Interview: Bethan Kellough

PHOTO BY BETHAN KELLOUGH

Aven needs to be heard both quietly over headphones and loudly over speakers. Through headphones, the 27-minute piece unveils Bethan Kellough’s wondrous capabilities as a sound sculptor, slotting violins amidst field recordings of turbulent weather and placid currents of water, with sounds subsuming others like pebbles engulfed by clasping tides. Field recordings from different environments co-exist as though they were ecologically destined to do so. Over speakers, I can receive the vibratory viscera of the work, much of which originates from recordings Kellough made in Iceland last year: the geothermic rumbles that set my stomach alight, and the vacuum-inducing thumps of bass frequency that feel reminiscent of the most bombastic of film trailers. Aven is an intricate work, but far from a delicate one. Below, Kellough and I discuss her field recording trips to Iceland and South Africa, the ways in which her work adapts to space and scale, and (particularly pertinent to yours truly) her thoughts on the articulation of sound.

I understand that the basis for Aven is a trip to you took to Iceland last year.

Yeah. It was the Wild Eye sound recording trip with Chris Watson and Jez Riley French. The recording that starts Aven is from a geothermal site that we visited on that trip: it was recorded at the top of what seemed to be a very narrow cave passage which I could put a microphone into. There was steam coming out of it, and I could hear this rhythmic booming sound. Being above this thing I couldn’t see was just an incredible experience, and it gave me the impression that there’s a whole other world underground, and energy coming from that – both sonically and in terms of the heat from the steam. That became the basis of the piece as Aven begins with the recording itself, and it fuelled the ideas around which the instrumental parts were developed.

I’ve been to Iceland once before, and can definitely relate to being amidst that energy you’re talking about – both in terms of the visceral weather and the geothermal activity occurring just beneath my feet. How easy is it to capture these sensations in the recordings?

Obviously there’s a lot going on that doesn’t translate into sound recordings. Technically speaking, you’re also limited in terms of what sounds you can capture. You can feel those booming bass sounds when you’re there, and there’s a lot more going on than is being captured by the microphone. But I think that’s one of the things I was interested in developing through the instrumental material; trying to explore, musically, some of the extra sense of what was going on in my own experience. It wasn’t about recreating that experience in any way – it was a reflection on it, exploring what exactly those feelings were.

There’s a difference between the experience you have in a particular place and listening back to the recordings you make there. I’ve always been interested in how the environmental and spatial aspects of the recording experience become a part of how I treat that recording. Although those things are not inherent within the recording, the use and development of that recording, musically, is actually rooted in that initial experience of being there when it was recorded.

I understand that you met your now-husband Bob in Iceland back in 2014. Does that mean that there’s a certain emotional significance to the recordings you made there?

Yeah. We listen back to the recordings together and have memories tied to them. I think everything you experience during a recording trip comes into how you feel about the recordings – especially now, when we’ve spent time listening to them together, and using them in various projects that we do. They take on new roles, depending on whether they’re being used in Bob’s film sound design, or in my various compositions. We both share that knowledge of where they came from, and we can talk about it with the entire frame of reference in terms of what we experienced. It’s nice to have that.

The iteration of Aven you’ve released was actually captured live during a Touch Conference in Los Angeles earlier this year. Given how prominently your music works with space, what’s it like to translate a live piece into something that works well in a home listening environment?

Originally, I worked on the piece in my studio, listening on headphones and speakers, and so I made the piece in the sort of environment that most people will listen to the CD in. So with my process, the live experience is the unknown for me – things can need adjusting in terms of the mix, and there’s also a question of how it’s going to work when presented to a group of people as a collective listening experience. I’m always interested in exploring different venues and trying different things live, because that’s where it becomes a question of, “how’s it going to sound here?” The live performance is usually something of an experiment for me. I did an in-store a couple of weeks ago, and performed a remixed version of part Aven. I took elements of it and turned it into something I could very much perform live, triggering and processing in a “looped” sort of way.

I can imagine it working really well live, given that there’s a lot of intense activity occurring throughout the entire frequency spectrum. I can see it becoming a very “bodily” listen, if that makes sense.

