Kate Carr: The Thing Itself And Not The Myth

Navel-Gazers #23 is an interview with Kate Carr who is going to talk to us about The Thing Itself and Not the Myth. I just got done listening to this album and it’s as though I’ve returned from some sort of murky water-world… except it was really our world. Like much of Kate’s work which - in her own words - blurs the boundary between instruments and field recording, ‘The Thing Itself…’ revolves around audio footage from select locations. And it isn’t always clear the extent to which what we’re hearing is merely or exclusively the unassuming, natural ambience of those locations - these are also compositions, with harmonic properties, with subtle instrumentation and arrangements and with a distinct air of purpose and intent. Kate’s got a way with words - there’s something that draws me in with some of her earlier album titles…. It was a time of laboured metaphors, I had myself a nuclear spring… On ‘The Thing Itself…’ it’s someone else’s voice she’s chosen to channel, that of the poet Adrienne Rich. The theme - at least ostensibly - is water. It’s described as “an album made from sounds gathered underwater and along many shorelines”… I don’t know about you but I’m getting curious about the story behind this one. What’s going on here? Let’s dive in and talk to Kate Carr!

AC: Thanks for talking to me Kate! So this album is ‘The Thing Itself and Not the Myth’. That’s a strong assertion! But what is this album? where did it come from? How does it fit into your overall body of work, and why don’t you give us a bit of background on your practice?

Kate Carr: Hi Andrew! This album took me a really long time. It was released on Jason Lescalleet's Glistening Examples and I had promised Jason something for a few years even before I sent him this. It came on the heels of a really intense period of my life, I had moved to London, I had been super busy, had quite a lot happen fairly quickly with my career in some ways, I had been travelling a lot with residencies, and for other sound work. Also I had experienced some really massive things in my personal life, my partner had a very sudden death in her family not long after we had relocated to London, we had also before that moved from Sydney to Belfast, not long before we then moved again to London, so it was really just a time where a huge amount was going on. I found myself completely burnt out, I was learning really about how to balance a life in the arts, with also trying to keep room for other areas of life, and room to process difficult events. I really had no motivation or desire to make any more sound actually at this point, but I thought 'well if I am to re-discover my enjoyment of composing and recording then I need to keep at it', so I set aside just a small amount of time each week to do a little on the album which became this one.

When I had finished it to be honest I wasn't sure it was at all good or interesting. Jason was really enthusiastic, but it was quite different to my previous work and I felt very unsure about it sonically. It was a lot more sparse, in some ways less emotive than my previous work which was more explicitly personal at times. In using Rich's work I felt like, even though that poem is extremely intense, her words gave me a framework for approaching perhaps my own difficulties from a bit more of a distance. In the poem itself what I related to was its investigation of the relationship between experience and language, in particular these two lines I find incredibly powerful: "The words are purposes. The words are maps" and "the thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck". 

I am someone who has always been obsessed with words and narrative, in my albums I am often making sense of experiences for myself using sound and words, making a narrative which brings events and experiences together in ways which make sense for me. Here I think I was doing the same thing in a way using this poem, but also questioning the relationship between the words or the sounds and the experience, what is lost, what is the gap between the experience itself and the language we use to describe it, what is the slippage between the thing itself, and the myths we make for ourselves about it. No words, or no composition can ever fully capture an event, an experience or a feeling, so many things are always left out, glossed over, while others are writ large. I felt unable to convey or even understand all that happened in this period, and so this poem addressing the gap between experience and language really spoke to me. 

So this is what I was thinking about in this difficult period of my life, and this is the album I made out of it. 

AC: Ok so this thing about distance from the work is really interesting. What about the time that's elapsed between then and now, does that impose distance too, does that further dissociate you from its contents? Or does it work the other way, could the music serve as a portal back into that time and those experiences? We're really diving right in here! but do you understand what I'm asking? Generally speaking your music seems to have this particular biographical quality and I'm trying to understand if these are, on some level... diaries? travelogues? memory aids? myths?

