i'm part of this programme exploring what 'silence' means on radio 4 this weekend
Examining the nature of silence might not seem the most obvious thing to do on the radio, the medium most wholly given over to noise and which was in its day seen as a direct threat to the realm of silence in our personal and public lives. It might seem, too, that silence is a singular thing, an absence that offers little to any would-be investigation. But it's a subject that's fascinated Lucy Powell ever since she was set a koan by a Zen master, who asked her what the sound is before the bird sings. Now she sets out to answer that problem through an analysis of archive recordings from religious scholars, authors, comedians and poets, as well as conducting fresh interviews with the likes of conductor Edward Gardner, neuro-scientist Jan Schnupp and Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo, who spent seven years on silent retreat in a Himalayan cave. She hears a freshly composed improvisation on the theme of silence from the classical duo 'Folie a Deux Femmes' and argues that in fact silence is a rich, multiple property that can vary dramatically depending on the context within which it is placed.
I have a track included on the cd that accompanies the new book published by Strange Attractor:
Animal Music - sound and song in the natural world
Edited by Tobias Fischer & Lara Cory PB 184 pp, £15.99210mm x 148mm,ISBN:978-1-907222-34-4
Includes specially-compiled 60 minute CD of field recordings
DO ANIMALS SPEAK TO EACH OTHER? WHAT DO THEIR SONGS MEAN? WILL WE EVER BE ABLE TO UNDERSTAND THEM AND TALK BACK?
Ever since the accidental discovery of whale song in 1967, the idea of complex animal sentience has been gaining strength within the scientific community. A growing number of researchers and academics are exploring the idea that animals enjoy music on a similar level to human beings.
Animal Music is the first anthology to present an overview of the current state of this vital debate. Its authors have spoken to the leading scientists, researchers and musicians in the field to uncover hidden meanings and new perspectives. They visit the world’s largest library of animal sounds, hack into the mysterious sonic world of shrimps, travel back in time to the point where animal and human songs diverged, and decode the latest neuroscientific findings about animal music and communication.
The book includes exclusive interviews with Chris Watson, Jana Winderen, Yannick Dauby, Slavek Kwi and Geoff Sample as well as features on Bernie Krause, David Rothenberg and Olivier Messiaen and many more.
Includes specially-compiled 60 minute CD of field recordings from the Gruenrekorder label.
01 Tikal Dawn – Andreas Bick, Germany 02 hermetica – Daniel Blinkhorn, Australia 03 Amazons & Parrots – Rodolphe Alexis, France 04 Grand Canal Springs (Excerpt) – Tom Lawrence, Ireland 05 seals – Martin Clarke, United Kindom 06 BOTO (extract) -ARTIFICIAL MEMORY TRACE, Ireland 07 Adélie_penguins (Excerpt) – Craig Vear, United Kindom 08 Pilot Whales (Excerpt) – Heike Vester, Norway/Germany 09 Brame, septembre 2011 – Marc Namblard, France 10 formica aquilonia, sweden – Jez riley French, United Kindom 11 Schwebfliegen – Lasse Marc Riek, Germany 12 central mongolian high mountain range habitat – Patrick Franke, Germany 13 Otus spilocephalus – Yannik Dauby, France 14 untitled#292 – Francisco López, Spain 15 Summer Sunset 01 – Eckhard Kuchenbecker, Germany 16 Waldkauz-Balz – Walter Tilgner, Germany 17 WHAT BIRDS SING – David Rothenberg, United States of America
as previously announced in early 2014 we (myself and my daughter) are expanding into the world of book / zine publishing.
‘I do not want to publish coffee-table books. I don’t drink coffee for one thing, although I do like tables’
there is a fine line between presenting work with a degree of stillness and space for the viewer / listener and allowing ones hand to rest rather heavily on the work.
our new press imprint will issue small photo-books, zine style. they’re meant to sit subtly into ones hands.
the first publications will feature new and archive material by Jez riley French and Pheobe riley Law
jez riley french | dissolves
limited edition ty cd + photo book + download code
the eagerly awaited document of the first series of mineral explorations, capturing the sounds of shale, iron ore, limestone, dolomite and snail shells in flux.
