On April 21, 2005, I visited the Cathedral in the Desert, a famous natural amphitheater in the Glen Canyon Recreational Area in southern Utah. There I performed the first of what I intend to be a series of ‘audio restorations.’
The Cathedral was recently (and only temporarily, and only partly) revealed by the receding waters of the Lake Powell reservoir. In the spring of 2005 the Cathedral’s sand floor was exposed for the first time in thirty years. Even so, water filled the center of the vault.
That some water remained was doubly fortuitous for me; it meant both that the Cathedral was accessible to small motorboats and kayaks, and that in a brief visit I could make contrasting above- and below-water recordings there.
Note motorboat (at left on waterline) and figures below waterfall (on sandbar just above waterline, center) for scale. This is a wide-angle vertical montage, the blue sky at the top of the image is nearly directly above my position. NB: this shot is taken in the center of the Cathedral, and does not communicate the open vault to the left and right.
My ‘audio restoration’ had two parts:
First I recorded the soundscape in the Cathedral, to document it as I found it. I recorded the ambient soundscape above water using Sonic Studios near-binaural DSM microphones, and the soundscape below water using an Aquarian H2 monaural hydrophone. Both recordings were about eighteen minutes long.
Second, I momentarily ‘restored’ the soundscape at each location I had documented to something like its state when the water level was different. I did this by playing back the recording made above water below water, using a self-contained playback system protected by a watertight Pelican case, and by playing back the recording made below water above water. Playback in both cases was at a natural volume. The restoration was itself recorded for documentary purposes.
Via the two different playback scenarios, two different historical soundscapes were symbolically ‘restored’—the recent past, in the first case, when water still filled the Cathedral, and the past of more than thirty years ago, before the Cathedral’s initial immersion under Lake Powell.
These two ‘pasts,’ considered together, also inductively suggest a further exponentially scaling regression through time. They function as a reminder of the Cathedral’s unknowable deep history.
In addition these symbolic restorations, my process also affected a direct, almost literal, restoration: sound was artificially reintroduced into the Cathedral mere moments after it occurred naturally.
The restoration was a private gesture without a proper audience. It was witnessed by companions aware of what I was doing, and by tourists exploring the Cathedral during the restoration’s enactment—all of whom, by lending me their sounds, became part of it.
The audio restoration was performed foremost to remind myself that the sound of place is not as constant as I habitually assume.
I’ve noticed that my own listening and working habits ‘fix’ soundscapes in time and space. The sounds I document in a place tend to become, for me, ‘the sound’ of that place. The further I get from the time and space of a recording’s making, the stronger that false identity becomes.
Intellectually I know this simplification is ridiculous, and philosophically I feel that it is undesirable and dishonest. But I have found it difficult to avoid such shorthand in my internal monologue and, by extension, in my work.
I thought it important to look for ways to confront this seductive illusion directly; I chose to do so in this project not by abandoning my usual practice, but by devising a different way of working with its results. This was a first experiment; there will be others.
I began by examining my artistic process. My usual working strategy has two distinct phases. Initially I gather intimate documentary location recordings. Later (often, much later) I present those recordings unedited and use them as raw material for performances, installations, and compositions. My goal has usually been to capture (and re-render) my subjective experience of place with (nominally) objective documentation thereof.
The question I focused on was how to make these documents of the specific serve as tangible reminders of the limits of their own specificity. To make them into documents commenting (in part) on their own limitations—to make them reveal, if I could, precisely what they have been seemingly incapable of capturing: change.
Audio restoration evolved, in answer to that question, as a strategy for revealing change in the soundscape of a place by using field recording to juxtapose two moments in its history.
To summarize that evolution:
Typically the dislocation between when and where I make a recording, on the one hand, and when and where I listen to it, on the other, is so total that I do not think of those two contexts as meaningfully connected.
When I consider, at a remove, one of my recordings, my evaluation is one-dimensional in the sense that it is restricted to considering the recording’s relationship to its original subject, as if those two elements existed orthogonally to my contemporary circumstance. My self-critique, as a result, is limited to evaluating whether the technical and aesthetic merits of a recording make it a more or less successful (if always limited) simulacrum of its source.
