Field recording and technology

If 'nature is what we are aware of in perception' as Whitehead claims (Stengers 2011, 31), then tools that enhance perception should also enable awareness of nature. In this research, field recording is an embodied practice enabled by tools. It has intertwined aims: ecological awareness of the mountain, collecting materials for art production, storage of audio and visual ‘data’ and memories for theoretical reflection.  

Here I am interested in how fieldwork with recording technology influences perception of the mountain. Are they barriers or facilitators? Theories about the use of tools have implications for understanding what happens during fieldwork. Device-centred theories explain human practices as a function of tools. For example, humans are immersed in tools, they engage us, they are transducers and they are extensions of our bodies and senses (Ihde 1990). Here I instantiate these approaches in relation to how they influence the experience of the mountain.

Technology is immersive

Human society is embedded in nature, and so is technology. Society is technologically saturated. Most of what we perceive and sense are technically conditioned and modified, particularly so for urban areas. Technology has already shaped the environment we are in, it is part of our everyday life and access to technology is the normality that we take for granted. We cannot imagine our lives without it because we have no such experience. Since ecological awareness requires the ability to transcend, see or imagine nature beyond human society and our technologically mediated perceptions, bringing the recording technology into wilderness, beyond the urban, temperate conditions they were designed for provides an opportunity to put this into relief.

Wilderness reveals technical vulnerability. The complex series of recording devices (camera, recorders, cables, microphones, etc.) functions as a chain of relays. When there is no store or supplies, batteries will boost in their significance. Depleted batteries stop the whole chain from functioning, and thereby the field recording session is put to an end. Therefore, in the mountain, sufficient battery power requires cautiously attention. To keep them warm in wintertime during the night below zero degrees, they need to be kept under the duvet and next to the skin. This is an essential skill.

This is not only a matter of logistics. When I am on the mountain, I sense that down there in the valley is ‘civilisation’. Going down there is to return to ‘the treadmill’, I become like a cog in a wheel. I enter into another state of mind, with different needs, demands and sense of time. 

There are more pertinent logistic requirements for exploration of mountain with recording technology. Without roads, electricity and supplies, everything have to be carried on foot or skis. Packing a rucksack requires attention to conditions of survival in a winter mountain, and, it requires attention to the whole chain of devices necessary for a recording session. Carrying a heavy rucksack with recording technology and equipment necessary for existence is an embodied experience of the topography, terrain and the gravity of the earth. Altogether, such experiences enhance awareness of the social and technical ‘bubble’ within which we live our everyday lives. It follows that the altering in and out of this ‘bubble’ is a great source of knowledge of our relationship between nature, technology and human civilisation. And so is the challenge to articulate it artistically.

Recording technology are tools of engagement

Crossing the threshold, coming out in the open and starting field recording can be an endeavour. This story shows how the recording technology trigger engagement with the mountain. It also instantiates the connection between embodied experience, motivation, emotions and field recording. The experience of surplus or deficit, of safety or threat, is both a precondition and an outcome of how I experience the mountain, and it resonates with theories of affect.  It spills over to my experience of field recording. I base this story on a collection of quotes from my diary from March 2013.

It is morning, the room and my fingers are cold even though the fire is burning in the stove. It is cold and windy outside. I don't want to go out. I resist. It is the same feeling I had when I got here the first time. Then I walked up the hill and wondered whether I should just as well lie down and die. For the next three to four days, I refused to stick my nose outside. It is the same feeling, but a bit milder.

I have struggled to find out what equipment I needed, learned to use it and carried it all on my back up these hills. So then, what shall I do with it? What do I want to bring back? It is strange; it takes so much effort to get to the starting point that I almost feel empty. I should go outside, yes. I have not carried all this stuff up to leave it in the rucksack. But I am so tired. I need to rest both physically and mentally; I have two more days left. I wanted ice and wind, didn't I?

All these technical devices that need so much knowledge and concentration! I definitely need to record. I might as well get started; it does not help to prolong it any longer; I cannot relax until it is done.

