Thinking through Sound (Listening with your Hands) 

Article for Blue Rinse Papers, Lydgalleriet, 2021


“The most affecting recordings offer a focus that lays beyond the everyday listening we experience. They reveal a depth or presence that transforms the moment of recording into something hyperreal, to borrow Baudrillard’s term, that can be meaningfully engaged with by other listeners at future times and in different places”. Lawrence English, A Beginner’s Guide to … Field recording, Fact Magazine, 18.11.2014


I’m sitting, right here, on the ground, in the middle of everything. No one can see me, I’m not hiding, just trying to blend in, to become part of the landscape. My ears are totally covered, inside a cuplike chamber covered with synthetic black fabric pulled over some soft padding. One cup for each ear, on each side of my head. They’re hard and soft at the same time, and my earlobes become numb and warm. I can feel the energy that floats through the environment that surrounds me. I have elephant ears, my body, a hypersensitive membrane. I can hear a needle falling, I am listening to the subtle bass-vibration of a sheet of metal, created by the wind, I can hear my own heartbeat. I am the landscape; I am the environment. 


Sometimes one of the sides pops out, it becomes mono-left, half the fun. I adjust the cable, with my right hand, then it’s back again, the whole stereo image, a full-bodied experience. I find this glitch a bit irritating, but it actually sharpens my listening mode. I’m used to it, it has been like this for years. It has almost become a part of my method. I’ve considered buying a new pair of headphones. It doesn’t happen.


When I was asked to contribute to Lydgalleriet’s Blue Rinse publication series, I decided to discuss and highlight methods and strategies for artists working with environmental sound and field recording today. To do that, I think it’s important to put field recording in a historical context, and to scrutinize how the narrative and the use of technology has developed the field. I also want to investigate more specifically how we, as artists, work in the current state (under the premises of a pandemic, climate change, capitalism and war) and how this changes the way we perceive and experience our localities and communities.  Can listening help us understand our history better, and can contemporary listening help us to understand the present and develop a possible future?


The theme for the publication creates quite an open task. It is both abstract and concrete, dealing with the concept of place, and the phenomenology of listening. The duality of fiction/non-fiction always exists in what we artists do. This is imbedded in the nature of materials, playfulness, interpretation and creativity. This negotiation between fact and fiction (truth and falsehood) is something I find very fascinating and helpful, developing things further (within an art context) to make new connections, and to raise new questions.


People sometimes ask me, what do you do for a living? I answer, I’m a sound artist and a researcher, focusing on the Norwegian landscape and the post-industrial soundscape and how it transforms over time. For many people this might be a bit too nerdy, a bit strange, not a typical nine-to-four job (I don’t have a car and I don’t have a boat), but I’m also surprised how often people become interested in the subject, that it opens up new perspectives, new horizons. Maybe this happens even more often now, during the pandemic. That we all have a relationship to environmental and natural sound, what it is and what it means to us, even if these reactions are conscious or not. My experience is that more and more people are starting to appreciate the diversity of wild nature, the variety of creatures and organisms, that they understand that natural resources are not endless and that we need to reduce our global footprint. This also means the effect of anthropogenic vibrations and noise.


The concept of silence, Norwegians simply love their silence. Going to their ‘hytte’ (cabin), to relax, enjoy and experience nature. Going skiing or hiking in the mountains. Listening to the sound of a crackling fire or to the lark singing, with a clear voice into the forest. This is deeply imbedded in our culture. 