What is missing from this analysis is the ever-evolving bidirectional relationship of that success or failure and its constituent elements themselves to the context that I am actually listening (and making my analysis) in. Unconsidered as well goes the subtle but fundamental fact of the ongoing retreat of the recording from its subject, as the soundscape that was captured grows progressively less like (let alone representative of) the soundscape that is.
Identifying these limitations, my instinct was to try to reconnect the act of recording with the act of listening. Noting the recurring role of distance (in all senses) in the definition of my ‘problem,’ I thought the most straightforward solution was to try dislocating my recordings from the circumstances of their making only slightly.
Instead of listening months after, and miles away from, recording, I would record and listen in nearly the same time and place. Instead of listening ‘twice removed’—once through documentary mediation, and once by real distance—I would try to listen from a new position, one conceptually more proximal to and equidistant from (though not ‘between’) my recording and its subject. I would try to stay closer to the soundscape, get closer to my recording of it, and approach for the first time the relationship of those things—the soundscape and my document of it—itself.
My hypothesis was that this process would encourage a different kind of listening, a listening not foremost to what is, but to what is changing. My logic was that such a change in perception might naturally arise from reconfiguring the three principal elements of field recording—the soundscape, my document of that soundscape, and the context in which I review that document—so that they were all viscerally interconnected, literally present and perceptible. Three elements would offer three relationships instead of one to observe and contemplate, would offer a new framework for both theoretical analysis and art-making.
My first concrete realization of this strategy (one of many possible and one of many intended) was to use field recording to overlay a place’s past with its present while uninterruptedly inhabiting it.
By reintroducing into a place its own recent soundscape, I intended to reduce a documentary recording’s dislocation from its subject. I wanted the recording (and myself) to be dislocated only slightly, and dislocated primarily in time and not space—instead of in time and space. I hoped that foregrounding the contrast between the ‘is’ of the place and the ‘was’ of its documentation would add (or ‘restore’) to my perception and hence analysis the extra dimension in which the two were self-evidently related: time.
In other words, through restoration I would use field recording to document time perhaps even more than place. Recordings would thereby do something new for me: document not so much (or even) a subject, but instead their own rapidly crystallizing (and mere) historicity. And implicitly, at least, they would document the perpetual change that creates that retreat.
Instead of hearing the details in my recordings, I might notice—hear—their ephemerality.
why the cathedral in the desert?
The Cathedral’s unique situation made it an attractive site for the first audio restoration.
As an artist, I seek the parsimony of the minimal gesture with the long shadow. The Cathedral appealed as a venue and subject because its defining interplay of water, rock, and air promised several layers of subject- and location-specific interpretation.
To wit, in the Cathedral, it is the complex role of the elements—principally water—in the making (definition) of place over multiple time scales that is most obviously interesting. The idea of working with that history through a new process was compelling. It was made more so by the fleeting nature of the Cathedral’s return (see below); in this effort, as it so often does, serendipity served me well.
It is not everywhere that decades of inundation and years of slow drainage may be symbolically undone—and recapitulated—with a minimum of effort.
The Cathedral was also quite beautiful during its brief return.
why the word 'restoration'?
Literal restoration may be almost tautologically impossible, but the ritual of restoration is vital. It is predicated on an articulation of preference and (I think) of moral agency—on an admission of responsibility, even culpability, for change.
Restoration requires returning a judgment on change. It suggests restitution, recovery, rebuilding, and reconciliation. Replacement in contrast is merely an action.
Making a small change such as a personal restoration requires accepting change’s very possibility at any scale. Restoration reminds us that what is now has not always been and suggests what might not remain.
Restoration promotes agency. If it does not always admit hope, it does at least confirm awareness.
how I forget that the sound of place changes
One consequence of my habitual approach to listening is that I forget with surprising ease that the sounds I hear in a place are but a minute subset of its soundscape.
I consider myself a relatively serious and dedicated listener, so how can this be?
I forget, firstly, because of how I listen.
I live, like most of us, in the few-second ‘now’ of my conscious mind.
My perceptual memory is poor; the temporal horizons of my listening are near. And even the small boundaries of the present collapse once my experience is condemned to memory.
