Thursday, 25 October 2012

article on field recording in the Latvian magazine VETO - that's me on the right (photo by Carina Martins)

below is the original interview from which part of this article was taken:

1. What do you understand by 'field recording' (FR) and what kind of
FR you are working with? What is the purpose of making such recordings
personally for you and how do you use them? How did you get into this
stuff and why do you find it fascinating (if you find it at all)?

JrF: wow, thats a big question to start with ! I think the understanding of ‘field recording’ is fluid. What the ‘field’ is & how much intervention into the process are things in constant flux. For me it is simply the act of recording outside of a studio / controlled environment - which is I guess the ‘standard’ definition.  I tend to work a lot with contact microphones, hydrophones, coils & other types of unconventional recording devices, though I do use ambient microphones too. I’m interested in close & durational listening, recording only when it feels right. 

I began at the age of 12 when my mum bought me a portable cassette recorder & since then i’ve never really tired of listening. It’s partly because the sounds around us are, to different degrees, outside of our control & therefore every moment is part of a constantly evolving ‘music’ or sound world.

2. What should be the relationship between the subject (recorder) and
the object which is recorded? Should interaction between both be
limited as much as possible, or it's not really your concern? Do you
mind having a 'staged recording' - in which a sound is produced
intentionally by using certain objects - or you prefer the natural
course of action without recorder's intervention?

JrF: I think these questions are very individual & its for each person to choose. Personally my own approach is varied - in a natural setting I will be as subtle as possible & enjoy the act of listening without intervening - being as inconspicuous as possible. At other times, especially in urban locations, I am ok with being present in the recording itself (for example, the sounds of myself walking or moving objects). What matters most is that the recordings that ‘work’ are the ones that capture moments, moments of being in a place at a certain time. To clarify; a ‘moment’ is a word with qualities other than just a technical description of a time frame.

3. Normally all recordings require some editing and post-production
but how important it is for you to keep the sound as authentic and
close to the source as possible?

JrF: I have to disagree with this statement. It is only because we are so used to hearing processed sound in every day life that such techniques are often used. I don’t do any processing except to decide on the duration of a recording & perhaps sometimes (but not always) to remove a problem if one occurs during the recording (such as a mic pop or crackle due to humidity). I’m fascinated by the sounds as they are. I also don’t use limiters or any form of compression / normalisation. It’s the first thing to really begin a deeper relationship with listening - to remove all of those filters. Our ears are intelligent things, they can tell if a sound has been processed or if a recording of a natural environment has been made with limiters on for example. 

4. Once a sound is recorded and edited, how important would be keeping
the link between the final sound and its original source? Do you think
it has a kind of symbolic representation of the physical world (sound
as an idicative sign pointing to its source) or it shouldn't really
matter, as it's a pure abstraction (according to Schaeffer, in
'reduced listening' the listener percieves the sound as a separate
object without trying to identify it with any other thing)?

JrF: hmmm, this is a slightly tricky question for me to answer as I don’t always feel comfortable with the emphasis on theory in these areas. We all have our own ways of working & have formed different routes though our activities but I am sometimes aware that always making these things public is not ideal. What I will say is that enjoying the act of listening, of recording & then of re-listening to the results is essential. Beyond that the questions of the link between the source & the recording are secondary. My own work does comment significantly on the actuality of the place or object recorded & more so on the emotive experiences involved.

5. Do you find natural/environmental sounds musical, and can they be
used for musical purposes? Do you make any musical compositions with
using such sounds?

JrF: it’s an often discussed question: is it sound or is it music ? for me the simple answer is that ‘sound’ is a science but we listen & hear with our emotions, our senses too & so the term ‘music’ is relevant. I listen musically, but of course it is not composed in the way we understand that term. As to my feelings about making ‘music’ with environmental sounds then I think the quality of the creative vision involved is crucial of course. In my own work I often compose using field recordings but this has developed to be the simple & clear placing of single recordings within durational spaces & specific listening environments.

6. Does a field recording somehow represent the geographical place
where it's been obtained? To this regard, can such field-recorded
sounds give music an unique local character or some other unique
qualities? Don't you think, for example, the sound of rain, a
distantly barking dog or a street with heavy traffic sound all the
same no matter where recorded, or you disagree?

JrF: Field recordings are absolutely a representation of the place & every location & sound is different. Whether the listener is able to perceive those differences is more to do with how close the listening is & how able we are to overcome the limitations placed on the act of listening by the way our society has chosen to treat sound.

  1. How important role the spatial acoustics play in your recordings?

JrF: this too is a complex question in some ways. I record a lot in empty buildings & so the spatial acoustics are often the key feature, however, it is not always the focus to capture this in the most exact way (for example with 4, 6 or 8 microphones). It’s more important to me to capture something of my experience of being in these places. I am happy if I listen back later & find that I have captured something that speaks of the place & then, if the recording can communicate to other listeners it is a recording that I might share.

8. Why should one make an effort in recording his own sounds, if
nowadays there are so many sample banks available, including those
very professionally recorded and edited?

JrF: oh, this is an easy one to answer: because its a sheer joy ! re-engaging with listening, opening up ones ears adds so much to everyday life. On a more practical level, if your focus is a creative one, then to actually be involved in the entire process is, as far as i’m concerned, essential & will affect the outcome. Sample banks have their place in certain parts of the mainstream culture industry (film, tv, games etc) but there too there are changes, with more & more emphasis on original content. Audiences demand authenticity more & more - at least that is hopefully what is happening. In a music setting, sample banks are sometimes a sign of unclear musical vision & an unwillingness to be authentic, in my opinion, however lets say that there could well be a very small number of musicians who can use that particular medium to an interesting effect. I think, as with all aspects of technology, the problem is that tools like this can make the user believe in a skills set they actually don’t have. Perhaps for some people that doesn’t matter but i’ve always been more interested in musicians & artists who take time & don’t just buy skills in a package. Its more personal with time.

