The Wire

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In Writing

The Wire 300: Will Montgomery on the changing uses of field recordings

February 2013

A previously unpublished artlcle commissioned especially for The Wire 300 online season.

In February 1998 The Wire published a useful Primer on field recordings (issue 168). The recordings featured in the article, however, had little to do with environmental sound. They captured non-Western musicians recorded ‘in the field’ and were released by labels with an ethnographic bent, such as Ocora and Le Chant du Monde. So much has happened under the ‘field recording’ heading in the intervening period that it seems inconceivable that the tag could be used in this way now. Since the turn of the century, an increasing number of musicians have wanted to look beyond the creaking electronica vocabulary of loops, drones, glitches and sample-mangling, and towards the rich acoustic potential of untreated field recordings. The increasing availability of small, affordable digital recorders since the middle of the decade has accelerated the process.

With such activity, of course, another Cagean prophecy has come true, as the boundaries between musical or artistic uses of sound and environmental sound become ever harder to defend. Field recording is now commonly encountered both as an artistic practice in its own right and as a component of experimental music and sound art. There has been much debate on listserves about the lines, if any, that can be drawn between these activities. In a recent interview on sound artist Jez Riley French’s website, the Australian artist Robert Curgenven remarks somewhat wearily: “[The] old music vs sound chestnut is not so important to me these days, if it makes it easier to get a point across then it’s a useful polemic, but otherwise it’s got so many elements to it that it‘s not easily reducible to a few quick definitions.”

The background to much of this upswell of activity lies in the concept of the soundscape, which originated within acoustic ecology through the pioneering work of the Canadian composer and theorist R Murray Shafer. Influential figures active in this area include David Dunn, Douglas Quin, Hildegard Westerkamp, Annea Lockwood and Bernie Krause, all of whom (as David Toop points out in his book Haunted Weather) have a relationship with experimental music. For many younger musicians, however, two figures have been central to the cross-fertilisation between environmental recording and experimental music: Francisco Lopez and Chris Watson.

The work of Lopez runs from harsh electronic sound to subtle and bewildering environmental recordings. Influenced by the acousmatic theories of musique concrète, his approach has been to focus on the sound itself rather than its source. In his text ‘Profound Listening and Environmental Sound Matter’, the sleevenote for his seminal release La Selva, he criticises the scientific approach of bioacoustics or ‘documentary’ nature recording. “As soon as the call is in the air,” he asserts, “it no longer belongs to the frog that produced it.” He dismisses the tendency of acoustic ecologists to elevate a sacralised natural soundscape (preferably pre-industrial in character) over the fallen world of man-made sound. His suggestion that no recording is ever scientifically ‘objective’ places the emphasis on the shaping, even aesthetic, decisions of the artist or recordist: microphone placement, equipment choice or editing, for example. And, in a similar move, he removes any pretence at locating an objective musicality in environmental sound: “It’s our decision – subjective, intentional, non-universal, not necessarily permanent – that converts nature sounds into music.” It’s easy to see how this could be inspiring and liberating for those who were coming to the end of other musical tethers in experimental music.
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Lopez’s work has often been released on small labels associated with electronic music and sold alongside such work – this has without doubt influenced its reception. The same is true of the work of the phonographer and nature recordist Chris Watson, which has been released on the Touch label. The 1990s albums Stepping IntoTthe Dark and Outside The Circle Of Fire showcased Watson’s extraordinary ear for acoustic atmospheres. On some of these recordings, the sounds seemed close to the sonic world opening up concurrently with the widespread use of digital processing in electronica. More impressive still, however, was 2003’s Weather Report, which contained three renderings of specific environments (recorded in Scotland, Iceland and Africa) that had been edited into collages, producing utterly captivating soundscapes shaped by an acute compositional intelligence.

Activity across the shared territory of field recording and experimental music in recent years has been nurtured by a number of labels: Gruenrekorder, And/OAR, Winds Measure, Room::40, Touch and Sirr among them. Artists worthy of note are too numerous to mention. One figure, whose sensibility is informed both by soundscape theory and the London Improv scene, is Peter Cusack. His work fuses eco-activism and an acute ear for the music of environmental sound. Cusack’s Baikal Ice CD captures the break-up of ice on Lake Baikal in expressive detail, with both an awareness of global ice-melt and the tinkle of Xenakis’s Concret Ph in the background. He’s currently involved in a project entitled Sound from Dangerous Places, which includes recordings from Chernobyl, from the oilfields of Azerbaijan, and from Eastern Turkey, where dam construction will soon inundate vast swathes of land.

Jacob Kirkegaard, like Watson a Touch artist, has also made recordings in Chernobyl – his 4 Rooms album is a ghostly, voice-less transposition of Alvin Lucier’s concept in I Am Sitting In A Room. His Eldfjall uses sensitive contact microphones to capture volcanic vibrations in sites in Iceland. Kirkegaard is an example of someone bringing an artist’s conceptual armoury to acoustic phenomena, while at the same time using innovative recording techniques. Less well known but equally inventive is the Japanese sound artist Toshiya Tsunoda. He is particularly interested in vibrational phenonomena. His Low Frequency Observed At Maguchi Bay combines contact mic’d field recordings with filtered versions that remove all material above 20hz, more or less the threshold of human hearing. The filtered recordings – half of the album – are, therefore, literally unlistenable, perceptible only as vibration. Other Tsunoda albums feature recordings made inside pipes and bottles, in harbours, in long grass. Like Lopez, he has an ear for the point at which the line between natural and artificial sound blurs, and locusts, wind or surf begin to resemble purely electronic sound.

Other artists and phonographers working with field recordings in provocative ways include Steve Roden, Brandon LaBelle, Jgrzinich, Jez Riley French, Eric la Casa, Yannick Dauby, Jeph Jerman, Justin Bennett, Kiyoshi Mizutani, Philip Samartzis and Stephen Vitiello (the list could be greatly expanded). The online environment has accelerated the development of phonography communities, allowing websites, blogs and mailing lists to disseminate recordings and to generate discussion. Derek Holzer’s SoundTransit, on which users can ‘book’ sound journeys across the globe, is an example of the imaginative online use of field recordings. In music, the field recording is now simply part of the vocabulary, cropping up, treated or untreated, across the spectrum of experimental activity. Environmental sound has become an essential part of the way we represent the world to each other in art, whether musically or non-musically: unimaginable when The Wire first hit magazine racks (and jazz record shops) in 1982.


Great article, but why were no women artists mentioned? Serious omission!!

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