In the Field: The Art of Field Recording - Cathy Lane & Angus Carlyle. Axminster: Uniformbooks, 2013


By Marcel Cobussen

The Status of Field Recordings

For several reasons I have a rather ambivalent relation towards field recordings. This ambivalence is not necessarily annoying, disturbing, or irritating; it is simply that I am often puzzled, confused, and full of questions after having listened to field recordings. One of these questions that regularly arises is: To what have I actually listened? Let’s say that on one side of the spectrum I could consider those recordings as something like sonic documentaries, introducing me to unknown, lost, or past soundscapes; on the other side, I do not attempt to situate or identify the sounds, but perceive the recordings with a more or less purely aesthetic attitude. Or, to reformulate this, the former raises questions about the representational value, including ideas about “sonic journalism” or “docu-music” as Peter Cusack calls it, whereas the latter is inviting me, first of all, to attentive listening, to perceiving, without too much reflecting, the richness of the sounds, their individual layers as well as the complexity of their potential relations and combinations, close to Pierre Schaeffer’s acousmatic listening. Choosing between, let’s put it boldly, the rational and the aesthetic or between “truth” and “beauty,” is often codetermined by the additional information accompanying the recordings: abstract or no titles usually seem to demand a listener who is primarily interested in “the sounds themselves”; Conversely, lots of information on the exact time and space of the recorded sounds gives me the idea that the “composer” (also) wants to share knowledge and give a concrete impression of a particular sonic environment.

Struggling with this provisionally binary opposition, I was quite happy when Cathy and Angus sent me their book In the Field: The Art of Field Recording (Axminster: Uniformbooks, 2013). The book consists of eighteen interviews with well-known as well as less well-known contemporary sound artists who use field recordings in their work: Andrea Polli, Annea Lockwood, Antye Greie, Budhaditya Chattopadhyay, Christina Kubisch, Davide Tidoni, Felicity Ford, Francisco Lopez, Hildegard Westerkamp, Hiroki Sasajima, Ian Rawes, Jana Winderen, Jez Riley French, Lasse-Marc Riek, Manuela Barile, Peter Cusack, Steve Feld and Viv Corringham. The format and structure of the book is relatively simple: Cathy and Angus each conversed with nine sound artists through a fixed questionnaire, which makes it both easy and interesting to discover points of convergence and points of departure between all interviewees. As for me, questions about their entrance to field recording, their sources of inspiration, or their own favorite recordings served primarily as a sort of background information. More interesting with regard to my indecisive relation to field recordings described above were questions such as: What do you look for in a recording? What about the audible presence of the recordist? Why field recording? Do you call what you do music or art? Is it important for you that people listening to your work know what they are listening to? These questions dealt more specifically and explicitly with the status of the auditory investigations of sites, with their emphasis on the indexical or the expressive, with their inclination to the testimonial or the artistic.

Between “Truth” and “Art”

Having dealt with and still interested in the epistemologies of sound and sound studies in the fourth issue of the Journal of Sonic Studies, I was curious to find out what field recordists think their work is possibly contributing to knowledge. How will they assess the relation between “truth” and “art,” between the so-called objective and the subjective, between an attention to the intrinsic sonic qualities of a soundscape and the potential meanings of that soundscape and/or its recording? It will not come as a big surprise that the eighteen interviewees reveal considerably different opinions about this issue. However, in general they tend to agree that their work never receives the status of a kind of objective documentary. Perhaps with this one exception: Steve Feld. He firmly presents his acoustic epistemology or acoustemology as “a way of constructing an anthropology of sound, of joining methods or dialogic editing and theories of sound as knowledge” (208). Although being well aware of the aesthetic value of his materials as well as of the fact that he is always a part of his recordings – parried by Feld as “an enhanced way of engaging with listening to people” (209), not unusual in disciplines such as ethnography, anthropology, sociology, and ethnomusicology, which often use methods like participatory observation, informal interviewing, and direct observation – he mainly uses his recordings “to gather data on the history of listening and to theorize listening subjectivity” (211). Already since the 1970s Feld is interested in how sound in general, and field recordings in particular, are able to contribute in their own specific way to (anthropological) analyses, publications, and knowledge. For Feld it seems obvious that field recordings contain data that give information about and insight in environments and how living beings relate to those environments, information that cannot be accessed so easily through other media.

Getting access to information through sound is also the basis for sonification and audification processes. On Sonic Antarctica scientist and (sound) artist Andrea Polli uses natural and industrial field recordings, sonifications, and audifications of scientific (meteorological) data as well as interviews with weather and climate scientists. Field recording material appears in those sonifications, and Polli sometimes also uses data to transform those recordings (19). Although artistic interventions are certainly present, Polli primarily talks about Sonic Antarctica as a sonic documentary, a status enhanced by the interviews and the scientific context in which the concept of sonification most often occurs.

Less explicit as concerns the epistemological status of her field recordings is Jana Winderen. Educated in biochemistry, fish ecology, and marine biology besides fine arts, she became interested in recording sounds of sea-snails, crustaceans, cod, herring, and sea urchins combined with sounds of wind and glaciers. On the one hand it seems that Winderen likes “to communicate the marine sound world to other people,” trying to represent in the best possible way the underwater creatures within their full sound environment (153–4). Connected to this might be her firm rejection of revealing her presence in the recordings. On the other hand she admits that she is “always processing” (155), always manipulating the recordings, in other words, never giving an objective or neutral representation of the sound world. Furthermore, she also stresses the recordings’ “abstract qualities” (154) and the fact that listeners should make their own associations (156). Her ambivalent position with regard to the status of her recordings is best expressed in her statement about her most famous CD Energy Field, made on field trips to the Barents Sea, Greenland and Norway: “It is not a documentary but it is still a story, there are real recordings with imaginative elements” (157).

