Sound and vision blog

16 December 2013

After the Rain

Sebastiane Hegarty is an artist, writer and lecturer. With a background in sculpture, he has worked in various media from sound, installation and film to drawing and performance. His current practice is focused upon sound through field-recording and composition, and explores the relationship between time, place and memory. Recent works include Its Just Where I Put My Words, a personal audio reverie on voice and remembering, broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Between Your Ears (2013) and Rain Choir (2013) a sound installation commissioned for the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. Other works have been published by Gruenrekorder and Very Quiet Records.

There is something intimately familiar and strangely nostalgic about the sound of rainfall. I can remember the hypnotic snap, crackle and pop of raindrops falling on the nylon roof of my childhood Parka.  The rain outside served only to amplify the dryness and warmth available inside my coat's synthetic skin. The lambswool muffle of the hood distanced me from my surroundings and focused my attention upon myself and my solitude: you are always alone inside a Parka. Pressed gently against my ears, the static noise of rainfall was reminiscent of radio interference and I imagined that I could hear voices inside the crackle and shush of my water resistant receiver.

Like my sonic memories, the sound of rainfall is often heard (and recorded) from positions of shelter; the listener is to some extent isolated or removed from the immediate site and damp result of precipitation. In the sound archive of the British Library we can hear the solitude of rain from under an umbrella, beneath the corrugation of a tin roof, behind a windowpane and from inside the canvas accommodation of a tent.

Rainfall on umbrella (Richard Beard - British Library Sounds)

Rainfall on corrugated tin roof (Jez riley French - British Library Sounds)

Rain on window, interior (Richard Beard - British Library Sounds)

Rain falling on tent (Simon Elliott - British Library Sounds)

This dislocation, though slight, places us at a distance. In the rain outside we can hear ourselves not being there, we can listen to our own absence. Perhaps this distance is one of the reasons why the sound of rainfall is so meditative, why it elicits a drift away into remembering and introspection. In the attic of rains white noise, we find fragments of voice we have forgotten, the past and present may associate in the apparitions of memory and imagination. For the theologian, John M. Hull, who lost his sight in his late forties, the rain ‘whispers like my mothers voice, singing hymns and melodies’, he is ‘surrounded (my emphasis) by everything I had been and was' [1]. In the information drizzle of static and hiss, our brain yearns for consequence and detail, so we hear not only ghosts and memories of voice, but also patterns of sound.

Drip drop, drip drap drep drop. So it goes on, this watery melody, forever without an end. Inconclusive, inconsequent, formless, it is always on the point of deviating into sense and form [...] The music of the drops is […] infinitely close to significance, but never touching it. [2]


Drain Drum - Field recording for Rain Choir (3'09")

In the percussive disarray of raindrops, we hear rhythms form, evaporate and repeat. Our ear, or rather our brain, organises the drip and the drop into shapes and melodies, returning form and significance to the inconsequential. Perhaps it may be said that when we listen to rainfall we hear the process of audition itself; we listen to ourselves listening.  The distinction between the rain and ourselves might therefore be considered discrete: we are amongst the rain we are listening to, not physically, but sensuously, imaginatively and mnemonically.  In his diary of blindness, On Sight and Insight, John Hull equates the sound of rainfall to his own experience of bodily presence. He apprehends his body image as ‘arrangements of sensitivities’, in the same that rains complex ‘body’ appears, dynamically arranged by the site and moment of precipitation.

I am aware of my body just as I am aware of the rain […] The patterns of water envelop me in myriads of spots of awareness, and my own body is presented to me in the same way […] There is a central area, of which I am barely conscious, and which seems to come and go. At the extremities sensations fade into unconsciousness. My body and the rain intermingle. [3]

Abbey Drain - Field recording for Rain Choir (2'03")

The pitter, patter and splash of rainfall perform a concert of ever changing pitch, tempo, rhythm, and texture. The rain is not only described by the space and things it falls upon, it also describes those things and the place they constitute. Rain creates a dynamic ‘continuity of acoustic experience’, which for Hull ‘throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things' [4]. Listening to the rain from the doorway of his home, Hull can hear the spatiality of the landscape: place comes into view. Under the cover of rains damp pall, he finds a visual sense of perspective, ‘a scene' [5], where the constituents of place exist in relation to each other.

The acoustic world is temporal in nature; sounds (and place) come and go, whilst the visible world appears uninterrupted and concrete. But in the continuity of rain we hear ‘the fullness of an entire situation all at once' [6]. And we are just another drop in this soundscape, the boundaries between the listener and the listened to, are emergent and permeable. To paraphrase John Hull: as we listen to the rain, we are the image of the rain, and we are one with it.


Audio works from Sebastiane Hegarty including ˈtʃɔːk : eight studies of hearing loss (British Library call number 1SS0009050) are archived at the British Library. For more recordings of rain, please visit the Weather collection on British Library Sounds.

[Image and additional audio courtesy of Sebastiane Hegarty]

Audio works from
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[1] John M. Hull, On Sight and Insight, (Oxford: One World, 1997).

[2] Aldous Huxley,  ‘Water Music’ (1920), in On The Margin (London: Chattus and Windus, 1948), 39-44

[3] Hull, Op. cit

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.


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