In the Field

These are giddy times.

After “In the Field”, I packed my backs for Leuven, where I worked with Peter Cusack and Pascal Amphoux to co-lead a soundwalk. I also gave a forty minute long presentation exploring the idea of linking The Domestic Soundscape with the context of urban life and the soundscape of the city. Both of these activities were part of the ARTEFACT festival, and I am really grateful to Q-O2 in Brussels for inviting me.

I arrived home yesterday to immediately commence on organising my Sonic Wallpapers installation for Audiograft, and the last few elements of the HEARth programme produced jointly by myself with Stavroula Kounadea.

I will try now to give you a few glimpses and impressions from the past week, starting with “In the Field”, which was really superb, and which I feel very proud and glad to have been a part of.

Presenting my work was nerve-wracking, but I was delighted that on Twitter and at the event itself, a few people picked up on some really important points; 1. I think we need to really think carefully about how we present sounds to audiences and to question the primacy of the Concert and 2. Not having the best kit in the world shouldn’t prevent anyone from participating in field-recording activities. I am glad that these ideas came across from my talk and am grateful to all who listened and took the time to talk with me afterwards or give feedback, and especially for the thoughtful commentary provided here by La Cosa Preziosa.

In terms of other people’s work, highlights for me included Zoe Irvine playing us selections from her “Magnetic Migrations Music” archive, Udo Noll speaking to us via a live stream from Berlin, Claudia Wegener talking about the challenges of working with communities and field-recording on the African continent, Peter Cusack describing the detailed information we can gather about a place from really listening to it, Christina Kubisch exploring the electromagnetic waves which fill our cities as the quantity of electronic technology in urban space proliferates, and of course Chris Watson sharing chilling and funny stories of recording snakes and hyenas. It was brilliant also to learn of the craft and patience behind Simon Elliott’s field-recording activities, and to hear his closely-mic’d recordings of peregrines, kittiwakes and ospreys. The diffusion concert curated by Cheryl Tipp exploring “treasures of the British Library” gave a very rich overview of how sound can convey everything from important political moments, (Nelson Mandela’s pre-incarceration speech) to historic personalities, (Rosita Forbes) to the last utterances of a now extinct species, (the calls of the last, lone Kauaʻi ʻŌʻō male bird, recorded 1981) and to the horrors of war (I think everyone felt the impact of Anita Lasker Wallfisch’s powerful testimony to the horrors of playing in the Birkenau concentration camp orchestra during WWII). I also really enjoyed Mark Peter Wright’s selection of sounds; I have an image in my mind forever burned now of the sound of electromagnetic waves from the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, and the sound of a bird mimicking building works.

Zoe Irvine talked about rescuing old, discarded cassette tape, and then reintroducing that material back into the place where it had been found. I loved her presentation with its photos of tape fluttering in trees and fences beside roads, and when she played the repaired cassettes back to us, explaining where each one had been found, there was something reminiscent of the “visible mend” in the work. I also really agreed with what she had to say about presenting this work to audiences; she described how in the end she decided that for gallery shows, the best thing to do was to set up re-spooling labs where people could experience for themselves the materiality of old, abandoned tape and the joys of repairing it, firsthand. Genius.

Udo Noll runs a fantastic website called Aporee on which many field recordings are geo-tagged to the places where they were originally heard and recorded. Lately Udo has been experimenting with a project called “Miniatures for Mobiles” which allows you to hear all the recordings geo-tagged to your location as you walk through it… I believe you can also record pieces for the map, so that it is a constantly evolving resource, which listeners can enhance through creating and uploading their own field-recordings. Udo spoke about his uncertainty about using the Internet and mobile ‘phones as devices for disseminating field-recordings to audiences, but then conceded that since this technology is so omnipresent in our times, as artists perhaps we should seize it for creative ends, to produce experiences different to the never-ending onslaught of commercially-driven digital content. A true labour of love, Udo’s Aporee soundmap and also the Miniatures for Mobiles create possibilities for wonderful chance encounters with the sonic histories of places. In his talk, Udo gave a lovely example of this, describing how using the app and taking a walk down a particular street that he knows allows him to hear a thunderstorm from several summers ago; the sound of a lone Blackbird male who sang in a tree there one winter; and the noise of a little cricket who once lived in a flowerpot beside the street.

Claudia Wegener had some really important points to make about working as a sound artist in developing countries, and gave a global perspective on the Internet and digital recording technology which we take so for granted in the Western world. She talked passionately about her work with communities in the African continent, and about the potential for using radio-making techniques to preserve and celebrate the oral histories particular to some of the African communities she has worked with. Her descriptions of women in Africa bursting into song, recording and hearing each other, and using radio to record their stories were beautiful to hear, and she had a lot to say about the sonic qualities of the voice as a conveyor of meaning, as well as language-as-content in radio, which really resonates with my own experiences of recording people and the textures of daily conversations. You can hear and see some of Claudia’s work in Africa here and her “Radio bag” post is brilliantly pragmatic.

For me a great balance was struck in the programming of “In the Field” between exploring the technological history and craft of recording sounds from the environment, and how phonography is being applied by scientists, researchers, artists and makers to explore meanings and concepts. Angus Carlyle and Cathy Lane have done a superb job of summarising this much more elegantly than I have here in the introduction to “In the Field” – the book launched in conjunction with the symposium. They write;

This book provides evidence for the sense that these technical and creative developments need always to be considered in the context of a conceptual or philosophical frame. For field recording, how the field is defined is at least as important as how the recording in itself has been accomplished.

I am very happy to be included in this consideration of the relationships between meaning and sounds and I think that the “In the Field” symposium did an important job in introducing many of the diverse conceptual and philosophical frameworks being created around practices of listening, recording, thinking, and making. I welcome all the exchange and dialogue that arose informally after and during the conference, and I hope that there will be more to come as the ideas settle and we all collect our thoughts on the mass of inspiring ideas shared both at the symposium and in the book.



4 Responses to In the Field

  1. Pingback: In the Field. Symposium at the British Library, London (Day 1) | Sonic Agents

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