How to Record Solitude?



00.04.47:      Watching National Geographic Wild

00.05.13.      Loud music. Birds screaming

00.05.28:     Shushing the birds 


Actually, there was an inherent paradox in the recording situation. I wanted to capture the sounds of Alice’s everyday life in solitude, but my presence disrupted the essence, the elemental condition, of what I sought to explore. Various times I found myself saying “Just pretend I’m not here,” trying to erase my imprint on the room. Alice played along. For a moment, she would pretend. Then the need to interact took over and disrupted our wordless time together.


As sound ethnographers we affect the social situations in which we take part not only by our very physical presence, but by bringing our recorder, we introduce another element. We become a kind of anthro-cyborg, experiencing the world through a technical device (Møhl and Hauge Kristensen 2018). It can make our ears more receptive and deepen our listening to the sonic environment. I listen with more focus, but also, more selectively. In other words, the recorder delineates a very concrete and selective sensory and experiential space. Personally, I find that exploring through sound in fieldwork expands my sensory engagement in some ways and confines it in others. I notice it in my field notes. My observations are mostly visual. It seems harder for me to write from the perspective of the ear, which is why the sheets in my notebook are only scantly filled out after a day of recording.


Nonetheless, recording makes it possible to capture and convey some of the nonverbal ways of relating and being in the world. As I am in the room with Alice, moving between conversation and silence, the recorder is there as a co-presence. Alice does not seem to notice it, but through the recorder the moment materializes. It carries the potential to resound in the future, inviting unknown listeners into our space. Recorded sounds, regardless of their temporality, preserve a sense of presence and immediacy that place the listener right in a scene (Makagon and Neumann 2008). Yet, how the listener is placed in a scene depends on the person recording. Where do we position ourselves with the recorder? How close do we move to the sound sources? Which sounds do we approach and which do we record from a distance? I mainly kept the recorder close to Alice, seeking to capture the sounds of her breath, the timbre of her voice, her small movements, pauses, and subtle actions. I also briefly followed the caregiver and tried to get close to the birds – the latter with little success. 


Moving around with a recorder allows us to create different sonic perspectives and dynamics. Some sounds appear in the foreground, while others occur in the background, revealing different layers in the sonic environment. The distance or proximity we pursue or maintain to the sound sources shape our way of experiencing, that is, our way of knowing. As such, the accumulation of acoustic knowledge is situated in a very tangible and bodily way. The anthropologist Sarah Pink refers to the anthropological filmmaker David MacDougall when describing the interactions of the body with the world in sensory registrations. “The world is not apart from, but within the filmmaker and viewer” (MacDougall in Pink 2015: 124). According to Pink, the same can be said about audio recording, and this idea invites us to consider how such work connects with the idea of ethnography as a place-making practice. Here I will focus on the production of knowledge through sound. Following Pink, we can understand the audio recorder as an aspect of the ethnographer’s emplacement, and as such as part of the entanglement of place. On one hand, the recorder is an element of the material environment the ethnographer is participating in. Yet, on the other hand, significantly the audio recorder is also essential to the ethnographer’s forms of engagement in that environment, ways of experiencing and mode of participation. It moreover moves with, rather than independently of, the ethnographer as she or he moves, Pink writes (2015: 125).

Without the recorder, I would never have approached Alice as I did. The recorder allowed me to move into her intimate space, a space where she produces and hears her own sounds and where those sounds merge with the sounding of my body. Sounds float from, through, and into us, intertwining our bodies and the space in which our encounter takes place. MacDougall stresses how we see with our whole bodies: any image we intend to convey carries the imprint of our bodies, that is to say, of our being as well as the meanings we intend to convey (MacDougall in Pink 2015: 125). Translated into auditory terms, it might sound like this: we listen and record with our whole body. Every recording carries the resonances of bodies. Vibrations, not only of the bodies we seek to capture, but also of the body behind the recorder and its relation to space. Other bodies are invited into the space as the recordings are played to an audience, interweaving the bodies of Alice, me (the recordist), and the listener. I therefore consider knowledge productions and representations through sound as processes imbued with intimacy.


View of Alice’s courtyard. Photo by Nanna Hauge Kristensen (copyright)