Uses and Abuses of Phonography

If any of you watched COAST‘s London to Antwerp episode, you will have seen the reality-on-steroids approach which the production team have adopted. I admit to having been swept up momentarily in the driving beats, the sweeping £££££££s camera-shots of the coastline and the almost-puking-with-enthusiasm-for-the-joy-of-it-all presenter style in the opening sequences which sped along from central London to the Thames estuary at breakneck pace, but the introduction of Bjork’s “Play Dead” a little later on in the show jerked me rudely back into reality. I have an image of Björk stamping along the beach in a 1990s documentary, clutching an eight-track recorder and talking about the sound she was going for when she was producing “Homogenic,” and I just can’t see how it works to mix her (highly specific) sounds randomly with location footage from the British Coastline. “Play Dead” was actually on Debut, but I still feel there is something so specifically Icelandic about Björk, that her sound is totally incongruent with COAST’s London – Antwerp subject matter. The same could be said of many hundreds of choices that are made about music in documentaries about places; I am sure afficionados of the Boards of Canada back-catalogue are often piqued to hear their wonky electronic ambient sound shoehorned into documentaries to add “interest,” even though there is no obvious relationship between the music of Boards of Canada and the subject matter (or places) being investigated.

I enjoy watching COAST, but I really question how much more could be learnt about places or explored if the BBC were not so enslaved to ratings and so desperate to hook audiences that they must reduce all contemplations of place to sweeping boom shots and a continuous stream of any-old-music underneath the talking, to grab our attention. Luckily, when it comes to the Thames estuary, I have some other reference points.

I remember, for instance, reading Colleen’s sparse, atmospheric posts on Canvey Island and the Thames estuary, and listening to Ian Rawes’ sound recordings from that area (particularly the eerie Coryton refinery siren and the shore on the Isle of Grain recording.) Thinking of Colleen’s thoughtful descriptions and Ian’s recordings, I found myself thinking that COAST could learn a bit about giving time and space to the contemplation of places, rather than dragging us from one destination to the next via jazz-hands camera shots and gratuitous, never-ending, fast-paced beats.

I decided to address my concerns about the use of sound in documentaries about places in a short talk yesterday, which I was invited to give at LCC in an event exploring the “Uses and Abuses of Field Recording.” The talks took the Pecha Kucha format, so everyone who was presenting had 20 images, and 20 seconds per image to speak. This made the presentations 7 minutes long, and then we were each allocated 2 minutes in which to play sounds. It was an excellent way to learn about lots of different ideas in manageable-sized-chunks, (there were 9 speakers all together) and I delivered a sort of manifesto about the enhanced role that sounds could play in documentaries which are about place.

1. One use for phonography that I feel is under-utilised, is its use in documentaries which feature specific places. Many such documentaries rely heavily on a combination of location footage and stock music to convey an atmosphere or a sense of place.

2. No such documentary maker would ever dream of using stock imagery to do this; we would feel scandalised to see stock images of trees – any trees – and hear the accompanying words “there are many trees in Reading. And they basically look like this.”

3. If I am telling you about a tree, you want to see the specific tree I mean; you want to know, for instance, that this is a mulberry tree. It grows in the Forbury Gardens near Reading train station, and its berries – which may be freely harvested around September – make a very fine jam.

4. Yet when it comes to sound and the sound in such documentaries, many shortcuts – like the analogy of the stock tree image – are often taken… or, at least, the specific sounds of places are not allowed to describe such places to us in the same way that specific images do.

5. For instance, in a certain documentary about Shetland, we learn about “the Simmer Dim*.” This is a specific point in the Shetland year when – at midsummer – there are 19 hours of daylight, plus five hours or so of surreal twilight. These very long summer days are specific to the geography of Shetland; they are part of what makes that place unique. The Simmer Dim conveys something about the proximity of Shetland to the Arctic Circle.

6. In this section of the documentary, the narrator’s voice dominates; explaining the magic and the beauty of this long, ever-light Simmer Dim, and in the background, quite faintly, we hear the birds which he eulogises. The segment is bracketed by music.

7. In another documentary – this one about the impact of the Westway Motorway through London in 1970 – we hear a montage of television and radio interviews with the residents who will be affected by the new motorway. One man describes the sound of the road and the impact it will have on children in the neighbourhood.