So, what happens when this silence is replaced with another kind of silence? The constant humming of your neighbour’s air-conditioning system, the rise of monstrous data centres in the countryside or the ultrasonic noise from a wind powerplant. Our ears are very good filters. We filter out the things we don’t like to hear. Still these sounds affect our states of mind, our bodies, our day-to-day life. Try to listen actively next time you travel by public transport, buy a ticket (like you’re going to the National Opera House), find yourself a comfortable seat, close your eyes and listen (for five minutes or so). Try to imagine the landscape that is passing, how the weather is and how the clouds are floating by, and what time of the day it is. Listen to all the sounds inside the vehicle. Maybe someone is talking into their phone, or there is the friendly argument of some teenagers, or a small kid restlessly wanting to get out of their pushchair or someone turning the pages of a daily newspaper. This attentiveness will change the way you experience your surroundings, try it several times during one week (for example on your way to work/school). It’s a good way to train your listening skills, to develop your imagination and to establish a language of how you experience sound and/in space.


I’ll now go a bit deeper into how I work, what field recording means for me and why I’m so fascinated by the subject. Then we will take a glimpse into the history of recording, and I’ll highlight a couple of projects I’ve been engaged in and fascinated by.


When shaping out a new sound project, I start with choosing a place or location. This can be based on a structural concept, the content or context of a site, or a combination of these. Often these choices are based on intuition and improvisation, not a structural intellectual process.


Some of the projects I have been involved in require official permission to enter the specific site, and to present the motivation to ‘unskilled’ professionals (that can almost be a project in itself). This is a challenging task, but it really helps you to develop a simple description of what you’re interested in doing, the framework of the project and what you want to achieve from that specific place. I’m never 100% sure what will happen when I enter a new location. How will it sound in advance? How will the listening experience or the final result be? I may have some ideas, but they are just a point of departure. Lately, I’ve become more and more interested in the history of a place and how this history transforms through sound and acoustic phenomena. Can sound be used as a tool to collect, preserve and communicate collective history and memory?


Aiming for a Relational Listening

When I arrive at a new site, I first start to investigate the place with my eyes, ears (and body). Some places might have an immediate acoustic atmosphere or specific character: this could be charged, uncharged, noisy, quiet, spacious or dry. Some places are softer or more muted and you need to search for subtle and discreet qualities, hidden micro-environments that exist beneath the surface. Only those who are aware will notice. Listening, using my body, my ears, my eyes and placing myself in various spots, positions. Repeating: movement, listening, stillness, closing my eyes, listening, recording, movement, listening, stillness, closing my eyes, listening, recording. My whole body becomes a listening detector, the microphone my third (AI) ear, the audio recorder my extended memory. 


Standing still for three minutes holding a microphone is challenging, even more challenging than moving around. My body aches and shakes, my fingers are cold, my nose snotty and my glasses steamed up. I work against my own physicality and limitations. Resistance. Pushing myself gently. 


During the recording sessions, before and after, I’m extracting the place visually, looking for traces, remnants, interesting patterns, materials, objects etc. This investigation or dialogue often ends up with a collection of artefacts, photographs, films and a series of recordings. When placing out the microphones, I’m actively listening, composing, moving them around, listening, attaching, detaching, until they sound satisfactory. 


This process is a way of relational listening. The microphone is an extended organ, mapping, collecting and negotiating with time and space. Working with field recording both as material and a tool, is truly rich and intense. Tune into these hidden feeds that are constantly going on. Listen and engage. All you have to do is plug in. 


“I call this theory relational listening, because what I seek through my field recording is a relational condition between my listening within a given horizon and that of the microphones. To me, a successful field recordist is one who can transmit something of themselves in a particular place/time and that something is their listening”.Lawrence English, A Beginner’s Guide to … Field recording, Fact Magazine, 18.11.2014


To be recording on location you always have to deal with a series of uncontrollable parameters and unexpected errors, like rain, wind, temperature, low battery, full memory card, forgotten headphones, too short cables, forgotten ‘secret’ microphone, excessive hiss, background noise etc. This informs the recording, not always for the better, but sometimes some unexpected wind or some falling snowflakes that create soft patterns on your microphones, bring some distinct and unique qualities to your recording. 


