Out Standing in Their Fields
Of all my many musical obsessions, the one I have the most trouble explaining — let alone defending — is my love for unadulterated field recordings. That’s probably because they’re not music at all, in the traditional sense; they are not composed, they are not performed, they are not even subject to the most basic elements of musical structure. It is only because they are framed — that is to say, that they are regarded in a particular way by a human mind and subjected to an arbitrary boundary — that they are to be considered music at all. That, after all, is my definition of ‘art’: anything that someone puts in a frame and presents as such.
Field recordings, especially the unadulterated, un-manipulated kind that I prefer, are an especially thorny problem in that regard. Are they music? I would say no. Are they art? I would say yes, but only if you consider nature to be art if it is presented in a frame, as a photograph of a forest or the sea might be considered art. With most pure field recordings, the only manipulation is the choice of where to begin and end the selection, but that alone, that recognition of the qualities that elevate one particular sound over another, is evidence enough of the application of human agency on nature that makes for art by my lights. The sounds being recorded need not be naturally occurring; many are produced by human behavior or human artifacts. But (with some exceptions, which I’ll deal with below) they must not be arranged; they must be recordings of the sounds that would exist even without anyone placing them in the frame.
One question that arises is how one can listen for pleasure to something that is not created or composed. I don’t quite follow this line of argument. First, is it not possible to be soothed or comforted by the song of a bird or the lapping of waters without a guiding hand to manipulate and steer it? Second, even music — controlled and organized sound — can be listened to for pleasure while still being harsh, atonal, unpredictable, or, well, pleasant. We currently live, thanks to technological developments in computers and the capacity, portability, and affordability of sound recording equipment, in a golden age of field recording; new stuff seems to appear every day that would have been impossible to even imagine before, recordings of living things and natural processes that we could only have dreamed about. It is almost impossible to describe the appeal of this sort of thing as ‘music’, but I’ve found that many people, once they finally hear it, get it on the same almost subliminal level that I do.
So here — with the usual caveats that this list is not exhaustive, that it is not the ‘best’ of anything, that is is merely a selection of my favorites from a surprisingly crowded field — are my picks for 15 great albums of (mostly) unadulterated field recordings. Enjoy!
(Note: I had originally planned to include tracks from each recording, but many were released as single track and it was troublesome to break them down into individual mp3s without losing the original flavor of the recording. Also, these are all works by artists who will never, ever be wealthy and famous for their work, and deserve as much support as you can give them; most of the recordings mentioned can be purchased on the artist’s websites, or via the invaluable Aquarius Records.)
1. Sandra Cross, The MMs Bar Recordings (Trunk Records, 2008). Stuck on a lengthly commute every day for two years, Sandra Cross began recording the announcers on her daily train trip to and from London announcing delays, instructions, and most of all, the bill of fare at the snack bar. The constant reiteration of humble dining options, delivered by different announcers over a Tannoy that cuts in and out at mysterious intervals, is downright hypnotic, especially when combined with the soothing rhythms of the train and the bustling conversations of commuters, revelers, match-goers and the like.
2. Patrick Farmer, Aeolian Tree Recordings (Compost and Height, 2008). Australian sound artist Patrick Farmer traveled to England and Scotland to make these fascinating recordings of wind whipping through open-field vegetation: a gorse bush, an oak tree, and a pine tree. The wind is so present and immediate that it washes over you more like water than like air, and the complex interaction of the currents with the leaves, branches and knobs produces a mechanical clicking that almost seems like Morse code. Nothing like a soothing, mellow ‘nature sounds’ track, this is a challenging and strange slice of the raw empty world.
3. Bill Fontana, Field Recordings of Natural Sound (Sierra Club, 1983). One of the first and still the best of the modern era of natural field recordings, this finds naturalist Fontana as far out as southern Australia and as near to home as the northern California coasts. His recordings of water smashing on rocky coasts, birds pecking and feeding and burbling, and unidentified howls and scratchings have horror-movie immediacy combined with the thrilling authenticity of a well-filmed documentary. This isn’t the next best thing to being there — this is being there completely, at the right place and the right time, only amplified.
4. Doug Haire, Nineteen American Waysides (Anomalous Records, 2002). Probably the best-known item on this list is also the most compelling — and the one that most tests the idea of an unplanned, undesigned field recording. Haire traveled the country, stopping sporadically at freeway rest stops, where he would set up an ancient Victrola record player and record from a distance its scratchy, ethereal sound, which combined with the sound of birds, insects, stray dogs, and passing cars and trucks to create a soundscape that is mysterious, phantasmal, and unmistakably real. It’s also compulsively re-listenable and inspiring.
5. Jean-Luc Hérelle, Pastoral Bells (Sitelle, 1996). Many great field recording artists came out of France in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Pastoral Bells is one of the best early works of that period. Hérelle traveled throughout France, Spain, Switzerland and Italy recording herds of belled animals — sheep, goats, and cattle — and transformed those recordings into this wonderful album. The combination of the natural sounds of the animals and the environment, including storms and wind and sea, and the human noise of the bells, jostled by the animals at various tempos, make for a perfect sonic combination.