(download code for full album + 48 minute bonus track)
‘again, French turns our ears towards captivating worlds of sound’
‘when he gets it right, which he very often does, French has an uncanny knack of producing work that grabs us firmly by the ear and the mind...stunning images that trigger the imagination as much as the intimate sound worlds presented here’
‘leaving things as they are is often misunderstood as ‘do nothing’. There are few artists in the world, especially working with sound, who get this and JrF is one who does. Not only that but he seems able to present work that forces us to re-evaluate everything we think we know about minimalism’
‘small sound worlds perhaps, but far richer and more varied than our immediate impression tells us’
jez riley french | beam | charcoal
limited edition ty cd + photo-book + download code
released for a month as a digital download only this 2014 release soon attracted a fair bit of attention. Now re-released as a limited ty cd accompanied by a book of JrF’s brooding photographs of woods and forests at night.
‘a release of the natural sounds of trees in various states that allows you to re-tune your ears. Worth a purchase for the long bonfire track on its own. Remarkable. The images show another fascinating side to French’s visual work’
‘you might at first assume this release is one amongst many such surveys of these kinds of sounds but look hard and you’ll find very little to compare, either in terms of content or quality’
nb. the format of this article is 'straight' - that is to say that I haven't followed the conventional rules of such things, with quotes, footnotes and references. It is fair to say that some have been critical of this approach, often misunderstanding it as a sign of unnecessary opposition to the norm or a sign of a less rigorous thought process. In truth it stems from a deep and long private, personal exploration of the subjects and similarly extensive observations of the various theories and systems of understanding involved. Put another way, I do reject the idea that to investigate our role in any creative endeavour means constantly removing layers of ones own personal reaction only to replace it with systems that are as arbitrary, as invented.
There is limited evidence as to how the landscape around us was represented in artistic terms as we moved from prehistoric times to societies constructed around ritual, celebration and communication. Early cave art appears either representational or unfathomably abstract. Just as primitive hunting scenes could be both documentary and fiction, cup and ring marks could be saying something savage or slight. The use of sound in the earliest artistic actions is also a subject for competing theories; acoustic 'sweet spots' in caves seem to indicate a deliberate understanding of the power of altered sound, whilst the earliest hints of 'music' stem from a slowly developing skill set in the shaping of sounding instruments. Once we humans began to bring in ever more 'sophisticated' ideas to our renderings of the world around us it is possible to see a fork in the path of creative evolution; one route phasing in and out of a deepening understanding of our interaction with 'nature', and the other, perhaps more dominant, a racing, all consuming rush of ego and detachment.
Throughout the history of art 'landscape' has, almost exclusively been veiled in a thick, sweet fog - an idealistic view of what nature is, can be or indeed should be. We stand in front of paintings that speak of summer, of slow afternoons heavy with light and bird song or of snow falling from proud, insect free trees. Likewise in the quite incredibly short moments that we actually spend looking at our surroundings themselves is it not true to say that we are seeing and hearing what we decide is there ? What we have come to expect and desire from nature ? Any idea of 'reality' is filtered through so many layers that it has become almost impossible for us to approach a connection to nature that is not already based on an evolved removal of our species. Even the dictionary definition of the actual word 'nature' has been changed to fit our changing ideas of our superiority. In early dictionaries, and indeed texts that pre-date them, references to nature include 'all things living' or 'everything that populated the earth' and other such blanket statements, whereas now it has been set loose from having any connection to the human race or its impact on the planet.
Further, there is the whole 'Mother Earth' issue; the reasons for that choice and the frankly often worrying ease by which some people with a religious fervour and unshakeable belief impose certain views onto the very thing they claim to celebrate. Imposition stands contrary to respect, just as it does in the relationships we form between ourselves and our partners; if one partner tells another who they are, what they are and should be everyone can agree that would be problematic at best and controlling at worst and yet, when it comes to the planet it is easy to find people who will, with a straight face, tell you that singing to the forest is honouring the earth, the trees or the creatures in them. However uncomfortable it is to accept for some, such ideas are based on our own human arrogance and ego. I say that not only because I disagree but that it is clearly not based on an acceptance of 'nature' on its own terms. Perhaps it is impossible for any species to have a complete acceptance on other terms than its own ? Perhaps if it were possible it would not lead to anything better or more connected ? Again, i'll state that what puzzles me most is how unquestioning we are, especially when we are telling ourselves we are 'special' because we are questioning the norm. It's always one uniform replacing another. All are equally floored.
We contemplate birds nests or termite hills as almost miraculous structures and yet we think of our human architecture as entirely different, from another place and evolutionary level. We hear grass moving in the breeze and are pre-programmed to associate it with ideas of peacefulness or beauty, without any understanding of what that simple process means for all the other species affected by it. We think of nature as 'countryside' or 'the wild' rather than, for example, urban landscapes or the indoor spaces we construct and yet all are results of natural evolution. In short we invent what we see and hear of the world to such a large degree that I feel certain that we have tipped over from a growing, richer palette of creative associations to the world and into an increasingly more restricted new-ageism, unquestioning and always ready to accept that reality fits neatly into our most surface expectations of it.
