For Some Odd Reason (Kate Carr)

April 13, 2021 | 00:35:01

Today’s guest, Kate Carr, is an accomplished sound artist and field recordist whose recent work grapples with issues of communication and longing—themes we can all relate to in the Covid era. 

In part one of the show, we mark Phantom Power’s three-year anniversary and 25th episode. Mack does a little thinking out loud about the different kinds of audio work that we’ve featured over the past three years. The terminology and practices for audio work always seem to be in flux—and people can have completely different terms for similar kinds of work. Mack imagines a spectrum of sound work, from more materialist genres like musique concrete to more conceptual or idealist genres like the audiobook, which emphasize meaning over form. In the end, the spectrum eats its own tail—the material is always conceptual and the conceptual is always material. Sound is always both resonance and meaning and the two can never be completely teased apart. Signal and noise are one. 

Episodes discussed:

Ep. 20: What is Radio Art (Colin Black)

Ep. 12: A Book Unbound (Jacob Smith)

Ep. 15: Goth Diss (Anna M. Williams)

In part two, we meet Kate Carr, an artist the critic Matthew Blackwell describes as a “sound essayist.” Since she began it in 2010, Kate Carr’s work as a musician and field recordist has taken her around the world, from her native Australia to a doctoral program at University of the Arts London. She’s been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wire, and Pitchfork. She also runs the field recording label Flaming Pines

Since slightly before the pandemic, the theme of communication at a distance—always implicit in field recording—has taken center stage in her work. We examine three such pieces by Kate Carr. Each one explores how sound helps us communicate at a distance and how it comforts us in moments of loneliness:

Contact”—a meditation on sonic connection through radio, morse code, and digital technology.

Where to Begin”—a study of love letter writing, which Carr says has profound similarities with field recording.

For Some Odd Reason”—an exploration of the kinds of noise we came to miss during social distancing and the mediated ways we’ve tried to add it back. 

Together, these three pieces—one from before the pandemic, one from its beginning, and one from its interminable middle—explore how earnestly we try to connect across distance—and how heightened these attempts have become over the past year.

Huge thanks to our co-producer on this episode, Matthew Blackwell. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Iowa and a freelance music writer. He writes and edits Tusk Is Better Than Rumours, a newsletter that covers the discographies of experimental musicians.  He is also a contributor to Tone Glow, a newsletter featuring interviews with experimental musicians. 



Ethereal Voice: This…is…Phantom Power.

Female Voice: For some odd reason, people just talking calms me.

[People Talking]

Male Voice: I use these voices to drown out the ones in my head.

[People Talking Cont.]

Male Voice [Muffled]: For some odd reason, people just talking calms me.

[People Talking Cont.]


Mack Hagood: Hello, and welcome to our 25th episode of Phantom Power, a podcast on sound in the arts and humanities. I’m Mack Hagood.

That was a taste of a piece called For Some Odd Reason. It’s by our guest today, Kate Carr, an artist whose recent work has been grappling a lot with issues of communication and longing, themes I think we can all relate to in the COVID era.

But before we meet Kate Carr and get into her work, I want to do a little thinking out loud about the different kinds of audio work that we featured on this show over the past three years.

That’s right. We just hit Phantom Power’s three-year anniversary.

I got the idea of doing a show on Carr while reading a piece in Tusk Is Better Than Rumors, a newsletter by scholar and music writer, Matthew Blackwell.

You might also know Matthew as a contributor to the music letter Tone Glow.

Well, anyway, in this piece he was reviewing Carr’s career, but he was using it to think about different kinds of field recording. Matthew describes Kate Carr’s earlier pieces as sound portraits that capture the unique sonic properties of places from Iceland.

[Sounds from Iceland]

To Thailand.

[Sounds from Thailand]

To France.

[Sounds from France]

But Matthew says that Carr’s work has increasingly moved into a genre that he calls “a sound essay.”

Matthew Blackwell described “sound essays” like this:


Mathew Blackwell: A sound essay is a piece of audio consisting of two or more recordings taken outside of a studio setting, which are edited together with the goal of addressing a specific theme or idea.