6. Ernst Karel, Swiss Mountain Transport Systems (And/OAR Records, 2011). Karel, currently a visiting professor at Harvard, recently returned home to make these oddly fascinating field recordings of the various mechanical means humans use to travel through the otherwise impassable alps. Ski lifts, tram cars, escalators, funicular rail, and other assorted contrivances bounce wildly from long, impenetrable silences to ringing, clanging mechanicals noises as doors slam closed, alarms beep frantically and engines shudder and groan under the weight of their human burden. Strangely compelling and diverse.
7. Eric La Casa, Air.Ratio (Sirr Records, 2006). La Casa, it may be argued, is the current king of the field recording racket, and this is some kind of deranged masterpiece for the man. He wandered around Paris, infiltrating restrooms and storage closets in humble restaurants and grand public buildings, and recorded the rumblings, clatterings and howlings of their air conditioning vents. The sounds are surprising — the flow of cool air is entirely overwhelmed by roaring mechanical hums and clanks — and it provides an interesting perspective on how we achieve artificial comfort by means of constant technological struggle.
8. Terence Lloren, Sounds of Shanghai (Bivouac Records, 2009). Urban soundscapes have an obvious appeal, even to people who can hear them just by opening up their windows, but few achieve the sublimity of Sounds of Shanghai. Recorded over a long period in the Chinese city, its success comes from the felicitous combination of natural grace (recorded in open areas at early and late times of day) and civilized bustle, the likes of which can only be heard in one of the biggest cities in the most populous country in the world. Until you listen for yourself, it’s impossible to imagine the sounds Lloren manages to capture so cleanly.
9. Paysages Industriels, MZ-N710 (Green Field Recordings, 2010). Another collection of train recordings. This one gains its strength from the amazing diversity of sound: modern stations with electronic voices reciting schedules are heard under the ghostly scream of echoing whistles and air brakes; state-of-the-art high-speed rail cars glide along on cushions of hissing energy, while in the countryside, old trains based on pre-war design clatter along, chugging and puffing like something out of a children’s story. Alternately archaic and futuristic, and never letting you nod off with prolonged silences, this one is a real surprise.
10. Gabriel Piller, Battery (Not On Records, 2011). One of the most eerie, evocative recordings on this list, this one is a must-own for fans of the genre. As did England, Canada constructed a number of seaside artillery bunkers during the Second World War to protect against a possible invasion by sea from Germany; Piller brought his equipment into these long-abandoned 70-year-old structures and let them run. The result is a masterpiece of tacit silence, distant boots on gravel, wind playing with long-dried leaves, and rain falling on concrete, all filtered by the echo of a massive structure sitting just underground.
11. Manu Holterbach, Aare am Marzilibad (Erewhon Records, 2006). A member of the young bucks of the French field recording scene, Holterbach came up with an intriguing twist on the message-in-a-bottle routine: he sealed a contact microphone inside a bottle, sealed it, and dropped it into a Swiss river to drift. The result is a fascinating and subtle range of sounds: the water moving against the glass, alternative low and shrill; the banging of the bottle against rocks and gravel; the slow sense of movement and drift. This one’s especially interesting the louder you crank it, as a range of otherwise imperceptible sounds come into play.
12. The Quiet American, Plumbing and Irrigation of South Asia (self-released, 2003). For me, no one in the business of field recording, whether pure or treated, does work as consistently interesting as Aaron Ximm, a.k.a. the Quiet American. He travels the world making hypnotic audio documentaries; this one is just what the title indicates: riveting mini-soundscapes of water moving quietly and thunderously through man-made contrivances. His stuff is plenty expensive, but it’s worth it.
13. Douglas Quin, Fathom (Taiga Records, 2010). A much-discussed masterpiece of recording technology, Fathom has done much to add to Quin’s already stellar reputation. These are a set of four recordings of underwater sound, made with microphones located beneath the ice in the Arctic and the Antarctic; the massive omnipresence of water even manages to fade into insignificance as the titanic crackling and straining of vast slabs of ice — driven to head-bursting levels of noise on a good pair of headphones turned up loud — dominates the aural spectrum. Pinging sounds, bubbling water, and inexplicable thrums add to the alien atmosphere.
14. Craig Vear, SK (Experimedia, 2012). Thanks to its abundance of natural terrain, Scotland is second only to France as a favorite subject for field recordings. Here, sonic experimenter Craig Vear takes his microphones out to the River Esk in fall to record its widely varied landscape of sounds. This one is quite subtle compared to some of the others on the list, and definitely bears turning up to hear the variety of water, animal and insect sounds that permeate it; it’s one of the few that can actually count as mood music, though it’s still far more complex and surprising than anything you’ll find at a greeting card kiosk.
15. Simon Whetham, Mall Muzak (Unfathomless Records, 2011). Imagine George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead after the humans have all been consumed, the zombies have wandered off in search of fresher kills, and the mall has been abandoned to nature, and you have a pretty good picture of the great Simon Whetham’s Mall Muzak. Recorded in storage closets, empty hallways and closed storefronts of an urban mall, its sounds of derelict mechanisms and consumerism gone to seed are deeply disturbing.