I sadly admit that my auditory memory is highly episodic: I cannot usually remember a soundscape unfolding over minutes; instead I remember discrete moments and mentally bracketed events. My memory for soundscape is confined by (to?) punctuation, consists of small tokens, is reduced to an almost symbolic function. Only with great concentration can I mentally ‘replay’ or review a soundscape that I heard more than a few minutes before; when I can, I am suspicious that much of what I recall is confabulation.
One reason I record actually is the unique level of concentration I bring to the soundscape as I record it. In addition to providing me with a rare experience of complete presence to the world, this focus marginally improves my ability to remember the living sound—which is to say, the changing sound—of place.
But even at my best, what I experience and remember are only technically more than instantaneous.
I forget, secondly, because of how I record.
To date my sound work has emphasized things that present themselves on a personal time scale. I work almost solely with subjective soundscapes that I collect myself.
Most of my work is with field recordings that document short-term or fleeting sound events. I collect serendipitous moments (which I celebrate) when I’m lucky; carefully chosen (but still short-duration) auditory ‘perspectives’ when I have to work a little.
Just as I’ve embraced binaural-style field recording to emphasize my scattershot subjective perspective, I’ve embraced my own ‘temporal myopia’ as a tactic rather than a limit to my field recording and compositional practice.
The rewards for this sort of preoccupation with the fleeting moment are well known. Indeed, my lifetime could easily be spent coming to terms with what I might learn about a place (and about my hearing of it) solely through the making, examination, and reexamination of specific singular recordings.
But of course this approach leaves much—most—unexamined. The richness of the specific soundscape, of what can be heard in a brief time, obscures what cannot be: what could be, might be, used to be—even, what should be.
Occasionally I have mused that, over time scales foreign to my mind, a particular place would reveal itself differently, in sound as much as anything. A day, a season, a year are perhaps what I would need to say I know not just how a place sounded, once, but how it sounds. Indeed, I’ve heard (and seen) many works demonstrating and promoting the rewards of this sort of patience. Given more than one point, a trajectory may be plotted.
Of course, even decades of diligent attention would extend the ‘now’ only slightly in the long history of most places. John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World taught me that only recently have we collectively learned to think in geological time scales; yet perhaps such time scales, so alien to our own experience, are precisely the ones that should preoccupy us as a civilization engaged in self-reflection and long-term planning (Stuart Brand’s Long Now Foundation makes a convincing case for this).
But even the change I might witness and document in my lifetime is infinitely more than I’ve worked with so far, in my infinitesimal ‘now.’
I forget, finally, because of how I listen to my recordings.
Every time I re-audit a given field recording, I internalize more deeply a falsehood of its one-to-one equivalency with the place it so incompletely documents—even if my stated intention in making the recording was to preserve specific soundscapes in the face of ongoing transformation (e.g., climate change).
That sound recordings unfold over time can incorrectly suggest (if only as an unconsidered subtext) that they document a place at or for all time. Perpetual pleasure with how much more of a place a recording captures than a photograph obscures how little either really does capture.
Ironically, the more successful I become as a documentarian (through better technique, better artistry, better gear), the more removed I become from the places I document. In my attempt to collect a place, I find myself instead accurately capturing the pretty noise of high-definition detail it had in one particular moment.
Reliving a recorded moment transforms it—especially over repeated listening—into familiar music, which is pleasant but perilous; as with other of my well-worn favorites, I find subsequent variations from the familiar unsettling and tend to reject them.
The paradox of my desire to possess and preserve my ‘real’ life through documentation is that I am in fact diligently surrounding myself with its subjective and limited representations. My sense of paradox arises when I wonder what else I have ever had but such representations—or, at least, their mental analogues. (Is it common to regularly feel awash in nostalgia for the present?)
I lose contact with the ‘true’ sound of place too when I elide over what recordings I have, impatient at their stultifying pace—even over the short durations I’ve captured—in my quest for what interests me.
Such 'cherry-picking' distorts my sense of the sound of place generally. The small moments I personally treasure (and hence promote) in my recordings are usually ones in which the circumstantial and serendipitous overshadow the recurrent or typical. It’s only when I’m very lucky that the most pleasing detail is the ‘truest’ one; but regardless—no matter how true to life, single recordings can’t tell the type of story that aggregates over (and requires in its telling) serious time.
