audio obscura / review

[To experience Audio Obscura, a new work by Lavinia Greenlaw at St. Pancras railway station in London, you are given a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and you are left free to wander for about thirty minutes, listening to an audio piece of fragmented voices against a backdrop of ambient noises].

‘Listen. The heart of it’ –

the first sentence I hear, in these recordings between speech and thought, pushes me out of my hearing. Soon I find my mind is cancelling the words – or at least my detailed following of them. I begin perceiving myself outside of the words in the headphones, and playing with my sense of being in a specific place instead.

I feel watched. As much as I might believe I’m wandering anonymously, the headphones are too big and too black to escape attention. Overtly conscious of the stage I’m unwittingly made to be an extra in, I look for fellow listeners. I spend ten minutes trying to make eye contact and study their reactions. One of them is sitting musing. One looks like he doesn’t want me to be aware he’s part of this. And as I see one on the escalator, going down as I go up, she smiles then turns her eyes. Monadic we walk undirected.

‘I want to tell someone that I saw a wonderful thing’.

I decide to stop after ten minutes of over-conscious wandering, because one issue that I’m finding hard to tackle is this open space; this deliberate sense of drift. Only when I stop questioning my movements, only when I abandon any pretense of mimesis and begin to think metaphorically, I realise how Audio Obscura has placed me right in that boundless space on which you skip after you’ve found the start of a compelling idea, after you’ve encountered a half-formed captivating thought: that hovering space that absorbs you as you start to make something. A space layered, time after time.

I sit on a bench. I watch St-Pancras-the-palimpsest as it flakes today in front of my eyes, ears and recollections. Once it was early autumn, the breeze freezing and the sense of this architecture of arrivals and departures amplifed. It was 2009 and I was taking part in a sound walk led by Hildegard Westerkamp. The frame of the work then was not given by sounds and words, but by a spatial trajectory – from Euston Road to Regent’s Park by means of detours in back streets and railway stations. Listening then turned me inside out, a resonant membrane for what was around, dizzying, disordered.
______The given trajectory across places enhanced my sense of listening to a soundscape around.

I indulge in St-Pancras-the-palimpsest as Greenlaw’s vocal palimpsest unfolds and draws me in. At its most fragmented and loose it creates spaces for echoes and questioning.
______The given texture of words takes me outside of words, enhances hesitancy.

I do not know these people and their voices, I can’t relate to them as people – they all become figures, signs, masks, vectors.

The voice of an old man, ‘I feel things falling through… I can feel each breath out of my body. The blood that’s so heavy goes so light’.

 ‘I suppose I was the maze’.

‘Listen. The heart of it.’
I wouldn’t call Audio Obscura an exercise in eavesdropping: the tension here is not much on intruding on other people’s fragmented voices and fragmentary stories. The tension of this piece is in bringing those sounds and those fragmented stories back inside the mutating landscape of my understanding, let them hint at my presence here, today.

Audio Obscura is not concerned with sound or listening as such. It builds singular experiences of being – and listening here is a gateway. It points to and expands what cannot be heard, what cannot be said. ‘Dark listening’, Greenlaw calls it. It covets the other side of listening, which could be called making, writing.

By using sound as a medium and as a space, Greenlaw has created a beguiling piece on the process of writing. ‘Listen. The heart of it’, those first words I heard evoke Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Voices, Voices… Listen, my heart’ in the First Duino Elegy – that moment when the poet’s voice breaks to stop and listen to the ‘stream of uninterrupted news that comes from silence’, lingers in that polyphonic hesitancy, then writes it into a poem nonetheless.

Greenlaw too is a poet, her Audio Obscura exists in the wavering space of creating or finding a poem: ‘the point at which we start to make sense of things’, she says. In the unspoken dark space of listening, when sounds before words generate riddles, in those spots that draw us in although we can’t embrace them, like the essential night embracing Maurice Blanchot’s Orpheus before his song takes shape. Audio Obscura is not a sound piece: it is where each poem begins.

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