Talking field: listening to the troubled site
‘Capturing the essence, if not the historical particulars, of a region on the move.’ – Chantal Akerman, ‘Moving Through Time and Space’ (Blaffer Art Museum catalogue, 2008).
As a practitioner of sound art I am involved with ‘field recording’, a practice that embraces the methodology of recording site-specific ambient sounds outside the studio. The practice is also known as ‘phonography’ – a term used to signify its similarity to photography. Field recording was originally developed as part of a documentary approach in anthropological field research; it also stands analogous to location recording in film-making, albeit being largely controlled by the predominant narrative strategies of cinema. With the introduction of high-quality portable recording technologies after the digital revolution in the 1990s, it became an independent and evocative art form in itself within the realm of sound art and new music. The current avatar of field recording often involves capturing environmental sounds, which might range from animal sounds from the remote corners of the wilderness to everyday urban sounds, subliminal in apprehension and low frequency in content; therefore, the sonic material tends to be complex in texture, tone, and characteristics. In response, artists have often pushed the technical capabilities of sound recording, demanding low noise and extended frequency response in portable, easy-to-use recording equipment, ranging from high-resolution multi-track recording kits to the DIY technologies of contact microphones, for example. The arrival of digital technology actually made such recording techniques and methods possible. Hence, we can observe that the digital era has turned out to be an ideal situation for the emergence of field-recording-based sound art, enabling diverse approaches to documenting sound from a site. Parallel developments also occurred within sound production practices in the context of fiction films; however, in the scope of this article I focus on examining non-fiction phonographic sound artworks due to their unique contribution to the issues of spatial evidence and site-based presence. Drawing on a few more recent scholarly works on field recording (Demers 2010: 113–34; Gallagher 2015), I intend to discuss one of my recent multi-channel sound compositions, Decomposing Landscape (Chattopadhyay 2015), in order to underscore the complex and evolving relationship between sound and site that is thoroughly challenged in the practice of field recording or phonography-based sound artworks and digital music compositions created with site-specific recordings of ambient sound.