Bristol-based improviser and sound recordist Seth Cooke has performed music by the likes of Michael Finnissy, Michael Pisaro, Sarah Hughes, and Manfred Werder, but his own work takes off in a direction leaving its own distinctive contrails in its wake. He often uses a technique he calls ‘no-input field recording’, the precise ins and outs of which I’m unfamiliar with, but which seems to be as much a conceptual device as a technical one. Judging from the results heard on “Sightseer”, his new release for Organised Music from Thessaloniki, the intention seems to be to dig deep into field recording as a general practice, into its assumptions, tendencies, and points of anxiety, and to do so in a reflexive and critical manner.
“Sightseer” is a short collection of audio postcards, reminiscent of a travelogue perhaps, bringing together some familiar though perhaps not always obvious travelling sounds: ocean waves breaking, lifts going up and down, the scrunch of packaging, and so on. There are also lots of varieties of broadband noise, which is presumably where the no-input aspect makes itself heard. Cooke is well aware of the colonialist leanings inherent in the collection and playback of exotic ‘souvenir’ sounds, the drive to delimit and categorise and thus integrate audible things into a rubric that is understood and controlled. He attempts to distance himself from this problem through the use of irony, evident in track titles such as “Fake Tan” and “Santa Barbara Christian Field Recording Association”, but also in numerous jump cuts, unusual sound sources, and the afore-mentioned no-input technique. At least, this is the impression I get from listening (and reading the titles).
And yet, there seems to be another movement at work, a counter-gesture, which creates an opening just big enough for the sounds on the record to effect an escape from both the normative assumptions of field recording and the abyss of irony offered as their negation. It’s almost as if the two forces cancel each other out, leaving acoustic material to make a bee-line for the horizon. Attempts to pin these clatters, scrapes, wooshes and whistles onto this or that system of signification (ironic, essentialist, transcendental, literalist, etc.) only end up making tiny holes for them to leak through, which isn’t to say that the systems they traverse on their way out are left undisturbed by their passage. I’m guessing that Cooke is aware of this, and chooses to deploy irony not to mock, deflate, or save face, but to set out the pieces for something more interesting to take place. I’m enjoying hearing the game unfold.