I’d like to stress the essay half of the term, which I use in the original Montanian sense meaning an initial tentative effort or the result or product of an attempt.

As a verb to “essay” is to attempt to try to take a stab at explaining or working through an idea as a connotation of failure as a foregone conclusion, or at least of the impossibility of perfect success.

And the essay in its original form was always tentative, always contingent.

This is doubly true of an audio essay because it’s very form, like the photo essay, requires substantial participation from the listener in order to illuminate its subject.

Mack: However, as Matthew points out, the terminology and practices for audio work always seem to be in flux, and others have completely different terms for similar kinds of work to what he’s describing as a sound essay.

So, for example, in the past, we’ve had Colin Black on our show. His practice of radio art has both similarities and differences with Matthew’s idea of the sound essay.

Colin Black: The way I make pieces in general is that I pick a topic, I research the topic or read about the topic, and if the topic is about a place, then I go to the place and I record as much as I can about the place.

It’s basically, in my mind, I’m researching something and instead of writing about it, I write an audio piece about it or sound art piece.

And it’s not a literal journalistic approach, it’s more of an abstract approach of how to communicate my findings from that topic.


Mack: Where Matthew emphasizes the unfinished and contingent nature of the essay, Collin focuses on the sharing of findings, if in a completely unconventional and evocative way.

By the way, check out episode 20 to hear more of Collin Black and his radio art.

[Snippet from Phantom Power Ep. 20: What Is Radio Art?]

 Mack: Moving even further in this direction, we can think about the work of Jacob Smith, the Director of Northwestern University Sound Arts Program, whose last two scholarly books came out as highly produced audio only works.

Jacob Smith: Now that Escapes episodes exist as digital files available online not only can I mash them up with contemporary sound art, but I can manipulate them, zooming in to details that were left in the background of the original broadcast.

Mack: Check out Episode 12 for more of Jake.

Or we could think about Anna M. Williams, who’s ‘My Gothic Dissertation,’ transformed the dissertation into a This American Life style podcast series.

Anna M. Williams: The only thing that makes the creature into a monster was Victor’s abandonment of it, which I read as a moment in which he becomes a turncoat.

A traitor to his own convictions. A sellout who gives into his intellectual detractors.

Mack: See episode 15 if you want to hear more about that.


[Lo-Fi Beat]

Mack: Thinking about all of this, got me imagining a spectrum of work that uses sound as a form of communication.

At one end, maybe we can call it

[Spacey Voice]: Left field.

I imagined a field recording, a piece of musique concréte. It’s intended by its creator to have no literal or figurative meaning at all.

Instead its creator wants you to simply hear it as a sound object, to use Pierre Shaeffer’s term. To listen only to the inherent musicality or texture of the sound itself.

At the other end,

[Spacey Voice]: Right field.

I heard a dry reading of a scholarly paper.

[Soft Voice]: Pragmatism

Both spoken and recorded cleanly and efficiently.

The creator of this recording doesn’t want you to think about the recording itself, only the meaning of the words being spoken.

The recording, even the voice itself, should disappear in an act of purely semantic listening, as the medium fades, leaving only the message behind.

With this spectrum in mind, ranging from the perfectly materialist sound object on one side to the perfectly idealist verbal message on the other, perhaps we could classify all of the field recordings and sonic works ever made.

Perhaps Collins radio art would be

[Space Voice] Center left

It’s research-based and it has findings to communicate. But it’s also elliptical and evocative in its presentation.

An audio dissertation, or scholarly audio book, might be

[Spacey Voice]: Center Right

These authors care deeply about sounds and music and production, but they also have the scholarly duty to present research findings in well-crafted and intelligible sentences, paragraphs and chapters. And thus, the written book still leaves its mark on the audio book.

As defined by Matthew Blackwell, a sound essay might be located pretty far to the left, as its meanings come from the collision of sounds rather than the collision of words.

As a thematic or conceptual field recording assemblage, it’s much more a sonic and affective exploration of a theme than a communication of findings on a topic.

But here’s the thing, and I know some of you have already been shouting this objection during my description.

When we really think about this “spectrum” I’ve proposed, from sound as a pure object on one side to sound as pure meaning on the other: it all falls apart.

