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Acid Seven: Nature Is The Supreme Resource

Special thanks to Jack Yarbrough for his expertise and passion about the subjects in this piece, and patience in discussing them with me. HERE is a link to his running listening catalogue, which is a source for much of what I discuss here.

Last month I took a trip to Boston to see my friend Jack. A walk away from his place is Deep Thoughts JP, where we caught a show by Alaina “Fad Albert” Stimatis (Jazz Massagers) and Johnny “Inzane” Olson (with Public Puberty). The Jazz Massagers offered a tryptamine-drenched free jazz groove that doubled as an erotic comedy set -- unserious enough to be surprised by their cohesion, yet frenetic enough to pad out the stray cum joke here and there. The Public Puberty set seemed quite a bit more serious; if adopting the affectation of career performance artists was the goal here, it was a success. Appearances aside, it was a wonderful noise set featuring a contact-miked acoustic guitar holding shards of porcelain; a trombone dragged across the cement floor, disassembled and reassembled endlessly; and emanations from a strange polyvocal instrument -- a semi-stringed wooden saxophone.


My favorite musical encounter of the trip, though, was entirely different. On Jack’s street, one of the electrical transformers was broken. It rang with a delicate sine wave that could be heard from a block away. The first few days we walked past, we all silently agreed to treat it as background noise. As the days went on, it became harder to ignore. The sound remained the same, but each day seemed more musical: a pure sound, one atypical of a random electrical malfunction, an anomaly. I considered recording it, but figured that no one would be convinced it was organic. Either way, before I could, it was fixed.

In the absence of the sound, Jack mentioned how La Monte Young started composing using sustained tones in part because of his fascination with the drone of a transformer. I found this fitting, because I had planned to make this column about nonhuman and field recorded music. Really, what follows only scratches the surface of what it surveys; the sheer volume of music in this category is overwhelming. I have decided to split this piece into several sections, whose quasi-unity should hopefully make sense… with these things, though, I can never know for sure.


The recordings of ornithologist and field recordist Jean-Claude Roché are, more or less, straightforward. His records are not presented as the music of Jean C. Roché, but instead, for example, Concerts of Autumn -- named for the music of the nonhuman beings he records. Roché presents nonhuman music not as mere documentation, but instead as music in its own right, free from any human interference. Roche explains his inspiration:  

“I was irresistibly attracted by the songs of the birds. On the way to school, when I heard a Blackbird or a Song Thrush, I stopped and listened, as if it were a personal and important message. I was concerned by this song.”

Over sixty years, he has amassed a collection of over twenty-seven thousand recordings. These range from peaceful (Concerts of Autumn [2010]) to remarkably dense (The Birds of Venezuela [1973]). David Toop commented that the latter could easily be mistaken for electronic music. He dedicated a two hour segment to Roché, which can be found here. Of course, Roché is among many others producing what could be called “nature recordings;” these have been popular since at least the 1980s -- check the cassette bargain bin at any record store. He is, however, among the first, and is set apart in that he offers both the music and place-specific environmental documentation.

Another notable entry into the canon of nature recordings is Songs of the Humpback Whale (1970) from Roger Payne, who himself discovered that humpback whales sing songs. The best-selling natural history recording of all time, the record contains a series of diffuse yet recognizable repeated melodies in a conversation between whales. It was recorded using a hydrophone, and most of it, like Roché’s records, is unaltered -- save the second track, which slows down the tape to make discernible the highest frequencies of whalesong. It is, for the most part, a documentation of a non-human musical discovery of an animal variety.

Remst8, to whose discussion I owe a good deal of inspiration for this writing, has just released Thunderstorm 20140903 (2014/19?) as part of Silber Records’ August Field Recording series. It is, rather straightforwardly, a document in the same manner as Roché or Payne, but it takes the nonhuman music of a thunderstorm as its primary focus, secondary and tertiary (incidentally) the sounds of passing cars and various insects calling out in a late summer air.


Another recording, Hildegard Westerkamp’s Kits Beach Soundwalk (1989), takes on a more overtly documentary, meta-conceptual nature. Recording the sounds of waves hitting shore barnacles, she narrates, “We can just go into the studio and get rid of the city. Pretend it’s not there. Pretend we are somewhere far away.” She filters out the sound of the city roaring around her, leaving only the delicate high frequency clatter of the barnacles, birds in the distance, and the crash of the tide. As much documentation as an exercise in mythmaking, Westerkamp breaks from pure nature recording to add her own verbal, poetic narrative structure. This is a must-hear recording.

