Nancy Tobin – The Environment and our Listening Space

Nancy Tobin (Left)

Nancy Tobin (Left)

Article by Martin Paling.

I had been keen to take part in Nancy Tobin’s one on one sound workshop “The Environment and our Listening Space, since I heard a number of the Scenofest Sound team mention it in the production office. Unlike many of the workshops at Scenofest there was no application process, rather you had to be “found” by Tobin, or you had to find her. Fortunately for me I did just that during a sound design meeting. After a brief chat and my expressing regret at having missed “L E A K A G E”, a sound installation that explores the interference of interior and exterior sound equipment (for example headphones and PA systems), by Tobin at FAMU’s Galerie Skolska, we set a date and agreed a place to meet.


Tobin had explained to me that the workshop was very informal and involved listening to one piece of audio in two different environments, one busy, one quiet. So, two days later, I found myself in the eccentric chaos of the aesthetically indulgent Prague Quadrennial Café, listening to an audio-track titled “Overture” on Tobin’s Roland audio recorder. I had been carefully positioned by Tobin in what I now was beginning to suspect was the most awkward and disruptive position she could find.

I found myself in the eccentric chaos of the aesthetically indulgent Prague Quadrennial Café

When we met in the Café we’d scouted around for a good position: one of the washing-machines come bar tables, the bubble-wrap play pit, a solitary bar stool… all were rejected in favour of a stool made from old beer crates at the end of a table by a pillar supporting the Mezzanine floor, forcing anyone wanting to sit at the end of the table to barge past me. I tried shifting my stool without changing my position too much, but I still seemed to be in the way. “Perhaps this is just what Nancy was after,” I thought, “maybe it’s not just about the sound of disruption and chaos, but the social element too?” I was certainly in the way and not making many friends amongst the diners. Mistake or selection, I decided it was best not to move, Tobin had left me here and I couldn’t help wondering if I was being discreetly observed from a distance.

Precision and Selection.

Nancy Tobin

Nancy Tobin

Earlier, after finding our spot, Tobin had placed an audio recorder and some small thin brass rods on the table. “They are chimes,” she explained, “I found them in a second hand shop in Berlin and had to buy them all.” Tobin struck one of the rods… silence… “they produce a very low sound,” she said and she raised the chime to my ear, suddenly I could hear a very full sound. “When I recorded the various chimes I had to place the microphones millimetres from them.” As she moved the rod away from my ear the sound evaporated. “In fact the sound is so sensitive that recording them was quite difficult,” she explained, “a number of times I had to edit out the sound of my breathing.” As I sat listening to Tobin explaining how she recorded the sounds, I couldn’t help noting the similarities between the tonal qualities of the chimes and Tobin’s speaking voice. She speaks in a low and soft French Canadian accent that although quiet, somehow manages to remain perfectly audible and understandable despite the noise of the busy Café.

Having discovered these chimes, Tobin explains that she created an audio track to be used in a sound installation at a Library in Canada. Before she proceeded further with the project she was interested to see the differing relationships the track would have in various spaces, especially busy ones. To do that, Tobin wanted an environment similar to the library, so that participants could compare the track in both noisy and quiet environments.

Time and Internal Sounds

Despite being created entirely with the chimes, the piece began with what I perceived to be the shattering sound of glass. As I continued to listen, it seemed almost impossible that Tobin’s small second hand chimes could have produced the sounds I was now hearing – sometimes delicate to the point of breaking, then full bodied and at times overwhelming. On more than one occasion I looked around me trying to distinguish between the internal sounds Tobin had created and those of the environment she had placed me in; something I’m sure I’d not done since the first time I ever wore headphones, as a small boy on a long railway journey, when a Jazz lover had lent me his personal cassette player and I looked around the carriage wondering where the band were hiding.

Tobin struck one of the rods… silence… “they produce a very low sound,” she said as she raised the chime to my ear, suddenly I could hear a very full sound.

Beatrice Baumann

Beatrice Baumann

As the Overture played through I began to care less about feeling awkward. The busy Café somehow slowed to the tempo of the Overture and my ability to focus on external sounds became more precise. A friend of mine was now performing with a glass juggling-orb in the centre of the Café accompanied by a violinist, so I offered a small wave which was returned at the end of her performance. As the busy chaotic world of the Prague Quadrennial slowed to a new more relaxed pace, I wondered how different Tobin’s Overture might be in the quiet space – I was soon to find out.

Tobin had selected a business like board room in the back of the right wing of the Industrial Palace. The black leather sofa I was seated on was more comfortable than the PQ Café’s stool, but it lacked its artistic decadence. As you might have expected, in the quiet space “Overture’s” intricacies became more intense, more tactile, the shattering sounds became ever more delicate and volatile. Sounds that previously seemed to consume all my perception of the Café’s ambience were even more overwhelming to my senses. Yet, despite having less environmental noise to interfere with the piece, I couldn’t help feeling that the chaos of the Café helped define and sculpt Tobin’s Overture. I wondered if, had I first listened to it in this space, I would have considered the noise of the Café to be a pollutant.

As the piece ended the heavens made themselves heard and the Prague Quadrennial 2007 faced the full force of Prague’s summer rains. I wondered how the Overture might have played to me with that as an environmental sound. Eventually Tobin returned to the room and I tried to wake myself from the relaxed state the composition had put me into for a second time that day. Before Tobin began her informal interview I’d already made up my mind, for a variety of reasons, that I preferred listening to the piece in the Café.


  1. Nancy Tobin shows a participant the Chimes & Nancy Tobin(Martin Paling)
  2. The Prague Quadrennial Café (Turkan Arpaci)


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