8. The montage is back dropped by very low-level sounds of traffic, and an appropriate folk song featuring the phrase “they’re going to build a motorway through my back garden” but the actual sound of the motorway roaring is never allowed to truly assert itself.

9. When I watch such programmes, I feel frustrated by the lack of specificity in the sounds; I feel as though a level of learning about the places and situations being described is not occurring. I feel more accurate impressions of places could be facilitated through certain ways of working with phonography…

10. How much better would I understand the magic of the Simmer Dim in Shetland if I were able to hear it by itself for a few moments more? If I were able to listen to the birds being described for myself, loudly, as I listened to the birds in Oxfordshire last year when I walked through the night to hear the dawn chorus there?

11. …and how much more visceral the issue of roads becomes when the roads can be heard… when their noise is foregrounded and highlighted at its actual volume rather than relegated to the background? I felt the full sonic force of the M4 when I walked to the newly refurbished Junction 10 with my partner, and we had to shout to hear each other speaking.

12. I live in Reading, in Berkshire. Reading is notable for its Victorian brickworks, its proximity to London, and its intricate network of canals and rivers. But I propose that the atmosphere of this place – like all places – can never be revealed through such generalities.

13. Reading reveals itself through specific details. I patrol its streets and I know from my habitual forays, that the bell-ringing practice at St Giles Church on Southampton Street takes place on Thursday evenings. I know there is an enthusiastic banana-seller who plies his wares on Saturdays, in the market.

14. I know that in the only family-owned department store in Reading, there is a pneumatic tube system in place. This means when you pay for your goods, your money is placed into a metal tube, and tucked into a large metal box. A vacuum pump takes it somewhere to be dealt with, and you must wait a few beats before it returns, with a thud, and your change.

15. I know that walking down Broad Street, the loudspeaker placed above a fast-food outlet will entice you to buy lovely hot donuts, nice and fresh, and I know the blues guitar style of the man who busks near St Mary’s Church.

16. I know there is a stretch of horse chestnut trees planted beside the river Thames, and that in Autumn, the air there rings with the dull thuds of conkers falling onto riverboats. If you walk along the canal, out of town, towards the Thames, you will see swans and hear the cooing of pigeons and the paddling of waterfowl, and people will be there at all hours of the day and night with bread and rice to feed them.

17. I shudder to think of what a time-pressed team of documentary-makers would produce by way of a soundtrack to their engagement with Reading. Perhaps some fast-paced stock music, accompanying crowds of busy shoppers on Broad Street; or some nostalgic piano tracks as we pan old photos featuring scenes of the Kennet and Avon Canal, whilst a presenter noisily reminisces on its Industrial past.

18. But wouldn’t it be better if we could hear the bells, the banana-seller, the 1960s pneumatic change tubes in Jacksons, the donut selling announcement on Broad Street, the busker, the gentle patter of conkers falling, and the swans, pigeons and geese who gather at the point where the River Kennet meets the River Thames?

19. The reason I know of these things is not because I am a sound artist here, but because I am a resident here. My habits bring me into contact with the sounds of my town. It is harder to find the specificities in places where I am a tourist. All I remember from Miami is the different way that wind sounds in palm trees, and the slow purring of our hotel lift. This is the problem that documentary-makers – sent to places with which they have no habitual contact – face.

20. I therefore propose that we assist all documentary makers by establishing an International League for the Sharing of Local Phonographic Knowledge. Such a League* would allow for residents of any place in the world to document and detail their local sounds. Specific knowledge formed through intimacy and contact with places would be housed by the League and by consulting it, documentary-makers could discover where and what sounds to record, and not only where and what scenes to film.

Ford-Felicity-Pecha-Kucha-2-mins by FelicityVFord

Fortuitously, just before my talk, Peter Cusack – one of the most established field-recording-based art practitioners in the UK – talked about the Thames estuary with which I began this ranty post. His was a very sparse talk. 20 photographs taken of the collapsed World War 2 Mulberry Harbour at Shoeburyness were accompanied by Cusack’s recollection of an afternoon spent wading out towards that wreck at very low tide. Cusack described experiencing the frisson of anticipating the impending return of the waters, and gave us a very personal eyewitness account of the environmental changes taking place in the estuary. In COAST the boat that is dredging the bottom of the estuary is filmed from above as a sort of land-engineering spectacle, evidencing the changing face of the coastline. In Cusack’s talk, it was discussed in more ambivalent terms. Cusack shared his fears for the wildlife of the estuary with us, and described a little of the ecological impact of dredging. He also talked about the oil industry in the area, and then he played us two minutes of sounds… the wind; the Arctic Skewers; the Terns and Seagulls; the whirr of oil-refineries in the background; the ebb and flow of the waters in the little trenches left behind once the sea has receded; the low-level drones of industry and tugs in the area. It was an excellent talk and in it, Cusack called for the development of “Sonic Journalism,” where sounds are given more space and time to tell the story of what is happening in the world.

