Sebastian Hegarty ‘remembering rain: listening to water and memory [loss]’

In his book, The Strange, Familiar and Forgotten (1992) neuroscientist Israel Rosenfield writes: ‘We understand the present through the past, an understanding that revises, alters and reworks the very nature of the past in an on-going, dynamic process.’ This concept of memory as dynamic rather than fixed, underpins this essay’s exploration of the relationship between water, memory and listening. Informed by neuropsychology and the wet reverie of literary oceans, ice and rainfall, from the ‘frozen words’ of Rabelais to the meditative sea of Melville’s, Moby Dick, the essay examines the ‘substantial nothingness’ (Bachelard) of water, sound and remembering. As a sound artist, the essay draws on practice-based research, specifically, the site-specific sound installation rain choir (2013) and the performed microphone-less field-recording, Silence Lost (2015-),commemorating the loss inherent in the act of recording. This essay is adapted from a performed conference paper originally presented at The Sound of Memory Symposium, Goldsmiths, London, 2017.


At midday on the 8thJanuary 2015, a one-minute silence was held around the world in memory of the victims of a terrorist attack on the offices of the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo. In Paris, under umbrellas and grey skies, people held their silence in the rain. Later that day, the BBC Radio 4 programme PM broadcasted an uninterrupted recorded extract of this silence. As I sat listening to the dripping static of rainfall through the occasional atmospherics of frequency modulation, I heard my own silence becoming part of a shared silent drizzle. In this brief temporal downpour, time gets wet; the borders between here and there, between what is and once was, dissipate.

Our understanding of memory builds on a concept of the present and past as distinct and separate. Memory is a place where we deposit and retrieve the past whole, a draw or harddrive, where memories are left waiting. But this fixed concept of memory has problems. As Oliver Sacks writes:

The notion of memory as a record or store is so familiar, so congenial […] that we take it for granted and do not realise at first how problematic it is. And yet all of us have had the opposite experience, of ‘normal’ memories, everyday memories, being anything but fixed […] no memory, ever remains the same. A story […] repeated, gets changed with every repetition. (Sacks, 1995, p163)

For the neurologist Frederic Bartlett, there is no such thing as memory, only remembering, which ‘is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces’, but rather, ‘…an imaginative reconstruction or construction’ (Bartlett cited in Sacks, 1995, p164). Memory is not a place; memory takes place.
In the words of Israel Rosenfield, ‘we are all ‘redoing’ the past’ (Rosenfield, 1988, p80) and in this redoing, this re-membering,what was and what is coalesce. Rosenfield writes:

We understand the present through the past, an understanding that revises, alters and reworks the very nature of the past in an on-going, dynamic process. (Rosenfield, 1992, p134)

The past is an indefinite article: past, rather than the past. And just as a past informs a present, so too a present reworks or reconstructs past. In the ebb and flow of a dialogue more fluid than fixed, time becomes soggy.

Silence lost English Channel: Tuesday April 5 2016 2015 - Sebastiane Hegarty
‘Silence lost’ English Channel: Tuesday April 5 2016

Call me Ishmael

Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries – stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going and he will infallibly lead you to water […] as everyone knows meditation and water are wedded for ever. (Melville, 1993, p4)

Remembering looms in what Gaston Bachelard terms the ‘substantial nothingness’ of water (Bachelard p92).  For Bachelard ‘[T]ime falls, drop by drop’ (ibid. p55) and water, ‘a substance full of reminiscences and prescient reveries’  (ibid. p89) lies still ‘at the bottom of all memory.’ (Bachelard, 1971. p196) Perhaps we only ever return to water.

Murray Schafer’s first question of listening, ‘What was the first sound heard?’ is answered with the audible and damp ‘caress’ of water (Murray-Schafer, 1994. p15) [T]he ear of the fetus […]’ Schafer writes, ‘is tuned to the lap and gurgle of water’, a sound that is itself a reverie of oceans: a ‘submarine resonance of the sea’. (ibid.)

In Salman Rushdie’s Ocean of the Stream of Stories:

Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many others that were still in process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean […]was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean […] was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive. (Rushdie, 1993, p72)

In Rabelais’ classic, 16th century premonition of recorded sound, a nautical journey toward a frozen sea, reveals strange sounds lurking in the atmosphere. This ghostly ‘din’ is the preserved noise of a forgotten battle: ‘the Words and cries of men and the pounding of maces, the clank of armour’ which have ‘froze in the air.’ (Rabelais, 2006) With the passing of winter these frozen field-recordings, begin to thaw, returning to air and ear. But they do not return in their previous form. Warmed in the hands they melt and can be heard to make sounds ‘such as chestnuts make when they are tossed un-nicked on to the fire and go pop.’ (ibid.) A fistful of frozen words thrown onto the deck melted together, uttering what might be the first Dada poem.

Hing, hing, hing, hing: hisse; hickory, dickory, dock; brededing, brededac, frr, frrr, frrr, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou. Ong, ong, ong, ong, ououou-ouong; Gog, magaog. (Rabelais, 2006.)

