A practical question concerning this project emerged as we planned our first field recording outing. Where would we go to listen? The Schuylkill reaches 135 miles across Southeastern Pennsylvania, and it would be impossible to listen everywhere. So, at least for this stage of our project, we needed to select listening sites. Because most narratives of the Schuylkill River that we encountered--from government documentation and reports to social media content--focus on some aspect of the river’s history as it pertains to industry, pollution, or health, we began researching historically significant locales along the river. Locales with a history, that might still have stories to tell. A resource we found valuable in the process of understanding these histories was Chari Towne’s A River Again: The Story of the Schuylkill River Project, in which the author tells the story of the river in relationship to periods of industrialization and colonization, as well as attempts to heal the damage caused by these pursuits. As such, we should make explicit here that we entered these listening spaces with these stories, positioned as listeners concerned with pollution and trash. Listeners could just as easily enter these scenes looking for, say, the presence or absence of flora or fauna, demographic information of nearby communities, weather patterns, or any other number of narrative frameworks depending on one’s positionality and bias. Stories told, after all, are little more than the relationship of shared memory and situated storytellers. Towne’s book tells many stories of the Schuylkill through its industrial-colonial traumas, and these stories guided our selection of sites.
Our first site selection emerged as we struggled to both a) pinpoint where, exactly, the river begins, and b) whether or not its origin is accessible to the public. We pursued the East Branch (there is also a West Branch near Minersville, PA), an area still heavily mined by the Tuscarora Coal Company, and thus much of the land is private property, causing us some difficulty in accessing the river’s headwaters. Nonetheless, we wanted to begin by listening to the origins of the river, the place where it begins to move and flow, to carry and deposit relations, to collide with and caress and shape the earth now known as Pennsylvania.
A lav microphone is placed inside a shotgun shell resting in a tree along the water
Contact microphone fixed on a melted plastic soda bottle found in the water up against an embankment
Lav microphone placed inside industrial tubing found alongside the water
Hydrophone placed in shallow water
Seeking the headwaters of the Schuylkill River near Tuscarora, PA, we parked alongside a busy road and found a trail that led us, at least approximately, to the river’s origin. As we walked, we were immediately struck by the large amount of trash along the trail and in the water. We found large deposits of old electronics, books, and other household items, and as we ventured further from the roadway, we found items more closely related to machinery and automobiles, including tires, hoses, and empty containers of various automotive fluids. We hadn’t necessarily expected this area to be so populated with trash, but based on the reputation of the river and its relationship with trash nearer to its terminus in Philadelphia, perhaps we should not have been surprised that this theme--one of the river as a space of waste disposal--would extend beyond historical research of mining and other industrial dumping and into contemporary practices of disposing of consumer waste.
We got as close to the origin of the Schuylkill as we could (some of the land is restricted to visitors, owned by a mining company), and found a seam site, which we might describe here as a place where borders blur, where objects are in apparent and audible relationship. This seam site was a water crossing on the walking path we traversed, where nearby objects such as shotgun shells, auto parts, and soft drink containers created a kind of scene of interactive potential. Here, by an active selection of both site and objects, we began to curate our listening method. We probed the sonic affordances of these objects in relationship with one another, placing microphones on and in trash-objects (e.g., affixing a contact microphone to a plastic bottle that had apparently been melted or warped by heat), and then placing the trash-objects into the scene in relationship to other objects and features of the space (e.g., placing that bottle in the moving water of the stream so that it would rest on the bed of the stream but rock back and forth to create audible results).
We continued our curation of the space and its objects, monitoring results in headphones for a mix of the space that was sufficiently dynamic and even. And then, we sat and we listened to the relationships that comprised this scene, and noted how this listening was vastly different than a so-called ambient or environmental listening method. A scene still existed in the mix insofar as there existed a range of frequencies, rhythms, and objects, yet this listening provoked in us an attention to the arrangement and curation and interconnectedness of objects.