Suddenly you know when you are THERE, you’ve reached that HOT SPOT, it’s a warm feeling, based on personal aesthetics, experience and intimate knowledge. Sometimes this feeling may come later, while listening back to the recording, but I’ve routinely started to recognise some of the qualities I am looking for and that I appreciate.


After a recording session, it´s important to register and archive the material. If not, I seem to forget the place where it’s recorded, to forget the ‘feeling’ of place, many of the Geofón (microphone that records seismic vibrations) recordings, for example, sound very similar and it can be hard to differentiate. It’s important to keep track of the when, how and where of the recording. Especially when, like me, you are aiming for an ever-growing audio archive.  


I often let the recordings rest for a while, until I open them again, starting to listen, editing and rediscovering what I recorded. I believe in this ‘fermentation’ process, to distance myself from the actual place/space that I recorded. To allow the time-aspect to become a vintage quality.

When I recorded in Høyblokka, the former governmental quarter in Oslo, in 2017 I let the recordings rest for more than a year, before I started listening back and editing the material. I needed that distance to be able to re-enter into the state of the buildings and to work with the material in a more objective way. I did write down all the different floors and timetables in a small notebook that I brought along with me. It was a major operation locating all the recordings with the different places and the right data.


When I started working as an artistic research fellow, with a project focusing on environmental sound and field recordings everyone seemed to think I was the field recording guy with a big F. This is true to a certain extent, but after working with field recordings for a decade I still do not consider myself a ‘pure’ field recordist. I find this ambiguity both challenging and interesting. I simply resist fitting in. Partly musician, partly composer, partly sound artist, partly visual artist. My goal is to make this ‘in-betweenness’ my strength.

What is field recording?

The term ‘field recording’ is used for an audio recording produced outside a recording studio and applies to recordings of both natural and human-produced sounds. It also applies to electromagnetic fields, vibrations and resonance. Using different microphones such as an electromagnetic antenna for electromagnetic recordings, contact microphones or a geophone for vibrations and resonance, a hydrophone is used to capture the sounds and movements under water.


The history of phonography begins with Thomas Edison and the development of his phonograph in 1877. This was the beginning of mechanical recording and reproduction of representational and documentative sound. Scottish inventor, scientist, and engineer Alexander Graham Bell and his Volta Laboratory made several improvements in the 1880s and introduced the graphophone, including the use of wax-coated cardboard cylinders with a cutting stylus that moved from side to side. In the 1890s, Emile Berliner initiated the transition from cylinders to flat discs with a spiral groove running inwards, like the common vinyl spinning that we know today. Berliner coined the term gramophone for disc record players. Later modifications led to the turntable, its standard drive system and the use of a needle. The phonograph record was the most used audio recording format throughout the 20th century. In the 1960s, phonograph use on a standard record player declined sharply due to the rise of the audio cassette. Later came the commercial breakthrough of compact discs, and other digital recording formats, like the streaming platforms we’re familiar with today (I’m not mentioning any names).


Ludwig Koch, a German-born broadcaster and sound recordist made the first documented non-human recording in 1889 of a common shama bird, with his father’s wax cylinder. He was still a child back then. This was also the first time that sound, captured somewhere, could be reproduced and played somewhere else. Today this is a matter of course. 


Field recording experienced a rapid increase in popularity during the early 1960s, with the introduction of high-quality portable recording equipment (reel-to-reel decks), like the Uher and the Nagra portable recorders. The arrival of the DAT recorder (Digital Audio Tape) in the 1980s introduced a new level of audio recording fidelity and quality.


In the late sixties, the American sound recordist Irv Teibel made Environments (1969-79), a series of environmental recordings (01-11) which he released on the Syntonic Research Inc. label. The series consists of eleven albums with recordings of natural sounds such as the seashore, a thunderstorm, blizzards, birdsong, heartbeats etc. The albums opened up and made environmental sound and soundscapes available to a wider audience.


