Making “A Shovel in Soil”: An Artwork in Audio

As an artist, I use existing audio to create extended and droning compositions meant to evoke a meditative state. I wanted to obtain copies of the Jonestown tapes as soon as I learned of their existence, because they provided a window into life with Jim Jones – a record of his culture and followers. I came to them interested in power and belief, and was looking for a way to examine the tapes and utilize the inherent power they held. The simple existence and overall abundance of the Peoples Temples recordings gives us an intimate view into their world, which Jones and others had made for their own use with no intention of their being exhibited to outsiders. Peoples Temple left an imprint of themselves in that audio, and would continue to exist beyond their deaths within that magnetic tape, albeit now digitized. The conclusion of Jonestown is a thing of cultural legend, and to be able to enter into this in even the slightest way is captivating.

To me, the most entrancing tapes are the tapes that are either blank, contain ghosted audio, or feature singing performances by Peoples Temple. The ghosted audio is a fascinating example of the tangible existence of the tapes. It is an object that I have no direct access to, but am able to experience secondhand because of technology. Without this technology, I may have never had the opportunity to listen to the tapes, similar to how – due to advances in something like Google Earth – common people are now able to view the world in a way that before only powerful or governmental bodies had access to. The tangibility of the thing, and the continued elusiveness of the object, is a minor fascination that does not come through in my current work, but continues to captivate.

The first work I have made using the audio is called “A Shovel in Soil.” It aims to create a space in which examination can be made of the awe that followers feel toward their leader within a belief structure. The audio is created using ambient sound from the Jonestown tapes, including some of the ghost audio and singing performances, recordings of Jim Jones speaking, and recordings of David Koresh preaching to the Branch Davidians. The title refers to the act of using a shovel to cut into the ground and create a plowed path to plant seeds, which will be cultivated and grown with the farmer’s regard, but which will also still develop in their own natural way. A follower is not someone who can necessarily be made, but may be guided and informed by his or her own desires and differences.

The existing audio has been stretched and contorted – manipulated often beyond recognition – in an attempt to allow listeners a space where they can close their eyes and be enveloped by the waves of sound washing over them, sometimes creating breaks in the space in order to bring upon an abrupt doubt in the continuation of the audio – a minor moment of self-awareness, which then subsides back into a sea of bitter and convoluted audio.

This project is currently ongoing, and I hope to examine and utilize the tapes in subsequent works.

(Matthew Sochocki is an artist, writer, and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. In addition to experimenting with the Jonestown Tapes, he is currently working on a series of audio compositions using custom stringed instruments and his first novel. “A Shovel in Soil” is currently unavailable pending release, but will be made available on this website at the earliest possibility.)