To the ICA last night for the London Film Festival Screening of Pat Collins' film Silence. Like the film I saw at last year's festival, Ben Rivers' Two Years at Sea, it is slow cinema, situated somewhere between documentary and drama. 'The film follows a softly spoken sound recordist, played by co-writer Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, who wields a mic on a stand rather like a pilgrim would a staff as he treks through bleak and beautiful Irish locations as part of a vague professional assignment to record spaces "away from man-made sound."' As Frances Morgan goes on to say in her article in November's Sight & Sound, 'the idealisation of remoteness, of depopulated or liminal spaces, and of the man (it's rarely a woman) wandering or living among them' has surfaced recently in the work of many writers and film-makers: Sebald, Sinclair, Keiller, Ben Rivers and Robert Macfarlane. But Silence sets up 'a tension between the need for solitude and the responsibility to hear, speak, bear witness to human history. Ruined houses glimpsed across a bay may seem picturesque, but a fisherman's story of mass economic migration is a corrective to romanticising their decay. Eoghan describes childhood evenings spent following his father's often dangerous fishing trips via CB radio, an evocative image of sound and its attendant technology connecting humans across the wilderness of the sea.'
Recording silence in the Burren
At the brief question and answer session after last night's screening, Pat Collins talked about the film's use of music and improvised dialogue. In editing the film he wanted to be free to include sounds and imagery that felt right, without being tied to a clear narrative structure. At one point, for example, he cuts to an unnamed poet walking through the mist, reflecting that "the mind turns upon silence" (it is one minute into the trailer embedded above). Elsewhere we hear the voice of cartographer and landscape writer Tim Robinson, the subject of a documentary Collins made last year. In the trailer for that earlier film embedded below you can hear hear Robinson talking about sound and silence. “Sometimes from my doorstep on a still night I become aware that the silence is set in a velvet background like the jewel in a display case. A hushing that, when attended to, becomes ineluctable. It is compounded of the crash of breakers along distant strands variously delayed, attenuated, echoed and re-echoed...”
Near the start of Silence, there is a scene in a hotel where the barman tries to engage Eoghan in conversation, telling him about a deserted Scottish island where starlings still mimic the mechanical sounds of the lawnmowers once used by its inhabitants. Is this story the sort of thing he is looking for? Eoghan replies quietly that what he has come to Ireland to find is silence. The possibility that an anecdote about birdsong might be of more interest than the sounds themselves is a sign perhaps of how much has been written and said about soundscapes in recent years. It seems only a matter of time before the boom in sound art is accompanied by new narratives centring on the figure of the field recordist, fictional versions of Chris Watson perhaps, who worked on Silence and told its director the Scottish island story. Will these resemble earlier characterisations of landscape painters in nineteenth century literature? Rose Tremain's story 'Wildtrack' was written in 1986, when the purpose of crouching over a tape recorder in a Suffolk field was to record a soundtrack for use in radio rather than make an art installation or an album for Touch. Her protagonist, like Eoghan in Silence, returns to the places of his childhood and the story becomes more about memory than landscape. Perhaps this focus is inevitable given the way that recordings preserve and bring back lost time. Pat Collins has referred to David Toop's idea that sound is ‘a haunting’and his film ends with Eoghan exploring an abandoned house while faint sounds of conversation can be heard: they may be old tapes he made as a child, or ghostly presences, or both.