Hearing a Possible World in the Crackling of Dry Leaves



View Lisa Hall's Biography

Lisa Hall is a UK based sound artist exploring urban environments with audio interventions, performative actions and site-specific works.

View Salomé Voegelin's Biography

Salomé Voegelin is an artist, writer and researcher engaged in listening as a socio-political practice, and as methodology for a hybrid knowledge base.

Hearing a Possible World in the Crackling of Dry Leaves

By Lisa Hall and Salomé Voegelin

This piece is at once an essay, a documentation of a work and an auto-ethnographic journey through the field of an embodied recording practice. It retraces, comments on and further narrates 'And it Tastes like Hair', the sound and text installation produced collaboratively by the authors for the exhibition Translating Ambiance, curated by Jordan Lacey for the Yarra Sculpture Gallery.

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Photo credit: Francesca Oldfield

In retracing the work's steps we consider its construction from the sound of dry leaves crumbling; from the body recorded and overheard in the field; from a daughter's descriptions of nature felt; with John Gough's Meteorological Journal from 1808, kept in the archives of the Wellcome Trust, that inspired its journey; and from the sound of the recording and play-back technology used. It engages these fragments through their contacts and connections, which also built the installation. Since, these were the things we went out to search for and found up close. So close as to leave no space between us and them, but only the concorporate reciprocity of our touch: the skin of the plant on the skin of the finger, the crackling on the eardrum, the air hitting the back of the throat, feet at the point of contact with ground, leaves on the taste buds, small hairs everywhere... And so we listened to their proximity in order to hear in the small sounds of plants up close, and in the close up of the body recording, the radical reality of a possible world made together by human and non-human things. In this sense this piece writes an auto-ethnographic journey about and with these fragments and from the way they inter-are. It hopes to come to understand the working processes, their translations, and the possibilities of their correspondence and interaction, as a space for a different artistic and political imagination.

Journeying into the wild

My walking into the woods behind my block of flats with a microphone is an attempt to journey into the wild, to meet it face to face, to feel it and smell it and narrate its natureness. The woods is an imagined and actual wilderness. It helps me think where it starts and where I meet it and how I belong to it. It is where the spiders come from that sit in the corners of my room, where the foxes live that roam the streets at night, where the birds congregate once they have left the feeding tables in the garden, and where my anxiety about dogs off leads gets particularly acute due to the lack of a broad horizon and the imagination of wolfs and bears.

The woods is at once mythical and real, and makes me acutely aware not of nature but of how we exclude it in our definition of being human, how we fence it off on our maps and in our narrations and performances of the wild. In this sense my walking into the woods behind my block of flats, listening to it through a microphone and on headphones is an auto-ethnographic journey as wilding: wilding myself, testing my nature rather than that of the woods.

The intractable body and a natural anechoic chamber.
Walking in a dusty desert gorge in northern Chile became an unexpected exercise in finding the edges of my sonic body, the limits of my tolerance for hearing it, and my expectations for my relationship with my wild environment.

Every tiny little thing I do is loud - my breathing, swallowing, clothes rustling, feet hitting the dirt. I am an annoyingly noisy thing to have to listen to, and it's all that I can hear. So I stop moving, and my breathing slows, but there is very little else to listen to. So I strain to hear my surroundings - but I just hear pressure. A ringing then begins. My tinnitus is a low humming and a high-pitched hiss, the kind of sound that I would edit out of a field recording. This also becomes too much.
I get up and move. I move to make sound, to hear things. I kick the ground, drag my feet across its different surfaces, I throw things, break and damage the ground around me so that I can hear it.

And the edges have really sharp spikes. They are red, and they hurt me.1

This recourse to the auto-ethnographic is my way of dealing with the confusion of the post-anthropocentric. It performs my doubt about how I can be with nature without dominating it, and without it dismantling my humanness, acknowledging that we inter-are in a co-dependent embrace, while knowing also that I can only be with it as myself - not as me only but as only me; as an uncertain sonic texture and pattern walking between the brambles, cutting my flesh and making a path of walked on fruits. This is the conundrum of this sonic wilding: it aims to describe a wholesome giving space to nature, but becomes a marauding act that terrorizes its strangeness from the desire to be it, through recording and grasping what it is, making a sonic rhythm but no roots.

This quiet location presented a different sonic balance that I was not used to hearing. The environment was barely audible, while the sounds which were usually at the sonic peripherals of my body were now center stage. These biological sounds of my body were a byproduct of its recording action. They were unwanted. Instead, the sound of the environment was needed and I strained to hear it. But the balance had shifted, the focus of it all had moved.

My kicking movements brought a fleeting rebalance, but unpleasantness and irritation were wrapped up in this re-arrangement of what was and was not audible. These interactions felt destructive, a crossing of a line. I reconsidered a set of expectations about what this encounter would and could be, and an unease had settled in.

When you touch it, it feels like it’s grabbing onto you.

moss (audio):

dry leaves (audio):

round hairy plant (audio):

fern (audio):

pine (audio):

holly (audio):

A journey, a breach, and pressing record too early.
Recording idyllic rainforests in Brazil and in Australia - thick with humming insects, birds calling, a space filled with plants, trees, vines, yet wide open all at once - all captured omni directionally via my DPA mics, a sonic moment of “untouched” nature all around. But I was there too, silently, barely breathing, sweating in the heat, sitting next to my microphones. Like a strange voyeur hoping not to be seen. But how did I get there?

It’s a wooden walkway with clomping footsteps and fragments of idle conversation that pass me by.
It’s a metal stairwell and overpass with resonating footsteps and vibrations, with exclamations and shouts coming from it. It’s an earth track, with dull thuds of boots dancing down hill past me in pairs.

