Repeating is not repetition: listening to time elapse in Eleanor Cully’s clarity-unclarity

Eleanor Cully is an artist, composer and performer based in Huddersfield

clarity-unclarity (self-released, 2020)

The Fall sang, ‘We dig repetition in the music/And we’re never going to lose it.’ Legendary DJ, John Peel, infamously described Mark E Smith’s band with the witty line, “They are always different. Always the same”. This is a poetic truth that not only aptly describes this band, but also more widely the acts of performance and of listening in general.

Although many of the Fall’s songs do feature a range of repetitive drums, baselines, or guitar riffs, every record, and indeed every performance of a song, even say, Repetition itself, would always create something new in that very moment of performance. Mark would wander over and turn down an guitar amp, or knock into a band member. A ringleader of being in-the-moment, he constructed unique performances in tandem with ambient and emotional environments – influenced by how he was feeling on any given day, the merry-go-round of band members, the performance space of the venue itself and the dialogue between band and audience.

We can shift this train of thought from The Fall to a more philosophical viewpoint, because according to Heraclitus, there is nothing permanent except change. Everything we experience (as well as everything we do not) is in flux and nothing ever stays still.

Therefore, not only do we never step into the same river twice because different water is always flowing, no Fall song or gig was ever the same either. No moment or action, repeated or not, is ever the same, because time is always moving forwards. The connectivity between the individual experience and environment constantly shifts and will never precisely be the same again.

This idea of exploring repeating motifs in a constantly shifting space is at the heart of Eleanor Cully’s debut album, ‘clarity-unclarity’– two tracks which in fact make up the last 37 minutes of a longer piece of work. The full 77 minute piece was exhibited at ‘Repeating Isn’t Repetition’ in Huddersfield back in March earlier this year, but was forced to close because of the pandemic.

Curated by composer and sound artist, Jorge Boehringer, Cully alongside other artists Valérie Wartelle, Paul Tone and Bryn Harrison, explore concerns with the emergence of material structures and experiences under iteration. Asking such questions as, ‘can repetition exist outside of time?’ and ‘what and where are memories?’

The recording that forms clarity-unclarity is part of a performance that took place in Cully’s living room on the last morning of August in 2017. From nautical twilight to just after the first birdsong of the day, Cully recorded the sounds that came in through her kitchen window. What follows are a myriad of quiet ambient drifts, a mixture of natural and man-made sounds, forming repeating motifs which demonstrates time slowly elapsing.

Static hanging in the air; the slow, quiet drone of rising traffic (which appears, disappears, reappears). A passing lorry adds a deeper tone. Another vehicle passes over a rocking manhole cover. Gentle taps and soft knocks of close body movement.

Every once in a while Eleanor disrupts the ambience with her own beautiful voice, but only for a fleeting moment like a passing bird. After the first few vocal cycles it isn’t necessarily clear that the word she is singing is in fact, ‘clear’, because every repetition of the word is never sang quite the same. After the voice has been heard a couple of times, a magic takes place and the initial surprising aspect of it soon dissipates, becoming another sound motif which interplays with the lulling traffic, or the birds that appear quietly at the end. After repeated listens, a clarity does grow, and not just the word Cully sings – but the clarity in the apparent silences become louder and the passing of time becomes clearer, too.

This album came out in June and I have lived alongside it now for the last two months. It has been the soundtrack to myself working from home, often mixing with the ambient noise of my home office and open window, inviting my own local traffic noise and birdsong from that very moment to interact with the recorded moments of Cully’s piece.

A dialogue grows between a nearby past and a constant present. There is a repeating of process from the replaying of the album – but this isn’t repetition – because the listening environment varies the performance each time.

Listening to it on headphones while on an evening walk with sheep bleating softly in the background, compared to listening while writing an work assignment, creates two totally different and personal experiences.

Eleanor has spoken about how that “in recent years it has become important to me that my pieces aren’t “fixed” or repeated exactly; I love to adapt my work for the surrounding environment and to create subtle variations”. I am therefore very curious to hear the rest of the recording in another environment and different place and space. The in-the-moment magic of walking into the gallery space and the personal reaction to the artworks influenced by your own current headspace as you look and listen.

clarity-unclarity is a soft, meditative listen, which works wonderfully as a tapestry of ambient sounds to wash over you while going about your daily life. It also can help us shift towards a more Zen-like state; it asks us to slow down, to listen and to (re)consider.

During the last several months we all have looked out from our own windows and considered the world in many new ways to how we did at the start of 2020. Even hearing the sounds of vehicles has shifted meaning – homeworkers for example, who can still not return to their place of employment, now gaze out from wherever their temporary, increasingly new normal, work environment is; their old commutes now subtracted from their new days. Work and home hours blurring.

The idea of time passing has dramatically altered and clarity-unclarity reminds us to take stock, to listen, and to reflect upon every passing minute. And in this reflection, to perhaps take a breath and try to let some of the noise from daily life – the constant rolling news and scrolling timelines – recede into the background, allowing the almost-hidden sounds and pure thoughts to become that little more clear.

I hope there will come a day sometime in the near future where the exhibition can be open to the public again. In the meantime, the album is available to purchase on Eleanor’s Bandcamp, alongside another album Cuckoo, a patchwork of different rooms recorded by nine artists (curated by Cully) who later placed a verse of her own cuckoo song into each room and sent it back to each artist a month later.

A theme shared in both these albums is the act of capturing intimate, personal spaces and what next takes place through personal interpretation when we listen back to them through the veil of our own personal whims, feelings and environments. “They are always different. Always the same”.

‘clarity-unclarity’ ends with a recording of a traditional Irish folk song with words by Samuel Ferguson. Recorded in Eleanor’s living room on the last day of May 2020, it represents the start of the new day, a rebirth of sound, and pulls together the bricolage of sounds that came before it into one beautiful release.

A short documentary about the Repeating Isn’t Repetition exhibition, narrated by Jorge Boehringer, is now available to watch.

Words and noise. Loops and leaves. Jump cuts and scribbledehobble. Inspired by language, sound, and memory. Writer and content designer.