Kate Carr: Yes I understand what you are getting at here, and I think music is neither definitively one or the other of these things, I think it can be both or either depending on the circumstances. I think time of course does bring its own distance, but music can bring us back to particular situations, and emotions in incredibly powerful and sometimes surprising ways. These pieces because they already had some distance built into them probably don't do that quite so much for me as some of my other works, I see them as, despite coming out of this very difficult period, as actually some of my more abstract works which have more openness to varied readings or experiences. Other works of mine, particularly some of the material on The Story Surrounds Us, or 'It was a time of laboured metaphors' I find does very much transport me back to particular locations and emotions in ways I find very surprising. 

When I think back on experiences sometimes I find it hard to imagine or to re-occupy the particular emotional registers of that time, I find myself thinking like 'wow it is hard to believe I felt that way back then, or I experienced that back then' but for me when I listen to some of my works I do re-visit those emotions or sets of experiences in a more immediate way where I still have a distance but I am a bit like 'oh yes, wow, that is what it was like'. I have my music described to me both as very emotional, and then by others as very minimal and abstract, so I think clearly it is experienced in very different ways by different people which is completely normal, of course it is always interesting to me what people take from what I do, how they use it or experience it in their lives, their readings of it, but I think one of the excellent things about music, particularly works without lyrics or a very definite and overbearing narrative, is the ways in which people find different meanings and uses for it based on their own situations and needs.

In terms of my own perceptions of what it is I am doing, this question of if they are diaries, memory aides or what have you... 

I think for me making my own sound worlds, was a way of coping with the world, it was my way of processing particular events in my life, of celebrating some experiences I have had. I like the idea of trying to maintain a curiosity about the world, and I think field recording is a wonderful tool in that endeavour, I really like the adventures it has taken me on, and the experiences it has given me. But I am not someone who wants all of my life recorded, or keeps a diary of any kind. I think forgetting can be as important as remembering, and perhaps sometimes my works are just as much a way of forgetting, of re-shaping an experience, while others pieces might be more about holding an experience closer. 

AC: This is reminding me very much of my first ever interview on Navel-Gazers which was a discussion with Martin Clarke. When you mention field recording taking you on adventures I'm curious to ask you the same question I asked Martin, and later Lara Jones: the locations on this recording - Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, France - were these "field recording trips"? Do you visit locations to record, or do you travel to these places for other reasons, and then just find yourself recording? When making an individual field recording, are you ever deliberately collecting materials for a specific piece of work?

Kate Carr: It's a mixture really. Sometimes I am doing a residency and in that case I have applied to do it because I think the location will be interesting to record in, or I have a specific project in mind to experiment with in that location. Earlier on when field recording was more of a hobby, I would do it a lot of my holidays I took with my partner. For many years I would nearly always record when I went somewhere new, it was just part of what I did, but after periods of burnout and just exhaustion after doing many projects, I now appreciate more the need for some 'off' time where I am just enjoying being somewhere, rather than always recording or thinking I should be recording. I do find field recording sometimes a really enjoyable and joyful process, but it also can be very physically demanding so it is about getting the balance right really. 

As to the second part of this question, usually I am not collecting for a specific work, but sometimes I can be. This album we are discussing I collected most of the material for in Iceland, when I was experimenting with this synchronised swimming speaker in the fjord. I didn't have a hugely specific idea in mind, but I did know I would use that material for something. I will probably make another album from this material actually, as I only used a small proportion of it for this, but I am still considering how exactly. The main time I collected recordings for a really specific pre-conceived project was when I went to rural Spain and conducted staged recordings up and down a small mountain for my work From a Wind Turbine to Vultures (and back).

AC: I actually wanted to ask about the synchronised swimming speaker. Because when I first saw that on the credits I thought: oh right, a synchronised swimming speaker. But after thinking a little more carefully about it, I realised... wait, what? What is that? What is a synchronised swimming speaker? And which tracks can we hear it on?

What sorts of sounds are we hearing from the other locations?

