‘Offshore: artists explore the sea’ – An Interview with Rob Mackay

Posted on 09.03.2017

Last month we interviewed poet John Wedgwood Clarke about his collaborative project with sound artist Rob Mackay. This month we spoke to Rob, a lecturer at University of Hull, to hear about his art form, his process and an update on what to expect for their upcoming commission.

ID: What’s the latest on your commission with John Wedgwood Clarke for Offshore? What form is it going to take?

RM: “We’re working on an installation, combining poetry and soundscapes inspired by the Humber Estuary. In particular we’re examining the liminal zone of the shore, with its constantly shifting boundary between land and sea. We’ll be installing loudspeakers in the Trawler Corridor in the Maritime Museum in order to create an immersive listening zone. I’ve been capturing the soundscapes from a range of perspectives, mainly using a 3D sound technique known as ambisonics. This will enable me to re-spatialise these soundscapes in the Maritime Museum, combined with recordings of John reciting his poetry.

We are also exploring the possibility of integrating a visual element in the form of charts and text. We’ve had inspiring visits to Spurn Point, Fort Paull, the Ro Ro Ferry Terminal, and Far Ings nature reserve.”

ID: As a sound artist and a composer do you have a regular process for beginning a project, or is it more organic than that?

RM: “My process usually starts with listening very early on. Whether it’s a sound installation or a composition for an instrumentalist, I’ll start with listening to the raw material of the work at the start. Whilst I may do a lot of research and investigation around a particular place or subject, which will inform conceptual elements of the piece, the process is primarily bottom-up, being informed by the sounds themselves, listening for relationships between the sounds; aspects of interest or beauty. The structuring of the material therefore feels very organic, meaning quite different outcomes, or even ways of working for each project. For example, in an earlier collaboration with John, ‘Resounding Mulgrave’, we explored a section of coast between Port Mulgrave and Staithes on the North Yorkshire coastline. This is a site stacked with human and geological history.

We had originally intended a sound piece for Scarborough’s Rotunda Museum. Our process was being video documented by Tariq Emam, but through exploring the place and its influence upon us, we all ended up filming, recording and playing the space (including improvisations with stones, chains and rock strata), producing quite a range of video and sound material for the final exhibition. For ‘Offshore’ however, the environment has a softer quality, so the ‘playing the space’ approach hasn’t felt appropriate. Instead sounds seem to morph and flow between themselves, much like the shifting shoreline itself. So in response, I’m intending to create a sound accompaniment which produces blurred boundaries between the different soundscapes.”

ID: It goes without saying that sound has the ability to really affect a listener emotionally, what instrument/object/natural sound do you think does this best / moves you the most?

RM: “I think every sound produced is unique, so it would be impossible to say which instrument/object/natural sound source could move me most, as they are all capable of producing such a range of sounds. It’s also a very personal thing, bound up with memory and even physiology. I do think sound can be a great conveyor of emotion, all the same. In his ‘Great Animal Orchestra’ scientist, sound artist and environmentalist, Bernie Krause, describes the mourning call of a beaver, who lost its entire family when its mate and children were killed by two game wardens in an explosion, as the saddest sound he has ever heard. 

 A sound source with enduring interest for me has to be water. I’ve worked on several projects lately which involve the sea, and I’m always surprised by its constantly changing nature (even though I lived by the sea for twenty years). It can hold my interest for hours, and I’m glad I get to share some snippets of these sound experiences with the listeners who come to visit the exhibition. 

Follow Rob on Twitter: @robflute

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