Sunday, 19 April 2015

the idyll
(do we ever actually hear the world around us)

nb. the format of this article is 'straight' - that is to say that I haven't followed the conventional rules of such things, with quotes, footnotes and references. It is fair to say that some have been critical of this approach, often misunderstanding it as a sign of unnecessary opposition to the norm or a sign of a less rigorous thought process. In truth it stems from a deep and long private, personal exploration of the subjects and similarly extensive observations of the various theories and systems of understanding involved. Put another way, I do reject the idea that to investigate our role in any creative endeavour means constantly removing layers of ones own personal reaction only to replace it with systems that are as arbitrary, as invented. 

There is limited evidence as to how the landscape around us was represented in artistic terms as we moved from prehistoric times to societies constructed around ritual, celebration and communication. Early cave art appears either representational or unfathomably abstract. Just as primitive hunting scenes could be both documentary and fiction, cup and ring marks could be saying something savage or slight. The use of sound in the earliest artistic actions is also a subject for competing theories; acoustic 'sweet spots' in caves seem to indicate a deliberate understanding of the power of altered sound, whilst the earliest hints of 'music' stem from a slowly developing skill set in the shaping of sounding instruments. Once we humans began to bring in ever more 'sophisticated' ideas to our renderings of the world around us it is possible to see a fork in the path of creative evolution; one route phasing in and out of a deepening understanding of our interaction with 'nature', and the other, perhaps more dominant, a racing, all consuming rush of ego and detachment. 

Throughout the history of art 'landscape' has, almost exclusively been veiled in a thick, sweet fog - an idealistic view of what nature is, can be or indeed should be. We stand in front of paintings that speak of summer, of slow afternoons heavy with light and bird song or of snow falling from proud, insect free trees. Likewise in the quite incredibly short moments that we actually spend looking at our surroundings themselves is it not true to say that we are seeing and hearing what we decide is there ? What we have come to expect and desire from nature ? Any idea of 'reality' is filtered through so many layers that it has become almost impossible for us to approach a connection to nature that is not already based on an evolved removal of our species. Even the dictionary definition of the actual word 'nature' has been changed to fit our changing ideas of our superiority. In early dictionaries, and indeed texts that pre-date them, references to nature include 'all things living' or 'everything that populated the earth' and other such blanket statements, whereas now it has been set loose from having any connection to the human race or its impact on the planet.

Definition of nature in English:


1[MASS NOUN] The phenomena of the physical worldcollectively, including plantsanimals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earthas opposed to humans or human creations:the breathtaking beauty of nature(from the Oxford English Dictionary)

Further, there is the whole 'Mother Earth' issue; the reasons for that choice and the frankly often worrying ease by which some people with a religious fervour and unshakeable belief impose certain views onto the very thing they claim to celebrate. Imposition stands contrary to respect, just as it does in the relationships we form between ourselves and our partners; if one partner tells another who they are, what they are and should be everyone can agree that would be problematic at best and controlling at worst and yet, when it comes to the planet it is easy to find people who will, with a straight face, tell you that singing to the forest is honouring the earth, the trees or the creatures in them. However uncomfortable it is to accept for some, such ideas are based on our own human arrogance and ego. I say that not only because I disagree but that it is clearly not based on an acceptance of 'nature' on its own terms. Perhaps it is impossible for any species to have a complete acceptance on other terms than its own ? Perhaps if it were possible it would not lead to anything better or more connected ? Again, i'll state that what puzzles me most is how unquestioning we are, especially when we are telling ourselves we are 'special' because we are questioning the norm. It's always one uniform replacing another. All are equally floored.

We contemplate birds nests or termite hills  as almost miraculous structures and yet we think of our human architecture as entirely different, from another place and evolutionary level. We hear grass moving in the breeze and are pre-programmed to associate it with ideas of peacefulness or beauty, without any understanding of what that simple process means for all the other species affected by it. We think of nature as 'countryside' or 'the wild' rather than, for example, urban landscapes or the indoor spaces we construct and yet all are results of natural evolution. In short we invent what we see and hear of the world to such a large degree that I feel certain that we have tipped over from a growing, richer palette of creative associations to the world and into an increasingly more restricted new-ageism, unquestioning and always ready to accept that reality fits neatly into our most surface expectations of it.

