I've been listening to the environmental recordings compiled on a CD for Uovo 14 by David Toop. In his notes, Toop says that the origins of this kind of modern sound art lie in 'a complex network of specialist and esoteric activities: scientific research into animal communication and bioacoustics; oral history and radio drama; birdwatching, trainspotting and similar ocular pursuits; documental filmmaking; exotic sonic backgrounds; post-Cageian environments; and the soundscape studies pioneered in Vancouver in the early 1970s by R. Murray Schafer and the World Soundscape project. Because of these origins, many of them located in looking as much as listening, and an uneasy relationship to landscape as visual spectacle, in the past, field recording as an art practice has tended towards the picturesque, benign and static.'
I've observed in various entries here how visual art and poetry have shifted over time from traditional views of 'landscape' to more complex ideas about 'place'. In the same way, Toop suggests that field recording suffered from an 'unspoken anti-urbanism which would exclude people, motor vehicles, industry, and all other interventions that could be considered the audio equivalent of telegraph poles in a beautiful landscape. Sounds have been recorded for specific human purposes, such as the melodic beauty of a particular birdsong that somehow reflects the structure of human music. This has been changing for some time, however, with more concentration given to sound environments that Murray Schafer might once have described as an 'earsore', and more focus on the sonic ecology in which we actually live.' Typical of this modern approach would be Lee Patterson's 'Ox Bow Pool & Airliners', or unpromising sounding soundscapes like Jeph Jerman's 'Clarkdale Slag Heap', recorded in Arizona, or Peter Cusack's 'Oil Field Soundwalk', recorded in Azerbaijan.
Clive Bell's review of the Uovo compilation in The Wire notes that the hypnotic song of Chris Watson's tree frogs triggers 'thoughts about human tribal music, just as the deep-throated humming of Rob Mullender and Isobel Clouter's Mongolian sound mountain inevitably recalls the local overtone singing.' Far fetched I suppose, but there's an appeal to the idea that natural sounds have embedded themselves in local musical forms.
Incidentally, the Mullender / Clouter piece,'Baorittaolegainuoer - Natural Booming', is an example of the way artists have been recording singing sands, as discussed here before. In a paper here, Clouter writes about the importance of preserving the sounds of these sands, which have always provoked stories, as in the account she quotes by the monk Hiuen Tsang from 629: 'At times sad and plaintive notes are heard and piteous cries, so that between the sights and sounds of the deserts, men get confused and know not whither they go. Hence there are so many who perish in the journey. But it is all the work of demons and evil spirits.'