For many years the province of a small number of specialists, the advent of affordable good-quality equipment made field recording a tool that was available to a much wider range of artists and musicians. As a result, the range of approaches taken to using this tool grew exponentially. Unedited, ‘documentary-style’ recordings of specific locations continue to be produced, but more and more artists have become interested in combining field recordings with traditional musical elements such as harmony, melody, and rhythm, or in using field recordings as if they were traditional musical elements. I guess you could say from this that places and our experiences of them are rich and complex enough to sustain a very wide diversity of artistic responses and representations.
Three recent albums demonstrate this diversity, while retaining certain common threads. Kassel Jaeger’s “Onden” (Unfathomless, 2016) is a roughly 40-minute piece of music composed using “aerial and electromagnetic fields captured at night” in Tokyo. In other words, airborne acoustic sounds, such as the chirruping of cicadas and the distant swoosh of transport, are combined with aural transcriptions of normally-inaudible electromagnetic fields generated by communications equipment, electronic signage, heating and lighting, and so on. On one level, “Onden” is about revealing another layer of the city that would normally remain imperceptible; in addition to this, the piece (the title of which translates as ‘gentle’, as well as being a name of a river in the area where the recordings were made) documents the quietness and stillness of a residential area late at night, giving rise to all the inner thoughts and feelings that come to the fore in such an atmosphere.
Recordings made in four coastal regions in the Netherlands form the basis of Cinema Perdu’s album “Interventions In A Landscape” (Moving Furniture, 2016). Unlike the Jaeger piece, here the field recordings are augmented by intentionally tonal, synthesised sound sources. Hence opening track ‘Leihoek’ begins with a rushing and hissing strongly suggestive of a storm, before this gives way to a glimmering chord; the chord slowly oscillates and morphs like the changing speed and direction of a storm gale. Churning water and rushing wind are joined by more ambiguous sounds such as a sharp, abrasive spluttering, crackly noise, and high-pitched, oscillating ringing. The impression is not so much of a landscape as of a thinking, feeling person within a landscape.
Grisha Shakhnes is not an artist normally associated with field recording, yet his new album “choice ambience” (Disappearing Records, 2016) opens with that most instantly recognisable of field recording tropes, the chirping of birds. This sound is then joined by a faint rumble and intermittent screech, a brief thick whirring, muffled ringing, and a regular patter. The body of the music consists of the often rough, distorted timbres produced by Shakhnes’ analogue and tape-based equipment, yet they are frequently joined by the buzz of a scooter, the siren of a passing emergency vehicle, the bark of a dog, or again and again the call of birds. The quiet clatter and shuffle of someone moving around in a room also occurs. What I think we’re hearing here is the sound of Shakhnes at work in a room with the window open; the place being re-presented is the artist’s own studio. The album’s two tracks are both muted and subtle in mood, despite the abrasiveness of some of the sounds, creating the absorbing impression of an artist contentedly at work on a quiet afternoon.
All three of these albums make use of sounds that could be considered ‘field recordings’, yet with very different intentions and results. While they all make use of sounds captured from the world around them, each has its own way of turning inward, of listening also to the thoughts, feelings, and intensities a place can evoke. Places recorded to disk or tape are by necessity inhabited places; the fact that, as these albums demonstrate, they can always be heard otherwise points to the multifarious possible ways in which they can be inhabited and shared with others.
Image taken from the cover of Cinema Perdu’s “Interventions In A Landscape”