Walkabout I – VII (2020): Motion in lockdown

Walkabout (I – VII) is a series of seven semi-ambient electronic albums created during the Tasmanian covid lockdown in 2020. Each album is developed around realtime recordings of my body moving through space/time along various local bush and beach walks in SE Tasmania. Electronics have been added to suggest a meditative, dimensional journey.

In the state of virus lockdown, the simple act of walking can take on a different significance. On these recordings, ‘walkabout’ is describing a sense of ceremony, walking the landscape of the self. In making each of these albums I was drawn deeper into layers of my psyche and offered reflection on particular themes in my life.

In March 2020, Tasmania went into official Covid lockdown, although our household was already voluntarily self-isolating.  We’re fortunate to be living in an isolated rural area, in the bush, away from neighbours.  Also, from my Aspergers perspective, self-isolation is my preferred state – I deliberately withdrew from society several years ago after a breakdown, and spend almost all my time at home, focusing on my work in solitude while the rest of the family are ‘out there’, at work and school.

I soon noticed online how lockdown was impacting on musicians around the world.  The imposed creative limitations of lockdown clearly brought about different creative processes for a lot of musicians.  Personally, I work with limitation as a matter of course, often out of sheer necessity and in other ways deliberately self-imposed.  I find limitation pushes me into new forms of creative thinking.

In lockdown, the first limitation I experienced was the loss of my daily solitude.  Having the rest of the family at home immediately restricted my sense of creative fluidity – that is, in the course of a day, I move around the house, and in & out of my creative flow, according to impulse.  From my Aspergers perspective, having an environment completely free of any human interaction = freedom from external expectation = complete sense of spontaneous self.  Also, in practical terms, having other human noise in the house prevented me from recording any live instruments, as I don’t have the luxury of a personal, sound-insulated studio.  So I had to find a way to adapt my creative process. Two factors were key to how I managed that: synthesis and walking.

Online, as the lockdown deepened around the world, some plug-in developers made their music tools available as free downloads, to help musicians continue creating from home.  Generally I can never afford these sort of extras (I don’t even use MIDI), so this was a fantastic opportunity to add to my pallette. Unfortunately a lot of them required a MIDI interface, but by digging deeper I learned that Reaper had a built-in Virtual Keyboard option, using the qwerty keys on the laptop, providing me with a rudimentary alternative to an external MIDI keyboard.  Two free plug-ins became pivotal for me: Spitfire Audio’s Soft Piano samples (and later, some cello samples) & the amazing Surge virtual synth plug-in.

I am not a ‘keyboard player’, nor do I have any technical understanding of synthesised soundwaves, so everything about using the plug-ins was starting from scratch – a Quixotic but rewarding learning curve, and exactly the sort of creative toybox I needed for the situation. Having new tools always offers a sense of discovery and frustration, both of which require creative problem-solving, which in turn keeps me creatively interested. These new options enabled me to continue making music at home, on my laptop & headphoned, regardless of everyone else being at home, even in bed if I felt like it.

The second factor, walking, was pivotal: in a sense, my usual mode of solitude became inverted, in that I had to leave the house and go for a walk to be alone (and hope I didn’t encounter other people in the process).  This created a very different context for my walking, sharpened its focus and my relationship to it. 

Walkabout I (April 2020)

The first in the series, and one of my favourites for its minimalism.  The walk in this recording was the original inspiration for the whole Walkabout project, and the piece runs for the continuous half-hour descent from the top of Echo Sugarloaf mountain (“Randalls Hill”), high among the eucalyptus & the wedgetailed eagles, and culminating along the breathing beach of Randalls Bay.

We live within driving distance of several beautiful coastal bushwalks, all of which begin (or end) with their own (usually deserted) beach. One of my favourites is Sugarloaf Echo Reserve, which we generally refer to as Randalls Hill walk. It meanders steadily uphill for about 45 mins, through open eucalypt bush and grassy paddocks; there’s a dam full of frogtalk along the way, and at the top, a panoramic view over Randalls Bay Beach, the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and beyond – the Tasman Sea and the Southern Ocean stretching toward Antarctica.

On this particular visit, as I fell into a meditative stride, I attuned to my senses: the pulse of my footsteps, the sound textures as my soles contacted various surfaces, the variations of wind, the stillness or movement of trees, the swell of the earth around me. In the surrounding bush I noticed several distinct varieties of eucalypt, all in seasonal stages of bark-shedding, and the patterned colours were so vivid I began to photograph them with my phone. The rhythm of my footsteps, and my attunement to the bush around me, became the drone of a didgeridu, which became a memory of an old friend from Melbourne, Kushala, with whom I had shared many transformative personal journeys and who has a deep sense of the didgeridu as an interdimensional extension of the shamanic.