I have a feeling of pushing beyond the edge of my capacity. Physically, mentally, emotionally. I am here in this beautiful icy cold, alone. But it is as if the place is loosening its magic. What I strongly sense is the physicality of things, or life itself. Things take time and they must be done with the body and all of them have limits.

All I need is a rest before I move on. I think my body and deeper being was right: Don't go out before I have some level of rest and adjustment to the place; until I do this, I will not be able to focus.


What would happen without the technology? I would not have gone out. Still it stresses me, even though things are better now because I am more experienced. There was something about my youth − going out into nature's magic and experiencing it together with friends or making friends by sharing the experience. No other aim and no disturbing technology.                                                                                     


Here is a sound recording that I listened to while writing in the diary: 

Recording technology are tools of awareness

I consider the recording technology as extensions of my ears and eyes. They are facilitators and tools of awareness. We can use them to expand our awareness of even more nuances of nature. Here follow examples from photography and sound recording.


Recording technology are transducers

Recording technology change and modify what is recorded. Microphones are filters. Therefore, the recorded outcomes are not direct or ‘objective’ imprints of the real. Moreover, different microphones have different filters so they vary with the type of microphone. Here is the same wind recording with three different microphones:

       omnidirectional                               directional                               and Røde NT4


However, human perception is also filtered. Sounds are filtered by the limited frequency range of our ears, by cultural filters, by how we listen and what we listen for. By listening to the recordings in the mountain, I became aware of the subtle variations in the way the microphones recorded the same sonic process. Moreover, altering between listening through my ears and through the headphones expanded my sonic sensitivity.

Contact microphones and hydro microphones

The use of contact and hydro microphones gives access to what happens inside materials and water. Here is a contact microphone recording of the stonewall in wind shown in the photographs above. Visually, the stones do not appear to move, but the sound recording reveals something else

Here is another revelation, this time with a hydro microphone in a bucket of melting ice                             The pops you hear are air bubbles released as the ice melts. Before this, I was not aware that ice contained air.



Redefining noise

Field recording made me reflect on the concept of noise. Noise is meaningless, annoying sound. However, this depends on ideals and expectations. A technical ideal of ‘clean recording’ is that the sounds of the technology should not be included in the recording, that is, the recordist and the recording devices should not be revealed. Here is a recording of handling noise while walking in wind                                    and here is a whistling microphone

Similar to the ideal of the neutral observer, the false assumption is that a microphone is not embedded in nature, but outside of it. As if it has an ‘objective’ perspective. 

Here is a recording with ‘foreground noise’. I wanted to record the sound of people in the landscape far away.

When I listened to it for the first time, I was disappointed that it revealed my presence. Reframing the recording by relating it to the situation, I found that it had a sonic ‘depth of field’ that was closer to the real situation. The problem was my intention, pretending I was not there.



Furthermore, developing knowledge may change the meaning of a sound. This sound clip of the buzz from the mountain helped me to understand Schafer's concept of soundscape (Schafer 1994).

 This note explains how: 

I wanted clear sounds of water, but I was annoyed by the constant buzz in the background. What was I doing wrong? Some days later, the buzz had gone. It was the same microphone, so what had happened? It was the rain. After a period of heavy rain, what the microphone recorded was the roar of water along the furrowed mountain walls, draining down the scree and the swelling of the brooks beneath. It took some days before the water had drained away and the mountain quieted down.                                                                                                                                                                





Microphones give access to sonic worlds that are already there. They exist, but we cannot access them otherwise.

A recording depends on the positioning of the microphone. Standing on a scree, I made two recordings on the same spot,

one up in the air                                 and another one below my feet                         

There is no other way I could become aware of this sound.

Through photography, I became sensitised to how the light changed with seasons, weather and time of day. Here is a quote from my diary:



I walked around and settled on a particular location, started photographing and repeated this over a period of time and from various perspectives. I discovered that the photographs were never similar, because the light of the mountain changed during seasons, weather and time of day.