Listening After Nature. Field Recording, Ecology, Critical Practice - Mark Peter Wright. New York: Bloomsbury, 2022
by Marcel Cobussen
Listening – nature – field recording - ecology. The title immediately caught my attention as one of my more recent interests is indeed the question of what sound studies can contribute to the debate on the current climate crisis, as well as how sound or sound art can concretely be deployed to improve, for example, biodiversity. Perhaps the last two words of the title – critical practice – should have been a kind of warning. What Mark Peter Wright in Listening After Nature first of all offers is a critical reflection, a critical introspection on the practice of field recording, summarized in this one sentence that turns up throughout the whole book: “What are we not hearing?”
So, what are we not (consciously) hearing when we listen to a field recording? Wright has collected quite a list. On a very concrete and direct level, what we often do not hear, for example in recordings of natural environments, is the hum of incidental planes or other traffic, the ultrasonic fizz of the recording equipment, or the presence of the recordist (as it is taken out of the final audio file). Especially this last one is given quite some attention in the book. Wright calls the absent or silent recordist the “noisy-nonself,” and he makes a harsh judgment here: “Self-erasure is guided by the myth of noninvasive, low-impact fieldwork” (p. 27). In other words, even when their presence cannot always be perceived in the final product, field recordists do leave lots of traces; they do affect the space in which they work; and they do influence or manipulate (the sounds of) the human as well as non-human agents while being active within that space. Wright thus challenges the idea of a natural or neutral field recording practice. This practice always already has political and ethical overtones: it is the recordist who decides what will be recorded; it is the recordist who decides to be silent (rather than being silenced); it is the recordist who points a microphone toward animals, infrastructures or atmospheres, often without consent from these non-human agencies (p. 43).
What we also tend to ignore while listening to field recordings is how technology determines to a large extent what we hear. Here, Wright aligns with Bruno Latour who claims that “mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify meaning or elements they are supposed to carry” (p. 39). In other words, technology is not an objective witness. Wright makes this transparent through what he calls “an iterative chain of displacements”: from the sounds “out there” to the microphone, from hard drive to laptop, from editing suite to composing and mastering, and, finally, to the listeners in their very specific situatedness – at all these levels technology interferes as an active agent, affecting the final result (p. 41). Most field recordists spend at least as much time with their digital workstation, cutting, fading in/out, filtering, etc. as in the field (p. 98). What we are listening to is the outcome of post-production processes that lead to nothing but sonic fictions (p. 73).
What else do we not hear? Of course, Wright readily admits, field recordings can contribute to ecological awareness or engage with eco-sonic concerns, although there is always the danger of producing aestheticized objects that obfuscate the environmental problems (p. 82). But both recordists and listeners should realize that field recording itself is only made possible by the import and export of materials needed to produce recording devices and sound installations, and to make them work. For example, “natural resources, mined from the earth, allow microphones to record; plastics protect their inner workings; geological extraction, labor, waste and environmental degradation make holding a microphone possible” (p. 117). Wright confronts us with the potential dilemma of turning a deaf ear on what he calls “technological colonialism” (p. 127) and “e-waste” (p. 135) in favor of an unproblematic and aestheticized listening to a sonorous object, bracketed exclusively in and of itself (p. 124). But perhaps it is not that we just cannot hear this; perhaps we simply don’t want to hear this (p. 137).
Wright’s book not only confronts the reader with the negative sides of field recording. Throughout the book also many positive effects are listed: field recordings present an alternative to more conventional, visual representations of sites; recording and listening postulate connections and relations, beyond the academic or scientific desire to attribute meaning or to gain knowledge (p. 61); sound can also help to “decolonize our gaze” (for example because it can lead to contradictory associations) and reveal information that remained hidden in other media (p. 74); by disrupting the natural ear, sonic fiction can also be regarded as a critical and creative tool (p. 75-6). Specifically related to this last item, sonic knowledge is not as scientific, disciplined, or absolute as other types of knowledge are or would like to be. Field recordings especially often navigate between information and affect, between data gathering and music, between the real and the imagined (p. 110). Wright quotes Steven Feld, for whom sonic knowledge is less about acquiring meaning than about experiencing a space and its human and nonhuman agents; it should be understood as partial and contingent, thereby (implicitly) disrupting universal truth claims. For Wright this is an opportunity rather than a regretted loss: relying on certain ideas coming from New Materialism, he suggests that we should accept the fallibility of our human-centered knowledge. This is especially relevant to the attention field recordists can give to the sounds of nonhuman beings, for example by using recording devices that can bring us into contact with sounds that we usually cannot hear, adding an invigorating critical potential to the field of sound studies.
Although the benefits of sound studies or sound art in general, and in particular field recordings, in relation to political, social, ethical or ecological issues could have been addressed more thoroughly and systematically, the critical approach towards field recording that Wright has chosen as the main topic of his book makes for a very interesting and simultaneously confrontational read. Making a field recording will never be the same for me after having read this book: being more aware now of the devices I use and how they have been produced, will probably lead to simply making less recordings thereby at least saving batteries and equipment. And regarding the consent from nonhuman beings: from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass I already learnt that asking consent from nature and other beings is a simple act of politeness as we are not more than guests on this earth. Next to that, I could also try to give something in return to the place where I make my recording. But perhaps another thing I could do is to ask consent of myself: am I enough convinced that it is justifiable, ethical, permissible to make a recording here? Posing such questions might be the most important and far-reaching lesson I learnt from Wright and Listening After Nature.