Although frozen, these records or memories of sound are not fixed. As they escape solidity and dissolve into the air, sound is heard remembering language.

Sound remembering space

‘Being intangible and slippery’ (Hendy, 2013, p. xiv), sound shares the ‘substantial nothingness’ of water with memory. ‘[A]lways in flux’ sound creates ‘its own dimensions moment by moment.’ (Carpenter, Flaherty, & Varley,1959. Un-paginated) Sound occupies time and space. But this occupation is essentially dynamic and transient, for sound is always disappearing: it expands, expatiates, elapses and passes away (Connor, 2010). In the words of Steven Connor, ‘Sound is the space in which it occurs’. (ibid.) Every sound is formed from an original signal and the reverberations of that signal as it returns, absorbs and decays. The sound of sound simultaneously is and was. In the moment of its occurrence and dissipation, might we then say that sound is remembering space?

In the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, a constant domesticated rain of echoic drips, drenches space in memory and reverie. The clairvoyant white noise of rainfall has the past, present and future associate and come though in the ‘para-sonic’ phantom rings and fragments of voices, that we remember into hearing. For the blind theologian, John M. Hull, the rain ‘whispers like [his] mothers voice, singing hymns and melodies’, ‘surrounding him with everything [he] had been and was.’ The rain dissolves us in time and returns us to the interior.

Sebastian Hegarty rain choir Installation (Winchester Cathedral) 2013
‘rain choir’ Installation (Winchester Cathedral) 2013

rain choir was (and perhaps still is) a site-specific sound installation originally created for, and from, the architecture of Winchester Cathedral. The choir has subsequently been performed, recited and recomposed, for galleries, museums and radio stations in the UK and Europe. Based on field-recordings using an array of hydrophones, acoustic microphones and contact microphones, the choir collects rain as it falls through the Cathedral drainage system. The drainpipes provide a unique spatial acoustic, a metallic hollow, colouring the sound of rainfall and picking up peripheral sonic notes from the cloistered soundscape.

In addition to these dripping voices, the choir also uses the very fabric of the Cathedral as a record of unpronounced vocality.Just as the graffiti covering the internal walls, creates a visible silence, a palpable but unspoken history, so too the Limestone used to build the Cathedral, contains its own petrified voices. Formed from the skeletal remains of pre-historic marine organisms, the stone contains the respiration of primeval life forms and landscapes. In its soft rock, over 160 billion years old, breath and ‘air have slowed and thickened’ into substance. The external Cathedral walls, pitted with holes and crevices, evidence changes in atmospheric conditions and the corrosive effects of rainfall. Dissolving small fragments of these walls in acid produces an acoustic time-lapse of this process of corrosion: a premonition of loss. Echoing the percussive qualities of rainfall and the effect of its polluted chemistry, this naive chemical reaction releases an audible Palaeolithic air of ancient CO2, the walls exchanging permanence for that, which can neither be contained in vessels, nor reduced into a visible body.Voices immured in stone are released from solidity, ‘taking the ear strangely’ in a chaotic gaseous tick of geological time

Sebastian Hegarty rain choir Installation (Winchester Cathedral) 2013
‘rain choir’ Installation (Winchester Cathedral) 2013

The Cathedral drainpipes create a kind of hydraulic music organ, with each pipe having its own distinct note or voice, a particular guttering gargle of wet utterance.In his book Paraphernalia, Steven Connor identifies the drain as a vocal space, a gullet for disembodied voices with a ‘clamorous crypto-vocality’ (Connor. 2011) Like all pipes the drainpipe has an alliance with the ghosts of speech and presence, voice lurks, resumes and survives in the emptiness of its oesophagus hollow. Inside the drain the wet tongue of rainfall lolls around its cavity, dripping in phonemes, lipless plosives and shushed fricatives.

In the information drizzle of rainfall, our brain listens out for substance and form, so we hear not only ghosts of voice, but also patterns and melodies of sound.

Drip drop, drip drap drep drop. So it goes on, this watery melody, for ever without an end. Inconclusive, inconsequent, formless, it is always on the point of deviating into sense and form […] The music of the drops is […] infinitely close to significance, but never touching it. (Huxley, 1948, pp40-41)

In the percussive disarray of raindrops, rhythms emerge, evaporate and repeat. Our ear, or rather our brain, tacitly organises each drip and drop into phrases and patterns, returning form and significance to the inconclusive and abstract. Perhaps it may be said that when we listen to rainfall we hear the process of audition itself. In the rain we listen to ourselves listening.

Victor Zuckenkandl writes: ‘[H]earing a melody is hearing, having heard, and being about to hear, all at once.’ (Zuckenkandl, 1973. p235) In the wet melodies of rainfall we listen not only to the rain falling now, but also to the rain that has fallen and the rain, which is yet to fall. In rain choir each raindrop arrives wrapped in the acoustic of its own guttering, a drop of sound digitally fixed in the space of where and whence it fell. But in the installation, this fixed sound (Chion, 2016) occurs again,immediately enveloped in the acoustic of its present situation: we hear then in the container of now.