Kate Carr: It's a speaker which is used in the sport of synchronised swimming to ensure the dancers can keep their performances in rhythm to the music while under the water. It is also used to teach scuba diving sometimes I believe. It is simply an underwater speaker, it looks like a thick slice of a big cylinder.

I broadcast drones basically underwater and re-recorded them, so the drones are changed by the speaker itself which sounds quite different to a normal speaker, it has very little bottom end for example, and also by their journey through the sea, there are quite a lot of shrimp cracks for example on parts, as well as gurgles from waves meeting the pier. 

The drones are featured really throughout the album, and it also includes drones recorded this way from the Seine. I would like to do more work with this sort of set up, I like the idea of trying to record something which is shaped by its underwater journey from speaker to hydrophone.

There are a lot of other sounds on this album, there is a lot of morse code, repeating phrases from Rich's poem, there are also a lot of radio static sounds, and quite a few recordings of a water wheel taken in Scotland, as well as shoreline sounds also from there. The water wheel sounds are the creaks and clanks as it rotates, as well as its drips, that is a great set of recordings actually. There are some other machinic sounds in there, gaseous hums and gushes from a scotch whiskey distillery, and I think even an antique loom might be in there somewhere. 

AC: About the morse code... it was a cool moment when I noticed that what sound like random beeps on tracks like The Ladder Is Always There and By Cowardice Or Courage are actually morse code, and even cooler to notice that what looks like an abstract pattern on the cover image is, too, morse code. Could you tell us about your approach to this, and the background or significance behind it?

Kate Carr: Well I think my work is often about efforts to communicate, and the various failures and successes we have at this, so I came to morse code in this way. It is obviously now a very obsolete mode of communication, it is also very truncated in its forms, so it has a particular style and time period attached to it which I find interesting. Just aesthetically as well as a communication of bleeps it sits in an interesting tension with music, it has its own rhythms, which themselves could be perceived as a form of music or soundscape but then within this these bleeps also carry a text based communique if you have the right knowledge or decoder, so I like that layered aspect to it, the literal and abstract meanings morse code can be used to generate. I just find it quite an appealing and evocative form. It also has a history related to shipping and shipping communication, so for this set of pieces I thought it added a lot. I thought of it as this burst of bleeps urgently trying to communicate something through static, there is an urgency to morse code, something that cannot wait, that must be sent, so all of that swirled around my use of it. 

I have my own morse code tapper actually, but it is just metal tapping metal, I would love to have one that actually bleeps for live performances, That would be amazing. 

AC: Yeah I like this "interpolation" approach in art. Now I'm reminded of my discussion with Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman, she derived this piano score programmatically from text materials which were also used elsewhere in the piece. It's the type of thing which isn't immediately apparent on the first encounter, and that's also true of your morse code. I find that this adds a layer of mystery and depth to the listening experience!

Anyway... wrapping up here, I'd like to say I'm glad you agreed to cover 'The Thing Itself...', even though it sounds like it isn't your favourite. I understand your comparison with some of the other albums now - there isn't that same spontaneity or emotional immediacy to this one, in fact there's a certain maturity and perhaps, formality to it which is possibly what drew me in. It’s been fascinating to dissect.

Kate Carr: Thanks Andrew, interesting to chat to you about it. I think it isn't that it's not my favourite, more that it marks a change in my work that I haven't really figured out the significance or permanence of or something yet. In terms of my live work I use material from this album by far the most, and I am not really sure why that is either. I find it a sort of slippery strange work. 

AC: Do you have any interesting projects coming up? or anything else you'd like to share with our readers?

Kate Carr: As for new things I'd probably just like to plug my new album which is out today actually as I type this. It is about the rhythms of a roundabout and the ways in which habits, and connections and paths travelled create public spaces. 

It is called dawn, always new, often superb, inaugurates the return of the everyday which is taken from the spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre's book Rhythmanalysis

AC: I'll certainly check that out Kate. Thank you!

Kate can be found on Bandcamp at https://katecarr.bandcamp.com/.

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