Westerkamp’s narration on the overwhelming sound of the city reminds me of my personal favorite instances of non-human music: those like the drone of the transformer -- often the beauty in the stifling sounds of the post-industrial world. We are not living in the time of Luigi Russolo’s mechanized soundscapes; no longer can we point to the mill or factory as the central figure of capitalist alienation. Our world, for better or worse, is one comprised of infinitely diffuse nodes of capital accumulation. The movement away from the idea of the city as public space has coincided with a neoliberal emphasis on individualism, both economic and social. Perhaps it is for this reason that recordings of a city tend to produce a hypnotic sense of calm: they are a representation of what exists as a communal space only in our imaginings of them.

It’s no wonder, then, that these recordings often appear as fragmentary pieces. Akira Rabelais’s Hollywood (2008) is comprised of a collection of recordings between Betty Grable’s and Rod Stewart’s stars on Hollywood Boulevard. The field recordist here becomes a documentarian of a different sort. In a rhizomatically conjuncted fashion, the sounds of “incidentally intersecting” lives meld with passing car stereos, ambulances, and fragmented conversation. The result is a hypnotic depiction of an uncertain public space -- one where people are, but for which the design is, largely, towards the accrual of capital. Midway through, we hear the plea, “Spare change for dog food?” One gets the sense that this could be any American city.

Another piece, quite literally fragmented, is Matthew Sullivan’s "Pigeon" (2019). This piece delves more into what I would categorize as sound collage, though it is comprised almost entirely of field recordings. Here, several environments and climates are combined into an overwhelmingly textural melting pot, accentuated at turns by a solemn choral loop. Jack writes that this creates a sort of “auditory postcard,” continuing to assert that it is “so personal it becomes universal … [elevating] the shared experience of daily life to the sublime.” The work of the recordist here, then, is in universalizing the particular, or showing that the ‘particular’ was never so to begin with. Michael Pisaro’s The Fields Have Ears (2010) series takes as its material similar forms: sparse composition atop field recordings, sounding almost as incidental as the sounds of nature.

A work similar to Pisaro’s that comes to mind is Sacra Saturni’s Birds at Night (2017), which combines the titular field recording with a fully realized, yet droning synth track. At turns I am compelled to listen closer to the sample(s) to see if it is looping -- somehow simply creating the impression of an extended recording. Each attempt is staved off by the organ-like drone, lulling me into a meditative state. It goes on like this for each successive movement, and I stop caring if the recording is looped. This is a unique listening experience, as is every performance ritual from Sacra Saturni.

In terms of a fixation (or meditation) on nature, it’s impossible for me not to return to the work of Tim Harte. At least since I have known his work, field recordings have been a mainstay of his repertoire. This can come in the form of its inclusion as an accompaniment to the impromptu spoken bits of his solo performances, to something like BIOACOUSTIC INSECT COMMUNICATION (2018). This record features a collection of incredibly specific tracks (see for instance “Range of Corixid Sound Production in the Biotope”) wherein it is genuinely difficult to discern whether or not some of these sounds are organic or reproductions via synthesis.


Taking a step back, the use of field recordings as sound collage might be best rooted in the tradition of musique concrète, but I tend towards tracing it back to the wire recording tapes of Halim El-Dabh. His “Wire Recorder Piece” (1944) is a recording of a Zaar ceremony, complete with gratuitous tape experimentation. As he puts it, “reverberation, echo chambers, voltage controls, and a re-recording room that had movable walls to create different kinds and amounts of reverb." This sort of musical manipulation via recording technology was preceded by very few.

In the 1930s, Hindemith’s ‘Grammophonmusik’ technique took the phonograph as an instrument in itself, altering the speed and direction of discs in order to create new sounds. This technique is echoed John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939), a piece for two variable-speed turntables. At the other end of the spectrum, Dziga Vertov’s soviet sound-film Enthusiasm! (1931) was produced mobile recording technology to capture the sounds of industrial and factory machinery. (Upon release, one criticism was directed towards Vertov’s use of ‘inhuman’ sounds).

