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InTrIcAtE fRiCtIons

by Simon James

Cave-6 Credit Curtis James.png


Curtains of water shimmer in fading light. Distinct zones of white noise showers. 

Drips, splats, trickles, droplets, flow.


Wind activated waves of intensity, the outside swaying, rippling trees blown in through the huge jagged stone window in a wash of noise that fills the entire sound spectrum. 


Every surface damp. 


Every sound scatters, broken in to wet granular echoes bounced and thrown by dense, harsh cave surfaces. Communication is scrambled, muddled and the constant rustling of wind activated trees that surround the cave mask frequencies important for clarity. 


Those explorers that had ventured out in the deluge have long since departed and we are alone. It’s dark now and as my ears attune to the environment new details appear. A drain in the entrance tunnel emits gurgled vowels like a human voice, and I wonder slightly fearfully, if we are about to be joined by strangers. The noticing of this sound reminds me how long it takes to tune in to a new space and also that my sense of hearing is heightened when scared. That this sound continues at length without any appearance of humans, does nothing to lessen my anxiety.


Drips on waterproof fabric stand out, slightly softer than cave borne impacts. 


Occasionally a drip hits an unseen metal object and it sounds unnatural as it resonates and echoes around the cavern walls.


Our movements reverberate and carry far, but lose spatial detail.

How do I feel in this space? Wet, uncomfortable and uneasy. My eyes dart around the dimly lit main chamber, head torch beam not wide enough to illuminate the periphery of my vision.


As I stand in the mouth of the cave, eyes moving over the rough violently hewn surfaces of the slate, I wonder what it must have been like to live in spaces like this, where the shapes and formations of the cave play visual tricks, projecting grotesque faces and monsters. 


On the dark drive home feeling disorientated and travel sick, we plough through deep puddles, the water parting with a drawn out whoosh, deep and physical, resonating through the body of the car.


Over night the wind picks up and plays the house like an instrument. 

The next day we pick up supplies on the way and I’m tempted by a can of ‘Cave Rave’ beer. 

The rain has stopped but water continues to drip, leak and trickle. It seems to come from everywhere, seeping out of the rocks themselves. 


Camera light reflects in brown water.

A singer enjoys the acoustics. 


Animalistic howls from a group that apologise later for being too noisy. I decide next time I’d like to invite people to make their favourite ‘big echo’ sound. We must all have one. 


Q What is the sound you make when you walk into a tunnel or a space where the acoustics are noticeable?


A. I call out the word ‘Echo’ - my son’s name. 


It’s busier today and footsteps and dusty, gravelly scuffs approach, recede and disappear. I feel conspicuous with my big furry wind protection. It looks like a badger on a stick. 


The drips come in so many varieties - plips, bloops, blips, blups, clicks, ticks, ploks. Regular pulses, irregular pulses, distant, medium range, close.

Some more resonant than others. 

A drop lands on my metal cup, another distinct timbre and pitch.

I leave my microphone recording on a high ledge above the main cavern. (Later playback reveals this is the best of the two days).


Outside in the dark I step over brittle, crunching slate collecting different sizes and shapes, listening to their pitches and textures as I hit and move them together. I find the friction between objects fascinating. 


After warm tea we end our visit with a performance of Pauline Oliveros’s ‘Rock Piece’, the three of us each using a pair of the collected slates to sound the complex acoustics of the main cave. An exercise in connecting with the environment and with each other, the performance begins with the group listening for environmental pulses (such as a constant dripping) from which each participant can derive their own independent pulse that must be different from the others. 


The participants move slowly and freely, sounding out the environment in all directions with their rock pulses and gradually converging into a tight circle for the ending. (Oliveros).


Later back at Curtis and Emily’s house I set up my microphone and record the slates close up. I love this sort of listening - it’s mesmerising, microscopic and slow, and I revel in the world of intricate frictions. 


Listening Journal entries from a research trip to Cathedral Quarry in Cumbria, accompanied by fellow artists Curtis James and Emily Macaulay. The visit marked a first step towards making something together about this place.

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