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Sedimento: a sonic study of Venice

Sedimento is a piece originally commissioned for the Audiograft Festival in 2020, with a brief to respond to Pauline Oliveros’ reflection in the introduction to Deep Listening about life, relationships and sonic experiences: “we are always gathering sediment, it seems.”

About the piece

Our response focuses on Venice, which we’ve long held as the spiritual home of Cities and Memory, with a piece that focuses on the cultural, historical and social layers that reveal themselves when you listen closely to the sounds of a city.

The piece is accompanied by visuals created by Dave Balch, bringing together archive footage from Venice with a reading of the introduction to Deep Listening – it is intended to be experienced primarily as an audiovisual live experience.

Venice is particularly appropriate as a focus for Deep Listening, a city in which almost sedimentary layers of history and influence are perceptible at every corner. As Calvino writes in Invisible Cities, “The city does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the bags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”

Our piece attempts to record some of that, with field recordings augmented by sounds and music that reflect our own experience of the city – and that experience is different for every visitor, layering experience upon experience into the lifetime of the city.

The 23-minute piece takes us on a journey through the city, beginning on a quiet waterway, where the peace is perforated by the passing of speedboats, whose noise becomes a terrific roar when compared with the placidity it interrupts.

From this quiet waterway, we move to the most famous canal in Venice, the proud centrepiece of the Canale Grande. Gondolas slosh against their moorings, boat traffic chops up the waters, and the myths, mysteries and legends of the city begin to reveal themselves.

We need to cross the Canale Grande to continue our journey – so we take one of the famous bridges, the wooden Ponte dell’Accademia. As we cross, an excited young boy cries out “canale, canale, canale!” and his voice becomes the focus of our attention.

Once we’ve crossed the bridge, the hour strikes. Bells are – in Venice as in the rest of Italy – an important soundmark, and in listening to bells across the city the sedimentary layers of history almost become visible. These are the same bells as might have been heard by Marco Polo or Casanova.

But bells chiming the hour can only mean one thing – we’re late. We need to press on towards the Arsenale to catch a musical performance on the water to mark the beginning of Venice’s cultural cornerstone, La Biennale. By this point, our piece has accumulated more and more of the “sediment” of the city and reaches its dramatic peak of noise, drones and melody.

The final sound we hear after catching the performance is a single figure walking away into the Venetian evening.