field mirror

We hear the noises of the city as background, ambience and intrusion, but rarely stop to think about what the city is trying to tell us. Are there rhythms, harmonies or songs that truly represent the sonic identity of a place? Messiaen may have reimagined the music of birdsong, but how can we reimagine the music of concrete, steel, air conditioner hum and crowds?

Through analysis and manipulation of recordings taken of the city, field mirror will uncover the hidden motifs therein, and use them as source material for a new sonic work for forgotten public sound infrastructure lining the walkway between The Arts Centre and Hamer Hall, finally allowing the city to share its song.

Presented as part of If the city could speak, September 22-29th 2017.

If the City Could Speak – Arts Centre


Field Mirror is designed to be listened to through loudspeakers in the Melbourne CBD, at a volume level where it is difficult to distinguish what is the composition, and what are the naturally occurring musics of the city. It’s hoped that by engaging in this way, it will encourage the listener to find the other hidden songs in the soundscape of the city.

If you’d like to hear them in more detail, or listen to them via headphones when visiting all of the source locations, here are the compositions by themselves.

Field Mirror is a continuation of a concept I used in the work one long train, commissioned by the Arts Centre as part of their 5x5x5 project.

I was tasked with responding to the Fairfax Studio Foyer, a space within the Arts Centre, and rather than writing a piece that I felt had an aesthetic or referential connection to the space, I chose to use the sounds of the space itself as compositional material. This led to a series of field recordings in the space, that were then carefully analysed to find any melodic, harmonic or rhythmic material. This material was exclusively used for the composition, which was then arranged for a small chamber ensemble and aligned with a field recording of the space.

For Field Mirror, I was interested in applying a similar process and finding out what hidden musical material 3 different spaces in the CBD of Melbourne held.

The spaces chosen are the Arts Centre walkway on St Kilda Road (also the site of playback), the banks of the Yarra river looking across to Federation Square, and Vic Market.

Four main elements were identified as being crucial and are present in all the works, and used to maintain continuity in both process and the outcome.

Firstly, in all spaces the low frequency build-up caused by air conditioning, rain, traffic, moving water and others strongly suggested a harmonic situation: consonant and strong at the Arts Centre, ominous on the Riverbank late at night (I was also questioned by the police here whilst recording here- apparently cars with microphones hanging out of them aren’t a common sight at 1am on the river!), tense cluster chords at Vic Market during evening pack up, but calm and resolved after pack up was finished. These elements were re-generated by de-tuned droning guitars and synthesisers, and all attempts were made to follow the original recordings as closely as possible.

Secondly, melodic fragments were clearly found and used to build motifs for the pieces: reversing forklifts, train platform announcement bells and sirens all presented clear and obvious elements. These were realised in a variety of ways- sometimes influencing the tuning of higher strings on the guitars, sometimes used to generate small pitch sets for melodies, and sometimes mimicked on other instruments, so it’s hard to tell what is a field recording and what is a composed element.

Thirdly, all field recordings were converted into MIDI data, which is then played back and heard as the bell sounds. These melodies are played with minimal editing or ‘curation’, and are used as a framework that other melodic elements can interact with.

Finally, sounds from the recordings that strongly identified the place of origin were manipulated and re-introduced as short fragments- trams on tracks, seagulls, and water lapping at the riverbanks.

I think the work is best heard in the spaces themselves, though loudspeakers so it’s hard to differentiate what is natural and what is ‘re-introduced’, but the sense of place is strong enough that listening by themselves will still clearly represent the sonics of the spaces.

– Alistair McLean