As the sound scholar, Brian Cain has written: “Sound can never function as a mere object. Sound is always a relationship between a particular resonance, space, time, and listener. A listener with a history and a range of associations that will be triggered by that relationship.”

In other words, there’s no such thing as pure sound, and therefore any sound work is always already conceptual.

And on the other side, no sound work, even the dullest recording of a written report is, ever purely conceptual. There is always the sound of the breath, the grain of the voice, the resonance of the body, the hiss of the tape or the mic preamp, the artifacts of the compression algorithm.

Every recording contains a sonic world of nonverbal communication.

And when we think of it this way, our spectrum starts to eat its own tail. The material is always conceptual and the conceptual is always material. Sound is always resonance and meaning. And the two can never be completely teased apart.

Signal and noise are one.

[Lo-Fi Beat]


Mack: Those are some thoughts that I’ve been having on sound and meaning in audio genres on this, our 25th episode, three years into this podcast, Phantom Power.

I’d love to get your thoughts as well. Send me an email at mhagood, H A G O O D, 

Back in a minute with someone else, who’s been thinking a lot about sound and communication. 

Field recordist, Kate Carr.

[Lo-Fi Beat Fades]


Male Voice: Help us out just a little minute, everybody, please. If you like the show, go rate us on iTunes, like us on Facebook, hit us up on Twitter.

Helps us all to rise.


Mack: Since she began it in 2010, Kate Carr’s work as a musician and field recordist has taken her around the world from her native Australia to a doctoral program at the University of Arts London.

She’s been featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, The Wire, and Pitchfork, and she runs the field recording label, Flaming Pines.

Kate says her work began rather conventionally, but always contained the seeds of something more challenging and complex.

Kate Carr: I think I did start doing works that were, yeah, I think more in line with some of the conventions of, I suppose, what existed at the time.

So, I suppose works that used quite a lot of natural environment recordings from various places I visited in Australia, different bushland and different sort of water-based environments and things like that.

And then I think, even at that time, I was quite interested in using bad recordings or glitched recordings, so that was probably something that I did that was a little bit less typical, in terms of those sorts of compositions, and I also did use a little bit of kind of sounds of myself even handling noise or just myself moving through those environments.

And I guess that sort of focus on things that are usually left out or the types of recordings that weren’t usually used at that time. And then also, yeah, I think then the extra layer on top of that was having a little bit more of a conceptual focus.  

Actually using a sound piece to try and think about a particular thing or a particular kind of phenomenon or a particular way that we have of relating a particular moment.

Mack: Over time, Kate Carr’s work became increasingly conceptual moving into what Matthew Blackwell calls the “sound essay.” Using sound to address topics such as nuclear power, gentrification, and climate change.

[Work from Kate Carr]

Mack: The through-line in all of her works is her attempt to articulate the relationship between people and place, through sound.

Kate: Most broadly it’s about how listening and how the sound, what the soundscape itself can tell us about the ways in which spaces are formed really, the ways in which we make space together.

So, I think, you know, there’s lots of things around the soundscape, around sort of the relationality of it, the kind of listening as well as sounding act. 

The questions of who gets heard and who doesn’t. Whose voices are the loudest, whose aren’t. What sounds are masked and what sounds aren’t, which are all really interesting when, at least to me, we think about space and power and how spaces are constituted in ways which are for the benefit not everyone.

And I like sort of the capacity sound gives me to think about those questions.

[Work from Kate Carr]

Mack: Since slightly before the pandemic, the theme of communication at a distance, which is always implicit in field recording, has taken center stage in her work.

Today, we examine three pieces by Kate Carr, each one explores how sound helps us communicate at a distance and comforts us in moments of loneliness.


[Contact by Kate Carr]

Mack: The first of these pieces, 2019’s Contact, meditates on sonic connection through media by sampling the sounds of those media themselves.

Radio, Morse code, sonar, satellite, Bluetooth, and wireless.

 [Contact by Kate Carr]

Despite the rather cold tones of Morse code, or the harshness of radio static, these sounds represent a communication across a distance that can make us feel less alone.

Contact was inspired in part by Carr’s own move from Sydney to Belfast several years earlier.