I think my proposed League and Cusack’s concept of “Sonic Journalism” are not so very far apart; but where his project is more concerned with the role that sound has in telling the truth, I am more concerned with how using more local sounds in documentaries about places could A. end the scourge of background music in documentaries about places and B. help to evoke the specificities of places which are best revealed not through expensive teams of shipped-in/shipped-out TV producers, but through the habitual forrays that are made into such places by the people who live near or in them, and who love them.

I therefore propose that if the League for the Sharing of Local Phonographic Knowledge is ever established, honorary memberships should immediately be extended to Peter Cusack and Ian Rawes for their recordings, and to Colleen Bowen, for services rendered to representing her beloved locale in rich, multisensory, never OTT terms.

The COAST producers will have to lose their jazzhands and clown shoes first.

Thank you to everyone at LCC yesterday; it was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon of talks. As well as Cusack’s talk, I particularly enjoyed Mark Peter Wright’s beautiful presentation. Wright showed us 20 images, all taken in certain places, the sounds of which Wright described in crisp detail. Each combination of sound/image related to the moment just before recording a sound, and at the end of his talk, Wright played us his recordings. I loved his sounds, and the way that his talk led us into the world of the recordist and the private thoughts which accompany listening and making field-recordings. I also loved Michael Gallagher’s interesting discussion on the perfomative nature of field recording. Joyously, Matthew Ansom approached me after my talk to tell me about Nick Sellen’s work with the sounds of Reading.

The event in general was excellent for flagging up many of the issues which surround phonography, and I was very happy to be invited to take part.

*I had incorrectly termed this “Summer Din” in my talk but – as Martin Clarke who grew up in Shetland was present at the talk – I was happily corrected. Which just proves the value of local knowledge when we are trying to encounter the particularities of places.

11 Responses to Uses and Abuses of Phonography

  1. tinebeest says:

    Thank you! that was very interesting.

    My brother collected a lot of production library music LPs. It is really good music, worth listening to and crafted with love. While I am sure it has been abused in exactly the manner you talk about here, it has made me listen to music in documentary features a lot more carefully. All I noticed was a lot of modern popular music being used in the background, these days (or horrible strings), as if the noise of anything but the words of the narration/interviewee is not much of a concern to the producers. Horror vacui? Afraid that people might start thinking (and switch off the program) if we don’t pump their ears full of sounds all the time?

    I wish we could have a chat about this over a pint in the Royal Oak! I certainly will be listening with even more attention to the soundtrack…

  2. james wyness says:

    enjoyed reading that very much Felicity – at last somebody taking time to unpick the (ab)uses of sound in the established documentary.

    You should try Radio Scotland – ‘and here we are on a beach – cue – gentle whooshy sounds of water on sand – ah! so that’s what a beach sounds like – no guesses what happens when helicopter’s get mentioned, etc. etc.

    imo I think you’ve pointed up just how indolent they are – it’s just too much work to get the sound bits right – but then maybe that’s best left to the likes of us……

    james

  3. That was pretty special to be able to address LCC and “deliver)ed) a sort of manifesto about the enhanced role that sounds could play in documentaries which are about place”…I loved reading all about it and your presentation.

    I never even heard the term “stock sound” as in stock images…shows I need some enlightenment.

    on point 15 about the church and what you hear when walking down Broad Street, it made me think of places that have their own particular sounds…what a concept!

    Those documentary makers NEED YOU!!!

  4. Caro says:

    Great post. Love this idea of 20 seconds per image! And your anger at stock sounds! Go Flix!

