Kate Carr is internationally known sound artist, based in Belfast, who focuses her creative efforts on “articulating the relationship between people and place through sound.” Her most recent recording environments include Iceland, and Mexico. She is also the founder and curator of her own record label, Flaming Pines.
You buy a new album, or hear a new piece for the first time, describe your routine/experience of its first listening.
For me my listening habits definitely depend on what it is I’m listening to. There are probably three main genres or groups of music and sound I listen to, my own works to refine them, demos I receive for my label and music I buy or get given from friends which I listen to more for leisure. For really concentrated listening I like to be lying down, ideally in a slightly darkened room. I try and listen outside of my studio and away from the computer. For more casual listening I am happy to listen while working on the computer, and I find it very soothing and helpful often to listen to music while writing, but for this sort of listening the sound ebbs and flows in my consciousness, more shaping the flow of my day and mood rather than being my focus. Initially I got very serious about composing music in part because I wanted the ability to inhabit a space of my choosing when I was working as a journalist in an office. I wanted to control my own environment and experience, and I made one which worked for me using sound.
On subsequent listens to that same record/piece, which aspects of the music do you focus your listening on. How does your listening perspective change over time?
I probably start to focus more on more subtle aspects of the piece. Sometimes I try and isolate particular elements in my hearing, for example the bassline, or in more experimental music a particular cluster of sounds. If I am re-listening to a piece I am interested in inhabiting the sonic world that the combination of my listening and the piece together create. I guess I ask myself what does it feel like to live in the moment of this piece? What are the shapes, moods and textures of this experience, and how does the flow between my own senses, and internal world combine and collide with this sonic material .
If you could choose your favorite listening environment, what would it be? what draws you to that place to hear the music you’re listening too?
At the moment my favourite and most ‘serious’ listening environment for sound on fixed media is my bedroom. My studio is in my house and I find it difficult to listen in there without thinking about the many things I’m meant to be doing at that time, and also to shut out my many computers and their demands for attention. So I usually now set aside a period of time to take my laptop and headphones into my bedroom, lie on the ground and listen carefully. In the past one of my most favourite listening environments was while I was cycling, particularly last year during Belfast’s summer, which was my first summer here (I moved from Australia last year) and at that time I lived in the countryside, so it was wonderful to listen to all sorts of different musics and sounds while discovering this very different landscape here. But because it is coming to winter in Belfast cycling is definitely less appealing right now. When I was in Thailand two years ago one of my amazing listening experiences was to listen to sounds in rainstorms on my scooter, but I would compose material specifically for this purpose, to experience those combination of elements, and certainly that was not just a listening space, but a very multisensory thing, the rain, the sight of the rice fields getting pummelled, the slippery muddy roads, and my personalised soundtracks. But I also like to just listen to place as well. If I’m walking I very rarely listen to music or sound on headphones. I am just back from three weeks in Mexico and I spent a lot of time just walking around listening to the amazing mix and flow of musics and people, and that too is one of my recently most memorable listening environments.
How does one make their listening listened to? What is the best avenue to communicate your listening experience to others?
I’m not sure I have a strong urge to make my listening heard. It is a very personal intimate space what I choose to listen to and why, and I feel like it would be difficult to convey the nuances of that to anyone. It is not that I’m opposed to discussing it, or my listening practices, but I don’t feel like I need to make my listening experience louder, or more noticed and understood. I don’t draw a strong line of distinction in my life between the way I listen to music or sound and other types of listenings, listening to the people I love, listening to places I like to go, listening as way of discovering and embracing the world and I’ve come very much to embrace listening as an intimate relationship of care and in some ways reciprocity and respect. I suppose my work is in some ways centred on this idea of exploring the ways sound and listening can be used to convey the multisensorial and embodied act of living, of experiencing the new, the familiar, the scary, the joyful, the tragic, the unknowable and the profound. In this sense, the ways listening translates into a relationship with the world, with people and obviously with sound, I am interested in finding ways to be able to communicate about it the importance, the subtlety, the power of the act of listening itself. But the unique space of my own listening experience intertwined as it is with every aspect of myself, I think will always be impossible to fully convey, and that is not a terrible tragedy but simply a reflection of the challenges and limitation of language, and the highly subjective, transitory and muteable relationship sound itself offers.
How does your focused listening to music help you hear the world around you? How does it build awareness to the sounds in your everyday life?
For me my relationship to this question went in the opposite direction I think. It was listening to the world, and embracing experimental composition and field recording which has led me to a far more nuanced relationship to listening to music. I think I’ve always been a fairly unconventional listener, but studio work in stripping back sounds, stretching them, engaging in a very tactile way with a great diversity of sonic material is probably the single biggest factor which has changed my listening habits. I can find it is quite difficult for me to switch off that recordist voice in my head when I am out in the world, and scan for interesting sounds, interesting voices, snippets of conversation, or even editing sounds in my head to fit particular contexts. I’ve been realising more the importance of switching that off to some extent, and to simply let the sonic flow wash over me, so I try to remember to embrace that experience too, not simply one where I’m directly engaged in how I can use these sounds of world in my own creative practice.
Are there differences in how you listen to music as a performer, versus an audience member? how so?
If I take ‘performer’ to refer broadly to my work as a composer, then I would say yes. I think of course when I am trying to make a piece I am listening to it differently, more fiercely in a way, more recklessly, than when I am listening to a performance by someone else as an audience member. In the latter instance listening is a lot more open ended, I’m not sure what to expect, or where the engagement will take me and I’m open to lots of different tangents or threads to that experience. When I am making something usually, but not always, there is something, a mood, or a tone, I am striving for so I’m listening for that, and cutting back everything which detracts from it, and trying to find sounds which will help me strengthen the piece’s ability to communicate that one particular tone, or that combination of concepts, or moods. Sometimes I am a lot more open ended in my compositional process, and in those instances I would say it is a more similar listening experience to that of listening as an audience member; one of listening to sounds in a more open ended way, of seeing where something takes you, of finding a thread to stitch together a piece or an experience.