Kate: I had lived a super busy and just, like, always with people life when I was in Sydney because of working and I’d lived there for a long time so I knew lots of people.

So, when I moved to Belfast and I was working from home, you know, that was a huge adjustment and I remember thinking about, “Oh, well, I’d like to kind of know more about Belfast.”

And so, I turned on the radio and it was kind of a really strange, and I realized the power of radio, like quite a powerful thing to hear. My partner would go out to work and I’d be in the house [and it] would be really quiet, which I wasn’t used to working in such quiet environment.

And I was like, “Oh, wow, it’s so different to have someone’s voice in your house, even if you don’t know them.”

So, I guess I started thinking about radio in that way back then, but of course there’s so many now different ways that we connect to each other, obviously not just radio. And I guess I was thinking about the potential of them and then also the limitations of some of those ways.

And I guess kind of also the amazing determination people have if they decide they do really want to stay in contact with someone, or someone’s touches them in some way. We do have this kind of amazing tenacity sometimes to stay in touch.

[Contact by Kate Carr]

Mack: Thinking back on the way radio kept her company, Kate considered the evolution of communications technology.

With each generation, new sonic phenomena emerge. From the dots and dashes of Morse code to the digital squall of dial-up modems.

[Contact by Kate Carr]

In the piece, Carr reconnects these sounds to the human voice by asking friends to utter the phrase dot dash zero one.

[Contact by Kate Carr]

Female Voice: Dot…Dash…Zero…One

Mack: In fact, asking friends to read aloud features in all three of the pieces we’re hearing today. Many of the voices belong to Kate’s fellow sound artists, including our own past guests, Lawrence English and Teresa Barrozo.

Kate: It was amazing to be able to build, kind of, a choir out of these voices that had been sent to me over the internet.

[Contact by Kate Carr]

Voices: One…One…One

[Random Voices]


Mack: In the following year, a commission from the BBC led Kate to create Where to Begin, an exploration of a different kind of communication: love letters.

Where to Begin features people reading love letters in various languages, accompanied by the sounds of pen scratching on paper.

[Snippet from Where to Begin by Kate Carr]

Kate: I guess I came upon love letters because I felt like as a field recordist, you often work alone in terms of especially taking recordings.

And so, I suppose, because of that’s kind of my practice I was also thinking about these acts we do alone that are actually acts connection because I can find the active field recording a very profound act that makes me feel very connected to the world and to other people, even if I don’t know them.

There’s something kind of lovely about listening to the world.

And I was thinking, what other acts do we have in our lives that are a little bit more accessible to people who aren’t field recordists, which are acts we do alone to try and to connect to other people.

So, that’s how I came upon this idea of, “Oh, well, you know, love letters is one way that we do that kind of gather ourselves alone in an attempt to connect to someone else.”

[Snippet from Where to Begin by Kate Carr]

Mack: The act of writing a love letter, usually a silent way of communicating across distances, is made audible through the readings of letters in several languages and through close-up recordings of pen on paper.

But much of the magic in the piece comes from something else entirely.

[Snippet from Where to Begin by Kate Carr]

Kate: So, I bought loads of different sized glass beads and I brought up this beaker, this scientific beaker, which was the main thing I played live and then I just played little things on the keyboard.

So, I don’t know, I suppose there’s something about dropping things that I just found really beautiful. [It’s] sort of like their passage through space and time, they’re landing. They sound really evocative somehow to me.

[Snippet from Where to Begin by Kate Carr]


Mack: Finally, the third piece in this trilogy of isolation, loneliness, and connection is called For Some Odd Reason.

[Snippet from For Some Odd Reason.]

Kate: For some odd reason, people just talking calms me.

[Indistinct Chatter]

Male Voice: I use these voices to drown out the ones in my head.

[Indistinct Chatter]

Male Voice [Muffled]: For some odd reason, people just talking calms me.

Mack: Deep into quarantine in unexpected community was formed in the comment sections of certain YouTube videos.

As sheltering in place wore on people increasingly relied on videos containing sounds of the public lives they’d left behind.

The comments sections under videos of public spaces, street sounds, bar conversation, and sporting events suddenly became confessionals for the lonely and the sleepless during quarantine.

