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Sound as historical material: developing a new way of cataloguing, describing and accessing sound in the archive - Part 2

By Guest blogger: Seth Ellis, Mittelheuser scholarship-in-residence | 15 January 2021

Guest blogger: Seth Ellis - 2019 Mittelheuser Scholar-in-Residence. 

I spent the Mittelheuser scholarship-in-residence experimenting with ways to catalogue and describe sounds in the John Oxley Collection, as I described in my first blog post. I’m quite pleased with how it went, and I’m excited to carry on with the web-based tools I developed. But what actual sounds did I find while I was doing this project? What did they sound like, and what did I make of them? This turned out to be a more difficult, more complex, and more interesting issue than I’d anticipated.

There were two parts to this issue. The first was what I already knew, that many sounds simply weren’t recorded—at least, not the sounds I’m interested in, the mundane sounds of everyday life. Those that were, might be of only of a few seconds’ duration, “accidentally” recorded simply because the recording equipment happened to be on in a “quiet” moment, that is, one without people talking or backing soundtrack. A lot of this project, for me, was listening past what I was supposed to be listening to, into the tiny open spaces where simple sounds were made. In fact some of it came down to recording what sounds weren’t there—in the many silent home films in the collection, for instance. I could wonder what sounds were going on around and behind the camera, but the sounds themselves weren’t there.

This much I had anticipated. What I hadn’t fully accounted for, though, is the process of listening in itself, to a recorded sound. Anyone who’s ever recorded any sound—even of themselves speaking—and listened to it afterwards, knows the difference the active ear makes in what you hear. When we’re on the scene, our brains know what to listen to; the sounds arrange themselves in our mind accordingly. But the recording technology, whatever it is, doesn’t organise sound, it records everything. Listening to sounds after the fact means listening to everything, without context. What is that sound in the background? Was the wind really that loud? Is that a child or a bird?

Example of a silent film from the John Oxley Library collection. 31161/2 Podmore family home movies, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. See our Moving Images webpage to explore a selection of home movies donated to the John Oxley Library.

This listening after the fact becomes even more difficult if you’re listening to sounds you didn’t record, and weren’t there for. In other words, sounds of the past need explanation, in order for us to know what they mean; they need storytelling. The big revelation of this project for me was that it was not a project in sounds themselves; it was a project about listening to people listen to the past.

Sometime after the conclusion of the residency, I spoke about it to an audience including Russell Craig, who recently retired from the Queensland College of Art, where I teach. As part of my talk I played a recording of an oral history from John Rigby, an artist who grew up in part near Palen Creek. What interested me about Rigby’s speech was the way he imitated certain sounds as part of his storytelling. But Craig had known Rigby; Rigby had been the Director of QCA during Craig’s early career. Craig told me later that he had to close his eyes when he heard Rigby’s voice, and it was like he was back in Rigby’s office, smelling his pipe and listening to him talk. It wasn’t what Rigby was saying; it was the sound, the texture of his voice. This is the power of the project for me, and what I’m excited to continue with: not just enabling those moments of connection, but being told about them, enabling a continuation of telling stories, and asking questions, about the past.

Seth Ellis


Also see Seth's first blog - Sound as historical material: developing a new way of cataloguing, describing and accessing sound in the archive - Part 1

Palen Creek: a changing community. 29993, Gary Moloney short films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Research Reveals: sound as historical material. Presentation by Seth Ellis, 2019 Mittelheuser Scholar-in-Residence about his project and time as Queensland Memory Fellow.


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