It will tug on your skin.
And it tastes like hair.

And so I trace and retrace nature with an uncertain but self-conscious body that does not feel in charge but terribly responsible, and that as matter makes unstable contacts and unreliable connections that move through the microphone into my headphones and touch the stereocilia, the mechanosensing hair cells, which respond to fluid motion in human and animals and enable hearing and balance. Thistles, dry leaves, grass, and brambles touch the short hair within the spiral of the cochlea close up. We meet as textures and surfaces, hairy, jagged, willful and intractable, and breach a dualistic world view in the encounter of small hairs, fluid, skin, stems and spikes.

Pressing record early, I let my footsteps piece together from fragments, the human built infrastructure and construction as the order and mediation of trails and paths that structure our access to these wilderness areas. The need for control of human traffic is clear, but it serves to protect us too. The hidden journey behind the recording is not one of closeness or contact, but of separation - it is a controlled breach into a wilderness.

The journey sounds out the designated meeting point for me and the wilderness - the paths that lead into it, through it - the human corridor of access for the journey.

And there are quite a lot all over the ground.

But is that wilding me or it, where is the conflict where the solution? What do we end up with, am I now nature, and what of my recordings? I ask as I stare at the bramble crunched up by the microphone and trampled under foot, and the red scratches along my arms and fingers, skin torn, bloody and sore.

To get a distance I bring my 9 year old daughter and ask her to narrate, hoping for a less conflicted voice. Instead of talking she touches leaves, combs through moss, chews on grass and tells me it tastes like hair. She performs being matter together without fear of destruction and hierarchy, and so she half builds, half destroys, bringing organisms together as a host. She also does not fear the dog that runs around the long grass, while I duck and try not to be there. According to the Urban Dictionary, wilding is a non-word.

Half building, half dismantling.
Walking in a mountain in Italy, I brought together my experiences of unease and access.

The uneasy sounds of my intractable body breathing, of me being present were heard alongside nature sounding. I purposefully changed the sonic balance of me and ‘it’ when recording this walk. Pressing record ‘too early’ I captured the journey as well as the destination. The route was not a path but a direction of my choosing, it came with complexities, obstacles and confusion - of getting lost and falling over. This caused an up-closeness of being, of interaction and of contact - tripping, crushing, brushing - and the imaginative possibilities of this performance of matter together.














small hairs




half building, half dismantling


half builds, half destroys




performance of matter together


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Photo credit: Francesca Oldfield

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Photo credit: Francesca Oldfield

Leaving the body in the wild

We are out now. We have left the woods, the desert, and the various wildernesses recorded. What remains is our passing contact, recorded, restaged, put into words and remembered. As work and as documentation: sounds playing through six mono headphone channels and a stereo speaker set up, framed by haphazardly leaned and propped up timber boards and lettra-set words. All captured in photographs and in descriptions.

But where is the body that is not framed by the subjectivity of the artists, recognizable and named, but is the bodied materiality of recording, made from the same stuff as the world:2 the thistles, broad grass, the desert sand, the heat and rain, and the soft heeled shoes worn in order not to be heard. Have we left that body in the wild, on the trodden-on brambles - or have we left the brambles on our bodies, evident still by invisible scratches on our skin?

The production of the work demanded proximity and closeness and framed the body recording as an auto-ethnographic body that is an exploratory device, which comes to know through its sensory corpus, and in its being with (Schulze, 151 and 157). And that creates knowledge from this interbeing with every other thing as an epistemology of shared materiality in the in-between.

This auto-ethnographic knowledge is phenomenological and sensorial. It admits the non-arbitrary ambiguity of one's own life as critical potential to discourse. It does so by abandoning critical distance and instead assumes a critical proximity: to be as mobile 'I-slots' the bodied material and conduit of sensorial sense. (Shildrick and Price, 9)

This is an epistemological but also an ethical position, concerned with what knowledge is, who it belongs to, what sense it carries and how it is made available.

Is it in the work or in its documentation? in the images we have of it or in the more ephemeral ones we keep in our memory?

Does the potential of this auto-ethnographic I-slot remain in the work, ready for reperformance by the audience, who so becomes a consecutive auto-ethnographic device for an alternative sensorial knowledge of plants and environments? And if so, can it trigger a different engagement with the wild that challenges and resists objective sense and the separation of a true nature, to instead co-extend as bodied materiality in performance and as a plural in-between - 'mobilising a series of differentially embodied and multiple I-slots' in the wild? (ibid.)

So maybe the body does not literally remain in the wild, but creates a co-extensity that as device of a sensorial knowledge and as performative possibility, brings other bodies into its proximity and knowledge, to make the woods, the desert, the plants, the weather and the recording, continuous and available as an assemblage of cross time concorporation rather than as the over there to be recorded, composed and played back here at a specific time.

Works Cited

Margrit Shildrick and Janet Price, Vital Signs, Feminists Reconfigurations of the Bio/logical Body, UK: Edinburgh University Press, p. 9.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, The Primacy of Perception, translated by James M. Edie, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964, p. 163.

Schulze, Holger, The Sonic Persona, An Anthropology of Sound, London and NY: Bloomsbury: 2018, p. 151 and 157.


  1. These intertitles are transcriptions from the recorded explanations and narrations of plants, as delivered by one of the artists's daughter, Emilia Mollin. 

  2. This suggests an inversed paraphrasing of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's idea that 'Things are an annex or prolongation of itself [the flesh]; they are incrusted into its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the same stuff as the body.' And conversely the body is made of the same stuff as the body (Merleau-Ponty, 163).