As an artist and composer who has taken great pleasure in the act of listening for many years and has developed a close connection to that activity through field recording i'll let readers in on a secret: being a field recordist does not mean one listens to lots of other peoples recordings ! Field recording is a wide interest and there are lots and lots of folks whose interest involves comparison and indeed collecting of recordings by themselves and others and that of course is a totally valid approach. However it should not be seen as being any more connected to 'listening' or indeed to an understanding of the world than those whose interest is personal or who do not perceive field recording as a genre. I'm involved in various FR related activities (blogs, forums, facebook groups and of course leading workshops and lecturing) so I do listen to more field recordings by other recordists than I would perhaps choose to in the same way as I do to 'music'. I enjoy it of course, but for me there has to be a purpose to this activity. A reason for turning my ears towards a recording, whether that be in workshop playback sessions or to preview a post submitted to a website. Through all of these connections I believe i'm qualified to state that, as ever, there are a large number of recordings being made that, in my opinion, are documents of just one approach to the natural world; go to a place, record it, present it as a kind of audio postcard. I've done this myself and my comments here aren't meant as a criticism of that practice. What I will say however is that I am constantly surprised at how little things have progressed since the whale song / forest morning and waves on a beach days of the 1970's and 80's. A recording of a rain forest, no matter how well recorded, does not and cannot capture the experience of being in a rainforest and yet there are endless recordings of such places that appear to be publicly shared in some way that seeks to 'transport the listener', and lets face it a large number of listeners are primed to be transported - not only by the medium but perhaps by the way we live our daily lives. This leads back to the question of what it is that we are hearing - whether it is reality or our ideas of reality. We listen to a rain forest recording and think of it as restful or relaxing. In fact for all the creatures and natural systems that create its audible soup it is sonic chaos, a battlefield and a quest for survival in extreme conditions. Does the recordist think of that or of how to record some 'perfect' impression of the location that is in fact a denial of its true nature ?
genre / restriction
This is by no means an accurate survey but I would say that still the vast majority of 'field recording' releases are restricted to the most obvious idea of 'documentation'. Is there any part of the process that sees the recordist ask deeper questions about the purpose or content of such material ? Are such questions in fact a way to cause the 'record' button less work ?
Over the years I have become less and less interested in how the term 'field recording' has become almost a genre, defined in large part by this drive to present 'reality' to ones audience. Here perhaps there is a comparison with other art forms; throughout history there have always been a very large number of very competent painters, musicians, sculptors or writers for example, and yet, even in the widest sense and with ones deep belief that all the arts are available to all, it is a true statement to say that there is an important distinction between an individual competent at their chosen art or craft and those that are able to transform the art and transport the audience 'elsewhere'. I confess that I increasingly have no real idea why someone would record, say, a rain forest at night and release said recording as a creative artwork. Don't get me wrong, i'm not saying I think it a mistake to make such recordings available - for some reason there is still an audience for work that has no more creative merit than pointing any camera at a view and pressing the shutter - but I am unsure of what critical process is taking place and of how this then effects the wider understanding of what field recording is or can be. As with camera's the technology is democratic and yet it is doubtful that any recordist would choose to spend valuable time gazing at a snapshot that does not have additional creative content unless it were taken by someone they are connected to perhaps. In that sense a standard recording of a rain forest at night has a similar public value as a selfie on instagram - neither seeks to say anything other than 'here this is'.
On the other hand such recordings are often afforded value (by recordist or audience) as documents of a world in flux; a way to preserve the environment in some form or to draw ones attention to it. As I have attempted to state already, in fact we are only documenting human experience and in that respect I personally feel we owe it to our species and to the world in which we live to put more of ourselves into the work.
So, the question remains; as field recording grows as an interest for various audiences and recordists what is it we are recording ? more, what is it we are even hearing ?
pleased to be part of foundsoundscape project, curated by Janek Schaefer. artists include:
British Library Sound Archive
Simon Fisher Turner
“The one they shot with on the film was just built for the aesthetics and had electronic motors, whereas the machine at Bletchley looks very similar to the one in the film, but makes the authentic sound,” Walpole continues.
“Together with Andy Kennedy [sound designer], Joe Beal [sound effects editor] and Forbes Noonan [ADR mixer], I went along to record the sound of that; we took along a couple of sound devices and recorded multi-track. The mics we used were a Schoeps CMIT 5 U, Neumann KM 104s, a RØDE NT4 and JRF contact mics. We recorded every whirr, click and buzz from multiple microphone perspectives with the machine on a full run.”
