“a hush, almost sacred”: Steve Peters – Here-ings

As will have been obvious from my two “Best of” posts at the end of last year (here and here), i’m very taken with the work of sound artist Steve Peters. i’ve been spending a lot of time with his work of late, and one release has particularly impressed me in all sorts of ways. Peters is clearly a composer with both an acutely sensitive ear as well as an innate sensibility to the contexts in which sound occurs; nowhere is this better illustrated than in Here-ings.

Subtitled ‘a sonic geohistory’, Here-ings takes the relatively unusual form of a book and CD, the former illuminating the contents of the latter through a combination of prose and poetry (also by Peters), plus photographs contributed by Margot Geist. Essentially, the project consisted of Steve Peters spending a great deal of time at a site in New Mexico called The Land, set aside for site-specific art that engages with the environment surrounding it. Feeling that he would prefer to let the place ‘speak for itself’ rather than asserting his own creative impulse, over the course of a year, Peters made a series of hour-long field recordings at The Land, each occupying a different hour of the day, totalling 24 hours of material. Furthermore, each hour was recorded at a different location within The Land, so his recordings succinctly capture the entirety of The Land, throughout a year, conflated into a day’s worth of sound.

Together with the addition of some contact microphone recordings made at the site on other occasions, Peters then had the unenviable task of whittling away this material to fit onto a single CD, each hour now reduced further into just 3 minutes. And it’s deeply reassuring to note that, rather than choosing only the most interesting moments from each hour, he took a far more courageous and honest approach; as he explains in one of the short essays:

I’ve … intentionally refrained from making this soundscape more lively than it really is for the sake of creating a more “exciting” recording. It would be tempting to take all of the highlights in a given hour and cram them into a few action-packed minutes, but that would deny the essence of the place. … Most of the sounds there are intrinsically not very loud, and are spaced far apart from each other in both time and distance. I have attempted to honour that spaciousness. This requires one to suspend expectations and accept what is offered, to listen on the terms set by this particular soundscape.

Throughout these essays, it becomes abundantly clear just how profound an impression The Land made on Peters, approximating something unearthly, perhaps even numinous. It’s refreshing and deeply moving to read his words; i found they set the scene perfectly for the sound that was to follow. The poetic texts that come after (titled ’24 Songs’) are aligned to each of the 24 tracks on the CD, but on a first listening i found i wanted to put the words aside, and just listen to the soundscape. On subsequent listenings, these texts have expanded the experience in interesting ways, together with, at the back of the book, a succinct breakdown of the sounds that occupy the 3 minutes derived from each hour of material.

The listening experience ranks among the most remarkable i can remember. It makes for an interesting contrast to the field recording albums of, say, Chris Watson, sounding less contrived than Watson—although, arguably, they’re working towards very different ends. The 72 minutes progress surprisingly slowly, and yet at no point did i find myself anything other than totally engaged with what i was hearing. The act of listening to material spanning a complete day becomes highly evocative, bringing to mind all sorts of memories and experiences that somehow seem connected to the sonic motion at work here. Certainly, the distinction between night and day is strikingly vivid, and as one gave way to the other, i found myself recalling a time on the Isle of Mull, when i stood for a couple of hours to watch the dawn, without doubt one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. The soundscape conjures moments such as these into the imagination, and—to my mind—it testifies to the depth and communicative power of this most unorthodox of releases.

i recommend listening through headphones, which really brings out the subtleties buried deep within this complex audio. The entire release—book and CD together—are perhaps best summed up in these words, from the poetic text accompanying the sounds from 11 a.m.:

…barely audible
all the more beautiful for thatSteve Peters

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