In the UK, BBC released Wildlife Series, focusing on recordings of wildlife, animals and nature. A series of 12 LPs, released between 1969-1971. Album number 01 - A Salute to Ludwig Koch, Number 02 - British Mammals and Amphibians, Number 03 - Cats and Dogs, Number 04 - Highland Birds, Number 05 - Sounds of the Countryside, Number 06 - Ludwig Koch - Recollection and Recordings, Number 07 - Wildlife of East Anglia, Number 08 - Wildlife in Danger, Number 09 - Back Garden Birds. Number 10 - Woodland Birds, Number 11 - Wildlife of Wales, Number 12 - Sea and Island Birds. The albums were recorded and compiled by Ludwig Koch, John Burton, Roger Perry, Michael Kendal, Eric Simms. Liner notes and production was by Eric Simms, John Burton and Robin Prytherch. Today many of these recordings are available online through the British Library Audio Archive.


In Sweden, Sveriges Radio and SR Records released a series of fifteen albums of bird sounds. The Peterson Field Guide Series, A Field Guide to the Bird Songs of Britain and Europe (1969-1980). They also released two albums of animal sounds A Field Guide, Mammal Voices of Europe. The series is a comprehensive collection of all kinds of birds and mammals with beautiful images and layout. SR also released a series of thirty-five 7” albums called Radions Fågel Skivor, (Radio Birdsong) with a beautiful modernistic design. The albums were recorded by Sture Palmér (1907-1988), a Swedish biologist and bio-acoustician. Palmér was also one of the main contributors to The Peterson Field Guide Series.


In the late 90s, the American sound artist, sound designer and wildlife recordist Douglas Quin, recorded the Antarctica album. The album includes a mind-blowing recording of Weddell seals communicating under the surface of the ice. The first time I heard these recordings, I was shocked. They sound like a hidden message from outer space, a mix of an electroacoustic synth jam and a vintage Space Invader arcade game station. They offer an extra-terrestrial and immensely intense listening experience. Quin has been involved in documenting the Arctic tundra for Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World to contributing sounds for Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park III.  He also developed the Soundscapes app available for smartphones. 


In a historical perspective, I find the BBC and the Sveriges Radio album series important archives and sound-marks, which made recorded sound and natural soundscapes available to a broader audience. It was also a way to measure, collect data and understand the world. I still think these documents are very fascinating and interesting, but most of all they function as a form of conservation of an audible past; time documents that also tell us something about the current world view and the technology that used to be used.


Teibel’s Environmental albums are still available to purchase online. They have a contemplative and meditative atmosphere, not very far from the new age soundscapes that are still being produced today for meditation, relaxation and ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). I think it’s fantastic that major labels have released this kind of material, and I wish they still did. Who knows, maybe in the future there might be a bigger market for recordings of nature environments and soundscapes? 


What makes a recording stand out and interesting? 

For me, it’s important to distinguish between the use of field recording as a scientific tool and the use of recordings with an artistic approach. Is it possible to transmit someone’s subjective listening? I would say YES. The way someone chooses to listen and the way they manoeuvre their equipment will colour the final result. Of course, there’s not only one way of dealing with this artistically, but I often experience that artists approach documentation, recording and archive building in a more experimental and playful way than most scientists. The scientific and more fact-based approach also exists within the arts (also within artistic research). Personally, I find it more interesting with artists (or scientists/researchers) who successfully create some friction, raise new questions, bring in new perspectives or offer a more open-ended conclusion.


This shift marks an important transition into the contemporary understandings of field recording. As artists we can bring in material sensibility, new perspectives, unconventional thinking, creativity and reflection. This is not insignificant; these perspectives are highly important.


Two artists I personally find very inspiring and who have both succeeded in using scientific methods and establishing their own artistic signature, are the German sound artist Christina Kubisch and the Japanese artist and scientist Toshiya Tsunoda. 


