Ros Bandt and Vicki Hallett – Listening to the Barwon River in Australia Barwon River at sunset – photo: Ros Bandt

Ros Bandt and Vicki Hallett – Listening to the Barwon River in Australia

November 24, 202011-15 min read

Written by:

Jane Cornwell

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The Barwon River runs from the Otway Ranges, high up in the Australian state of Victoria, down through the port city of Geelong and out into the sea. Along the way it relaxes and turns brackish in the Barwon Estuary, a 19km stretch of wetland where freshwater meets saltwater and significant species of fish, birds, reptiles, mammals and vegetation including vulnerable white mangrove shrubland co-exist in age old, but increasingly fragile, harmony.

Listen – like, really listen – and you’ll hear an ecosystem in dialogue: above ground, below the water, between land and sea. There, the crackle of krill and snapping shrimp. There, an ocean breeze ruffling seagrass as a group of royal spoonbills – large waterbirds with big flat beaks – take lunch. There, the buzz of insects, the hoarse cry of a pelican; down there, the clicks of eels, the hoots of bream and trout.

And there, the percussive rhythm of oars and equipment hitting fibreglass as Australian sound artists Ros Bandt and Vicki Hallett traverse the estuary in their kayaks.

When you’re listening through six heightened microphone recordings underneath your boat, and you’re watching something else, the layers of sound and reality always seem to be shifting.
Ros Bandt in the Mangroves – photo: Vicki Hallett
Ros Bandt in the Mangroves – photo: Vicki Hallett

“We’re listening to what sort of world we’re living in,” declares Bandt over a live stream relayed with hydrophones, binaural microphones and other recording devices. “We’re visiting nature now and over the Web, and going to psychological spaces we rarely even dream about.”

Two of Australia’s best known field recordists, Bandt and Hallett are sensing this slice of the planet for Barwon Listening, a project that interrogates place as an acoustic space where sound, place, time and culture collide. It’s a work focused on a river and tributaries known as Barre Warre Yulluck by the Traditional Custodians of country, and of especial cultural significance to the region’s Wadawurrung people.

“Water is a living entity in our stories,” states Wadawurrung woman Melinda Kennedy in Our Living Rivers of the Barwon 1, a 2019 government-commissioned discussion paper. “Our creations are held by the life of these rivers. Our intangible connections [that we] receive from our past live and protect our culture for our present and future. The connection between river and sea is our lore.”

It was with such edicts in mind that Bandt and Hallett approached Barwon Listening. The project is one of numerous enterprises conducted under the aegis Hearing Places, an archive of recordings, concerts, installations, exhibitions and lectures named for Bandt’s collection (with Michelle Duffy and Dolly Mackinnon) of writings published in 2009 by Cambridge Publishing, in Bandt’s capacity as senior research fellow in sound culture at Melbourne University.

“Ros and I are in close contact with the Wadawurrung community to ensure that we create works that align with them on their country,” offers Hallett, a Geelong-based clarinettist, sound artist and field recordist whose CV spans orchestral playing, projects in South Africa and South Korea and since 2017, several collaborations with Bandt.

“In that respect Geelong is an area that has struggled to have some form of connection.” Hallett name-checks Australia’s second fastest-growing city, a historic manufacturing centre and regional shipping and rail hub located 75 kilometres southwest of Melbourne. “So it is vital that we work together. It’s all about coming back to country and listening being respectful and gentle in our approach.”

Next to Hallett on a Zoom split screen, Bandt - Geelong-raised and Melbourne-based - nods her agreement.

“It can take years to culturally shift enough to properly listen to Aboriginal voices,” she says. “It’s like a rite of passage.”

Since 1977 the flame-haired Bandt has been exploring the concept of sound as belonging to place in locales from Paris to Warsaw and seven world heritage sites including Delphi in Greece. Live, her electro-acoustic divinations blend the ancient and modern in site-specific ways, and often involve collaborations with dancers, performers and local custodians. At Melbourne University she directs The Australian Sound Design Project, an online gallery and database.