How much tighter, then, for my listeners, must associative chains bind the names and notions of distant places with the recordings I’ve made of them—when I give them only the most precious moments, and they hear them without even the benefit of any contextualizing memories.
‘Documentary art’ is surely an oxymoron. But perhaps it is simply my unnuanced use of ‘documentary’ that self-destructs.
why I need to remember
The audio restoration was also performed to remind myself to question changes in the sound of place even as I begin to be able to recognize them.
Why care about the evolution of the sound of place, given the riches of the momentary? (There’s nothing wrong with cherries.)
For one thing, I believe the Buddhist axiom that the nature of reality is flux and that stability is one illusion of a limited perspective. To emphasize (cling to) the impermanent is at odds with the inevitable. Though intrinsic to my nature, a preoccupation with documents of what was retreats from one of my goals with documentary: to celebrate what is. (Perhaps another of my goals for documentary should be to shape what will be.)
I also believe that agency is most easily revealed through change. I am most obligated to recognize change when I recognize that I am most likely its cause. Personally, I do try (even if I often fail) to be honest with myself about the impact I’m having on the world—as an individual, but also as a culpable member of a culture, civilization, even species. One toll for this honesty is that I must pay attention.
I come to this, then: in some places it is precisely the passage of time and the changes it brings that I should be listening for. Perhaps it is my duty.
The illusion of stability is comfortable and confining. It could use some confronting. That my also be a duty.
My restoration at the Cathedral attempted such a confrontation. I wanted it to throw into undeniable relief the reality of specific changes in a specific place. I wanted to foreground the contrast between how the Cathedral sounded when I visited during a fragile dry moment—and how it has sounded, differently, for the decades since my government drowned it.
I wanted to hear the difference and, hearing it, reflect on it.
Catechistically, though, I ask: if change is the way of things, why care that the sound of a side canyon today is not what it was last year or last century?
And catechistically I answer: few changes are inevitable; few alternatives are equally desirable; action and inaction are not morally interchangeable even when consequences are small.
Allowing myself to hear my alternatives, I forced myself to evaluate and judge—to become a moral agent. (Moral agency I hold as a defining human characteristic.)
Changes in the sound of place have ramifications that go beyond the individual; they are of practical and political interest—and currency. Changing biophany can be of diagnostic and forensic value for biologists—and for activists. The silence of canaries and lambs alike are famous mal-wethers. The admonition ‘never again’ is predicated on remembrance.
I believe that change in a given soundscape can be leveraged to stand in for broader transformations that escape notice for their very vast scale (and ensuing aura of inevitability). When a change is made perceptible and hence comprehensible at the personal scale, questions more easily arise as to its origins and whether it is desirable. Living in one tree can save a grove; if the point is to tip individuals must act.
Such questions are adrift in the Cathedral in the Desert, for its future is notably uncertain.
the significance and situation of the cathedral in the desert
In the late 1960s, the Colorado River was dammed in southeastern Utah, flooding Glen Canyon and creating the Lake Powell reservoir. The reservoir provides an insurance policy against drought, generates hydroelectric power, and serves as a recreation area for boating enthusiasts.
Even taking into account contemporary political hot potatoes such as the on-again, off-again decision to drill for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, the drowning of Glen Canyon is cited as one of the worst intentional environmental catastrophes in American history. As water management continues to progress from an issue of profound regional and national importance to one of perpetual international and global concern, its symbolic and practical significance grow as well.
Until its submersion, Glen Canyon was considered a jewel of the southwestern redrock desert. Its splendor was on par with similar areas nearby which were granted protection through national and state park and forest systems; in fact, environmental pioneer Edward Abbey wrote of the area, ‘the canyonlands did have a heart, a living heart, and that heart was Glen Canyon.’
Within these canyon lands, many sites were identified as archeological and natural treasures. One of the most famous of these was the Cathedral in the Desert, a high-walled, vaulted side canyon on Clear Creek, a stream feeding the Escalante River just above where it flows into the Colorado.
