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Field recordings: “the feeling of being peripheral”

July 24, 2007

Recently I went on at length about Jonny Opinion’s music, and especially recommended 6.112, which uses recordings of rainfall as source material. That’s to say that as well as being the most suitable audio portrait of Britain this summer it’s a mutant field recording. Which provides the “outsideness” to balance the “insideness” that I celebrated in Jonny’s work.

Anything that resembles a field recording and is listened to for its musical properties is theoretically related to the writings of R. Murray Schafer, one of the twentieth century’s great Canadians and the founder of the World Soundscape Project. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to CBC Radio 2’s The Signal programme, hosted by Laurie Brown, who’s playing musics that demonstrate all sorts of “outsideness”, in celebration of Murray Schafer’s 74th birthday. The playlist is made up of works made conceptually linked to acoustic ecology, nature recordings, works about wilderness (which is very Canadian), works recorded in the wilderness… not so much outsider art, as simply “outside” art.

(As it happens, I’ve been well and truly done by Toronto’s apartment rental market, so I’m quite relieved to step imaginatively outside the domestic realm and into an aural wilderness… but that’s a whole other matter.)

R. Murray Schafer is rightly celebrated for giving us the vocabulary to talk about acoustic ecology with the same ease that nature poets or landscape painters can discuss their art, giving landscapes and landmarks their acoustic equivalents in the soundscape and soundmark; and these terms are as useful in an urban context as there are a rural one. An interesting supplement to Murray Schafer’s thinking, though, can be found in an essay by Yutaka Higashiguchi, “The Aesthetics of Periphery without Center: A New Foundation for the Aesthetics of Nature”. Higashiguchi appreciates Murray Schafer’s importance, but objects to his project of “reorchestrating the world environment” (based on studying sounds that “we want to preserve, encourage, multiply”), on the grounds that “In our environment, other species also live. Is the result of our reorchestrating really pleasant for them? Why in the world do only human beings have the right to “design” the world?”

The problem with Murray Schafer’s “anthropocentric utilitarianism”, Higashiguchi continues, is grounded in the very concept of “environment”, which presumes a model of aesthetic perception that places man at the centre. A new aesthetics of nature, he suggests, would result from an impulse not to control nature, but to imitate nature in order to become part of it: “The feeling of being peripheral rouses an impulse to find our own significance in our connections with others.”

But “imitation” is never that straightforward. One of the most popularly talked about recent CDs of straightforward nature recordings is the British Library’s Bird Mimicry collection (listen to a sample here. Of course this CD has a huge novelty value (the prize talking budgie with a thick Geordie accent is a cracker, as is the blackbird imitating a computer modem). But isn’t it interesting that the kind of nature recordings that capture the human attention are ones that show nature to be a better mimic, and as good an artificer, as ourselves?

Sticking with Yutaka Higashiguchi’s argument: stylised wildlife recordings produced for the purpose of causing “tranquility” and “restfulness” in their listeners (Songs of the Humpback Whale and things of that sort) belong to the aesthetics of the environment; Chris Watson‘s field recordings belong to the aesthetics of nature. Watson began his career as the third member of Cabaret Voltaire, and now works as a freelance sound recordist, contributing (amongst other things) to BBC wildlife programmes. His recordings magnify the aggressive and visceral in nature, or nature unbeautified — none more so than his opportunistic recording of vultures tearing the flesh from a zebra carcass, to which Watson had attached contact mics whilst the vultures were beginning to circle overhead. Evidently not all bird sounds are made in order to beautify humankind’s environment.

Mira Calix also featured on tonight’s Signal show. I remember reading slightly unfair criticisms of Calix’s sound installation for the Barbican Gallery, Le Jardin d’Barbican, in which her friendly ambient electronica was mixed with the sound of crickets and other insects. One such criticism came from Watson himself, who claimed that he’d have preferred to listen to the insects unaccompanied, and clearly saw Calix’s electronic sounds as a part of humankind’s presumptious wish to redesign nature — but this kind of criticism raises a whole other set of questions: why is accompanying nature not acceptable, when imitating nature is? When is a recording ever a “true” recording? When we delight in nature’s ability to mock and mimic, wouldn’t we do well to compliment this with examples of our own artfulness? David Dunn, whose record Why Do Whales and Children Sing? is aptly-titled, seems to occupy a suitable space inbetween.

Last summer, armed with Bernie Krause’s fun and user-friendly guide to making nature recordings, Wild Soundscapes, I set out with my recorder. Bernie Krause is responsible for a CD called Gorillas in the Mix, so I felt I could trust him. I was trying to find nature in two mostly urban environments, so animal exotica was not readily available. At last, at least, I did manage to capture the sound of horses eating grass. They’re just about audible towards the end of this over-edited collage of field recordings, Toronto’s Much the Same as Bradford. It’s my own mutant field recording. Oh, and happy birthday, R. Murray Schafer!

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