Listening like looking

Chris Reid, Lessons of the Swallows

This is called ‘grace’, it only happens for a few minutes at a time.

A swallow is a bird, a harbinger of summer. “The sky is full of swallows, the sound of wings.” Swallow is also a term for an opening or cavity in a limestone formation.

Linda Marie Walker is an accomplished poet critic, novelist, a visual artist and a lecturer in interior design. Mike Ladd is a writer, sound artist and producer. They collaborated in making Lessons of the Swallows for radio.

Listening to Lessons of the Swallows is like looking at distant figures in a landscape, while hearing their voices next to your ear, and then realising that one of the figures is yourself.

The work was inspired by Walker’s sighting of swallows in Valencia, on holiday in Spain. Her impressions are like memories that last beyond the trip. The form is minimal, impressionistic, a “melancholy lightness.” It is about the impossibility of communicating an idea or who you are, and a lingering sense of incompleteness. At every moment you’re the product of thought and feeling and environment.

Swallows are symbols. The birds’ agility stands for human thought and mutable feeling, their social habits for desired human interaction. All speech is metaphor—it represents indirectly, unlike light entering the eye or sound entering the ear.

Lessons of the Swallows is adapted from Walker’s larger work The Last Child, written for theatre or radio production. The whole work includes a novella and visual imagery intended as a musical score. Ladd interspersed Walker’s script with her minidisc recordings made in Valencia, his recordings of the text being read, and musical and other fragments. Included are snippets of conversation between the artists about swallows and their mythology.

Ladd’s production has an ethereal, haunting intimacy. The restrained emotion in the readers’ voices, the close microphoning and measured delivery, emphasise rather than conceal the enormous affective power of the script. The avian swallow—here fleetingly, now gone—triggers the sense of loss and loneliness and the search for meaning.

There are street noises, distant voices, gulping sounds and the gasp of held breath, a nib scraping on paper, water flowing in a cave, and the swallows’ twittering song. Fragments of Jordi Savall’s viola da gamba thread through, either in the background or foreground. The shifting between male and female readers, and to other sounds, simulates the shifting of the mind between thinking and listening, between subjective and objective. The female voice carries the emotional weight, the male voice conveys facts.

The swallow’s mystery is a metaphor for the mysteries of life. The fables of the swallows are romantic expressions of human drama. Swallows are survivors. The geological swallow represents the descent into the abyss. To swallow and be swallowed.

This is a melancholy soliloquy. Walker and Ladd muse on the question: “what would you say to the last child?”, the impossibility of telling someone what they need to know. Their soundscape is evocative, powerful and intensely beautiful.

Lessons of the Swallows, Linda Marie Walker & Mike Ladd, The Listening Room, ABC Classic FM, February 19

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 40

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2001