Me and Chris Watson headed up north, driving along increasingly snow sided roads, to Ayr on the west coast of Scotland following an invitation from Peter Snowdon (lecturer in film making) and Nick Higgins (director of the Creative Media Academy). As part of the Honeycomb - Creative Works project, funded by the EU and aiming to bring leading creative industry professionals to the border counties of Ireland and the western seaboard of Scotland.
A group of 26 participants joined us for the 5 day intensive workshop, taking in field / location recording, extended listening, critical playback and discussions on equipment and techniques.
day one: introductions
through till lunch we spent the time getting to hear about each participant: their practice, aims for the week and what motivates them to work in the field. As always when we do these courses there’s a wide variety of interests; sound art, experimental music, social contexts, film and tv production and wildlife. After lunch Chris talked through various aspects of his approach to sound recording, playing examples to illustrate. I then spoke about my work with a particular focus on creative settings and the use of non-conventional microphones / devices (hydrophones, contact microphones, ultrasonic detectors, coils, geophones, vlf receivers etc). Essential to these talks is that they aren’t lectures - they’re discussions, a sharing of knowledge. The questions and comments from those attending not only provide an essential social element but also allow for everyone to think about aspects they perhaps don’t usually consider. Someone aiming for a career in film crew work can learn a lot from a sound artist whose concern is primarily the use of material to trigger different levels of listening. Likewise an artist can think in different ways about their practice when hearing how a sound mixer works. The two worlds are often concerned with very different aims and intentions - indeed, there is often a very wide gulf between the values (in terms of listening and the texture of sound) of these different approaches and this is why there’s a lot to be gained from exploring those differences in a sociable and group setting. Having tutored on workshops for some years now I can say without doubt that there’s almost always a total ‘group linking’ in the first hours or day of a course - where everyone involved understands that, whatever our specific approach or knowledge, we are all these through an interest in better and more expansive listening.
day two: equipment and first field trip
before lunch we begin discussing field recording equipment. About half of the group have limited previous experience with field recording (though most have some background in sound, whether in a studio setting or through music) and the other half have some experience and their own kit. So steep learning curves all round - but thats one of the reasons to come on a course such as this.
The Uni campus in Ayr has the River Ayr running though its grounds and so the lecturers decided a theme of the river for this weeks course. With that in mind our first field trip was to Glenbuck Loch, the source of the RIver Ayr. We arrived to find an amazing icicle-covered wood circling the totally frozen Loch, complete with ice-anchored boats and unsteady swans attempting to break the ice sheets. 26 is a big group and lets face it, field recording and site specific listening is a solitary pastime, by necessity. With that in mind I would say that the first thing people learn on these kinds of courses is how noisy we are a species. How challenging it can be to stand or sit totally still for 10, 20 , 30 + minutes without making a sound, or without ones recording or experience being affected by the sounds of others.
I concentrated on showing my approach to recording the ice on the Loch and the fence wires surrounding it. Chris headed into the trees to listen for bird life and we all came away with an additional, unexpected sound-memory, that of the icicles falling from trees when the wind picked up; a rain of small, cold bells - glass like fragments of sound, and very evocative.
day three: second field trip
moving down the river, towards Ayr itself, we first visited the site of Wallace’s Cave (or at least one of the caves associated with him). Some of the group went searching for the cave itself and others took the time to find their own spots amongst the trees and along the tracks. Here folks began to get a sense of how radically different the sound of single source (the river) can be every few centimetres or metres, and when its filtered through trees, fences, caves and other surfaces.
The next stop was at Ballochmyle, where we’d been told there were cup and ring markings (a form of prehistoric wall art, the exact meaning of which is subject to various theories) on several stones. Here we walked along one of the paths, leading us past numerous icicle screens where the melting snow was running into the small stream by the side of the track, to a bridge over the river and a rather odd box, marked AV, which at high volume was pushing water up through its cover. This ‘break’ in the soundscape of the walk had the effect of re-setting our ears and, of course, opening up thoughts about how our perception of place is often linked to what we expect rather than a more momentary and immersive openness to reality. Walking further the group began to split - some heading for the cup and ring marks and others taking time to venture down to the river to use hydrophones and contact microphones.
day four: third field trip and recording logging
we began at the Uni campus, following the path along the banks of the Ayr to a footbridge. I stayed near the bridge, with around half the group, attaching contact mics (not enough wind to resonate the structure on its own) and the others spent time recording along the banks or with Chris setting up mics around piles of bread and biscuits to try to attract birds closer to the mics.
