This journal is coming after having spent just two full days at the B-CSC, having arrived on Tuesday night, and written this on Thursday evening. It will trace some preliminary thoughts the place has given me.
I love field recordings. I also find them confusing - aesthetically and ethically - and the breadth of recent critical publications on this practice indicates I’m not alone. I don’t understand the relationship of a recording to the place it’s made. I don’t understand the ethics of capture and consent in recording environments – perhaps especially unfamiliar ones. And I don’t fully understand the ethics, or myriad meanings, of letting these recordings travel: playing them back in a studio, concert hall, or off a CD into a home anywhere in the world. I’ve chosen to stay with the trouble as it were, practicing towards insight on these questions that resonates individually and beyond.
Informed by various Indigenous thinkers including Tyson Yunkaporta, I’ve come to believe that people are dreamed up, expressed by, moved by, and woven into the places we find ourselves in. As we stay in one place, we become more like that place, in various ways. As we move, we carry place(s) with us, and fold these into wherever else we are. Colonial processes stifle our attuning to this process, but it’s happening whether we like it or not. So it’s both ethical, responsible and sensible to try to tune into it, and analyse the ways in which our sense for it is dulled.
Similarly, I think (through Eduardo Kohn), that places think, and they also think through us. Our thoughts are not entirely our own: they meet in us through an interaction of all kinds of processes and agents. I have been hoping to use this residency as a way to slow myself down, to tune into the thinking of this place as best I can in the short time I have here, to understand how this thinking grows and interacts with what I am carrying within me. To “live psychedelically with the psychedelic world around us” (Kohn, again). So far, the way I’ve done this is mostly through paying attention, walking, writing, and dream journaling. More abundant recording and composition will come later, perhaps charged by the ideas that emerge through thinking and being thought.
Here are a few things I have thought about while walking so far.
Melody & reflection
In 2011 David Michael wrote a compelling text advocating for a “dark nature recording” – a field recording practice which works to eradicate the artificial binary between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ and critically engages with the way the practice of field recording reinscribes this binary. I think this idea is very strong. But there is a lot of construction work going on in Bogong Village at the moment and I’ve already found myself trying to listen and record around or away from it. It could be my aesthetic predilections – a kind of biophilia – gone as yet uncontested within myself. But I do love other contradictory or awkward sound recordings at the edge between worlds or systems. On my first day of walking around the village and surrounding forest I continued to ask myself why it is I felt the urge to get away from those sounds. Bogong gave me a hint of an answer, through a sense of the kinds of things I’m tuned into as a recordist, in a way I haven’t thought of before.
The first is melody or melodies – not just in the sense of tune, but in the sense of a chain of sonic events giving an impression of linearity or directionality (even when this linearity occurs only at the level of perception). Hearing the unfolding of the world as a kind of tune or polyphony of tunes is an exciting prospect to me. I think this is why I like birdsong, because I hear in it forms of de-centralised polyphony, often based on repetition, working in the spectrum between noise and pure pitch, and spatialised. It’s most of the things I like to play with when making music, improvised or composed, and it especially informs how I improvise on the saxophone. Whereas, I suppose, construction sounds tend to be entirely noise-based, or static in pitch and uniform in rhythm, and I personally tend to feel less drawn to those sounds in field settings.
Between 2020 and 2022 I worked on projects with Simon Charles and Katie West which involved making large libraries of field recordings within one national park, and finding ways to assemble them. We found that place did the orchestration for us: most of the recordings could easily belong together even if they contained quite different sounds: voices, saxophone, fire crackle, conversation. Perhaps the deep-time processes that produce local networks of interaction in the world are very resilient, and able to fold new interactions in readily. It takes a strong otherness to ‘de-place’ or manifest a sense of place-within-place (blasting a car stereo in the middle of the park might do it - but even then, who knows). The severity and nature of the “otherness” – a kind of harmonic or temporal discord in a melodic sense – might explain why a recording of something like construction and birdsong together might be either fascinating and weird, or frustrating. Perhaps I’m just used to – and sick of – construction sounds and their intrusive nature, and it’s not often that they are striking enough to make me curious about their cohabitation with other sounds. All this writing about them makes me want to pay closer attention to them, now.
The other parameter is reflection – literally, as in, the way sound bounces off of the various surfaces and meets the recording device. Here’s where the clarity of a recording sans-engine noise means something in an aesthetic sense: these reflections are more able to be heard in a low-noise environment. As a drummer-turned-saxophonist, I have always struggled with the dry, nasal quality of the sound of the saxophone and the way that, when I stop blowing, it stops playing. I am always on the lookout for contexts to play it in where I can make sounds overlap or connect as though the tones were ringing out like cymbals, or plucked strings. As such a reflective space, transparent to make these reflections present, is greatly attractive to me.
I’m curious now about the multivalency of the word reflection; how it also speaks to ‘holding up a mirror’, and hence perspective, as well as the more ponderous meaning of the word, which speaks to a process by which concepts are developed.
Symbolic or iconic meaning
I’m drawn to a lot of work with field recordings that has a lot of symbolic or iconic potency. But I usually sense this either simply because the music feels somehow charged or meaningful, or because I’ve read it in the liner notes: I can almost never hear the things the recordist is talking about. Michael Pisaro-Liu’s “Transparent Cities”, published on Edition Wandelweiser Records, is beautiful to listen to, even if you don’t know that most of the field recordings are of the exteriors of historically significant buildings. You don’t so much hear the building as the more mundane happenings around it, though I suppose you can strive to hear the building, and this striving is interesting.
What I considered on a climb up Mt Nelse is that it is enough for the symbolism or iconography to radically charge and motivate the process of listening, recording, and composing with these listenings and recordings. If having a map of significant sites to record at helped Pisaro-Liu make Transparent Cities, it was worth doing for that alone. I have used this, personally, as a process for creating connections between material I had already recorded in a more symbolically empty state of mind, in order to make sense of what to actually do with those recordings and find the energy to work with them. But I have never recorded explicitly with a kind of symbolic intention: the recording process is more one of following my ears, with the meaning-making coming later. I’d like to now experiment with charging my attention with this kind of intention, to explore what new kinds of listenings I can access. Being recently fascinated with “edge effects” – the dynamic spaces at the interstice between cleared and vegetated land – I might start looking for and documenting these edges to see what happens.
As a final thing to mention, dream journaling is a new methodology I have decided to try on this residency at the insistence of Eduardo Kohn, author of How Forests Think. He proposes dreams as a particular way of experiencing the thought patterns of the forest. I don’t think I have had enough time to draw anything from my journals so far, but I did have a dream about Boorloo-based musician Eduardo Cossio – my bandmate in the duo Land’s Air and an inspiring, prolific organiser – forming an ensemble with a turtle and a stuffed bear called “Panta Pinta”. Which, if nothing else, is a kind of imagination of sonic potential, that might lead somewhere (and a reminder that one’s community is part of one’s place). I have also dreamt of compositions, and processes by which they are made: I hope to get stuck into a few of these while it rains all this week.