  5. Great article – it needs to be said!

    Have you had a chance to cast an ear over ‘Filey Promenade’ yet?
    best wishes. D

  6. colleen says:

    Felix – Thank you so much for your kind words and reminder of my days out at Canvey and Grain. I would be deeply honoured indeed to be a member of the League for the Sharing of Local Phonographic Knowledge. I had to go away and pull up a bit of Coast on the i-player and found it impossible to watch for the interference, so I’m all for your concept of local sounds. So the sooner the League sets off the better.

    Very impressed with the application of the Pecha Kucha format and the precision it gives to the expression of thoughts and images.

  7. 2BiT says:

    When creating a work (documentary, album, painting, whatever) is it always necessary to embed absolutely ‘truthful’ representation of that you seek to portray?

    Audio cues are often used (and yes, abused) as shorthand to the mood or point the author is trying to make. If the stock sound of waves is enough to create the sense of place (the beach) can that not be enough?

    C.F. the trend for many electronic music producers to add vinyl crackle to their synthesised beats to create ‘mood’ (Burial I’m looking at you here). Should they _only_ release on pre-distressed vinyl? Or cut direct to disc and then digitise their mp3s from there?
    Some artifice is essential in the creation of art.

    Your (our) work as a sonic expert necessarily distorts y/our perception of sound, it’s importance and it’s prominence to the lay person. There’s probably a lot more stock footage in the documentaries you watch than you might suspect!

    Anyway, nice post, great pictures of random trees, tasty looking jam…oh and HI! 😀

    • 2BiT – thank you for your comments. I absolutely agree with you that all documentaries are an artifice to a degree. Reality must pass through the lens of the documentary-maker’s mind in order for any documentary to be made, and this transition – this parsing of place, atmosphere, location, knowledge, local lore etc. – through the maker’s imagination (and prejudices) will of course mean that it gets elaborated on; embroidered; and fictionalised to a degree. I would readily admit that all of my own work with sound is an elaboration on reality, rather than an absolutely “truthful” representation.

      However the issue I have with documentary makers and locational sound recordings is that I think there are many more interesting ways of working with the everyday sounds of the world than merely tucking them down to a nice low level in the background and slathering Aphex Twin over the top. I love Aphex Twin (and Boards of Canada for that matter) but a culture of sharing and cultivating local phonographic lore might lead to more interesting and interconnected ways of describing places than the current reality-on-steroids approach taken by most production companies.

      In my experience the so-called “lay person” loves their sounds every bit as much as the phonographer! The difference is that we – with the equipment and learned skills required – are in a position to collect them. I think many assumptions are made about what people want to listen to, and I wonder if the BBC have ever conducted a survey to see whether or not people prefer music to well-recorded location sounds in documentaries about places?

      The jam was tasty, btw. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. 2BiT says:

    Absolutely sound is important to the ‘lay person’, but _most_ people only notice it if it’s very bad, wrong or clashing with the on-screen imagery. You need only look at the proliferation of low-bitrate mp3’s as justification here, convenience over quality. People will spend a fortune on massive HD LCD displays yet the speakers end up on a shelf side by side, or under the sofa etc., assuming they _have_ speakers commensurate with their vid-display at all!

    The intangible and subjective nature of sound makes it very difficult to quantify (even for the ‘experts’!) and terms such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘warm’, ‘phat’ etc. tend to refer towards an internal yardstick that differs from person to person.

    How would you propose to control ‘abuses’ of your ILSLPK…to prevent it from becoming a sound library to be dipped into the next time the producers of Coast need some seaside ambiance? They’re unlikely to care whether it comes from Cornwall or Speyside as long as there’s some waves crashing and a seagull or two in the background…

    I do get your point, and agree that it would be nice (sometimes). But I don’t really see it being much of a priority for someone trying to finish the sound mix for a mainstream TV documentary (and still leave time to get to the pub before closing).

    I guess your proposal reminds me more of ‘geotagging’, locking content to a specific place, or in this case locking the content OF a specific place. I’m seeing some sort of interactive map with sounds embedded at specific locations as contributed by League members…
    And of course someone’s been there, done that:


    looks like you’re not alone! 🙂

  9. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Archive » Tuned City #1

  10. Austin says:

    Does anyone know the name of the electronic-sounding music that was played in the London-to-Antwerp episode of Coast, during the segment discussing brick-making? It sounded vaguely similar to the opening to ‘O Superman’ by Laurie Anderson.

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