In a new book published by Bloomsbury, sound artist Mark Peter Wright unpacks the knotty politics of field recording. Images of Tellenes Wind Farm, Norway courtesy of the author.
Where is the field in field recording? Does it begin when the recordist enters the location, when they press record, or when we press play? If the field exists in the playback medium, to what extent does the signal-to-noise ratio affect its manifestation? What is really being captured and what are we not hearing? How does power function in all of this? How is agency performed and negotiated? In his new book, Listening After Nature: Field Recording, Ecology, Critical Practice, Mark Peter Wright writes “Field” with a capital letter to “stress the fabricated nature of its making”.
Wright is an artist and researcher whose practice intersects sound arts, ecology and experimental pedagogy. He is a member of CRiSAP (Creative Research Into Sound Arts Practice) and lectures at the University of the Arts London. Wright taught several modules that explored field recording on the MA Sound Arts course at UAL when I was a student there. Sound studies can sometimes come across as a dry subject, but I found Wright’s sessions, as well as his outlook on field recording, to be very engaging. Listening After Nature: Field Recording, Ecology, Critical Practice is Wright’s first monograph on this specialist subject and the material is drawn from years of artistic practice, teaching, writing, and research.
Early on in the text, Wright notes that field recording began as an anthropological discipline and its history is problematically tied to colonialism, racism, and exploitation. He cites indigenous and postcolonial scholarship, suggesting that the idea of a neutral recordist or neutral recording has never been tenable. This is because, Wright argues, there is no division between nature and culture; human intervention has always encroached on the wilderness. The author also acknowledges that systemic racism, white privilege and social inequalities have played a part in constructing our institutions and cultural practices.
Carl Stumpf, a German psychologist and pioneer of ethnomusicology – a practice that developed in response to the shortcomings of text-based observations – is one example of imbalanced power dynamics. Stumpf amassed a collection of recordings of musical cultures from Japan, India, and Cameroon, but made these audio documents in Berlin. Many of Stumpf’s recordings were actually of diasporic communities who performed their traditional rites as a form of entertainment for the Western voyeur. This phenomenon of the human zoo, also known as ethnological show business, grew out of hierarchical divisions enacted by Darwinism, which was a colonialist project that attempted to categorise the Other.
Wright points out that exploitation also extends to the animal kingdom. In 1889, an eight-year old Ludwig Koch – a pioneering wildlife sound recordist – made the first known recording of birdsong. Committed to a wax cylinder, the work documents the song of a common shama bird that was “displaced from Southeast Asia, relocated, and recorded within a cage in Germany”. This story brings to mind Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s touring installation From Here to Ear (1999) in which a flock of zebra finches live among amplified electric guitars, activating the instruments when landing on or interacting with the strings. It’s unlikely that the birds have given their consent to participate and their captive performance, as well as the broader genre of wildlife recording, “resonates ethnomusicological histories in which asymmetrical power relations underscore the recorded encounter”.
Another key theme running throughout Listening After Nature is humankind’s geological impact on the planet. The Anthropocene is exemplified not only in greenhouse emissions responsible for climate change and the proliferation of microplastics in the environment, but also in our flippant attitude to the catastrophic potential of nuclear power, as well as the mining of minerals essential for the creation and maintenance of electronic devices. The fact that these devices – microphones and recorders among them – are intimately tethered to the postcolonial economic structures that surround the extraction of their constituent parts is not lost on the author.
The third chapter deals with the “sites and sounds of anthropogenic entanglement”, factoring in works such as Peter Cusack’s binaural walk through the oilfields in Bibi Heybat, Azerbaijan (Sounds From Dangerous Places, 2012). Cusack’s approach is described as sonic journalism. This technique advocates for factual and emotional content to be interlinked with relevant metadata sourced from the site in question. It insists that “nonhuman environments and phenomena should not be captured for their compositional merit but rather their affective and informatic qualities”. Elsewhere, Wright recalls listening to Andrea Polli’s Sonic Antarctica (2009), an album of field recordings, interviews, and data sonifications that capture scientists working at an extreme frontier. The scientific instruments and other industrial interventions come into friction with the ‘natural’ sounds inherent to an ecosystem undergoing rapid climatic change.
Wright isn’t interested in defining the genre of field recording, but he does spotlight what field recordists actually do, i.e. their documentary practice. Wright’s notion of the “Noisy-Nonself” is used to conceptualise the authorial presence of a recording. The author’s presence can be audible, as in the case of feedback and handling noise – sounds that were traditionally seen as undesirable – or inaudible, such as the silent field recordist “not wanting to disturb a fragile ecosystem” who, through their self-imposed dissolution, becomes “a form of white noise that we have learned to ignore”. There are artists who challenge these tropes and Wright mentions Hildegard Westerkamp’s ‘Kits Beach Soundwalk’ (1989) as an example. Westerkamp annotates her recording of the Vancouver shoreline, taking the listener through her process and editing decisions. By focusing the microphone onto the crackles of barnacles rather than the “acoustic detritus” of the city, Westerkamp engages us in the restorative potential of nature recording.
Although it is debatable exactly how restorative sound recordings can be in the context of a dying world, Listening After Nature does suggest that a more responsible approach is overdue if we wish to retain a field of any description. The book is a fine attempt at reassembling the existing cultural frameworks embedded in the niche but loaded genre of field recording.
Listening After Nature: Field Recording, Ecology, Critical Practice is published by Bloomsbury Academic
Originally published by The Quietus, September 2022