In the late 1970s, the German sound artist Christina Kubisch began to use electromagnetic receivers for her sound installations. As a principle of acoustic transmission, this is based on the sounds resulting from the mutual interaction of magnetic fields. Later, Kubisch improved the freedom of movement, tone quality and listening experience by developing the technology further, implementing the electromagnetic receivers into wireless headphones, with which the listener can move around and experience freely in space. In 2020, I was fortunate to experience her installation, Weaving, at Atelier Nord in Oslo, consisting of golden audio cables that were ‘woven’ across the room. When first entering the space, everything was quiet, but when you put on the electromagnetic headphones which were handed out, you were able to experience, listen and perform her work in a very intimate manner.


Toshiya Tsunoda is a Japanese scientist and artist who started to investigate physical vibrations and resonance in a former fish market in the Misaki Port area in the time frame 1993 - 1999. In 2019, the American label Erstwhile released a CD box set, containing 5 CDs and a booklet, collecting Tsunoda’s most remarkable work Extract from Field Recording Archive #1-#3. He classifies his recordings in three groups: Extract #1, stationary waves. A stationary wave is the vibration of a particular place. Extract #2, resonance of the hollow. Vibrations observed from the outside, and the interference of internal events. Extract #3, solid vibration. Since the transmission velocity of solid vibration differs depending on the medium, the spatial distance cannot be identified. 


Both Kubisch’s and Tsunoda’s work can be read and understood as ‘technical’, systematic and scientific. I find that there’s a poetic and meditative quality that stands out and makes their work highly unique and attractive. The methods I used while recording Høyblokka were very much influenced by their mindset and especially Tsunoda’s ‘Resonance of the Hollow’ technique.


Ways of listening (Oslo lockdown)

One night when I was going to bed, I could hear a robin blabbering outside in one of the treetops nearby. It felt like it was almost spring, but it was early December. This was the second time it was there. Most robins, or rødstrupe as we say in Norwegian, migrate but some try to stay for the winter, mostly in urban areas, where they can be fed. I was almost falling asleep, it was so warm and cosy under my sheet. I thought I should record it but being able to control my body seemed an impossible task. For some reason, I suddenly found the energy to stand up, put on my clothes and grab my recorder. The living room was dark, I opened the balcony door, I was afraid I would scare it away, but it wasn’t bothered. It’s been some weeks since I last recorded, I’m in a new phase of my research project, processing and reflecting, developing new ideas and making new connections. I’m out of sync, all the cables and microphones are spread everywhere. Even the memory card was not where it was meant to be. What a mess! When I do this regularly, everything is tidily stored in my bag. I like that feeling. Luckily the battery was charged. I decided to record with one of the DPAs (no need for stereo) and the Geofón. I fixed them both to the balcony railing. I could hear some water dripping and I could hear the deep resonance of the surroundings transformed through metal. 


A tram passed by. The bird kept singing. It was midnight, still quite a lot of noisy traffic. I planned to record for ten minutes, I sat down on the sofa. When the alarm clock went off, it felt far too short, I kept recording, scrolling through my smartphone. I may have ordered some obscure birdsong record from eBay. I remember I thought of leaving the recorder outside and letting it record all night, as I have done many times before. I think I must have fallen asleep.


Untz, untz, untz, untz, untz, the kick drum is running (kicking) day and night from inside the Bandidos’ headquarters in Svartdalen. I can hear the party in the stairwell on the way up to my studio at Kroloftet. Oslo’s official nightlife has closed down, but not this place. One part of me really likes the idea of an everlasting dance floor, a ritual of dance music and pure love and joy, but another part of me wants it to be quiet so I can focus, rest and think. Is this really safe? Suddenly, I feel like my own worried parents.


What are the new sounds and soundscapes of 2021 and the pandemic in Norway? Is there less or more sound and/or is there some new sounds? I won’t give you any answers and this ending doesn’t have any smart summary or a final conclusion. There’s only one way to find out. 


Go out and listen (with your hands).