On The Sonority of Clay

Autochthon #3 from Dan Scott on Vimeo.

An ongoing project that started life during a one week residency at the Soundfjord Gallery. My proposal was as follows:

A letter written to the journal IEEE in 1969 suggests the curious possibility of clay sound recordings from antiquity. Claiming to have evidence, an enigmatic scholar named Richard G. Woodbridge III outlines a hypothesis: sound, by causing a shimmering of airwaves, leaves traces on materials the waves break upon; wet paint, for example, or the soft, wet clay spun by a potter. Using suitable technology a contemporary listener might hear these traces, so allowing a rehearing of whatever sonic activity was occurring in that original impact of sound wave and substance.

“With an artist’s brush, paint strokes were applied to the surface of the canvas using “oil” paints involving a variety of plasticities, thicknesses, layers, etc., while martial music was played on the nearby phonograph. Visual examination at low magnification showed that certain strokes had the expected transverse striated appearance. When such strokes, after drying, were gently stroked by the “needle” (small, wooden, spade-like) of the crystal cartridge, at as close to the original stroke speed as possible, short snatches of the original music could be identified.” (Woodbridge III 1969)

The repercussions of such a finding would surely be endless, prompting a frantic archaeo-turntablism in museums across the world. However, the suggestion lay hanging - a frozen sound in the air - and was only allowed resonance through pulp science fiction and the occasional disbelieving blog post. We could speculate on the origin of the desire to find ephemeral sonority in the clod of clay. Perhaps the paradox of dead earth containing enlivened ether is too seductive to disallow. Creation myths across the world feature the sentient human being conjured from clay: Prometheus, Genesis and onwards. That clay might record sound poetically suggests the entire earth as a recording device, each strata of rock containing traces of sonic prehistory; the roar of continental shelves rising; the long death gasp of forgotten species; the hissing of primeval hydochloric oceans. The towering columns of Salisbury Cathedral, completed in 1258, rise up from clay soil, each one made of hollow stone, as if God demanded audio-channels into the earth’s core, where all the grief and sufferance of humanity howled amidst the background hum of four billion years of heretical indifference.

I’d like to use the residency to investigate this subject further. I’d like to hold recording sessions with contemporary musicians (including composer Neil Luck’s group ARCO) and a potter, creating pot recordings of music. I’d also like to use the site as a place for discussion, inviting guests to explore ceramics, sound recording and the mythology of clay. I also wish to screen some films during the residency, namely the Stone Tape, a 1970s BBC drama that explores the possibility of a stone recording device, and The Frozen Sound, a Cold War US schlock- thriller about sound being frozen in crystal.

I’m hoping to develop the results of this residency into a work, either a film, or an installation that explores both the phenomena of clay (and other substance) recording, and the wider issues it raises about metaphysical notions of animate and inanimate objects, the ways of listening suggested by sedimented, inaudible audio, and the ontological concerns such recording raises about sound and the ephemeral.

A blog about the project can be found here.