Alexandra Spence is a sound artist and musician living on unceded Wangal land in Sydney, Australia. Through her practice Alex attempts to reimagine the intricate relationships between the listener, the object, and the surrounding environment as a kind of communion or conversation. Her aesthetic favours field recordings, analogue technologies and object interventions.
I got into experimental music through Sydney/Eora’s improvising ensemble the Splinter Orchestra. Splinter has a deep-rooted interest in the consideration of sound as it occurs in space, which often leads to performing in interesting locations such as abandoned warehouses, old industrial buildings, outdoor spaces, such as national and public parks.
Splinter performances also regularly consider the spatialisation of sound, dispersing the performers amongst the audience, or incorporating physical movement made by the performers, and, they engage with incidentally occurring environmental sound. These experiences were really formative in my interest in environmental sound and in field recording, in the spatial and temporal nature of sound itself, and foremost in listening.
All of it is quite organic, I’ve never been good at planning things! I'm also just always making field recordings, recording different sounds and objects. I have a library of sounds that I've recorded over the past decade or so, and often I have a particular sound in mind that I want to work with - kind of like a seed - I'll plant it and start watering it and pruning it and it’ll sprout and develop and lead to further places.
I’m a pretty intuitive person, sometimes I wish I were better at structuring work from concept, but this is just what works for me. I won’t really know how it’s going to end until it does.
I guess I’m a minor hoarder; I’ve always collected things. I’m drawn to objects based on their material make up and sonic properties– whether it's hollow, what the material is, if it has a jagged edge. I record these objects in different ways and with various microphones – contact, hydrophone, condenser etc.
My explorations with amplified objects began as a kind of expanded form of field recording. I started using objects within performance as a way to invite the audience into a more experimental form of music. When I use objects in performance I generally have a little piece of card that I put my contact microphone on, I imagine this like a little stage – all the objects that touch the card get amplified. It’s important to me that the audience see what I’m doing when I perform… there’s a kind of poetry in the relationship between the objects and the work that offers another layer
Some of my most treasured objects are these 18th century clay pipes that surface from the bottom of the Thames in London. A very close friend - fellow sound artist - Brigitte Hart introduced me to them on a mudlarking trip in 2018. If you put the pipes in water tiny air bubbles escape and it sounds like really weird techno music; it sounds amazing.
Buried Tape Loops (2018)
Buried tape loops is an ongoing project in which I make 7-second field recordings on tape loops before burying them in the earth at the location in which they were recorded. The tapes are later dug up and placed back in their cassette casing for listening. The result of the time the loops spend embedded in the earth is the physical deterioration of the magnetic tape, and a degradation of the audio recording.
Burying the tape seems to give the places at which I record a sense of autonomy over their own soundings. I imagine this as a collaboration of sorts — I make a recording and the physical variables of each place and location alter it — asking and prompting a place to affect its own sound. While the magnetic coating of the tape retains sonic remnants of the recorded sounds of the place, the physicality of the tape ribbon retains material remnants of the place: earth, sand, salt, other, which, in turn, impart audibly on the recording in the form of crackles, scratches, tape-warp, and hiss.
It’s hard to remember where the idea initially came from… During my masters in Vancouver, my friend, composer Ben Wylie, and I became obsessed with making tape loops. Around this time I also came across Basinki’s Disintegration Loops. Somehow I came up with this idea of burying the tape loops to degrade them – it felt pretty zany at the time and I didn't really want to admit what I was doing to my supervisors! I’ve been sprung a few times burying the tape loops out in public - it’s always really embarrassing to explain what I’m doing to a stranger!
A Veil, The Sea (2022)
During one of Sydney’s lockdowns I submerged a 15 minute-long piece of cassette tape in seawater from a local beach. The tape contained a field recording of waves, and a recording of my voice offering a list of things found in the Pacific Ocean.
I’d been thinking about connection with bodies of water, as well as connections between bodies and water, and how we might reimagine our bodily limitations to examine the things that connect us to each other and to our surroundings. I’d also been thinking about the Pacific Ocean as a home – not only to marine creatures and sea currents – but to the obscure movements of global trade, offshore data barges, and sunken satellites deactivated and dumped from space.
Imagining an infinite ocean has led to overfishing, floating plastic- particle gyres, lost whales (as a result of the underwater din of shipping and naval industries), and an international sense of unaccountability. I see a veil, the sea as a kind of sonic traversing of oceanic layers, exploring imaginary landscapes, entwining and encountering unequal forms, such as breath with wave, fish with fishing line, along the way.
Whilst reading up on the Pacific Ocean I learnt of the satellite cemetery - when satellites reach the end of their life span, they either get sent either upwards, into the ‘graveyard orbit’, or downward sinking into a spacecraft cemetery in a specific region of the Pacific Ocean. I became both fascinated and appalled by this and created Stellar Nullius with the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney as a result.
It’s a kind of audio essay that explores earth’s material relationship with space, and the historic connections between electroacoustic music and our perception of space. It also incorporates some recordings I made of the Ionosphere using a VLF receiver - VLF receivers pick up the electromagnetic impulses generated by lightning storms in Earth’s atmosphere and the Sun’s solar wind interacting with the Magnetosphere.
I’ve got a bit of space at the moment which is really nice! I’m planning ways to make another podcast/audio essay – this time about the satellite cemetery but that’s early thoughts. I also really want to make an album inspired by a gig I played with my dad at Soft Centre in 2021. We performed together in a church across the road from where I grew up - him on piano, me on flute and sine tones - I’d love to go back and record this work together.
I’m also hoping to premiere Edge of a Cloud – an audiovisual work I developed with the artist Elia Bosshard in 2020, it was meant to be shown at OpenFrame at Carriageworks but was canceled two years in a row due to the pandemic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eAKDyS8QQw My partner’s family lives in Toronto, so I’m hoping to organise some shows in Canada this year too, and maybe make it back to Europe!... we’ll see…