The Sonic Signature of Democracy

Bulldozia‘s “Secret Ballot” is not the score to a previously unheard of Edgar Allan Poe short story, though it easily could be. It’s a recording made by Bulldozia, aka Glasgow-based Alasdair Pettinger, of the process of voting in a recent election. It is the sound of voting. There’s the entry into the hall, the brief dialog with the officiate, the abundant sense of hush, and the documentation of the specific activity itself. Hush isn’t silence, even if it results in silence. Hush is the consensual, communal pressure to be silent, and even if it doesn’t resound, it has has its own vibration, its own vibe.

Writes Pettinger of the setting:

Voting for Scottish Parliament elections (constituency and list candidates) and AV referendum. Recorded 2.30pm, Thu 5 May 2011. Polling stations are — at least inside — quiet places that resemble improvised churches more than anything else, with voting a kind of private prayer. But there are plenty of sounds if you listen for them.

Beyond the meaning that remains hidden in plain sight in that deep silence, secreted in the hush, the municipal prayer of which Pettinger writes, there are other compositional touches.

The first is the opening. It’s a secret ballot, after all, and yet that first door we hear isn’t the door to the ballot booth. It’s the door to the hall. We don’t know this at first, but there’s something of a regressive loop in how we find ourselves as listeners inside a space, only to realize, when a voice comes, that the secret space has yet to be entered. Bulldozia only needs to suggest rooms within rooms once before the listener’s mind fills in the gap, takes the model to its infinite extrapolative horizon.

Then there’s the voice, at first clearly understandable, then muffled by distance and activity (and, for those of us English-speakers not in Scotland, perhaps by accent). The way the room and the activity shape the sound as the speaker recedes from intelligibility suggests a dub-like production, in which echo lends an aura of drama to select sonic elements. And as such, that echo also parallels the room-within-room structure mentioned above.

These are fine examples of the manner in which a well-selected field recording is like a well-shot photograph. A shot framed by the camera lens is often described as “well composed,” and there’s no reason not to employ the word “composition” when describing a a well-conceived field recording.

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