Sunday, February 17, 2013

In the Field

I spent Friday and Saturday at In The Field, a symposium on the art and craft of field recording. During the two days we heard about a diversity of methods - from undersea hydrophone recordings made by Jana Winderen to impressions of the Hong Kong soundscape written for Salomé Voegelin's Soundwords project - and approaches ranging from the collective educational audio projects Claudia Wegener develops in Africa to the solo expeditions made by Simon Elliott to capture the intimate sounds of ospreys and peregrines.  Chris Watson came along briefly to talk about an installation he created at the London Children's Hospital in which patients remixed recordings he made on each of the seven continents.  He also mentioned In Britten's Footsteps, a collaboration with cellist Oliver Coates performed at Aldeburgh last week, which involved 'twenty speakers, split between the floor, head height and ceiling, developed to give an accurate spatial representation of the environment in which Watson had recorded the sounds' (The Liminal).  I think the weekend's highlight for me was a presentation by Christina Kubisch, whose Electrical Walks I wrote about here in 2010.  A recording she played of the beats made by different security gates sounded like the kind of music Chris Watson was making with Cabaret Voltaire all those years ago.

Reverberant flats on Peter Cusack's site

The most relevant talks from a landscape perspective were those that dealt with sound mapping, a subject I wrote about here last year, following a Wire Salon.  That event featured Ian Rawes, who modestly took on the job at this symposium of roving microphone holder, a role he could be seen as holding for the city itself in his work compiling the London Sound Survey.
  • Peter Cusack started his talk with a quote from The Peregrine: 'the hardest thing to see is what is really there', and suggested that the same is true for sound.  He therefore focused on just one recording: children playing in a reverberant space created by a semi-circle of flats, which would surely leave its residents with "a particularly strong sonic memory".  The block of flats' shape reminded me of the garden designed to produce echoes that John Evelyn observed in Paris and I wondered if Cusack had sought it out deliberately for its acoustic properties.  But  he had been there as part of a project to document sounds under the flight path to Tegel Airport: every four minutes the children's voices have to compete with the noise of aircraft overhead.  This too will be form part of their memory of living in these flats, a sound that will disappear when the airport is eventually closed.
  • Udo Noll, who has recorded sounds with Peter Cusack in Germany, talked about radio aporee, his global soundmap project. Various contributors had mentioned the importance of striving for the highest possible fidelity in their recordings but radio aporee is participative and welcomes all recordings of a reasonable standard.  Noll has now developed a radio aporee app, although he remains somewhat sceptical: "I don't like phones much and apps even less".  Is this augmented reality experience really progress?  Well, if artists don't work in this space, he argued, other commercial interests will.  Given that the non-mediated world is increasingly "a lost country", it seems better to have the option of coming upon a GPS-generated poem than some piece of corporate marketing.  This is also a way of inscribing a landscape without altering it - better, perhaps, to have the option of tuning in to a Simon Armitage stanza as you walk over the West Yorkshire moors, than coming across it carved into a rock.
  • Francesca Panetta described the creation of a similar sound app, Hackney Hear.  This sadly doesn't stretch as far as Stoke Newington, otherwise I could hear it as I type this, but it can't be long before we get one - she has also created Soho Stories, Kings Cross Streetstories and, most recently, an app to accompany Rachel Lichetenstein's Diamond Street.  Users of Hackney Hear have actually preferred its field recordings to the interviews and commissioned texts (Iain Sinclair, inevitably).  The talk concluded with an introduction to The Guardian's new interactive panorama from the top of the Shard, which incorporates clips from The London Sound Survey.  As she zoomed out, the sound of swirling wind and distant sirens gave way to more immersive soundtrack.  She clicked on various sound samples across the city to show us how it worked, but time was running short.  The final sound we heard was 'Land of Hope and Glory' emanating from the Albert Hall and for a moment it seemed as if the whole symposium was about to end with an echo of the Last Night of the Proms.  
 The Guardian's interactive view from the top of the Shard

Finally I should mention that In the Field is also the title of a new book of interviews with field recordists, edited by Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle, who co-organised the weekend's event with Cheryl Tipp.  I may have more to say about this in a future post. 

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