The Field Reporter ...
As a boy I remember going down with a bunch of schoolkids into one of the Blue John caverns deep beneath the Derbyshire hills. The guide said “we’re now going to turn out all the lights and I want you all to be silent, then you will experience absolute darkness and silence for the first time in your lives.” When the lights went out it was indeed absolute darkness. There was no light at all and my visual brain sensors went into shutdown. However, it didn’t work with the silence. People carried on breathing (thankfully) and clothing rustled. You could hear your own heart beating.
This experience stayed with me and influenced the way I listened to things from thence forward. It seems our brains recalibrate how we listen according to the circumstances, a kind of gain control. Maybe real silence does exist somewhere, but we can never go there to hear it. Our very presence in a place creates sound. Our intrusion destroys silence. Our recording equipment makes noise and there is always air. Whatever we do, we disturb the air.
Quies by Peter Lenaerts is not a search for silence in an academic sense. It is not an inquiry into how little can be put onto a digital recording or how thin you can spread things before they vanish altogether. It is in fact an evocation of place, albeit a very quiet, very large place. The quietness is not the kind you achieve by sticking earplugs in and closing things down, it is entirely the opposite: It is an opening up and a surrendering to the huge expansive emptiness of the desert.
As Lenaerts points out in an interview about Quies “Looking for silence was never the goal. For me it is more about the sound of the world around me, and the experiences it evokes. About developing awareness for it. We live in a world that is dominated by the visual. We are barely conscious of our own auditory perception.”
Because of the somewhat noisy nature of the domestic surroundings, I chose to listen to Quies on headphones late at night with the rest of the family in bed and just a single small light on. Lenaerts says he is interested in the CD format as a curiosity, where people are not necessarily expected to listen to the disc in its entirety. Even so, the longer these tracks go on, the more your sense of hearing becomes calibrated to the sounds and the space encoded therein. Without doubt these things take time, and then a kind of confluence takes place between your own and the artist’s wavelengths.
Suddenly you see the never ending sand stretching out to the horizon, the baked desert air and the searing sun. There is some life out here as every now and then a bird calls from a far off place or an insect buzzes close by. Lanearts chose to either carry the microphones in his hand or wear them on his head (as opposed to simply leaving them out in the field and retrieving them later). Sometimes I think I hear evidence of the artist: Maybe a rustle, maybe a click.
This placing of the artist firmly in the environment adds the human aspect. This is exactly what Peter Lenaerts wanted you to experience and not a random recording from a static microphone in a desert. He makes the different locations which constitute Quies explicit in their characteristic atmospheres, subtle differences in an environment many may think of as uniform.
Wind blows across the expanse of Lake Torrens, a dry salt lake that has only been filled with water once in the last 150 years. In the ghost town of Farina the remains of the houses stand testament to man’s vain hope. In the past a railway connected this place to civilisation, but the rains never came, the crops never grew. In Andamooka cemetery the headstones seem an integral part of the desert with only the brass plaques jarring as they glint amongst the sand and stones. In the far distance a dog barks.
These are the places we are transported to and left in. Spaces that open out and extend. Dryness can be felt as a presence. We can share Lenaerts’ uneasiness on being confronted with the frightening, unnatural quietness. We live in a society where many people feel anxious if there is no radio playing in the background, a society that has gravitated away from silence. The desert is the antithesis of modern consciousness. We fill our minds, our days, our lives with input. The seas of sand remain impassive.
I’ve just listened to Quies again and I’m in danger of becoming a bit obsessed. Also I’m drinking a lot more water than usual.