She has released CDs, written books and invented interactive sound playback systems that include the audience and allow them to fully participate in the design of her works. She has recorded while hanging over cliffs, out of wheat silos and walking along a vibrating farm fence, and captured nighttime activity inside a shark tank at the Melbourne Aquarium.

“We discovered that the fish had dawn choruses even with artificial lighting,” says Bandt, who has a PhD in Musicology and wrote her Masters thesis on the work of John Cage. “The scientists didn’t want to know about it.”

Little wonder, then, that Bandt is called the high priest of Australian sound art. Or why, earlier this year she received the Art Music Award for Distinguished Services to Australian Music. Armed with an oeuvre that combines art, science and technology with notions of spirituality and the sacred and reverence for First Nations People, she continues to explore what space, charged with meaning, can tell us.

Bandt and the younger Hallett met in 2017 at the annual Australian Wildlife Sound Recording Group conference at Baradine in New South Wales. Introduced by a mutual friend who knew of both women’s links to Geelong, their rapport, they say, was instant.

In 2018 they successfully applied for funding from Geelong After Dark, a late-night immersive arts festival. Earthscape, their collaboration with director Marie Panguard and musician Jem Savage, was a three-movement work intended to look outward from earth to science and the cosmos, then inward to explore how human actions have consequences before suggesting a more balanced future.

For 2019’s Geelong After Dark, also with Jem Savage, Bandt and Hallett presented Human Aquarium, a six channel underwater sound environment designed for an outdoor multi-sensory portal.

“It is always pretty amazing to watch people, especially children, put on the headphones and immerse themselves in this sonic environment,” offers Hallett. “Generally we don’t ever listen to underwater sounds. Listening through a hydrophone means the sound is mediated; we’re adding the kinds of dialogues that are happening all the time at different times of the day.”

From this vantage point at the nexus of art and science Bandt and Hallett explore perspectives as multi-layered as their methodology.

For Barwon Listening, think the gentle clamour of wind, grass and waves vying and blending with hitherto unheard sounds such as plankton, its white noise static generated thousands of times (“For twenty years I’ve been telling people what plankton sounds like,” states Bandt). Think field recordings folded into compositions featuring clarinet and tarhu, a bow spiked fiddle customised by Australian luthier Peter Biffen, and Bandt’s instrument of choice.

From the get-go she has obtained permission before proceeding on such feted works as Voicing the Murray, a 1996 multi-channel installation that gave Australia’s longest river a ‘voice’ by bearing witness to stories from the likes of local irrigators and grape harvesters and original owners, whose recorded then fragmented monologues told of displacement from land and language in Indigenous Yorta Yorta [sic] and Barkindji languages.

Forever mindful of the microphone as a potential agent of imperialism, Bandt’s post-colonialist consciousness has only sharpened over the years - buoyed by fieldwork, fed by reciprocity and the reading of templates for living including, most recently, Tyson Yunkaporta’s celebrated Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World (2019, Text Publishing).

“When I think about First Nations People today,” Bandt says, “I think how would it be if all those lovely Aussie firemen risking their lives fighting bushfires had spent a bit of time learning about land management from Aboriginal people [whose traditional circular burning practices involve smaller, more controlled flames].”

She sighs. “But capitalism is greedy. People want more and more.”

A founding member, in Banff in 1993, of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, Bandt was on the original committee of the Australian Forum for Acoustic Ecology when it was formed five years later. In 2009 with her partner Arthur McDevitt she launched the Acoustic Sanctuary on a remote wildlife property in Fryerstown in the Goldfields region of Victoria.

For thirty years this sonic amphitheatre and acoustic corridor has flourished as the remnant endangered box ironbark forest has regenerated after pastoralism, mining and hobby farming. The site has evolved as both a dedicated place for listening to the sonic habitat and a laboratory for her interdisciplinary creative practice – including, notably, a 2018 Freshwater Listening event in collaboration with local artists and Fryerstown School.

