In The Frame

Yesterday we talked to a journalist today from the Yomiuri Shimbun. At one point, he asked me what, after having experienced them for a few days, I felt about the sound of the planes?

In my head, I was thinking of all the emotions they had inspired: I admit that initially there was a sense of something approaching awe. I’ve been to military air displays where the latest jets have screamed around for the gathered spectators but even a Harrier Jump Jet demonstrating its VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) capability – that prompted one woman in earshot to offer the ironic cry “it’s better than sex” – seemed very low resolution compared to the complexity and proximity of what is happening here as a routine sonic operation. On one long recording, for example, there were 14 jets floundering down to Runway B in not much more than 40 minutes. I wrote in an earlier post about how the over-flights could be discounted as aberrant singularities while it was the grinding ubiquity of the taxiing planes which really grated. Now, after six more days, I’m not so sure. With the wind holding from the same compass point, the direct over-flights have themselves edged into a regular – if unpredictable – event and, as a consequence, themselves been intensified into another grating punishment. For a while, I still marvelled at the magnitude of their noise and remained incredulous at the rushing back-draft that whooshes across the roofs and down the fields and sets poly-tunnels, curtains, trees and bamboo into flapping response. Once, looking out of our window, I saw what looked like a perverse physics experiment – something that would have had a place in John Tyndall’s Royal Institution’s lectures on sound had Pratt and Whitley got their act together a century before. The fine sprays of water that were played by hoses across the roof of the chicken coup in an effort to keep it cool were sculpted by the back-draft of the jets into an apparently precise visualisation of their sound wave, bending and buckling and bowing before returning to their original vertical form. But then awe heated up into rage before then cooling down into irritation before that, in turn, became a kind of sorrow that people had to be subjected to this. My sense of things is that it has been much easier to assimilate what was once startling in the visual field than in the acoustic.

But that was all in my head. What I actually said was an apologetic gesture at sympathy: “I would feel to guilty to say anything at all, since mine had only been the shortest of encounters, undertaken at my own volition, in a place that I don’t regard as my own”.

I was talking to my wife and children on Skype and they asked me a similar question to the one the Yomiuri Shimbun journalist posed. “Are you getting used to it?” I haven’t got used to these sounds. Although I’ve gone through all those responses described earlier, from awe to rage to irritation to sadness, with something verging on a kind of exasperated boredom in between, ultimately nothing has blunted the keening sharpness of the aircraft sounds that surround me. In fact, I’m conscious, if anything, of a heightened sensitivity to acoustic events. If I drop my sandals down two stairs it puts my teeth on edge. If I hear the humble alert sound when the mobile internet kicks in, I can feel my fingers involuntarily clenching into fists.

Reading back over the posts so far, I am conscious of the clear impression that it is very much me in the frame – like when my microphone occasional intrudes into one of Rupert’s shots. Rupert once said that “Air Pressure” is not about us. I agree with that and I want to take that agreement into the various manifestations of the project. Yet it is very difficult not to feel personally involved here and this blog is a chance to explore that personal relationship and to think provisionally and speculatively. Moreover, I’m not sure what work I would want to do that didn’t involve some kind of emotional engagement. That said, I also want to experiment with a more neutral, informational register alongside the personal tone as I account for the further research this experience has inspired me to undertake.

I’ve just walked out into the night and seen that the runway lights have all been shut down. In the darkness, the insects make a sea of sound whose currents you cannot help but let swirl around you. There is distant traffic noise, but the wind caresses the leaves in the trees, the occasional chicken makes a startled call before shrugging itself back to sleep. Some creature parts its way through the foliage near Matsui-San’s sound pressure level meter before suddenly stopping, perhaps having sensed my presence. As I turn to walk back inside, drops of rain have begun to claim their right to land on the corrugated tin roof and then I hear the owl that Rupert told me of two days ago. I have to stifle the desire to run in to grab the microphones and record it. Standing still instead with the rain gently falling.

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