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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

20 February 2013

Politics and the limits of field recording

FOR A SUMMARY of the recent In The Field symposium in London on field recording, have a look at the one on the Some Landscapes blog.

One unexpected turn was a brief foray into a holism-versus-reductionism argument. It was the first time I’d come across that in relation to field recording, phonography – whatever you want to call it.

The wildlife recordist Simon Elliott launched a fascinating presentation of his work by having a go at Bernie Krause’s criticisms in The Great Animal Orchestra. Krause had written of his dismay at the style of wildlife recording which homes in on the audible signals of isolated species members. That’s pretty much Elliott’s gig.

It’s good to have a row now and again. Without criticism there’s no improvement. But there’s not much point to any territorial competitiveness between Krause’s acoustic ecological approach and Elliott’s taxonomic naturalism. Both are complementary and they do their bit in advancing the cause of conservation.

It helps that conservation has a surprisingly large number of successes under its belt, something which conservationists don’t always broadcast widely enough. Everyone loves a winner. It’s also good how some very rich people occasionally put their shoulders to the wheel of saving the planet. This makes sense, seeing as they own most of it.

In other areas holism and reductionism can be proxies for expressing left and right-wing political beliefs respectively. Meanwhile, field recording, phonography and sound art are usually quite apolitical activities, in Britain at least. Can it be otherwise?

There’s the polite liberalism worn as a tribal badge in the arty end of the public sector, and especially with those dishing out precious grant money. Academic papers sometimes flirt with a curious passive-voice militancy of expression: “By suspending the microphone at the mid-point of the bucket, the normative assumptions of ‘above’ and ‘below’ are challenged” (Peach, J.M., 2011. There’s a hole in my bucket, Derrida. Hear Today: A Journal of Sound Praxis, 1, 18–91).

It’s more common for practitioners to be absorbed with sound as an end in itself. Many sound art and phonography CD releases look as studiedly neutral and ascetic as a brochure for an upmarket health farm. There’s nothing wrong with any single instance of that either. If someone tells you that you should be doing something else, then you’re well within rights to ask whose interests they have at heart – yours or theirs.

Yet when taken all together it’s in tune with the current British aversion to anything polemical, and therefore better understood as a social phenomenon than one of individual differences in outlook. In the USA, books on current affairs with clear and often highly partisan political stances regularly climb the best-seller lists. Here it’s stuff about gardening, cookery and the world’s ugliest cars ever.

Unsurprisingly it takes a Spanish field recording label, LEA ediciones, to challenge sound-collectors and makers to respond to economic restructuring. They’ve issued an Open call for phonographic pieces or compositions focussing on a context of economic meltdown. The shorter, snappier title is Sounds in Recession. Here’s their English translation:

One of the reasons why LEA Editions was created is the need to create a framework in which phonography is used as a methodology for the analysis and representation of our sound environment.

Concerned about this issue and analysing the bulk of phonographic creation in our country and around the world we have realised that it is difficult to get away from the eternal themes of phonography: nature, human action, fauna or flora. These themes find their place in a discipline which eases the consecution of this kind of practices. But what happens when the subject – in phonography – is not necessarily linked to specific sound sources or tangible spaces? What happens when you try to explore global situations that have little to do with ambient sounds or echoes?

Under this premise we ask: Economic meltdown sounds like? How, from a phonograph approach we are able to transmit – beyond the noise of the demonstrations – the passing of every day in a situation of economic crisis which we live. Under this seemingly simple premise, we raise the possibility of creating a soundscape of the crisis without falling into repetition, trying to find those environments or sounds that characterise this historic moment.

Therefore, we invite sound artists and phonographists to reflect on this issue from a new perspective that leads away from the noise of the protest and bring us closer to the daily life. We seek for phonographic proposals that can go beyond the mere representation of sound reality, exploring details, experiences or purely ethnographic documents that reflect acoustically, complex and turbulent times as the one we are living in.

There’s some good thinking behind the challenge. It strikes me as a tough job to try to explore political and economic change in the five minutes allowed without having an explanatory or narrating voice, in the style of a radio piece. That’s likely a failure of imagination on my part.

Almost as obvious as the protest sounds, which LEA Editions have wisely discouraged, is to use a method of juxtaposition. That’s been a staple of visual political communication since at least the montage techniques of Eisenstein and the collages of John Heartfield. Here’s the famous example of contrasting sounds from Lyndon Johnson’s Daisy political advert of 1964:


It works nearly as well if you look away and just listen. However, LEA Editions aren’t simply asking for agitprop. They want submissions which strive ‘to find those environments or sounds that characterise this historic moment’.

The first and last goal of such politically-engaged work must surely be to make clear what’s happening. There are worse ways of going about that than following the advice of Abram Games: maximum meaning from minimum means.

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