The Sound Catcher: Elise ‘t Hart
Loud, fast paced and unflinching: the modern times we live in leave us with diminished attention spans, suspended in a state of oversaturation - one that that blinds us to the beauty and meaning hidden in simpler things. As we further drift away from these small yet precious moments, some try to swim against that tide in pursuit of meaning. Dutch sound artist Elise ‘t Hart is one of those people. In her work, those simple and beautiful moments of the world are magnified, focusing our attention on everyday sounds that can too often be taken for granted.
“Sounds are changing too”
From ticking clocks to noisy neighbours, chirping birds to bubbling teapots, domestic sounds are part of ‘t Hart’s longest running project to date, named the Institute for Domestic Sound (Instituut voor Huisgeluid), which serves as a large collection that documents all the sounds that contribute to our experience of “being at home”, captured for us and for future generations.
Nowadays she continues the project at the Meertens Institute, as the first artist-in-residence in the history of the organization. As a research institute that focuses on Dutch language and culture, the Meertens Institute boasts vast databases on Dutch songs and folktales, pilgrimage culture and saint cults, probate inventories, farmhouses, feasts and rituals, as well as religious cultures. While the researchers at the Meertens are not particularly concerned with the house sounds they come across in the institute’s 6,000 hours of audio recordings, in this archive ‘t Hart hears a hidden treasure trove of information, listening to the various recordings from different eras of Dutch culture, with the ears of the Institute for Domestic Sound, which she describes as “almost being there yourself”.
When asked about the urgency of building a collection of sounds, ‘t Hart expands upon the idea. The crux of her work, she explains to me, is to capture, understand, catalogue and share the sounds that are treated as invisible, or will eventually disappear altogether. Sounds that we take comfort in or are annoyed by. “While sounds may pass us by, they have an effect on us, our minds and our memories”, she says.
By making these invisible sounds visible, ‘t Hart wants to produce a unique kind of awareness within her audience, to transform their interactions with their surroundings into a holistic, artistically-minded experience. In addition to working with the archives at the Meertens, she also cultivates an archive of her own, which she builds by visiting friends, family and acquaintances in their homes and capturing the unique sounds that come with those particular places. She then writes about each sound and couples it with an image of the “instrument” that makes it. Parts of her growing archive have been the subject of numerous exhibitions in various cities across the Netherlands.
Rich Dialects and Vintage Moments
Speaking about her journey through these archives, the first aspect ‘t Hart points out is the sheer vastness of them – while many other scientists and linguists have been there before, looking at such a large volume of material makes for interesting moments of contemplation and comparison for her as an artist. Of the 6,000 hours of material that has been catalogued across decades and generations, a generous 1,000 of them, described as a “dialect bank”, is already online for those who are curious.
She describes her approach as almost a “sixth (domestic) sense”, sometimes skipping through the recordings to get a sense of what is there, thinking to herself, “maybe I’ll catch something here”.
When faced with a particularly difficult dialect to understand, ‘t Hart says she often consults the institute’s collection manager Douwe Zeldenrust, who helps her make sense of the context and the details of the conversations that are taking place.
In her own words, she describes the most striking piece of material as ”the sound of the cigarettes being lit”, and continues: “In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was very common to smoke during an interview, and we don’t do that anymore. I mean, look at us – not a cigarette in sight! So when you listen to these recordings, you sometimes hear people ask the interviewer if he wants a cigarette, then you hear the sound of the matches being struck, followed by the chatter of people smoking. Ticking clocks are also always interesting, we rarely hear that anymore. The tinkling of cups and spoons – you still get that in the house of your grandma, or coffee places... but now we have these paper cups! I call this specific sound ‘rinkelen’ in Dutch.”
More than Just Domestic
Of course, ‘t Hart’s interests are not limited to the exploration and cataloguing of domestic sounds – coming from a family of musicians, she explains how sound has been a very present catalyst in her artistic pursuits from an early age. One of the reflections from that process was the creation of what she dubs “sound portraits”, where she records the sounds that are specific to a place and puts them together in a way that “reconstructs the reality of that place”.
Her 2012-2015 work, titled Uitzicht (Views), is a vivid example, for which she filmed the surroundings from outside the window of her student room, and replaced all the sounds by recreating them with synthesizers. She explains that it actually confused people at first and that they were asking her all sorts of questions: “What did you do to the clouds? Is there something wrong with the timelapse?” Creating these uncanny responses led her to think that the importance of sound in audio/visual works is often overlooked, and playing with that audio-visual connection is an angle that she wanted to explore.
At the time of writing, ‘t Hart was preparing for an exhibition in Liege, to take place in early 2019, and another one during Art Rotterdam, where she will be bringing the Institute for Domestic Sound with her in a pop-up format, in order to collect the sounds of the art fair. Her pursuit to find hidden gems in archives will also continue in the form of a podcast, which is accessible from her website.
Foregoing any other adjective, the work of Elise ‘t Hart is real – it is incapable of artifice and truly driven to help us trace our way back to the basics, all etched in our respective psyches - a crucible of simple, serene and underappreciated moments that we are often too blind or deaf to take note of.
Photo: Elise ’t Hart