Musique concrète, like the preceding experiments, harnesses both field recording and the recording technology itself. In contrast to the previously discussed work, it takes the ‘non-musical’ sounds of field recording to assemble something that could be considered ‘musical.’ The genre is usually associated with Pierre Schaeffer, who drew from the ideas of film theorist Jean Epstein:

"through the transposition of natural sounds, it becomes possible to create chords and dissonances, melodies and symphonies of noise, which are a new and specifically cinematographic music." 

The genre is so named for its use of “concrete” sounds as a basis, abstracting from them whatever musical values they may contain. Schaeffer first published these as “studies” of noises, completing his Cinq études de bruits in 1948. The genre saw considerable outgrowth in the form of several divergent schools of thought (or groups of composers). Apart from Schaeffer, a few notable entries in the concrète cannon are Stockhausen’s Konkrete Etüde (1952) and Pierre Boulez’s Études (1951).

A concrète-adjacent piece I find myself returning to lately is Luc Ferrari’s Music Promenade (1969). This is a spellbinding piece that takes recordings from travel, much like Sullivan’s work, and combines it in a “tautological” way. In the words of Ferrari, this means “random variations that create encounters and superimpositions of cycles that combine themselves by alteration.” I am not qualified to declare anything a ‘musical landmark,’ but I can’t help but get this sense listening to Promenade; the mix of recording, tape effects, and what sounds like early synthesizers, still sounds startlingly new. It is as though the piece unfolds in dream logic.

One Kansas City musician working in this mode is Seth Davis, though only in one of many projects. Those lucky enough to have caught his piece Outside It’s America (2019) will have heard a chaotic, crystalline assortment of sounds. One particular edge to Davis’s work is his adept use of the outer edges of the digital audio workstation. His mixes benefit from this expertise in that they are almost always impossibly texturally dense and polyrhythmic -- often spanning across the entire stereo spectrum -- but never to the point of becoming impenetrable. It is perfectly fitting that his record Ghost in the Machine (2018) borrows much of its terminology from continental philosophy’s dissection of late capitalism; the surreal landscapes produced here pulsate with the artificial electric pulse of a hollowed-out social body, refilled with the false images of forms of life long gone.

Jason Zeh’s I was a Person and I was a Pretty Computer (2018) is another singularly affecting experimental work in this realm, although of an entirely different nature. If the spirit of experimentation in the previously discussed (and admittedly narrow) canon has been one of excavating the sounds of new technology, Zeh’s work here raises the stakes. I will not pretend I know how he does it, but it involves the electric manipulation of a series of portable tape recorders. Something, perhaps a voltage trigger, engages the tape heads of these recorders, repeatedly. These soft, percussive clicks are set variously against the drone of an oscillator and a haunting, deadpan narration. The words spoken give the impression that something living is struggling to squeeze its way out of a random word generator, recorded and subsequently played back distorted. Few performances have stuck with me in the way this has.



In light of the rich history of field recording, I find interesting the ways in which contemporary (non-classical) musicians use it to different ends. When it appears, the field is presented as given material, or neutral ground. For instance, in Julia Holter’s “Horns Surrounding Me” (2013), she begins with a breathless recording resembling a tape recorded diary entry. This disappears into the sound of horns, which then crescendos into the massive chorus arrangement: “Horns surrounding me sing so forcefully and high!”

I see the opposite of this in Grouper (Liz Harris)’s “Holding” (2014), wherein the field recording of rain sits comfortably in the background, and finally serves as the end of the track, or a solemn settling into the sound of the field. Björk, who has since become known for her use of field recording, produced a work somehow in the middle of these two. “There’s More to Life Than This (Live Version)” (1997) takes as its pretense a pseudo-live setting, midway through the song following Björk out of the ‘setting’ of the music -- in this case, a party. This leaves her singing without accompaniment until she ‘re-enters’ the setting. In each, the neutral ground of the field offers a sort of anchor for the track that alters it in an understated way. Unlike the other instances, however, the field-recording-as-given is more of an atmospheric accompaniment rather than an invitation to see the field as music.

Return to Shuttlecock on the seventh day of each month (give or take) for a transmission from Patrick’s ongoing journey into the experimental and genreless music of Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for spreading the word about remst8's entry in the August Field series. More are still going up each day & worth checking out.


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