When I moved to Utah in the mid-70’s, the Cathedral had already been drowned by 150 feet of water for ten years. It was considered lost forever. Abbey bitterly eulogized this change in The Damnation of a Canyon, writing that ‘Glen Canyon was alive. Lake Powell is a graveyard.’
Today, however, Lake Powell reservoir is a victim of its own success, and it faces a possibly inevitable draining to a small fraction of its high-water level. While prolonged regional drought has been implicated in its recent historically low water level, in the long term a reversal and refilling of the reservoir is unlikely thanks to ever-increasing demand from over-subscribed water users downstream, who draw down water for irrigation and to generate power.
In the spring of 2005, Lake Powell dropped to its lowest level since its creation; the water level was down 170 feet or more from its peak. As the water dropped, landscape features that had been submerged for thirty years were exposed. The Canyon’s walls doubled in height, and their bottom halves dried white with silt.
By late April, parts of the sand floor of the Cathedral in the Desert were dry and the sound of its fabled fifty-foot waterfall echoed again in a volume of air that had been unknown for decades. Anticipation and celebration of its return made national news.
Not long afterward, snow melt partially refilled the Cathedral. But Lake Powell is expected to re-drain with increasing frequency in coming years.
Regional and national policy around Glen Canyon’s future has yet to be determined. In one sense this is academic. Policy will most likely not radically change the lake; environmental factors (changing weather patterns and silt buildup, for example) will probably overshadow the impact of, say, manipulating water quotas.
But that we have a debate does matter. It is one of few mechanisms we have to collectively articulate our recognition of what we did to Glen Canyon and what we intend to do with it—or for it.
It would nice if the Cathedral could add its own voice to that debate.
the nature and significance of the cathedral's soundscape
The nature and significance of the Cathedral’s soundscape
Friends and I visited the Cathedral in the Desert twice when it was most exposed: once in the evening, when we had it ourselves, and again in the morning, when it was host to numerous visitors.
The soundscape I experienced and recorded on my second visit is not a particularly unusual one in the traditional sense of a soundmark. Its interest to the casual listener is contingent on contextualization and interpretation.
My own interpretation is that the soundscape is notable for several reasons, all resting on the fact that the current soundscape encompasses both above- and below-water components. I was fortunate to work at the Cathedral at ‘low fill,’ when I could experience these two quite different aspects of its soundscape. Which could be called ‘characteristic’ of the place is a function of water level. That the level changes (and with it, the sound of the place) became itself the point of my restoration.
Taken together, the two soundscapes of the Cathedral had more to offer than either in isolation.
First, they symbolically document different stages in the processes of the Cathedral’s own (and hence the soundscape’s own) slow natural transformation.
Second, the contrast revealed through their juxtaposition evokes the unnatural transformations resulting from human agency that interrupted, accelerated, or forestalled the ‘natural’ evolution of the place. Such a use was the subtext of my restoration.
Finally, I think they in series together faintly reanimate not just the near-term history of the Cathedral’s drowning and rebirth at human hands, but the longer-term geological history of the Cathedral’s creation and erosion as well.
Arguably it is a fierce poetic irony that precisely the elements at work in the Cathedral today that I might and do decry as unnatural and tragic—the influences, in all senses, of all that damned dammed water—recapitulate on a compressed timeline (almost perfectly) their own natural operation as the forces that created the Cathedral in the first place.
Truth be told, the soundscapes of the Cathedral interest me deeply precisely because they are created by the very elements behind its, and their own, impermanence: wind and water. (It would be interesting to divine the Cathedral’s feng shui.)
I find it provocative that the Cathedral has such a complicated relationship with the water, air, and rock that define it that disentangling the natural (‘proper’) state of the place is impossible. Even as it serves me as a poster child for assuming responsibility for environmental stewardship, the Cathedral also seems the very reification of the notion that place, like the self, is impermanent. This contradiction is possible because the elements at work—literally—at all time scales (and across both human and natural causes) in the Cathedral are the same.
It is only appropriate that these raw elements that I heard, timeless and quiet, on my first visit would became the background for the recordings I made on my second. When I performed the restoration, the soundscape at the Cathedral was dominated by the sounds of its human visitors: here as everywhere, in remaking the soundscape, we humans neatly rearticulate to ourselves our own primacy. (In presuming to intervene with my intervention I am as guilty as anyone of course.)