As the bridge wasn’t sounding I then attached contact mics to a tree nearby, choosing one with dry, crisp leaves. Several of the group listened and then got on with finding their own tree sounds, either allowing the breeze to cause the sounds or taking a more interactive approach.
From here we decided to push back the scheduled lunch break and head to the docks at the mouth of the Ayr. By this time all participants were fully heading off on their own to use whatever kit they had or had borrowed. Some spent time on the beach and others concentrated on the diffused sounds of the active docks on the other bank of the Ayr; 2 cargo vessels were being loaded , the small pilot boat ran up and down the river, a nearby construction site, and of course the wind and water.
I took the opportunity to test some new omni mics, comparing them to my trusty DPA4060’s. Having made several recordings along the pier facing the docks I then switched to contact mics. As is often the case I stumble across one surface that offers up something special and here it was one of the large, flat metal pier plates stretching from the top to just below the waterline (at the time we were there). A massive low end filter for the tide and all activity on the river - deep drones from machinery, less focused elements which, whilst somehow representing the sensation of being on this windswept promontory, were abstracted - mirroring again ones ability to listen beyond the obvious. I’d have happily stayed listening to this one surface for hours.
Returning to the Uni campus participants either stayed and logged their recordings or set off to work on this at home. The point was to fully document each recording they’d kept, noting location, date, time and equipment used (either from notes taken in the field or from spoken idents on the recordings).
day five: critical playback
coming together as a group we listened back to one or two recordings from participants, discussing each one. Amongst the tracks were recordings of:
icicles falling from trees
ice sheets on the loch
swans pecking seeds from the ice
sound of the river from inside and outside Wallace’s cave
frozen waterfall at the gorge
metal pier plate
These playback sessions are always valuable, not only to compare different microphones, recorders and techniques but to hear the radical differences that even small decisions can produce. Quite often someone will say ‘I don’t think this is very good’ and on hearing it played back to the group, through speakers rather than in the enclosed world of solitary headphone listening, it becomes obvious that the recording not only ‘works’ but represents something of the individual. It is the aspects of our work that we doubt that we perhaps perceive what makes it ‘ours’.
'salts / adagios' - seconds from string works re-scored as durational pieces and recorded by placing jrf contact microphones & geophones on surfaces under & around the orchestra / ensemble performance venues
Interest in the sound recording of natural and human environments has grown rapidly in the last few years. Described in various ways: location, field, natural, wild etc., these recordings can be put to a multitude of uses including film, television, radio, art installations, web and CD releases, video game soundtracks, as part of musical compositions and so on. Although we often think of these art forms as primarily visual, in fact the sound track often plays a dominant role in the viewer/user's experience. Learning to create original and effective sound tracks is a crucial and major part of many creative processes. New digital equipment makes recording and editing sound more accessible to many non-specialists, but also requires skill and experience in order to get the most out of it.
Who is this for? This five-day course aims to teach you the skills necessary to produce superb field recordings that can be used in a wide range of different media projects, and will give you hands-on experience with some of the latest equipment. The course is suitable for film-makers, sound recordists, radio producers, audio artists, musicians and video game designers, both professional and amateur.
About the trainers: Taught by Chris Watson, one of the world's outstanding field recordists, whose work ranges from CDs released in his own name to the soundtracks of countless BBC wildlife films, and by audio specialist Jez riley French.
Who can apply? This is a free Honeycomb programme, award recipients must be located within the following territories: Western seaboard of Scotland – Lochaber; Skye & Lochalsh; Arran Cumbrae; Argyll & Bute; East Ayrshire & North Ayrshire Mainland; South Ayrshire; Dumfries & Galloway; NI, excluding greater Belfast; Six border counties of the Republic of Ireland – Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim, Louth, Monaghan and Sligo.
Deadline for Applications: Please email firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday 9th January, please title your email – Sound Module application request.
This episode is the first of a five episode “Sonic Season” of improvisation and sonic arts shows.
The life of the field recording artist explored in conversation with Jez riley French.
Independence and integrity of artistic practice are strong themes with the globetrotting Yorkshire-man whose DIY JrF contact microphones have become something of an industry standard tool among sound artists.
We discuss community, microphones and recording equipment including geophones, hydrophones and contact microphones as well as vibrating staircases and the “Stairway to Heaven” of the field recording world.
This podcast features some original recordings made during a weekend workshop led by Jez as well as audio from his own archive material.