A new generation of field recordists is challenging the myth of the invisible figure with a microphone in work that celebrates presence rather than absence.
In the first half of the 20th century, field recordists such as Ludwig Koch and Albert Brand worked as explorers and collectors – sonic butterfly catchers, capturing sound for categorisation, naming and pinning it down in collections and archives. This is an example of field recording contributing to empirical and scientific knowledge about the world, whose comprehension is improved through better bit rates and higher sound quality to capture an authentic sound. This field recording relies on labels and descriptions, conventions from the archive and its pedagogical objectives, to make up for whatever information is lacking from the object caught in sound. It is also entirely transparent to itself, lacking an understanding of the anthropological intrigue of the recordist rather than the recorded.
This age of innocence, now abandoned or ironised by photography, is hard to shift in the invisible realm of phonography. The difficulty partly arises from the recordists' trust in their own multisensory memory of the field. They mistake the reduced sonic data for the sensorial complexity of the contingent encounter, and forget the frame of reference left behind that needs reframing if it is to trigger anything. A field recording made using the method of 'anything goes, just stick your mic in the mud' misses this tension of transformation. Without its impetus, listeners stare in puzzlement at sleevenotes and press releases trying to intellectually grasp the significance and joy of what is absent.
Some field recording is thus incredibly boring and irrelevant for all but the recordist: the exotica of the source replacing the idiosyncrasy of the material recorded, the pleasures and complexities of which are hidden and inaccessible to an audience standing by and listening in. From these outskirts we hear not the field but its absence, and produce at best a cerebral exchange with what could have remained a private journey. By all means record your soundwalks, stick your mic wherever you want to and produce a butterfly museum of your everyday – just don't expect it to be listened to.
Exciting field recording does not record the field but produces a plurality of fields. lt neither abandons the reality of the recorded, nor does it take it for granted, but works with it, responds to it, understands it as one imprint in the landscape made by the body of the recordist and retraced tentatively by the listener. This listener in turn generates a new imprint between the heard and the recorded, listening to the authenticity of a particular rendition rather than its source, and embracing interpretation as part of the actuality of the real. That is at least what I consider to be exciting.
The developing use of field recording in more musical and artistic works, and the inclusion of soundscape compositions on art music imprints such as Touch as well as the foundation of labels dedicated to field recording such as Gruenrekorder, produce a different expectation and demand a different consideration of what recording the field means and who its recordists and who its listeners are, and where it is that their respective listening meets, or not.
Some works on both these labels produce the plurality of the field that is exciting to me, and seem sensitive to the pitfalls of the humanist and Romantic endeavour of capturing nature, urban and rural. Others produce music and art from the material harvested in the field. And there is a difference. While the latter connects back to musical tropes pursued, for example, by Olivier Messiaen and Charles Ives, whose inspiration and resource is the acoustic environment, technologically or notationally recorded, but whose aspiration is music, the former produces a new lineage that starts not in the field but with the body, and whose aim is not necessarily music but sound and listening.
These are the compositional practices of field recording whose instrumental, electroacoustic and digital treatment of the material are determined neither by the expectations of musical conventions, nor by those of art. Instead, the works of Cathy Lane, Signe Liden and Francisco Lopez, among others, sound the possibility of the real through interpretations of the actual, and prompt a listening to sound rather than to music and art. Lane produces a field from archive footage and life recordings digitally processed, Liden displaces the field through installation, and Lopez blindfolds the listener to achieve a different audition. They all produce sonic versions of Ana Mendieta's imprints: the moulding of one's own body into the landscape, to leave the trace of an inhabited possibility, ratherthan produce the reportage of an assumed actuality. Mark Peter Wright's recordings are quite literally such imprints: photographs, words and sound - showing us not so much the field as his position within it and reminding us of our own.
All of these recordists seem acutely aware of themselves, their self consciousness generating the field. This is in stark contrast to the assumed self-evidence of those recordists who understand themselves naturally absent in the presence of recording technology. Indebted still to their historical roots, they believe in their own transparency and in the reality of the field, and pursue the possibility of its representation.
The shift away from the transparent microphone man, towards the body inhabiting the field, is in part generational, but it also holds truths about gender, ethnicity and socio-economic identity. It touches on the comfort and self-assurance of the recordist in the world of the everyday, of music and of art, and how they see themselves mirrored or alienated by what we consider its actuality: musically and aesthetically as well as economically, socially and politically.
The work of Ximena Alarcon and Claudia Wegener, for example, have turned field recording into a practice of social and cultural interaction, and Felicity Ford as well as Antye Greie use it to invite participation and foster exchange. And while Patrick Farmer morphs the field into performance and compositional processes, producing scores and books that do not necessarily lead to music but to an expanded field, Davide Tidoni listens to the boundaries of urban spaces by popping balloons.
These developments are no doubt facilitated by cheaper recording technology and the connective infrastructure of the internet, but they also reveal a different attitude towards knowledge and reality, and how we inhabit the world. They mark out a post-humanist sensibility where we do not seek to own the sounds of this world, to know and to have them, but understand ourselves to be part of its soundscape, not at its centre but simultaneous with it, sounding with and through it a reality that is plural and passing.
Maybe we should stop recording altogether and simply listen. But I believe the future of field recording lies in the tension created by transforming the heard through participation, collaboration, expansion and play, through which we can try a humbler humanity of shared spaces, and renegotiate what is real.
Salome Voegelin co-convenes, with Mark Peter Wright, Points of Listening (PoL), a monthly programme of listening workshops, activities and discussions based in and around London.