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed when performing live is the extra space, in terms of the size of the speakers and the size of the space I’m in. Especially regarding the low frequencies – when you have that much bass within the sound, it suggests that it’s big. To contain it within a small studio…it works when I’m working on it, but to hear it on a larger scale is really enjoyable.

When playing in some of those larger spaces, is there a sense that you can more accurately recreate the original scale and sensation of some of those bigger sounds?

I think so. Obviously there’s a certain limit to that, and there’s probably an optimum playback experience for each recording. A lot of the recordings I make are actually very quiet. Playing them back at a low level, where people almost have to walk up to the speaker to hear them – I’m also interested in that. But I think you’re right, in that what makes me deal with the recordings in a particular way – for example wanting to project the sound, or wanting to restrict it and keep the scale down – is often based on the original listening and recording environment, and how it sounded there.

It’s not so much about representing exactly what I heard, but the scale at which you play something back – which is tied up with the volume at which you play it back and the distance between the speakers and the space it occupies – really affects how you hear something, feel about it and respond to it. The other side of it is that it’s actually interesting to play with that scale – not always making it realistic. For example making small sounds really huge has a particular emotional effect too. It’s also an important part of preparing these pieces for live, and the dissemination of the pieces across different formats as well. Depending on where it might be played back, it’s always going to change slightly.

BETHAN IN SCOTLAND, DECEMBER 2014. PHOTO BY ROBERT KELLOUGH

BETHAN IN SCOTLAND, DECEMBER 2014. PHOTO BY ROBERT KELLOUGH

You mentioned that you worked with Chris Watson and Jez Riley French in Iceland. I understand that you also went to South Africa to record with James Webb and Francisco Lopez. What was it like to work with these people, and was there anything interesting you noticed in terms of the way they interact with sound?

With both trips, there was an emphasis on listening to the environment without recording it. When I went to Iceland in 2014…I hadn’t been to that area of Iceland before, and I hadn’t been to Iceland with a focus on recording before. When hearing all of these new sounds and focusing on the sonic environment, there was a temptation to press record on everything [laughs]. It’s an amazing environment. Chris emphasised the importance of pausing that process – taking the time to go and listen to the environment first. I think that was a really key part of becoming more familiar with it, and having a greater sense of purpose when you press record, and a more thoughtful sense of why you’re pressing record. It was about taking that moment of pause and exploring the environment with your ears instead of over headphones and through a microphone.

Everything sounds very different through a microphone. In fact, I had a very interesting experience recently where that was really brought home to me. I went out recording for a short film that Bob and I were working on, and we recorded some sounds on a sailboat. Trying to keep balance on the deck of a sailboat while listening through your headphones as you’re moving the microphone around and hearing where that’s pointing… The balance cues from your ears are following the movement of the microphone rather than your head, and the deck is tilting from side to side at your feet…That was a really strange experience, and it really reinforced the fact that you’re hearing very differently when you’re listening through a microphone. You’re listening from a different perspective.

Taking this idea of different listening perspectives even further, exploring the extended techniques of contact microphone/hydrophone recording with Jez in Iceland revealed more layers of sound in the locations we visited, listening from a perspective our ears are incapable of giving us. This was a different type of exploration of the environment and was a really interesting complement to the approaches explored with Chris. When I came around to working with the recordings I wanted to explore these different internal and expansive spaces captured with the different recording methods, the result of which is a piece that focuses on the Krafla Geothermal Power Station. This piece is broadcast on Touch Radio (Touch Radio Number 112).

In Iceland, we went on walks to listen to and explore the environment, and would often stay a short distance from our recording equipment to hear the environment as we were recording. In South Africa, Francisco set up a few really rewarding sessions of listening as a group. He set up some chairs in a circle at several interesting spots in the reserve, and we spent maybe an hour just listening – not recording, not talking…everybody was just quiet and listening. As a group, that has a very interesting element to it: everybody was a part of this activity, yet we weren’t communicating to each other through speech. We were all sharing the same sonic environment. We did one of these sessions in the evening just as the sun was setting and it was just an amazing experience.