In the Cathedral crypt and where ever it falls the invisible ‘wraith-rain’ of the choir performs a concert of ever-changing pitch, tempo, rhythm, and texture. The choir is immediately described by and describing, the space of its occurrence. Each previous drip allies with the next expectant drop, to construct or remember an immediate and emergent melodic landscape. In the account of his journey into blindness, Touching the Rock, John M. Hull describes how:

[The sound of rain] has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; [and] creates continuity of acoustic experience […] The rain gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationships of one part of the world to another. (Hull, 1983. p29)

For Hull, the sound of rainfall places him here in an emerging and precipitating now.  But this, here, remains acoustic and as such, temporal and fluid. As Steven Connor writes, ‘Sound ghosts space. Sound makes space fragile, dubious […] impermanent, imperiled.’ (Connor, 2010, p3) Sound is haunted by its absence, it comes and goes and takes place with it. ‘Sound’ writes Hull ‘is always bringing us into the presence of nothingness’. (Hull, 1983. p167) As he listens the borders between his body and the falling rain dissolve, interior and exterior blur. Hull writes:

I am aware of my body just as I am aware of the rain […] The patterns of water envelop me in myriads of spots of awareness […] At the extremities sensations fade into unconsciousness. My body and the rain intermingle […] (ibid. p133)

In the rain, ‘Everything is dissolved’ (Bachelard, 1983. p92). Lost in listening, Hull evaporates, he writes: ‘As I listen to the rain, I am the image of the rain, and I am one with it.’ (op. cit.. p31)

Hearing loss

“I can hear it on the windows and it sounds like someone’s breaking in…sounds like someone’s breaking in.”
Extract from a transcript of duet for vinyl, (2007) Sebastiane Hegarty

In duet for vinyl (2007), a covert recording of a telephone conversation with my mother is edited, removing my own voice and replacing it with the noisy emptiness of telephone silence. During our conversation my mother is occasionally distracted by the sound of rain falling against her windows: a ghost of rain I cannot hear. The presence of my mother remains vulnerable as she disappears into the lonely absence of a forgotten word or into the rain she listens to. Transcribing this edited conversation onto a single-sided vinyl record augments her vulnerability. The blank ‘other-side’ adds a dull physicality to the lack of reply, the inherent obsolescence and fragility of the vinyl surface, materialising and prophesising loss.

As an artist whose practice draws substantially on field-recording, I am accustomed to the loss and failure inherent in the act of sound recording. By this I do not mean the intrusion of unintentional noise, the fumble of fingers and aeroplanes or the click, pop and hum of electronic interference, but rather, the impact of recording on the essential impermanence of sound; the isolation and extradition of sound from time and place. To paraphrase Connor; sound is ghosted by its record. Every sound recorded, obscures and silences another; the sounds we are not listening to, sound un-struck, unspoken and almost said, sound beneath and beyond the auditory threshold.

POET: Tell me before you go. What did you suffer from most down here?

INDRA’S DAUGHTER: From – being human. From feeling my sight weakened by eyes, my hearing muffled by ears, and my thought, my light, airy thought, cabined by the windings of a brain. (Strindberg, 1973. p46)

Might we say that recording not only muffles sound but also our listening? Perhaps it would be better to record the loss of sound, to remove the signal and listen, not to this sound, but to the remembering of sound itself.

Sebastiane Hegarty a silent tide (2013 -)
‘a silent tide’ (2013 -)

As part of an ongoing series of performed, microphone-less field-recordings, I have used vinyl records as both a material record and field-recording instrument. In a silent tide (2013) two records, each cut with a silent groove, were immersed in the North Sea: one as the tide came in and one as it went out. The records have been played, or rather, performed three times. With each performance the recording of the tide is changed, the coast of silica clinging to the surface shifts as the incoming wave of the stylus dislodges silence.

Sebastiane Hegarty Silence lost North Sea: Thursday August 27 2015 (Detail of announcement in The Times)
‘Silence lost‘ North Sea: Thursday August 27 2015 (Detail of announcement in The Times)

silence lost (2015 – ) is a prolonged phonographic non-event, in which a series of single-sided silent 10” records, are lost in the seas surrounding the UK.Through an Indo-European root the word ‘silence’, has already dipped an etymologically toe in the sea: ‘silence, to release, to let sink.’ The records sunk in various seas, give silence tangible form. But without an original signal, they are not a record of silence, but rather a period of space and time during which nothing is recorded, a moment in which nothing happens and silence may occur.

The loss of each record is documented (and predicted) by an announcement appearing in the Lost and Found section of The Times newspaper on the day that silence is lost. This announcement, together with a photograph of the sea at the site of disappearance and an empty record sleeve, provide only circumstantial evidence of loss. The record, like the silence it withholds, exists somewhere between the real and the imagined, the present and the absent, the forgotten and remembered. And in this rumour of a silence yet unheard, our ear is lent toward the inaudible, almost and lost. Un-muffled by the tangible, our listening becomes a remembering, a silent presencing of sound and its lack.



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