If I were to tell the story of the Cathedral, it might go like this: forever and ever, the place that is now the Cathedral was simply stone. For the past few million years, the Cathedral has been defined by that stone’s absence. In my lifetime the Cathedral’s void has held both water and wind.
Today the tragedy of the Cathedral is that it we refilled it with water. But I pause when I am reminded that water was also the place’s maker, and is its voice. In fact we might argue diabolically that Lake Powell offers preservation, in that it stills erosion. Or that Lake Powell is not really noteworthy, since the Cathedral has no doubt filled and drained many times as conditions have fluctuated over geological time scales. (Heaven protect the devil’s advocate that observes the same about global warming!)
There is a disquieting energy in this conundrum. I appreciate that the sound that enchants at the Cathedral—that defines it acoustically, I would say—is a document of its ongoing erosion.
The true sound of place may sometimes be the sound of its disappearance.
I find myself wondering, where else is soundscape born from forces at work in its own perpetual evolution and eventual dissolution? Where else does the sound that defines a place document the forces that will alter and erase it?
The rock walls that encode their geometry in echoes through the Cathedral were compiled at the bottom of an inland sea, from sand eroded out of even older landscapes. Everything that is the Cathedral was once another place, one that sounded similar to it, I suspect; each has been unique only in the sublime specifics of its own slow unmaking.
What, then, is a place?
A moment of relative (I might say illusory) permanence in a system evolving on many concurrent time scales.
What, then, is the sound of a place?
With field recording I have always documented what will pass.
There is no documentation, only reminding.
With audio restoration, I intended to document the passing.
There is no restoration, only reminding.
I describe the audio restoration as an experiment. I certainly laid it out as something like one, with motivations and theories and expectations. Reading this document after its completion, I was struck by the fact that I never say, precisely, what my results really were, whether my expectations were met or not.
It’s reasonable to ask if in performing the restoration I did perceive more fully the contingent nature of the sound of the Cathedral in the Desert.
Did I perceive any more directly the plasticity and history of the place? Did I in any way sense the impermanence of all things? Of the soundscape of that side canyon?
The restoration was though a personal gesture; its results were likewise highly personal. I can answer those question honestly ‘yes and no.’ It’s hard to say more without more space than I have.
I can say that there were many things the restoration did not change (at least not in a single sitting): the limits of my own listening. The limits of my patience. The details within the soundscape that my ears fix on and that I return to. And so on.
I might say more if we (you and I, reader) meet over a glass of single-malt. But my real recommendation is that if you’re curious, please try it. The procedure is no more proprietary or difficult than a soundwalk. Results will certainly vary, but something will hopefully be learned and most likely experienced.
This essay itself and its accompanying media inhabit a peculiar place of their own. They document something experiential and ephemeral by design. It is not at all lost on me that they neatly recapitulate the shortcomings in my working methods and the presentation of their results that inspired the restoration in the first place.
But, of course, this is all I have to share.
My trip to Lake Powell and visits to the Cathedral in the Desert itself were only made a reality through the efforts of my friend (and houseboat captain) Laura ‘Furry’ Baron and my friend (my motorboat captain) Mike McCabe. I am indebted to them for their support of this patience with this project. I should also say the trip itself was a pleasure thanks to the companionship and sparkling company of Mr. Foo, T-Girl, and Sam: wonderful fellow travelers.
As always, my work would be impossible without the support and inspiration of my wife, Bronwyn.
It's worth mentioning that since making this first restoration I've finally had a chance to experience one of Janet Cardiff's pieces in person. I can tell there is have much I have to learn from her.
If one can dedicate an essay, this one is for Dallas Simpson, who does more than restore.
This essay was originally published in Hearing Places: Sound, Place, Time, and Culture (Ros Bandt, Michelle Duffy, and Dolly MacKinnon, editors; Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007). The volume included color photos and a CD collecting shorter versions of the excerpts below.
Recordings made at the Cathedral during the restoration are excerpted here as two-minute excerpts. The full length recordings are available on request.