry

Mersey ferry ticket

This lo-fi sound sketch with its integrated poem is an attempt to divine the pulse and heartbeat of Liverpool, the city in which I live.

Without the River Mersey, Liverpool wouldn’t exist (hark, the sound of Mancunians cheering!), so this piece takes the listener on board the famous ferry and sails across to Birkenhead – and back again, you’ll be relieved to know.

These eight minutes of splash, crash and clang – and relentless rhyming couplets – aim for the heart of my mysterious, semi-mythical home.

Track four
Heavy rotation: in which I use the power of pop music to send Margaret Thatcher spinning to her grave

The Day Margaret Thatcher Dies by Pete Wylie

On 17 April 2013, I listened to one song and one song only. I listened to it relentlessly, over and over again. Under normal circumstances this would have been simply eccentric behaviour, but on this day, it was an act of defiance. It was Canute-like, maybe; but necessary, nevertheless.

Because 17 April 2013 was the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.

The piece I listened to was Pete Wylie’s record The Day Margaret Thatcher Dies – that’s Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister from 1979 until 1990, and certainly the most divisive leader this country has had in a long time.

This act of inhumanity in the face of death brought a lot of raw emotions to the surface. The result is this poem – or rhyming rant – written for performance, not for the page.

Alas, I don’t have a studio or fancy microphones, which is why it sounds a little as though it was recorded in a biscuit tin. And be warned that some listeners may find this piece distasteful and offensive. And others, particularly those overseas, will probably just find it inexplicable.

But anyway; enough. For a final few words, let’s turn to the woman herself: “Where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

Hmm. Now press ‘PLAY’…

Track five
The sweetest nothing: a night whisper for my son

A partially open bedroom door

When he was younger, I often used the sound of my son sleeping as a meditative tool of sorts – a kind of relaxing hypnosis at the end of a stressful day. But this time I went further and swallowed the sound whole.

The result is this night whisper – two and a half minutes of spoken word with breathing.

Sleep well…

Track six
It begins with a jerk, it ends with a sigh

Bottle of Anchor Old Foghorn barley wine

We spend our lives filtering out the tiny noises that soundtrack our day, but here I make it my mission to focus on the little things – the sounds we usually ignore.

Or rather, on one sound in particular – the noise of my final beer of the weekend being opened. This sacred yanking at the weekend’s ultimate bottle-top becomes the trigger for three minutes of spoken word melancholia including the phrase, “the yeasty gust of freedom’s final fermented breath”.

So if you fancy a yeasty gust in your ears… turn on, tune in, sup up.

Track seven
Surplus to requirements: the curious case of Sefton Park Meadows

Sefton Park Meadows, Liverpool

Sefton Park Meadows is an area of south Liverpool that forms a contentious wedge of land between Sefton Park itself and expanses of suburban housing. The fields lie outside the park boundary and are therefore not part of the park. But they are pleasant and green, and no one would consider them wasteland. They seem to fit no statutory definition and thus, in 2013, Liverpool City Council announced they would be flogged off in return for hard cash. The land is empty after all – of no use, no benefit.

In response to the council’s decision there were protests, one of which features here. The result is a sound piece that combines spoken word and location recording into 3’40″ of inexpertly edited contemplation – a sonic descent into a particularly verdant void.

Track eight
To the floor: a rhyme for a kick drum at 120 BPM

Roland TR909 manual diagram

Boom boom boom boom…

A simple 4/4 kick. It’s probably my desert island drum beat – the percussion pattern I’d choose above all others to deliver the backbeat to my castaway nights.

How galling it must be for drummers the world over to know that despite their best efforts, all it takes for me to twitch involuntarily and begin searching for the nearest dancefloor is the rigid pounding of a big bad kick drum. And actually, it’s even better if it comes out of a machine – untouched by human hands.

A relentless four-square rhythm – whenever it comes, wherever it occurs – is an instruction to dance; it’s my cue to move. So in honour of that unimaginative stomp, here’s a strictly-syllabled poem chanted over a regimented, ceaseless thump.

I’ll be honest: 120 beats per minute, with two syllables per drum beat, is rather difficult to deliver, and this turned out to be a particularly tricky recording. But I had a go. All I can say is that I did my best with the time and rudimentary tools available.

So… can I kick it?

Have a listen and see.

Track nine
The voice in D32: a self-portrait captured at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

The History Boys, Sheffield Crucible Theatre, ticket

This piece is a self-portrait. Simple as that.

Except… how do you create a portrait of someone who’s always hanging about at the back, round the side, in the shadows?

My solution was to go to the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, a place where my voice has been part of the crowd for over 40 years, on and off. I cast my recording net into the air and scooped up some hubbub, and the result is a short spoken word piece with added foyer ambience that makes as convincing a self-portrait as I’ve ever heard.

(And should you wish to know more about the Crucible Theatre – including its early history and my relationship with it – you could always pop over to my article, An Argument in Concrete…)

Track ten
Casting key strokes: a writer attempts to make some noise

Typewriter on grass

Having completed nine pieces that explore the swirling world of sound that surrounds us, my final mission sees me adding to the cacophony in my own right.

This is 20 minutes of clatter and chat documenting a Sunday morning spent typing in a park. With an actual typewriter you understand, from the old days. One that makes a hell of a racket every time you press a key.

As I said, it’s 20 minutes long, so maybe it’s only for the hardcore. But it features an extended riff on the keyboard’s lack of exclamation mark, along with an exciting dog incident.

So put down your touch screens and your tablets; hold fast your gestures and your swipes. It’s time to get physical with an inky ribbon and some purple-tinged, punched-out prose…

Audio and images © Damon Fairclough 2013

Text © Damon Fairclough 2019

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