Last night I sat in a room full of people listening intently to the sound of an egg being fried. We were at Cafe Oto for The Wire Salon, Environmental Agents: The Art of Field Recording, and Lee Patterson was playing some of the sounds he has recorded in and around his home in Prestwich. Using cheap contact mics and home made hydrophones, he explores the unheard sounds around us, staging experiments that transmit a kind of magical realism - the sonic equivalent of writers like Bruno Schulz whose characters perceive the strangeness of ordinary rooms, streets and gardens. The evening ended with Patterson's unnerving recordings of pondweed, apparently shrieking in pain, although the noises result from the release of thousands of tiny oxygen bubbles.
The panel discussion started with Peter Cusack playing us two field recordings from specific locations. One turned out to be the buzzing of a hoverfly, captured inadvertently in Prague whilst trying to record the sound of a rail as a train passed over it. The other documented an encounter with the London transport police, who were suspicious of the recording equipment he was using at London Bridge station. (I've just checked and this recording doesn't appear on Cusack's Sound Data Base - click on London Bridge and you just hear trains and announcements). Asked about the politics of sound recording and acoustic ecology, he described his work, with a sonic metaphor, as political 'in a muted way'. He also modestly put the activities of sound artists in perspective, reminding us of the huge range of environmental recordings constantly being made but not presented to the public as aesthetic objects - by scientists, the military, archeologists, geographers, anthropologists, planners and so on.
The third speaker was Justin Bennett, sound artist and member of BMB con., who played an extract from Sundial, the closest thing we heard to a sonic landscape. The aim of the piece was to analyze the daily rhythm of a particular city over 24 hours from one single location. Listening to 'Istanbul' and imagining the sights took me back to the opposite experience watching Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and imagining the missing soundscape. Bennett also makes urban sound walks and praised the work of Dutch artist Cilia Erens who gets people to walk around a landscape while listening to noises from a contrasting location. At Justin Bennett's website you can download a different work made in Istanbul, The Well: 'voices, machines, footsteps, tunnels, but also bronze cymbals and electric guitars ... a personal journey through layers of narrative, memory, sounds and music - an attempt to uncover the secret well that lies deep under the city.' And as I write this I'm listening to another of his soundscapes, The Mosques of Tanger, of which Wire writer Clive Bell says: 'it begins and ends with Mediterranean dawn ambience, cicadas and cockerels. We hear the first call, maybe a mile away; gradually other calls are layer in, but the best moments are to do with the eerie beauty of sound heard at a great distance.'