As an artist and composer who has taken great pleasure in the act of listening for many years and has developed a close connection to that activity through field recording i'll let readers in on a secret: being a field recordist does not mean one listens to lots of other peoples recordings ! Field recording is a wide interest and there are lots and lots of folks whose interest involves comparison and indeed collecting of recordings by themselves and others and that of course is a totally valid approach. However it should not be seen as being any more connected to 'listening' or indeed to an understanding of the world than those whose interest is personal or who do not perceive field recording as a genre. I'm involved in various FR related activities (blogs, forums, facebook groups and of course leading workshops and lecturing) so I do listen to more field recordings by other recordists than I would perhaps choose to in the same way as I do to 'music'. I enjoy it of course, but for me there has to be a purpose to this activity. A reason for turning my ears towards a recording, whether that be in workshop playback sessions or to preview a post submitted to a website. Through all of these connections I believe i'm qualified to state that, as ever, there are a large number of recordings being made that, in my opinion, are documents of just one approach to the natural world; go to a place, record it, present it as a kind of audio postcard. I've done this myself and my comments here aren't meant as a criticism of that practice. What I will say however is that I am constantly surprised at how little things have progressed since the whale song / forest morning and waves on a beach days of the 1970's and 80's. A recording of a rain forest, no matter how well recorded, does not and cannot capture the experience of being in a rainforest and yet there are endless recordings of such places that appear to be publicly shared in some way that seeks to 'transport the listener', and lets face it a large number of listeners are primed to be transported - not only by the medium but perhaps by the way we live our daily lives. This leads back to the question of what it is that we are hearing - whether it is reality or our ideas of reality. We listen to a rain forest recording and think of it as restful or relaxing. In fact for all the creatures and natural systems that create its audible soup it is sonic chaos, a battlefield and a quest for survival in extreme conditions. Does the recordist think of that or of how to record some 'perfect' impression of the location that is in fact a denial of its true nature ?

genre / restriction

This is by no means an accurate survey but I would say that still the vast majority of 'field recording' releases are restricted to the most obvious idea of 'documentation'. Is there any part of the process that sees the recordist ask deeper questions about the purpose or content of such material ? Are such questions in fact a way to cause the 'record' button less work ? 

Over the years I have become less and less interested in how the term 'field recording' has become almost a genre, defined in large part by this drive to present 'reality' to ones audience. Here perhaps there is a comparison with other art forms; throughout history there have always been a very large number of very competent painters, musicians, sculptors or writers for example, and yet, even in the widest sense and with ones deep belief that all the arts are available to all, it is a true statement to say that there is an important distinction between an individual competent at their chosen art or craft and those that are able to transform the art and transport the audience 'elsewhere'. I confess that I increasingly have no real idea why someone would record, say, a rain forest at night and release said recording as a creative artwork. Don't get me wrong, i'm not saying I think it a mistake to make such recordings available - for some reason there is still an audience for work that has no more creative merit than pointing any camera at a view and pressing the shutter - but I am unsure of what critical process is taking place and of how this then effects the wider understanding of what field recording is or can be. As with camera's the technology is democratic and yet it is doubtful that any recordist would choose to spend valuable time gazing at a snapshot that does not have additional creative content unless it were taken by someone they are connected to perhaps. In that sense a standard recording of a rain forest at night has a similar public value as a selfie on instagram - neither seeks to say anything other than 'here this is'. 

On the other hand such recordings are often afforded value (by recordist or audience) as documents of a world in flux; a way to preserve the environment in some form or to draw ones attention to it. As I have attempted to state already, in fact we are only documenting human experience and in that respect I personally feel we owe it to our species and to the world in which we live to put more of ourselves into the work.

So, the question remains; as field recording grows as an interest for various audiences and recordists what is it we are recording ? more, what is it we are even hearing ? 

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