In recent decades, field recording has come into sharp focus as a rapidly evolving creative practice within the canon of sound arts. Its proliferation heralds an opening up to notions of place, environment, non-anthropic listening, divergent cultural traditions, bio-acoustics, and a curiosity towards the act of being present to our audition in time and in space. Field recording’s history, however, stretches back much further into the early parts of the 20th century. It developed as you’d expect, in parallel with various recording technologies such as magnetic tape and, more recently, digital recording technologies. Originally understood as a method for ethnographic ‘documentation’ and musicology studies, the practice has drifted away from these roots and is today more concerned with auditive perception and a deepening of listenership. Across a series of columns, Australian artist and owner of the influential Room40 music label Lawrence English casts an ear towards some historical and contemporary field recording works that open up our capacities to sense and absorb the world around us.
Fred Mcdowell: The Alan Lomax Recordings
This historic and historical collection of recordings epitomizes where our understanding of field recording emanates from. Alan Lomax should be a part of any conversation about the history of field recording; if not for his skill, then for his determination as a conservator of sound. In the seconds before “Shake’em On Down” starts, as Lomax counts down the take, a cricket calls from the boundary of the microphone’s focus and sketches out the axillary elements that made up the environments around Lomax’s interests in those moments of recording – the voice and guitar of Fred McDowell. Across several of the other tracks on this edition, whispers of insects, birds, and other environmental phenomena creep into the recordings of McDowell’s songs. These sounds hint at a world that sits just beyond the horizon of audition and remind us of the dynamic and unpredictable qualities of sounds.
Annea Lockwood – A Sound Map of the Danube
Annea Lockwood has been many things in her life, but the one role she has maintained with a feverish dedication is that of a listener. Nowhere is this capacity for deep exploration, patience, and reaching out into space more present than on her epic two-and-a-half-hour reflection on the Danube. Her approach to listening, like her approach to composition, is anchored in a profound willingness to be curious, and this makes her work utterly special in its realization. Her ears are open, catching the river and its surroundings with equal care. Sections like “Passau to Jochenstein Dam” capture a gentle dynamism that is equal parts soft focus bucolic living and intense environmental acoustics. Lockwood is generous, too, allowing us to linger with her in sonic places that might otherwise go under explored.
Norman W Long – Big Marsh Soundscape
On the southside of Chicago is Big Marsh, an area of ecological restoration and rejuvenation amid an urbanized and industrialized area. Norman W Long has visited this site on numerous occasions over the past few years, and his listening is keenly honed to the various seasonal aspects of the environment. This piece merges his interests in field recording with a reductive and improvisation-led exploration of synthesis in place. As the environments shift across the piece, temporality is blurry. Frogs imagined at night fall into passages of sparse stridulating cicadas and occasional bird calls. A train can be heard passing by, pulling us back towards the urban fringes of Chicago, a reminder that sound travels and engulfs in ways very different to light.
Izabela Dłużyk – Soundscapes of Summer
As far as the capacity for listening goes, Izabela’s acoustic sensing of the world is absolute. Born blind, her ears led her through the world, and through her recordings they capture a detailed and passionate perception of the world that is absorbing and radiant. Soundscapes of Summer is one of a series of seasonal field recording works that conjures an idyllic setting. It captures a lived-in environment, within which the distant rumbles of cars and the chatter of village life play-out amidst stunning percussive displays from white storks and other wildlife.
Rudy Deceliere – Various Ends of the World
In the winter of 2012, Swiss artist Rudy Deceliere undertook a residency in Bytom, Poland. As part of his time there, he undertook a series of extended recordings made on top of various abandoned industrial sites in Upper Silesia. Recorded at heights from 40 meters to 200 meters above ground, each of the pieces maintains an epically diffuse quality. The horizon of audition feels effortlessly expansive and as each piece progresses, a multiplicity of vistas gently coalesces, hinting at a 360-degree perspective. What surprises most about these recordings is the fact that certain sonic events feel disproportionally present: dogs barking, trains passing, car sirens wailing, and even birds calling. Their availability is a reminder of how unpredictable sound can be when experienced over distance, and how our own listening operates when encountering certain types of sound fields.
Yfeat Ziv – Amazonian Traces of Self
As David Toop notes, “Yifeat Ziv’s voice has intensity and precision, but what I really love about it is a searching quality, the feeling that it questions itself as it moves around in space, so the strength of it is not dogmatism or force but a genuine curiosity about where it goes; how it absorbs and is absorbed by other sounds, objects, materials, and emptiness.” On Amazonian Traces of Self, Ziv’s voice merges, interferes, and interlocks with her recordings of the Amazon. The recordings themselves are captivating, and this is only heightened by her explorations in voice, animal mimicry, and extended technique, which unlock a quality within the recordings that opens them up in the most unexpected ways. As her voice is consumed by leafhoppers in the later third of the piece, there’s a wonderful sense of the reduction of a single body into a minor feature in an enormous, enveloping sea of green.