It’s interesting that you talk about having “purpose” when pressing record. Obviously incessant documentation is a big topic at the moment – what with camera phones, social media etc – and the concern that such a practice can instigate a disconnection with the experience itself. Do you think there’s a certain relationship between this idea and your experiences recording in Iceland and South Africa?

Yes, although for me – and probably for a lot of people involved in field recording, I think – the microphone is what takes me out there in the first place. In some senses, technology can cause a disconnect. If you only observe things through technology, it creates a very different experience. But sometimes it’s actually having the camera that makes you look in more detail. Or in my case, it was having the microphone that got me out and listening to environments. First I was more engaged in this mediated listening through the headphones and the microphone, but the ultimate result was that I became interested in listening to the environment. That initial experience of being present is what fuels my artistic work. It’s an interesting question, and it’s interesting to think about how this technology affects the experience of our environments. I think there’s many different ways that it can, in both positive and negative ways.

You talked about the experience of simply sitting and listening alongside Francisco Lopez and James Webb. As someone who doesn’t do much field recording, there are very few situations in which I find myself in social company under the pretence of simply listening to the environment without any conversation whatsoever. When you first started embarking on these group field recording sessions, did you find that experience strange?

It’s very different. When I started, I was largely going out and doing field recordings on my own. And then I started going on these group trips, such as the ones to South Africa and Iceland, and with Jana Winderen and Mike Harding to the Kyle of Lochalsh in Scotland. On these trips people are, naturally, moving around and re-positioning microphones, and so there’s this element of having an unspoken negotiation about how you manage that situation – having a group of people wanting to record without having other people walking round, changing batteries, some wanting to do long-form recordings and others wanting to capture many different perspectives. Each having our own recording gear we were a group but each with individual interests.

One of the amazing things about just sitting and listening was that we were all on the same timetable: starting at one time and stopping an hour later. There was no longer this negotiation happening. As opposed to the recording, this felt like much more of a collective experience – everyone was right inside that same moment and on that same timetable together.

I wanted to ask about the musical elements of Aven; in particular, the strings that you recorded yourself. They inhabit the release so beautifully, and the way in which they slot alongside the field recordings is so seamless. How did you bring them into the frame? Were they written and recorded once everything else was done?

It’s different for each piece, but for Aven it was very much a case of having the scenario in mind that had been created by the original field recordings: in my mind in terms of reflecting on the experience, and in my imagination in terms of where I might take this artistically. The strings and other instrumental layers are built up through improvisation – changing things in the box and then re-recording violin lines. It’s note-by-note but also layer-by-layer, working until it feels right.

I don’t notate the pieces, and it doesn’t have a compositional plan. It evolves from an idea, and is not restricted to instrumental development. I might use another field recording to generate what I’m trying to create; if it’s an “opening out” of space, I might use things that create the sense of a greater scale, such as higher strings distributed across the sound field or a bigger bass note, or a field recording that has a lot of white noise content that might spread across the stereo field or – if I’m working with surround sound – across the entire sonic field.

The musical composition process is driven by creating the sonic environment I want to produce, rather than any musical plan for how the form of the piece might evolve. I do sketches of shapes on paper when I’m trying to figure out where to go next with something, and that’s the closest I’ll probably become to writing a score for a project like this.

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In that case, is there a synaesthesic element to your process?

Very much so. When I’m talking about “opening out” spaces through sound, there is very much a sense of an imagined world. It’s not so much in terms of actually seeing a particular environment or even seeing that original field recording environment – it’s more about creating an abstract sense of space and environment. Colour and dark/light come into that too. I really love the work of the Californian light/space artists like James Turrell and Doug Wheeler. Some of the senses they create when you experience their pieces…there’s a feeling that it’s an environment made up of space – it’s not object-orientated.