Often I will create a collection of recordings around an existing visual image, rather than the other way round, as an image is often an anchor, or container for how I explore a theme musically. The photo abstractions of the tree bark, when viewed as a grid on my phone, looked to me like they belonged together, as a set. All these layers of the walk, the photos, the recollection of Kushala’s didg-playing and my shamanic self from another time, the meditative effect of my footsteps in the bush – all converged into a new creative point of focus: a series of atmospheric recordings, each with it’s own ‘bark painting’ cover, each with its own sense of ‘walkabout’.

Walkabout II (April 2020)

The walks in this recording are two stages of Kalonga Rd, the steep dirt road running downhill from our house. The first track, Kalonga, is the 20-min descent from dense Tasmanian mountain-ridge bush into a wide open valley, with neighbouring farms & sheep paddocks, and culminating at the intersection with the main road at the bottom of the hill. The second track, Runnin’ Outta Steam, is half of the ascending return journey, before I Ran Outta Steam.  On this album I have begun to get a better sense of the Surge synth’s potential, and consequently veer into abstracting my ambient intentions…

I began recording these bushwalks on my phone, learning the limitations as I went – how to minimise wind-noise with a piece of sock over the mic, having dud days when the weather changed mid-walk or there was unwanted human or traffic noise etc. Soon there was an added limitation: when the lockdown became a government mandate (not a personal choice), the authorities closed down public walks and threatened exorbitant penalties. Of course I understood the reasons, but in the case of our local walks it felt unnecessary, as it’s rare to coincide with someone else on these tracks, even on weekends. I felt urgently that I must attend the walks to fulfill my creative mission! …and so at times my walking took on an Orwellian tone, a furtive act, a crime – nay, a treason!

Walkabout III (May 2020)

By this album, my process of doing these walks had begun to deepen, and each time now I seemed to journey further into reflection, sifting through memories as they surfaced and re-viewing previous selves. 

This recorded walk is through bush to a secluded local beach known as Mickey’s, once also known quietly as a good spot for bathing in a ‘state of nature’, in the years BT (Before Tourism). Making the first track, Taking The Mickey Path, drew my thoughts back to the pivotal month I spent on the small island of Koh Tao, Sth Thailand, at the end of 2000, the end of the beginning of the New Millenium. I was visiting my friend Mickey, an adventurous DJ who ran a psychedelic bar on the beach, and his family. My time there was transformative – I observed how different the psyche of an island is, and gained a new sense of community. I returned to Melbourne and within a month had moved to the island of Tasmania, altering the course of my life forever. A circuit of strangeness and love from one Mickey to another.

The second track, Minim Mouse, uses the same walk, but with the recording reversed. Layered over this is an ambient piano meditation, pensive and feminine, a more intimate portrait of the environment, as a counterpoint to the first track. Around this time, I began experimenting with taking short films on my phone, specifically abstractions in nature, and mostly the dancing abstractions of light on water. This particularly mesmerising footage, seemed to complement the gentle mood of this piece. I remember playing an excerpt of this to my two teenage kids, just as we were about to leave for the bus – they stood so intently, so still, as they immersed themselves in the moment, and we became three motionless bodies in space, attendant, swept…

Walkabout IV (May 2020)

The walk in this recording we call the Quarry Walk. It’s a pretty, flat bush walk flanked on one side by Randalls Bay beach, the other side wide open rolling green sheep paddocks, and at the end there’s an abandoned quarry full of white quartz. Tranquil.

Well not this day – the one day I had planned to record my walk. The farmer in the sheep paddock was chainsawing some wood for winter. And despite the virus, people were out in droves. Dogs. Happy children squealing on the beach. Noise. I had a cranky walk and decided to use the recording anyway.

The first piece in the ‘suite’ features the distorted chainsaw as a kind of industrial folk throb, to mirror the violent intrusions of the afternoon and my cantankerations in response. As I later sculpted the music, it spoke of history, the trees being butchered, the rape of the land, the systematic slaughter of the Tasmanian aboriginals, the blood of the Mother, and the invasion of the human virus.

In the second stage of the piece, after bursting from the raw afterbirth, there is a walk in the bush of ghosts, the Otherworld. Dreamtime darkness, angry spirits, dead warriors watch in silence as we pass. Keep your eyes on the road, stay true.

In the third stage, the Dreamwalker emerges into a new shimmering vista, an open world and an empty mind – Buddha, mined. Quarry: the absence, the gouged bowl of stone and air, the receptive principle after everything is taken. Quarry: the Hunted. At the end of time, the transcendent object awaits…

Using the qwerty keyboard on my laptop, the notes in the recurring piano theme throughout this piece spell the words ‘i love you’, ‘people trees’ and ‘mothers blood’. The bark image on the cover was chosen for the blood-like effect of the sap leaking down the trunk.

