Hearing the Ruin: Ownership through Sound by Mark Dyer

On our visit to Gorton Monastery, Manchester, we were asked to think about ownership in relation to abandoned spaces; through walking, wall marking, and writing. But what about sound? In the two contrasting parts of the day, I started to wonder how sonic-based activities: Listening, Sounding (the act of making sound), and Recording, related to this theme of ownership.

The walk from Gorton train station to the monastery encompassed littered alleyways, wrought iron railway bridges and semi-functional industrial parks. The slow pace of the walk and the general lack of human activity enabled a heightened ability to listen. Getting away from the roads and peeling away the cacophony of cars, we reach a layer of more delicate sounds: birdsong (each with its own distinct tune and frequency bandwidth), and the clicking and buzzing of insects. An abandoned school conjures up deafening spectral spectres: laughing children, the end-of-break bell, and the intoning of timetables. All are interrupted by a passing train in the embankment below. I can’t decide which of these sounds, the manmade or the natural, is more at home here. Both persist, in spite of or in matrimony with, the other, claiming the space and their right to be there. I certainly don’t feel like I challenge this equilibrium through listening, more that I am momentarily made privy to its sonic workings and community

We continue on and make sounds of our own. Our discussions fill the alleys: new sights, new ideas, new friendships, defying the spent litter. Our continuous footsteps activate the trail like a loose drum skin, exploring the space’s potential to resonate; the sound of treading on concrete is wholly different to that of overgrown grass or plastic packaging. We inhabit the empty alleyways with the noise of our activity. We form a symbiotic relationship with the space (a relationship consisting of the potential for and realisation of sound) and together we claim the moment.

Amidst the detritus and foliage I find a handwritten music manuscript: crumpled, soiled, but intact. My initial excitement for the find is instantly laced with sadness for the author’s loss (written by a certain ‘EGD’ in 2004). For centuries, music notation was seen as the only means of recording sound. These unsung crotchets and quavers, hidden and neglected with the other trash, form the perfect recording of the space and its muted potential. When we sing this music, do we as performers own the music and the space? Performance of a work is not normally regarded as ownership, but this work has remained unwanted, unsounded and unworked for so long.

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We arrive at Gorton Monastery: a bizarre blend of Victorian remains and regenerated events venue. Pacing the hall, I listen to the peculiar ambient music pumped into the room: eerie pan pipes, ambiguous plucked strings, and lukewarm choral pads. Straddling pseudo-sacred and -world music, I can’t help but wince both at the blatant plundering and appropriation of various ethnic musical traditions. The space, through sound, lays claim to spaces and cultures external to itself. Listening here, I feel owned by the space: forcibly relaxed by the ‘calming’ music and compliant in its grotesque illuminated walls and perfumed incense.

In such a space, with its vaulted ceiling and stone walls, I could shout out. The sound would travel, echo, and envelope the space and those within it. Is this ownership or inhabitation? The former suggests an imposing of self and voice upon those that share the space, whereas the latter feels like a borrowing with consent. I do not shout. The space is already occupied by chattering event staff setting up for supper (probably not the Last). Clinking wine glasses seed the acoustic field, mimicking and taunting the echoing apparitions of bells and gongs.

Not inclined to shout out, I instead simply record the sound of the monastery using my phone, capturing the moment in a minute of audio. This feels like ownership. Something I can re-listen to, file away, or work with creatively. An audio-photograph that preserves the space, the time, and my own mood, resonating on an individual level. I claim the space purely for myself and personal use. If audio recordings can enable a form of ultra-personalised ownership of a space, we can surely all lay claim in this manner, building a sonic codex and contributing to an inter-ownership of a shared space.