What do memories sound like? Specifically, what do memories of places you’ve been sound like? The places you’ve been, got married, had holidays, got drunk, been mugged, fell asleep?
The sounds of the places themselves – experienced directly or indirectly, via recordings or descriptions –can bring memories flooding back. But these are triggers for memories, rather embodying the memories and emotions that the places evoke. Is it possible to describe these memories and emotions as sound? What would it sound like?
The London-based sound artist Iris Garrelfs plays with this idea in Bedroom Symphonies, an album made up of digitally processed vocal fragments recorded on tour or during residencies. The track titles and accompanying booklet of photographs link these pieces to specific locations; an aid to triangulation if you like.
Occasionally, in Hotel Mexicana, for example, recorded during Garrelfs’ time in Mexico, the three elements come together, her collage of plainsong-like vocals and digital scrabbles merging with the shots of the region to create a vivid sonic postcard.
More interesting, however, is when those relationships between sound and place are ambiguous. Take Joy’s Room and Casa Italia. Garrelfs’ booklet links these pieces to time she spent in Italy with the improvising group Symbiosis Orchestra, but the pieces themselves resist the listener’s attempts to ground them in specific locales. Instead, they seem to float free of their moorings, like boats drifting off into a lake. There’s a sense of Garrelfs creating her own narrative, a personal history crowded with submerged meanings.
You might think this makes for an unengaging listen, the sound world relevant only to its creator. Actually, the opposite is true. Untethered, Garrelfs’ creations take on opaque power, resonant and mysterious. About four minutes into Joy’s Room, for example, Garrelfs’ vocal waves are suddenly interrupted by a rhythmic, metallic clanging. But before we can draw a bead on it, it vanishes, as if ducking back into the depths.
Casa Italia, meanwhile, casts an ominous drone of stretched bass humming, over which Garrelfs layers sounds of water dripping, mysterious scribbles, electronic-sounding burbles and abrasive mechanical scrapings, before a swirling howl drowns everything else out. It’s mysterious yet playful too, as if we have been dragged down some vast plughole
Perhaps the biggest disjunction between autobiography and audience comes with the final track, Split Ends. While Garrelfs’ text and photographs for this piece evoke happy memories of a holiday in Split, Croatia, to the external listener the piece conjures up a very different set of images and associations.
We’re swallowed in layers of stony rumblings, with snatches of reversed, warped voices bursting out of the ether before being superseded by echoing, metallic thuds, disorienting bursts of noise and wiry electronic glitches. Rather than being on holiday, it feels as if we have been abducted by aliens, interrogated and then dumped in a basement.
It’s a fascinating dislocation, even more so on successive listens as the two competing sets of associations seem to chafe against each other and offer up further interpretations.
Garrelfs describes Bedroom Symphonies as a ‘private set of pieces, performances entirely without an audience’. Yet by muddling the links between memory, creativity and place, Garrelfs has created a beguiling and engrossing work.