Walkabout V (May 2020)

The walk recorded on Walkabout V is one of my local favourites. We call it the Fossil Beach Walk because it begins at a beach where the rocks are spangled with tiny fossils of ancient shell & plant life. The walk snakes along the low coastal cliffs and bush that mark the contours of the tidal Huon River, emerges about halfway at another small beach strewn with clattery pebbles & a border of large bleached driftwood logs, then eventually arrives at a third beach, a secluded bay, sheltered and flat sand, home to thousands of soldier crabs. The walk offers many textural variations, in many senses.

The experience of ‘walking on fossils’, in which the vastness of the eons comes into my focus underfoot as a physical sensation, delivers me into a very different sense of time & scale, a deep dreaming. The throbdrone of the barge passing upriver at the beginning of this piece becomes the otherworldly growl of the didgeridu becomes the living hum of the river, the pulse of the surrounding landscape and the ancient thrum of time as existence spreads outwards through space. As I shaped this album, I imagined I was walking into a flow of Time as ‘consciousness’.

Another very personal layer to the story of this recording was the process of reconnecting with my old friend Kushala, whose didgeridu textures feature on this album, as a visceral backbone to the themes of deep Time & ancient consciousness. In the last section of this album, I’ve slowed his recording down to suggest the moandrones of whales in mating season, a prehistoric synaesthesia of OceanMind and Space…

My original vision of the project included Kushala’s didg-playing, but by the time he was able to send me a recording of his playing, I had already moved through the process of, and released, the first 4 albums.  This was perfect as it enabled me time to familiarise myself with the synthesiser plug-in, so when his didg recording arrived I felt well-primed.  On Walkabout V his playing is the centrepiece.  On this walk, I also began experimenting with filming parts of the walk on my phone, and later created a video to accompany the album.

Walkabout VI (May 2020)

The walk recorded on Walkabout VI takes two creative detours from the system of the previous albums. One, the walking is all in water. Two, I have extended the natural realtime length of the walk (15 mins) by duplicating and threading it together to form a full 37 mins. I could have made two distinct tracks, but the watery nature of the theme suggested more of a continuum.

On the previous Walkabout (V), my walk ends at a secluded beach of flat sand and shallow water. That same day, I recorded myself wading slowly at ankledepth along the length of this beach and back.

The bay was a bowl of stillness, the water barely lapping at the sand. Before recording, I waited for a large bargeboat to pass as it made its way upriver. The Huon River is wide and the big, slow boat was a long way out from the beach. As the presence of the boat dissolved around the point, the air became still again and I commenced recording my waterwalk; but halfway along the beach the first ripples from the boat’s wake started to hit the shore, and in a short time they gained intensity and volume, crashing loudly at my feet even though the ‘waves’ were only a few centimetres high. I was surprised by both the incredible delay and the force of displacement involved for the ripples to travel so far from their source.

In this context my reflections moved gently to consider Death, in the sense of Passing…how a Life passes through the fluid field of time, what ripples are left when the Body, the Being, dissolves – the album’s single track, The Wake, is a meditation on the movement of energy, how the ripples form and spread beyond the source, contacting other surfaces, other lives, then folding back on themselves to melt into the vaster space. In the second half of the piece, there is an imagining of the lifeforce leaving the body, swirling wingbeats, angels and the dreamlike distortions of a fading consciousness, the Sirens beckoning, the Lynchian bardo orchestra….and perhaps a resolution into…….?

Walkabout VII (June 2020)

This final album features Kushala’s didg textures again.  This walkabout suggested Initiation as its theme.  As the recorded walk, I returned to the Sugarloaf Echo walk that begins the series, and reflected on the many different initiations I have experienced throughout life, and the continuing initiation into old age and mortality, the end as the beginning.

Originally I intended a series of 9 Walkabout albums, purely because I had settled firmly on a “set” of 9 bark images as the album covers.  As it happened, the Tasmanian lockdown was lifted earlier than the mainland, by which time I had created 7 Walkabout albums (as well as the unrelated Self Isolator and Solaris Beach Party albums); but as a matter of principal I didn’t want to continue the series if the context had changed (ie no more lockdown restriction).  In my autistic sense of things, having the lockdown lifted made my conceptual frameworks irrelevant and to make any more Walkabout recordings would be inauthentic.

And so the series remains a set of 7, and completes itself where the series began, in my mind at least, featuring Kushala playing didgeridu – on the seventh album, with its theme of Initiation, the end is the beginning, the ouroboros – the eternal serpent dreaming.