"Some recordists are like hoarders, bringing home whatever they find outside with little discrimination as to what's worth preserving and what’s not." Derek Walmsley sorts through The Wire's post bag in search of the person behind the mic.
The Wire has been getting a lot of them lately – aural postcards from intrepid but strangely anonymous travellers. They come in the form of modestly presented CDs, with sober information in a discreet font detailing what, when and how they were made: this is a recording of such and such location, at dawn or dusk or some point in between, with Zoom handheld recorder (or similar). On the disc there’s unmediated, unedited recordings from the field, invariably one in a faraway location: the Serengeti National Park; Guadeloupe and Dominica; a tundra in Lapland.
The number of field recordings made and released has increased massively in the last two decades – the era of mass air travel has spawned many recordists and many listeners. Over the same period, the field itself has become an object of fascination. Many recordists, rather than focusing on musicians, have turned their attention from folk musics to the background noise of nature and the environment. Anyone who’s used modern recording devices will understand why. Turn on your recorder, pop on your headphones, and the ambient noise of a location suddenly comes vividly alive. Recording equipment gives you bionic ears. It is like hearing closer, or in a new way, or for the first time.
This experience of listening to the world can be so vivid it’s not surprising that recordists want to share it with others. But more recordings are now made and distributed than any listener could ever hope to keep up with. When CDs present lengthy, unedited recordings that fill up most of a disc, they are too long for most commutes, or for listening alongside another activity. You have to set time aside to listen to them with concentration. Paradoxically, these recordings of nature demand you take yourself away from the rest of the world to listen to them.
Sorting through these discs presents a dilemma. It’s hard to prioritise one longform field recording over another without falling back on your personal taste, knowledge or prejudice, or on uncomfortable notions of exoticism. On many discs, detailed information about what the recordist was doing or feeling out in the field is sparse. The minimal context, combined with minimalist design and the long durations of the recordings, allude to a number of aesthetic ideals: direct access to sound; the neutral stance of the artist; a wonder at the epic beauty of nature. But all of these notions are contested or problematic in some way.
Some recordists are like hoarders, bringing home whatever they find outside with little discrimination as to what's worth preserving and what’s not. There are many possible reasons for making and sharing field recordings. A justification frequently advanced for recording in remote locations is raising awareness of environmental issues, and climate change in particular. That argument has been used as a excuse for visiting those remote locations, sometimes on public arts money, again and again, probably advancing the very process it purports to document. As with health warnings on cigarettes, you wonder just how many people aren't already aware of climate change – and whether the awareness argument dodges substantial discussion of how to fix it.
Some of these tensions become apparent in the catalogue of Gruenrekorder, a German based field recording and sound art label that has released more than 100 discs. Rodolphe Alexis’s Morne Diablotins is “a walk among the Lesser Antilles, Guadeloupe and Dominica”, searching for the sounds of once common, now endangered species such as the endemic giant frog, Leptodactylus fallax. The disc aims to find how the islands sounded before Columbus, but as the sleevenotes admit, it ends up encountering mostly common species. Lasse-Marc Riek’s Helgoland is another environmentally minded disc, taking recordings from Germany’s only ocean island, which has become a thriving spot for hundreds of species of birds from all over the world to congregate.
The sleevenotes of these discs, and many more in the Gruenrekorder catalogue, disclose little more than the facts about the location. It's as if saying any more might disturb the nature it is there to witness. This sense of hushed reverence is both the fascination and the frustration of Gruenrekorder. The sounds it captures are extraordinary, but you feel as if the recordist, along with their experiences and memories, has been left out of the picture.
This neutral stance is in any case often dispelled when artists start to document their own work. There are no big egos in field recording, only big archives. Field recordists often reuse recordings from project to project in a way that reinserts the artist as dramatic character back into their work.
The concept of the archive has acquired much currency in recent years in academic circles. Some field recordists seem to exploit the intersection of sound, art and academia by repackaging an archive of recordings in every which way they can. This can lend certain areas of the field recording scene an odd sense of insularity and selfishness – recordists often discuss their practice with sole reference to their own work, experiences and sound archive. There’s a danger that field recordists are getting trapped in their own recordings.
But recently a number of recordists and writers have proposed ways that field recording might move beyond awestruck fascination with nature. Salomé Voegelin, writing in The Wire, has celebrated figures such as Felicity Ford and Davide Tidoni, whose work highlights the presence of the recordist rather than their absence. Angus Carlyle and Cathy Lane’s interview book In The Field talked to several practitioners such as Budhaditya Chattopadhyay and Viv Corringham for whom the subjective experience of listening is as important as the neutral presentation of the environment. Elsewhere, a meandering but thoughtful dialogue between Richard Pinnell and Patrick Farmer on the Field Reporter website has bemoaned the current glut of field recording discs, and speculated about what composition can bring to the practice of field recording, inspired by Tarab’s recent album Strata.
Perhaps there are other ways to move the debate on. In the dry, factual language in which many field recording releases are couched, the motives of the artist themselves – aesthetic, logistical, financial – are often hard to divine. But the story of recording is often at least as interesting as the recordings themselves. Adrian Rew’s tale of visiting casinos to surreptitiously record the sounds within reveals as much about the space in question, its boundaries and tensions, as his CD. Similarly, the sleevenotes of David Michael’s amazing Gruenrekorder disc The Slaughterhouse discuss his visit to an Alabama abattoir and the family who work there, and the latter are leading characters on the disc itself, discussing what their work entails, raising questions about the recording process, and revealing and questioning the motives of both themselves and the man with the microphone.
The role of pleasure in making and listening to field recordings is also underdiscussed. You yearn to read about what listeners find within long field recordings that they lack in their everyday lives; what psychological space they open up, and how they are used. There are many reasons to listen to field recordings, and escapism, relaxation, even an odd form of voyeurism might play a part. If there is a obsessive desire to record, to listen and to archive, it’s time to embrace and understand it.