Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Tomb of Spirits

Another show for the Fitzwilliam Museum is coming together nicely. Last Friday I went over to Cambridge to see how The Tomb of Spirits was developing and to discuss the audio requirements. The exhibition which runs alongside the show is of Han dynasty tomb goods from two tombs: a minor king and an emperor's brother.

Since I got back I've been recording dew drops falling into a jade bowl, entombed to make sure the deceased did not go thirsty in the afterlife. Not having a jade bowl to hand I tried a singing bowl and a pyrex dish before settling on an IKEA soup bowl. The challenge is to get the quiet drips recorded above the 'noise floor', the background hiss of the recording gear.

There will be plenty of scope for bamboo flute, dulcimer and Chinese percussion. A search for Chinese music on YouTube yielded some disappointingly cheesy results until I remembered The Guo Brothers who set the bar very high. If I can recreate even a flavour of what they have done I shall be very happy.


  1. I hadn't, although I've heard a fair bit of koto music in my time. Thank you - it sent me off on another interesting journey through YouTube, dodging the cheesy string accompaniments and synthpad 'atmospheres'and finding some real gems. One of the best is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtrthXXmKgA - a pipa solo extraordinaire called 'The Ambush'.

    As the music I'm making is for a Chinese exhibition I'm anxious to avoid making it sound Japanese, even if there are similarities, and probably some shared roots, between the two national traditions.

  2. Did you figure out how to eliminate the sound? I made a film for my MA with amplified breathing in the background and want to re record to get rid of the interference noises. Any ideas?
    Sue Raven

  3. As it happens the hiss may be useful. Combined with some bowed gamelan I have used the hiss from in between the drips to make a sound that suggests silence. The cast and director have been devising/rehearsing with it today so I expect to hear soon whether or not it works for them.

    But to eliminate the background noise, including the native machine hiss that all gear (the kit I can afford, anyway) seems to come with, the trick is to get the microphone as close to the source of the sound as possible and ensure no noise from elsewhere can be heard. In the case of my drips I will rig up something that will drip without human intervention so I can remove myself from the equation. I will get the mic right up to the splash point, protecting it by hanging some thin gauze or using a pop screen between it and the water. Then I'll set the record level as high as possible without clipping. I'll also surround the sound source with acoustically absorbent panels (a duvet is a fair substitute) to isolate the event and to keep the sound as 'dry' as possible to allow for treatment later.

    In your case I would do all of the above, including using a pop screen in case of plosives but also to protect your microphone from damp breath. The microphone is just like an ear so the breathing will sound very close. But this means you can use volume relative to the other sounds in the mix along with reverb to make it sound further away or sound as if it is occurring in any space of your choosing.