How to Hear the Context in the Ground Noise


JL: In my own ethnographic archive, silence is sometimes rubbish for me, because I do not recall where it was recorded. For this first fieldwork in Romania, I went with a musician friend, but we were not at all systematic and did not really take care of the metadata or the description of the sound. And what struck me when I listened to this audio recording is that I can hear the space and recall precisely where it was recorded when I can hear some sounds, but when there is only silence ... I cannot recall which space it was, which house it was, for what occasions. So I was really thinking, do we absolutely need metadata to listen to a sound recording, in order for it not to be rubbish? Because you cannot rely on what are usually the indexes of space and location.


EK: Was it recorded for room tone for a film? Or what was the purpose of the recording in the first place?


JL: My friend had two approaches. He was recording while I was filming, and he also recorded a lot of more specific sound objects. He recorded drops, dozens of dogs, at different hours of the day, animals during the night or the day, from the street, or from the garden. We didn't really talk about what the strategy was. Because he was also a sound engineer, running his sound studio at the time, he had this approach of building a library of sounds around the project. It's also this topic that I wanted to talk about with the two of you. The idea of sound libraries, for me, is not akin to ethnographical location recordings. To my anthropological ear, field recordings are really linked to the need to have an atmosphere of a place. And that's also why some of these recordings are really difficult for me to deal with today. I am not sure these audio clips can be taken to be an archive of the soundscape, I rely on it more like a great sound library. So maybe, we can talk about both these specific recordings and also about the phenomenon of silence, metadata, and sound libraries.


EK: I totally identify with what you're saying about this desire for context in a recording, and the opposing desire to take something away from its context – again to refer to Pierre Schaeffer ([1966] 2002; see also Steintrager and Chow 2019) and the sound object. The whole approach of musique concrète was this idea of isolating the sound from its context, having it as an individual unit that you can use for musical composition. And the extension [of that with]? contemporary sound design is – it's not a musical composition – but these films are like compositions where you take these little objects and you slip them around. Now with Dolby Atmos, they use this term “objects,” again, for panning sounds in a three-dimensional space so that you can play it back on systems of different numbers of speakers and it will automatically position the sound at the right place. But anyway, I was always skeptical of that approach. Like you, I'm particularly interested in the context of these sounds, not in the sound as some kind of object. That's another way that filmmakers, or sometimes even ethnographic filmmakers, think differently on this: they will be happy to reach into a sound library to have the right sound, where they would never go to an Image Repository and use and image, or even a visual archive or something like that. “No, of course not, that wouldn’t be anthropological” or “no, that's not what happened in my fieldwork.” But with sound it doesn't matter – that sort of funny contrast. There have been times when I've regretted not making more of a sound library [laughing]: "Oh, it'd be really handy to have something to use for this project right now.” But, I mean, this idea of the sound object is a faulty idea. Sound is fundamentally not object-like. A lot of the recent critique of the notion of “soundscape” is built on this idea that there is something out there that you can record and study; this approach objectifies it. It turns it into a thing, whereas our experience of sound is really about relation and about connections, and it's always changing. Even this recording of silence, I boosted it by 30dB and uploaded it. It's something similar to what we did in the Expedition Content, some of the very quiet recordings. Just turn it way up. And then you can hear a lot in there. I think I can hear chickens. I can hear voices ...

HW: And there is maybe somebody sewing something, or operating some kind of tool. I think I can hear some pigs, or animals munching food. There are so many things emerging from the silence.


EK: It is a fun exercise because it wouldn't be useful at that level, because of the hiss and so on. But a so-called “silent track,” like this one, becomes interesting for me in a similar way that a lot of the archival stuff from Expedition Content became interesting. For some of that stuff, we also boosted it by almost the same amount, between 20dB and 30dB, hugely. And then you're really listening to the texture of the hiss as well as everything that's going on within it. That itself becomes an interesting part of the listening experience: you can hear the texture of that field of noise when you extremely amplify a 16-bit digital transfer.


JL: That's very interesting, because suddenly, what would be the rubbish, the compression artifacts (in my own recordings), become the index and what you use to make sense and to contextualize a sound recording. All the Dolby Surround formats from the mid-1970s onwards were intended to suppress the sound of technology (Birtwistle 2010). So by reducing all the ground noise it would make you able to make sense of the other sounds. But here you just perform a contrary exercise by boosting it, even the hiss intertwined with the rubbish, and then you actually have a context. That's really surprising, and great!


HW: I can't decide if it’s rubbish any more or if it has become a sort of ultra-commoditized sound; it might be both, maybe. I mean that when a technological enhancement alters the quality of a recording, and possibly unearths some details, it also loses some of the properties that makes it unique.


JL: What I really appreciated while listening to our rubbish is the difference between our respective smartphone recordings we wrote about for this issue. I was surprised because the recordings I have been working on were shot in 2008, and yours, Heikki, were recorded only a little bit later, but it is almost like they were from two different generations, at least while listening to the audio compression system.

An almost silent recording made by Jonathan Larcher, during his first fieldwork in Romania, August 2007.

Same audio recording made by Jonathan Larcher, boosted by 30dB.