Across the Acoustic Sanctuary, standing like sentinels, are 106 giant Aeolian harps (wooden boxes with strings stretched across two bridges). Each played by the wind, singing the sound of country (Indigenous Australians believe that Australia is criss-crossed with songlines or dreaming tracks that trace the footprints of the ancestors as they created the land, animals and lore).

But even on 55 acres of unspoilt bushland, capitalism – and its diabolical by-product, environmental pollution – has made itself felt.

“For the longest time we probably had just one plane flying overhead per week. But for the last five years you’d be lucky to get 30 minutes between planes. It’s like they have a license to shit in the sky.”

Together on Zoom, against a backdrop of photographs taken at the Estuary, the two women gift me a performance of a composition/dialogue titled ‘Freshwater/Saltwater’. It’s a mesmerisingly beautiful affair involving multi-tracked sound recordings, altered electronic sounds and the floating tones of the acoustic instruments; at one point Hallett removes and plays the mouthpiece of her clarinet, changing its timbre by cupping her palm around its end.

Such marked spirituality serves to reinforce the notion of Barre Warre Yulluck (which translates as ‘the great river that ran from the mountains to the ocean’) as a sacred space. A container, if you like, for spirits and memories that came into being over 60,000 years before European colonisation. For an ecosystem of species that have been coming and going at low and high tide for as long, and longer.

“The spiritual content of the work is vital,” says Hallett, who from 1992 to 2005 was a key member of the Royal Australian Air Force Central Band, a role that necessitated intensive military training (a former sergeant, she also abseils and is an open water diver). “It’s a big part of why I do what I do.”

A long-time performer in orchestras and chamber ensembles including the Geelong Symphony Orchestra and, since 2013, her own Sonus Ensemble, Hallet found her metier in exploratory interdisciplinary work: sound art, acoustic ecology and occasional pain-management meditations.

More recently she’s worked with field recordings of the endangered African forest elephant (Cornell University’s Elephant Listening Project) and for her 2017 Sonic Mmabolela residency at Mmabolela Reserve in the Limpopo Valley bushveld at the border of South Africa and Botswana, with hippos.

“Growing up, my happy place was in nature, exploring acoustic ecology,” says Hallett, who was raised in Castlemaine in regional Victoria and moved to Geelong in 1993.

“And this is what I returned to after years of questioning the point and purpose of my orchestral career. The clarinet grounded me” – her 2019 Coastal Cave Solo was delivered from within a hidden coastal cave – “and from there I have focused on creating using sound, and on tuning into place.”

Indeed, in the same way that, say, many oral folk traditions interact with environment – there are Indigenous Canadians whose lullabies mirror their immediate topography, and Native American elders taught to sing by using the outside edge of distant forests as musical staves – Hallett has performed works (2017’s Chromaticity) based on photographic outlines of mountains in regional Victoria.

“Sometimes it’s all about going into the field and experiencing the moment of the sounds that I’m pointing at. Other times I like to do long durational recordings because I wish to leave the space so it can just be. But I do have to sit in that space for a while first.”

Hallett did as much for Live At Mabolel Rock, a reflective live improvisation situated on a site overlooking the Limpopo River. The work was undertaken as part of the aforementioned Sonic Mmabolela residency – a two-week stint aimed in part at “the questioning of canonical conceptions of so-called ‘field recordings’.”

“On arrival we found a pod of hippopotami basking upstream,” remembers Hallett. “I sat quietly on the bank for an hour, just trying to become part of the environment. I didn’t want to just walk out onto the rock. By taking my time and letting the ecosystem accustom itself to my presence I felt quite at ease.”

“I played a call based on my transcriptions of hippo sounds, and one hippo moved in closer, snorting its responses. When I turned my back, responding rhapsodically to some birds, it snorted insistently to recapture my attention. The intensity was felt by the small audience on the bank, whose reactions I could hear; we were all a part of this special moment.”

