BEHIND THE SCENES with Mark Vernon

As a radio producer, maker of audio installations and sound art, and musician in a touring band, your life seems to be surrounded by audio. What is it about the medium of sound that draws you in so deeply, and have you always been so interested

I think my real attraction to sound is as a catalyst for the imagination. Sound has the ability to transport you to another time or place at the drop of a hat, to generate fabulous and fantastic sound images within your mind and all through such simple means. It still fascinates me that through sound recording we are able to capture the essence of a moment that we can recall or play back at will, manipulate and combine with other moments. This, to me, is an amazing thing

My background is in the visual arts and it is only in the last six or seven years that I became involved in sound production. Many of the works I produced as a visual artist incorporated found objects and classification systems so it was quite a natural transition from working with found objects to working with found sounds and audio archives. Effectively it's a transposition of my visual practice into the medium of sound -- I find that I am using essentially the same methods to collect, classify, and arrange information except now I do it in a computer or on tape rather than physically

Many of your soundscapes are made from local field recordings -- from monster trucks in Savannah, Georgia, to the alleys outside nightclubs in Glasgow. In addition to being aural portraits of the locations they document, do these pieces also tell specific stories

For me it is unimportant for a sound piece to tell a story. What is of more importance is that it provides enough of the elements that allow listeners to make up their own stories. It is our nature to try and make sense of things. If you play two sounds in proximity to each other they instantly form a relationship in the listeners mind; to this extent I think it is enough to experience the sound as its own story. As a general rule I prefer to think of my own work as a body of non-specific stories—open-ended narratives. A listener has to bring their imagination to bear on what they hear, I am merely providing guide posts along the way. It is always interesting to hear other people's interpretations of these pieces as their ideas can sometimes be wildly removed from my original intentions. This often brings to light issues and themes that I hadn't even considered whilst making the work but that are just as valid. For me this ambiguity is essential as it provokes thought; it is the difference between asking questions and giving answers

You also work a lot with found audio material. Where do you find it, and how does the process of envisioning and then creating a story with this material take shape

Most of the found material I use comes from old reel-to-reel and cassette tapes found in charity shops, flea markets, and car boot sales (think yard sale . . . held in the trunks of cars). When tape recorders first became available it was a huge novelty to be able to record and hear your own voice. Many people recorded family holidays or important events and festivities such as weddings, Christmas or birthdays, family sing-alongs, etc. There was a trend for sending "letters on tape" or "voice letters" to family members in distant parts. As tape technology becomes increasingly obsolete these tapes are discarded by their owners who often no longer even have the means to play them

I wouldn't really say that I "envision" a story in advance -- I am usually led by the material; it's a process. Sometimes my response is emotional, sometimes purely aesthetic. I look for relationships between the sounds and voices I am working with and expand upon these relationships intuitively, augmenting them with other recordings and sounds from my collection, processing and arranging them in the computer to create a loose but tangible narrative. It is largely a process of trial and error, trying different sounds together and judging the results until a pleasing or effective arrangement is attained

Radio, talking books, children's toys, television, films, records, and Cs are all additional resources that provide audio material to be sampled and incorporated into compositions, not to mention field recordings, which I consider to be yet another type of found sound

One of the pieces we're featuring is made up entirely of recordings of customers trying out different products in musical instrument shops. Where did this idea come from

From a number of visits to music shops at weekends, I became aware of this rich and varied source of sounds that was there just for the taking: musicians of all abilities and ages playing unselfconsciously with no intended audience. There were some really quite amazing juxtapositions: often you would find four or five people in a room all playing at the same time but completely ignoring what each other are doing. I really liked this free improvisation-gone-wrong aspect to it. There were some moments of accidental synchronicity that are just beautiful and the charm of the unintentional is always present. The idea of using these audio scraps as a resource to create new imaginary bands and groups was too much to resist. Through this process many musicians unwittingly became involved in unlikely collaborations with each other

