150323 Excavator - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

I spent some quality time with my larger audio recorder on Friday, and managed to make a few new friends in the process.

I had two  goals for the day: to record the striking University of Toronto's teaching assistants, and to catch the sound of streetcars going through the intersection of College and Spadina. Unfortunately the first turned out to be less interesting than I had hoped – and certainly less interesting than Kevin or Rachel thought they were – and my timing was wrong for the second. Fortunately the city doesn't expect to start rebuilding the roadway for a couple more weeks, giving me another chance to record before the broken tracks are replaced with new ones.

One of my personal rules is to not put away the recording gear until long after I think I'm done, because frequently the best opportunities happen on my way home. So often I fail, though, but usually for good reason. In this case I had put my recorder away because I was walking back through U of T, and didn't feel like being asked, yet again, if I was private investigator hired by the university to record the strike. Odd scenario, I know, but having heard that same explanation almost word-for-word from two different earnest young people – including one who had followed me for three-quarters of a kilometre, across four roads and out of the U of T campus to tell me it – I can only assume that it's true. 

The gem that I discovered, which was worth unpacking my gear for, was a single backhoe starting a hole in the ground that will eventually become an eight-storey engineering building. It was clearing broken concrete and scrap metal, skillfully manipulating a block that must have been far too heavy to lift. Eventually the excavator was joined by another worker with a power saw, and together they continued to sort and salvage the rubble. And the really remarkable thing is the almost complete absence of other sounds. It was a quiet spot away from major roads, on a day with unusually little traffic.

I recorded about twenty-five minutes of audio from three different perspectives. The result was about seventeen minutes of usable material, which I've cut and layered into the composition in the five minute video at the start of this entry. (As usual the images are just a secondary way to record the scene, and can be safely ignored.) And of course no U of T recording session – on public property – would be complete without being challenged by authority. In this case it was by someone who lacked the politeness of identifying himself, but gave me no trouble once he established that I wasn't working for forces greater than myself. 

The best interaction of the day is one that I included at the end of the audio clip. It was the sixth time I was asked about what I was doing in less than two hours, so having a passer-by wonder if I was monitoring for radon gas broke some of my stress. It was a University of Toronto moment in the best possible way. Sometimes I really enjoy meeting people on the campus.

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