Annea Lockwood, mostly known for her CD A Soundmap of the Hudson River besides her project Piano Burning, equally does not regard her recordings of rivers as documentaries (33). Nevertheless, she does not do any processing apart from EQ “because with these my intention is different from compositional work” (31). What is her intention? In the book she is not very explicit about that: listeners might hear how the sounds of a river differ at each spot, how the sounds of different rivers also contain cultural differences, and how these listening experiences might evoke personal memories and some awareness about the environment we are living in (or not, anymore) (32–6). Because she believes these memories and awareness of differences and environment should be a potential result of being immersed in the sounds themselves, Lockwood renounces the integration of interviews into the recordings (33).

Using sonic recordings as documentary or as geographical mappings is also at the heart of Peter Cusack’s work. Contrary to Lockwood, he does add language to his recordings. Talking about one of his most famous projects Sounds From Dangerous Places: Chernobyl, he states that “sound will tell you quite a lot, but it won’t give you radiation statistics, or other factual information, so you need to give that verbally” (195).

Most interviewees seem to agree with Cusack that field recordings in themselves do not provide reliable, objective, or scientific information. Some try to enhance the information level by adding text or otherwise explaining what can be heard. Some add visual materials as an extra source of information. Someone like Viv Corringham weaves her own singing into the recorded acoustic environments, thereby turning it more into an art work (219). Antye Greie uses field recordings mainly for sampling and composing with those samples (43). And for Francisco Lopez, field recordings are “essentially a creative way of interacting with reality, rather than ‘representing’ reality” (101). The use of four or more channels gives him the opportunity to “create different environments which you could never hear in reality” (103). Lopez’s favorite field is “the unreal field that comes from the real field” (106).

Nevertheless, Lopez, like most interviewees in In the Field, spends considerable amounts of time in remote places to record specific, often exotic, sonic events. Therefore, rather than presenting the different ideas about the scientific and artistic values of field recordings as opposites, I would suggest that all eighteen interviewees can be positioned on a scale bounded by, on the one side, absolute objective information about the location where the recording took place, and, on the other side, a purely subjective and aesthetic reworking of the recorded materials without the slightest intention of providing a listener with concrete information about the specifics of place and time.

It is not a documentary but it is still a story

Somehow, however, I am not completely satisfied with this exchange of a dichotomy in favor of this continuum, and this has mainly to do with the alleged idea of most field recordists in In the Field that one can only claim recordings to have some informative value if that information is objective, verifiable, repeatable, universal, and eternal; in short, the positivistic litany.

Let me, as a counternarrative, hook on to the book Tropics of Discourse from 1978 by the historian Hayden White. In the book, White first perceives a gap between language and reality: Language always says more and less than the reality it speaks about. Second, the way discourses within humanities relate to reality is tropological, that is, they (have to) use figurative language. Three, logic is a trope as well. Four, facts do not exist outside a discourse but are a result of that discourse; in other words, what “facts,” “reality,” and “logic” are, is decided in a discourse. Consequently, understanding (described by White as going from the unfamiliar to the familiar) is a tropological process.

What does this mean for the discipline in which White operates, historiography? According to White, historical research is necessarily interpretative as there is always too little and too much historical data. Of course, historians will (and should) always strive for an accurate reconstruction of the past, trying to suppress (too much) interpretation and thus trying to keep a clear distinction between explanation and interpretation. However, White argues, there is no proper historiography without a metahistory, that is, a predetermined choice of perspective. Thus, interpretation enters historiography in three ways: (1) through aesthetics, i.e. the choice of the narrative strategy; (2) through epistemology, i.e. the choice of the explanatory model; and (3) through ethics, i.e. the ideological background of the researcher.

According to White, disputes in historiography are often about facts, but just as often about meaning; and meaning is constructed tropologically. In other words, what to discuss and how to discuss it are always arbitrary decisions.

Tropics of Discourse thus deals with the arbitrariness of stories we tell about reality. Historiography cannot escape from a certain form of aesthetization, as it is in fact a discipline of telling stories.

However, what White here explicitly links to historiography might perhaps be true for (almost) all research; At least to a certain extent all researchers tell stories about “reality” (including the story that reality is nothing but an effect of a specific discourse). And this brings me back to field recordings and their relation to “truth,” or a trustful representation of a sonic environment. All field recordists in In the Field collect “facts,” the concrete field recordings themselves. The next step is to present these “facts” in and through an interesting “story”: the final CD, installation, performance, concert, etc. Some recordists allow themselves more liberty than others, more subjective or technological manipulations and transformations, a stronger emphasis on the aesthetic value of the final work. But they all tell stories, stories about or around the (sonic) environments that somehow attracted them. And perhaps the success of these stories does not so much depend on the use and presentation of more or less objective “facts” but on the persuasiveness of the stories, in this case the sonic results. In order to find this out, books such as In the Field can not only provide readers with certain information about field recordists, but, more importantly, stimulate them to go and check out their concrete works. In the Field is more successful the more it makes itself superfluous.


White, Hayden (1978). Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.