Total Theatre Magazine, August 2016

Mark Lyken / Emma Dove: The Terrestrial Sea

There is an interesting cultural dynamic that has arisen in recent years, in tandem with the emergence of affordable technologies and the ever-spreading rash of creative hybridisation of form, media, medium and delivery. This dynamic concerns sound systems, and is something that I became aware of a couple of years ago when a theatre director told me that his work was continually undermined by the poor quality of sound systems in theatres. It was, he said, approaching the time when he would rather face the logistical challenges of staging productions in nightclubs rather than face the inadequate technology available to him in traditional theatre spaces. Similarly, one thinks of Russell Haswell seeking out Dolby registered multiplexes to perform work using their proprietary sound systems.

We are quite familiar with creative proposals that seek to take work out of the commonplace or traditional venue – but this is usually spun as a process of addressing outreach and audience development, or seeking to use a specific location for a specific purpose at a specific time. Less often verbalised, perhaps, is the problematic observation that the traditionally allocated venue format ain’t good enough.

This is somewhat by the by as The Terrestrial Sea, shown in the Filmhouse as part of this year’s Made In Scotland strand of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is essentially a film being shown in a cinema. But the film-maker, Emma Dove, takes a back seat here to her sound artist collaborator Mark Lyken who has given this 2012 work a new dynamic as a result of a recent residency in Mexico’s Centre for Music and Sonic Arts at Morelia where he developed the multi-channel audio soundtrack for the film premiered here. And so a movie becomes a live audiovisual exploration, and attention is divided between Dove’s poetically assured and sensitive visuals – curiously suggestive of a celluloid Barbara Hepworth – and Lyken’s crouched and shadowed figure hunched over a laptop at the corner of the screen.

Like Mirror Lands (also by Dove and Lyken), which might be considered to be its partner work, Terrestrial Sea forms a meditative exploration of Scotland’s Cromarty Firth. But where Mirror Lands kept a slow and steady gaze on recognisable landscapes, this present feature is a more abstracted affair. Dove’s images distil the elements of a hard-bitten coast and a working marine station into subtle shifts of light and form: the shadows indicating the rough hew of a lighthouse wall, the curve of a stairwell; and the spill of light on old wood, reflected sunshine, murmurations of silt. Lyken, similarly, seeks out the forensic detail from the sound field, utilising fragments of field recording and hydrophone recordings from Cromarty’s Lighthouse Field Station augmented with synthesis and filtering.

Whereas Mirror Lands encouraged a subtly political reflection on the indelible print left by man and nature on a location, The Terrestrial Sea invokes a dissolving of the moment at hand. The sensation, at times, is akin to the sleepy dislocation caused by staring at sparkling water for too long. The sense of time, place and self all dissipate as each uncoupled detail of image and sound takes momentary focus – before, once again, dissolving.

The ambient drift, barbed only by occasional glitching loops triggered by Lyken, is all effective enough in itself, but the true promise of the hybrid medium is really touched upon in those moments where Lyken and Dove acknowledge that both film and music are temporal forms and allow a narrative progression to emerge from the texture. One particularly successful sequence sees the camera close in from distant water to much closer ripples, under which pebbles catch the sun before yielding to deeper water; and clouds of debris caught in the current, wiping against the harsh, bright colours of scientific equipment pushed around in the tidal flow. The whole sequence surfaces, and resolves with the gargantuan spectacle of an oil exploration platform easing its way through the Firth towards the open sea. Each shift in scale and detail in the sequence is tightly and sensitively captured by Lyken’s audio treatments, and the whole thing becomes momentarily deeply moving.

It’s not without issues. A cinema multi-channel system is necessarily tailored towards the wide-open bass frequencies that are smeared across contemporary films, and this is done at the expense of the top end of the frequency spectrum which, at moments, cluttered and cramped the sound. More open to discussion, however, is my feeling that the visual style of The Terrestrial Sea drew too much attention to itself – through, for instance, split and mirror screen effects – with the sense, for me, that it undermined the intention of the multi-channel audio output. Immersion, if you like, was challenged by a continual awareness of the media and the medium.

Lyken is one of the most interesting voices to have arisen from Cryptic’s highly valuable and valued Associate scheme, and he seems to be finding his pace well in the milieu of outpost residencies. His partnership with Dove, already compelling, and pushing gently into the boundaries of an emerging sensory documentary style, is one that should be followed closely.

By Michael Begg