Kate: I was so surprised to realize these streams existed and then more so that people had felt moved enough, like at whatever hour of the night to comment on how comforting they found it or how they needed it to go to sleep or the memories that it evoked in them.

[Snippet from For Some Odd Reason]

Female Voice: I used this every night. Amazing. 

Mack: Kate was asked to contribute to the online sound art festival AMPLIFY 2020. Her submission took inspiration from these impromptu public confessions.

For Some Odd Reason, combined sound from these videos with the comments left below them.


[Snippet from For Some Odd Reason]

Female Voice #1: I’ve recently been using this while in quarantine because the quietness of my house is eerie.

Female Voice #2: Reminds me of falling asleep in public as a small child. It was so easy then. Funny what humans will resort to decrease anxiety or loneliness, myself included.

Female Voice #3: This is incredibly comforting. It’s been quieter because of COVID and this has helped me relax. 

Kate: I am someone who does think about and I also believe in kind of the power of sound to make us feel more connected or the collectivity in terms of how we make a soundscape together and things like that.

I was amazed, but I was very moved to see those comments and to see how those streams had been being used.

[Snippet from For Some Odd Reason]

Female Voice #1: I’ve been in quarantine for so long I forgot how this makes my brain feel.

Female Voice #2: Is it weird that I find the occasional siren, the most relaxing.

[Ambient Street Noises]

[Crowd Chanting at a Soccer Game]

Male Voice #1: Listening while ESPN played [inaudible] soccer really helped.

Female Voice #3: [Inaudible]

Kate: The piped in crowd noise at sporting events, I found that really fascinating that people would decide to either find their own on YouTube, crowd noise, and play it over the top of their sporting match themselves or obviously, you know, the big kind of companies beginning, even employing people, to sort of live play crowd sounds to sporting events.

And I’m super involved in sound obviously, and I’d never thought of kind of the critical nature of crowd sound to the enjoyment of sporting events, like watching sporting events, but it obviously is a massive part of it.

And so, I was starting to think about other sounds of collectivity that people might miss.

And I just completely stumbled upon these streams of city sounds that people had recorded before the pandemic, or of bar sounds and they were long streams of several hours. And it was incredibly poignant just to read the comments that people had left.

[Snippet from For Some Odd Reason]

Male Voice #1: We scared at 3:00 AM and want to hear people.

So, turn this on!

Female Voice #1: For some odd reason, people just talking calms me.


Mack: Taken together, these three pieces, one from before the pandemic one from its beginning and one from its interminable middle, explore how earnestly we try to connect across distance and how heightened these attempts have become over the past year.

Carr’s work also encourages us to dwell on unsung sounds and even disparaged sounds, electronic noise, digital noise, crowd noise, and street noise and realize these are just as inherent a part of our communication and sense of connection as the parts that we call the message or signal.

It might be noise, but we miss it when it’s gone.

 [Snippet from For Some Odd Reason]

[Lo-fi Beat]

Mack: And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Big thanks to Kate Carr for being on our show. You can find her work on Bandcamp and learn more about Kate at, the best URL I’ve heard in a while.

Also, huge thanks to my co-producer on this episode, Matthew Blackwell,

Matthew is a visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Iowa and a freelance music writer. He writes, and edits Tusk Is Better Than Rumors, a newsletter that covers discographies of experimental musicians.

You can find it at

He’s also a contributor to Tone Glow, you can find Tone Glow at

And if you’re interested in producing an episode of the show, drop me a line at

You can find links, transcripts, and more at You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts, and if you enjoyed this episode, if you would please use that share button on your podcast app and share it with a friend.

Today’s episode was written and produced by me, Mack Hagood, and Matthew Blackwell, with music and editing by yours truly.

Phantom Powers production team includes Craig Eley, Ravi Krishna Swami, and Amy Skjerseth.

Our social media team is Bethany Sersion and Grace Carlos. Transcripts by Maggie Hands and Ellie Pierce.

Next month’s episode features influential sound scholar, Jonathan Stern. It’s going to be a great show. We’ll see you then.

Take care.

 [Lo-fi Beat Fades Out]