Bandt smiles her encouragement. “Vicki’s really great at tuning into place,” she says. “It’s not every artist that can respond to pictures of a mountain or the spurt of water from a hippo at a certain time. There has to the kind of openness that First Nations people observed; like, you don’t get that kangaroo if you make a noise.

“We’ve had a fantastic collaboration. We both know that recording and collaborating means being mindful and attentive, and that this requires a huge amount of trust with the other when you are in place.”

“There’s nothing I would rather do,” she adds, “than go kayaking in the mangroves on the Barwon River Estuary with Vicki.”

binaural recording and hydrophones from the kayak
binaural recording and hydrophones from the kayak

Such fine-tuned awareness makes starker the environmental challenges facing the area: storm water litter with residential, industrial and agricultural runoff. Damage done by housing overdevelopment, the planting of exotic trees; by salinity and overfishing, poor river flow and inappropriate river craft.

“Part of what we’re doing is like science,” offers Bandt. “And a lot of it is very emotional, with parts that are like a meditation. When you’re listening through six heightened microphone recordings underneath your boat, and you’re watching something else, the layers of sound and reality always seem to be shifting. You have to be really focused.”

While railing against the scientists who have previously refused to consult and listen with Indigenous Elders, and noting the ensuing “waste of public money”, Bandt says she’s heartened by the growing numbers of professionals with theoretical science backgrounds, many young and female, who are willing to share expertise.

“And ask permission,” she reiterates. “ Because you can’t just go and do stuff without asking anymore.”

With the blessing of the Wadawurrung, Barwon Listening is intended to alert Geelong and its surrounds (and via the Web, Australia and the rest of the world) to the value and importance of what lies in its own backyard. Of the short-finned eels, unique to the area, migrating downriver. Of the changes – good and bad – that occur, and the visitors that arrive, with the tides and the seasons. Of the beauty of an Estuary that has gone largely unappreciated for decades.

“I’ve been a nomad all over the world with this instrument,” says Bandt, holding her tarhu by its long neck. “It’s my divining tool, responding to, telling me about the other. I’ve investigated Minoan civilisations that are thousands of years old. I’m wearing a Minoan ring!” She holds up her hand. “But when you think about it, how much older is Australia? We’ve got the oldest civilisation right here.

“When I went back to exploring this estuary in this industrial town where I grew up” – her late father Lewis Bandt, a car designer at Geelong Ford, is famous for building and designing the first ‘ute’ (country Australia’s ubiquitous coupé utility cars) in the 1930s – “and where as a kid I once found a shark’s tooth fossil from god knows how many millions of years ago, I saw again the beauty that has gone unacknowledged for so long.

“As I said to Vicki in one of our early recordings, ‘I don’t care if I never did anything other than look at this habitat now for the rest of my life. There is so much to listen to, to look at, to enjoy’.”

A healthy ecosystem is one that exists in harmony, where food chains flow and diverse species function and flourish. By continuing to observe the Barwon River, by sensing it through sound and the act of listening in place, Ros Bandt and Vicki Hallett act as watchdogs, alert to the fact we cannot ever take the environment for granted.

“Indigenous thinking tells us that everyone has their place in the whole of everything. That there’s an arrangement and you have to know how to behave. That’s what Vicki and I are trying to do; we’re not trying to subvert or take anything away. It’s about reminding people that we are all part of one consciousness, really.”

Just listen, they say, and you will see.


  1. Our living rivers of the Barwon; A discussion paper for the future ↩︎

*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Jane Cornwell

Jane Cornwell is a Melbourne-born, London-based journalist writing on music, arts and travel. She is the jazz critic for the London Evening Standard, a contributing editor of Songlines Magazine, a compere at WOMAD festivals in the UK and Australia and a feature interviewer for publications including Jazzwise, the Weekend Australian Review and the Sydney Morning Herald.

@janesworlde homepage
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