9. How important and enjoyable the process of searching sound sources
and recording is for you? Is it always an exciting adventure or more
like a profesisonal routine?

Jrf: always enjoyable, always an adventure. I wouldn’t do it otherwise. Of course, if one is working on a specific commission for example, then one has to be professional in how you approach the work BUT if you’re not enjoying it then whats the point ? Personally, I find this is one problem with some ‘sound art’ that involves field recording - there are interesting sounds but no sense of a personal enjoyment or empathy with the act of listening. 

10. Do you have any favorite recordings that you are proud of? Could
you tell about any extraordinary recording missions in which you have
taken part? Any interesting or funny cases in general?

JrF: so many ! The ones that mean the most are the ones with very specific memories - such as one of the fence wire recordings I made whilst on holiday with my daughter. 

To answer your question about extraordinary experience I would say that they are usually the ones in the most ‘normal’ of places. I think to always expect sensational or spectacular environments is to, partly, miss the point of listening. I have had extraordinary experiences sitting in buildings listening for several hours for example, or times when I have found a natural environment that seems to have a very particular ebb & flow of sounds.

11. What are the biggest challenges in getting recorded material in a
decent quality?

JrF: well, if you mean in terms of technical quality, then its down to all kinds of things: quality of the pre-amps, the choice microphone & position etc etc. However, what matters most is the content & that comes down, quite simply, to have good ears that are open & a sensibility that is engaged and fascinated.

12. Historically FR has always been highly dependent on the state of
technology, but still how crucial the high-quality equipment is?
Should field recordings be left exclusively to professionals, or it
should be still worth trying to record something on your own even if
you are an amateur with a rather low budget available? Is FR a purely
technical discipline or still there is room for creativity,
experimantation and imagination?

JrF: god help us if the only thing that matters is the equipment. I would say that the sign of a good field recordist is that they never think of themselves as an ‘expert’ or a professional. As I said earlier, every sound & every location is new & in permanent flux - anyone who believes they know everything that environments do or can offer has simply stopped listening. 

Budget is also not the important thing. Its better to start with cheaper equipment anyway - you tend to learn more & ones creative approach develops more when you’re working within & around limitations. I would say that successful field recording is perhaps 20% skill with the equipment (whatever you have) & 80% inspiration, creativity, luck & listening.

13. JRF: As far as I know, you are also working as a photographer. Do
both - FR and photography - have anything in common?

JrF: for me, personally, they are linked simply because both represent something of my exploration of where I am at a particular time. There is an old saying about radio: ‘radio is better than TV because the pictures are better’ & I think the same is true of photography over the moving image. You see more with a photograph & the imagination can be triggered to a much greater extent. With the moving image, one is given the ‘story’ & so you don’t have to use your imagination as much. Field recording too has these kinds of elements - they can represent a specific place very clearly, but somehow there is always space for one to enter the scene & to explore beyond the obvious elements.

14. Is there anything you wished to record but haven't got chance to
record? Or something that is physically just too difficult to achieve
with current technologies?

JrF: ah, I think if I were to sit down & make a list of all the sounds i’d like to record then:
  1. it would take a long time
  2. it would mean i’d be tempted to go out to try to find them & let me tell you, it always the recording trips you carefully planned that rarely offer up the best results
  3. i’d feel a bit like a ‘collector’ 
  4. i’d be stepping outside of the moment

As for technological developments, well I think the simple answer is that we already have the most advanced devices for listening & they are often the ones most overlooked in the pursuit of the technological advances - our ears. I’m happy to explore whats possible with those & use whatever additional listening devices come along as & when - BUT, the most rewarding consequence of field recording is the ability it has to improve the way one listens just with the ears.

thanks for asking me to take part in this interview.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Monday, 8 October 2012

a video compilation of sound-playgrounds by James Brewster, using JrF contact mics & hydrophones in various ways.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

feeling when to record
remembering to not record

Whenever i’m asked what it is I do, or how I want to be referred to when it comes to my creative explorations, the words composer, field recordist, artist are often ones that are applied to how these areas are perceived. However, when it comes to music / sound then for me the word ‘listener’ comes first. I spend more time listening than recording these days - to listen closer, deeper, better is one of the key points & most rewarding aspects of these explorations. 

When it comes to field recording, democratic by nature, although technology has advanced, I sometimes find myself asking whether the actual experience of listening can be overlooked.

I’ve realised more & more that often when you record your concentration is on the act of collecting. You monitor the sounds rather than simply listen to them. Sometimes a sound will enter the audible field that is less pleasing to your perception of the previous few minutes listening. When this happens its possible to think only in terms of the possession you will take from the location - the recording. The fact is that all those sounds are the location & if one constantly thinks of what one will ‘own’ by recording it then the question arises of whether this influences the way one listens at the time.

Of course, there is the temptation when one is equipped with a recorder & microphones to collect sounds on an obsessional level. Certainly I know that for myself learning to not press the record button was a pivotal moment in my development as a listener & in terms of the work I might produce.

my compositions are about these choices, the moments when ‘record’ feels right, the times when not pressing ‘record’ informs my sense of place. 

moments exist in, well....moments. What we have of them if we press record, or the shutter of a camera, can be very slight. I feel it is the intuitive & emotive impulse that is my creativity. These sensativities are subtle, private & individual.