We've also posted some excerpts from a collection of audio you stumbled across accidentally, which led you to some fascinating historical research. Please explain more about what you found, and the tape club phenomenon in the UK

The little known phenomenon of tape recording clubs reached its peak in the 60s and 70s, as tape recording technology became more widely available. I was completely unaware of their existence until I happened across my find at a car boot sale in Derby. Enthusiasts would meet regularly and present recorded mixes, quizzes, documentaries, and slide or cine shows to one another, swapping tips and arranging activities such as group field-recording trips. There were once tape recording clubs all around the UK and in many other countries

The original material comes from a bag of 50 or so reel-to-reel tapes containing more than 100 hours of audio ranging from the late 60s to the early 80s as best I can tell. There is an astounding mixture of material all recorded by one man -- Bill Howard, whom it soon became apparent was one of the most active members of the Derby Tape Recording Club. These recordings give us an amazing insight into the lives of Bill and his wife, Marjory, their family, and their friends; Bill's innocent enthusiasm, curiosity about sound, and his thirst for experimentation are always evident. These tapes and subsequent interviews with the few ex-members of the club I was able to trace became the basis of a series of programmes for Resonance FM and a programme on BBC Radio 4

Are there any current clubs meeting regularly, or are they a thing of the past

As far as I am aware there are no longer any tape recording clubs still in operation. As cine cameras and then video cameras became popular the interest in tape recording fell by the wayside, though it seems that the Derby Tape Recording Club was still going as late as 1993

I have often toyed with the idea of trying to start up a tape recording club since but I'm not sure there would be anything like the same level of interest now

You also play in the band Hassle Hound. Do you approach this project differently from the other sound-work you make, or is it an extension of your other projects? (And where is the name Hassle Hound from?

I find that these different audio activities all feed into one another. The distinction between radio programmes, soundscapes, and music at times becomes somewhat blurred as I employ the techniques and methods I have learnt in one field in another. In Hassle Hound the concerns are far more musical so the approach is a little different but voice, narrative, found sounds, and field recordings are all still present to a greater or lesser extent. Many people say they think of our tracks as short radio stories or soundtracks without films

The name Hassle Hound came from two entries that were side-by-side in a thesaurus

Can you compare the experience of performing in Hassle Hound, in front of a crowd, to hearing a story you've made broadcast on the radio

The great thing about a live performance is the immediacy of the reaction from an audience, you know there and then what they do or don't like. When the reaction is good it's a boost, it lifts you up, and there's a level of excitement involved in performance that you just don't get from listening back to a recording. On the whole though I prefer the anonymity of a radio broadcast, knowing that this work you have invested so much time and energy in is being beamed into the homes of potentially thousands of listeners. It's far nicer not knowing and being able to imagine who is out there. When listening to a programme or feature I've produced broadcast on the radio I am in the same position as the other listeners, you can be both producer and audience. A live situation doesn't allow you this luxury, it is too chaotic, you're listening from a different perspective and there is too much concentration involved to impartially assess the whole sound. It is however far more difficult to get any kind of feedback from a radio broadcast.

What are you working on now? What's next

Currently I am working on a live radio play with Barry Burns to be performed at Extrapool, Njimegen in the Netherlands in May and have just begun a short residency at Recyclart, an art space-come-train station in Brussels which will result in a performance, broadcast, and a new sound installation that will run for the next year

The new Vernon & Burns LP, The Tune The Old Cow Died Of , a collection of solo and collaborative music and sound works, has just been released on Gagarin records and is available from Stora. A newly commissioned program for New Media Scotland's Drift festival of Audio & Radio Art, "Evelyn's Request," will be broadcast on Resonance FM and streamed from the N.M.S. website in April

Is Hassle Hound planning to tour in the U.S. anytime soon

We'd love to at some point but there are no plans at present. Our singer and violinist, Ela, is now living in New York so who knows what the future may bring?