Even though I talk and think about it in spatial terms, I think sound is about a time-based journey. That journey is different each time for me, and I expect it to be different for each listener. It’s not meant to articulate anything in particular, even when I’m talking about the origins of each field recording and what I was thinking about when I created it. It’s not important to me that someone thinks about that when they listen to it. In some cases, I think it might add another layer of experience, but it’s not something that I feel is definitely a part of the work. It’s about figures of opening out space and bringing it back in again, creating silences and re-opening it back out. Do you know the work of John Hull at all?

I don’t, no.

He gave a lecture that was published in the Soundscape journal, that was originally given at the first UKISC conference on Sound, Culture and Environments in Darlington back in 2001. He’d been blind for around 20 years when he gave the lecture, and he describes the process of coming to terms with that and living life through sound. He talks about how the sound of rain opened out space to him, because he heard it first on the window pane, and then on the drainpipe, and then in the trees…the sound started to create space and an environment for him, rather than the interiorised space that he’d been inhabiting since he lost his sight. In a visual way, he couldn’t extend his presence beyond himself, but sonically he was suddenly able to. That was something that was really inspiring to me, in terms of articulating something that I’d been thinking about but hadn’t conceptualized or put into words – the way that sound opens out space. In terms of stereo, I see it as a window into another world. In the case of surround sound or immersive pieces, you become part of it rather than an onlooker.

I seem to remember you writing about something similar in your 2011 masters thesis, where the dimensions of one’s soundscape are shaped by what one can aurally perceive. You seem to be very good at articulating those aspects of sound that I struggle with; often I find myself running into contradictions, which makes me think that the linguistic framework we use to talk about sound is probably inadequate. Do you know what I mean?

Definitely. During my Masters and PhD studies, I discovered a lot of things that were very useful in figuring out how to talk about sound. Alongside John Hull’s lecture, Gernot Böhme’s work on acoustic atmospheres, writings by Budhaditya Chattopadhyay, Jean-François Augoyard and Henri Torgue, and the work of many fellow composers and sound artists were important both in developing my compositional approaches and in working out how I can talk about sound. There was basically a lot of discovery, and learning how to apply certain concepts within the framework of sound. I think there’s always a danger in conceptualising things, especially to do with sound; first of all because it’s personal experience, but secondly it shifts all the time. Even just sitting here – some days a siren will go past and it’ll be a nuisance, and other days I don’t even notice it. Experiencing sound is so complex, so to even try and conceptualise it is difficult.

In that 2011 thesis, I wrote a personal listening experience at the end, which was trying to say: I’ve written all this stuff about how I think it might work, and this is why I think that. In academia, personal experience only goes so far so it had to be a small part of it. But I find that kind of writing really interesting, when I read about someone else’s personal experience – often it’s a poetic bit of writing or someone casually talking about their experience, but that’s where I’ve found the real gems in terms of how to describe sound and listening.

Speaking of the subjective perception of sound – there’s one sound I wanted to ask you about on Aven. There’s a piano melody about 19 minutes in which I found to be particularly sad, and I can’t put my finger on exactly why. Does that piano have any particular emotional affiliation for you? How does your experience of it compare to mine?

The piano is used for a particular effect there, in contrast to the strings in the rest of the piece. I think strings create a big space quite easily and can be used in a “landscape” type way, just because of the nature of the sound. With piano, you always hear the room. It creates a contained space somehow. I think it’s to do with the combination of what that brought into the environment of the work, with the sad or melancholic melody…to me, it was a sense of emptiness. There’s a sense of an internal space, whereas with strings…I can mix them with outside field recordings and they can inhabit that space very well. With the piano, you hear the point source of it.

I suppose the attack of the instrument is a big part of that. With the piano, you immediately hear the room responding to the sound of the key being struck.

Yeah. That piano in “Aven” has been processed a little, but if, for example, you start adding big reverbs, you lose the sense of the piano and the hammer on the strings. I wanted to keep the sense of intimacy and room that this creates. The recording alongside it is one I made underneath some grass in Iceland: two miniature microphones in this dry, straw-like grass, and the wind blowing across it. I suppose that small space – buried underneath the straw – fits in with the idea of an intimate space produced by the piano tones.

Bethan Kellough’s website – bethankellough.com