Caught by the River

In the Field: The Art of Field Recording

14th May 2013

In the Field cover 2

Review by Rob St John.

The first wildlife recording was made by a German man – Ludwig Koch – in 1889 and captured the call of a bird – the Common Shama, a member of the thrush family – onto early Edison wax cylinders. In bringing to earth the ephemeral signature of the Shama’s song in flight, Koch laid into wax the basis of field recording practice, a palimpsest set of ‘fields’ – academic, artistic and otherwise – that have since been constantly refined, rewritten, and reshaped into the current, diverse and growing discipline.

This new volume brings together a constellation of practitioners ‘in the field’, centring their practice on sound, but veering out into diverse sonic realms: sound art releases and installations; psycho-geographic mapping; environmental education projects; and anthropological investigations. The interviewees – artists, academics, geographers, and anthropologists – describe their practice in idiosyncratic, personal terms, emphasising the individual personality and use of their recordings.

The editors Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle – both respected field recorders with track records of cross-disciplinary work – are sympathetic and subtly probing interviewers, teasing illuminating and approachable answers from their subjects, improvising around a set of themes: motivations and inspirations for recordings; values and ways of distributing recordings; and the role (or ‘presence’) of the recorder as a participant in their work. Whilst many of the contributors work within the abstracted realms of academia and conceptual art, the responses are mostly explained in non-technical language, potentially lending this book a wide appeal.

Similarly, there’s enjoyably little attention given to the fine details of recording equipment. As Ian Rawes, founder of the London Sound Survey wryly suggests, field recording is as much about the process of listening as the equipment used to record: “I hate it when you see something promoting a course in urban field recording and there’s a picture of a serious-looking young man with big headphones on waving a mic windshield around, ‘no you won’t make good recordings mate, you look like a chump! Just use little mics”. The increasingly democratic nature of field recording fostered by technological advances is a theme also stressed by British field recorder Jez Riley French: “I love the fact the it [field recording] is so accessible and more or less anyone can afford to get involved”. French similarly stresses the importance of long stretches of careful, considered listening over the necessity to record and document a soundscape.

Rawes’ interview – one of the most enjoyable in this compilation – also makes clear the ability of sound to inhabit and express the spirit of a place. His London Sound Survey project documents the streets of London as a set of sound maps. Many interviewees emphasise the unpredicted beauty of incidental and serendipitous sound in their work, particularly in its ability to yield unexpected expressions and trace memories of the environment. Felicity Ford describes a set of field recordings taken at The Glen of the Downs road protest in Ireland as an elegy for a lost landscape. She recorded the sound of a stream – drowned out by the noise of the newly built motorway during the day – springing forth at 3am when traffic had ebbed away, the water reasserting its sonic niche – however fleetingly – in the soundscape.

New Zealand artist Annea Lockwood’s river sound maps – most famously 1987’s ‘Sound Map of the Hudson River’ – collate topographies of sound along and within the river’s stream from source to sea. Her works reveals a uniquely place and time specific set of sounds, influenced by the river’s gradient, energy, bedrock and ecological health. Again, serendipity underpins one of Lockwood’s favourite recordings. When recording a tributary of the Housatonic River in Connecticut, the water level began to slowly drop due to the erratic outflow from an upstream power station dam. Lockwood’s submerged microphone gradually reappeared above the water, recording a slow, subtle fade from submerged bubbles to quiet ambient environmental sound.

Sound emerges from this book as a fluid, expressive and highly descriptive medium to work with. But are field recordings objective documents of the environments they capture? For Francisco López – widely regarded as one of the most pioneering and innovative figures in field recording and sound art – the relationship between recording and reality is not straight-forward, suggesting: “there is an obvious connection between the act of field recording and the places or phenomena recorded, but to me that is only the first level of experience and there are other levels which do not concern this direct connection with reality, but are more abstract and imaginary”. The recorder makes aesthetic, ethical and practical decisions over what to record, what equipment to use, and how to present their work to an audience. Whether intended or not – Felicity Ford suggests that as a ‘noisy person’ it would be disingenuous for her not to be aurally present in her work occasionally – the recorder’s outlook and intent influence their recordings.

Similarly, interpretation and translation of the recordings through listening takes streams of sound into the realms of abstraction and imagination described by López. In their introduction, the authors describe the importance of contextual information when listening to recordings. Without this, crackling hydrophone recordings of shrimp communicating, moving and feeding in the cold North Sea could easily be heard as the spluttering embers of a wood fire. Field recordings weave their way through these liminal spaces between document and artwork; between the real and the imagined; the authentic and the faked. Recorded sound takes flight in numerous ways, and this book is a fantastic place to discover your own sonic niche ‘in the field’.

In the Field: The Art of Field Recording edited by Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle is published by Uniformbooks. On sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £12.00

The art of field recording is the theme of our programme at the Field Day festival, taking place in London on 25 May. Find more information here. And keep your eyes on the site next week for some exciting news on the very same subject.