Field Recording: the current debate.

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A simple love of sound first sparked an interest in recording the world around me, however what has sustained this interest is the connection between sounding objects and their socio-historical contexts. An example of this can be found in the following recording where small ripples pass over hydrophones at D’Entrecasteaux Channel, the site where Truganini’s ashes were scattered 100 years after her death.
The year has begun with a lively debate regarding the direction and role of field recording. On sites such as The Field Reporter questions have been raised regarding several aspects of field-recording-based productions. Reading a number of posts there are three recurring concerns in the debate:

1st: the perception that there is an elitism in field-recording which fails to foster an audience beyond other field-recordists.

My response: field-recording lacks a strong theoretical structure in which to interpret it – unlike other disciplines which have had centuries of trained thought to support them field-recording is still young and relatively unknown beyond its circle of practitioners. A stronger theoretical base might increase its profile beyond the majority of us whose work only exists on nebulous internet platforms.

2nd: the rise in cheaper technology has enabled less professional recordists to saturate the pool of field recordings with “second-rate” work.

My response: expensive equipment does not guarantee a good ear or a good technique. Nor does it provide interesting ideas on what subject to record. Indeed, starting with low-end equipment can make the recordist much more resourceful and creative.

3rd: the perception that field recordists are increasingly focussing on sounds from exotic, or developing, locales in a way that reeks of neocolonialism.

My response: for those without the financial means these recordings present us with a world we might never experience. Listening to such recordings has the potential to increase our sensitivity and wonder towards the world’s cultural and environmental diversity making us much more likely to respect our global heritage rather than devastate it.

The tone of some critics in the current debate seems quite harsh, especially when one of the primary aims of field-recording is to promote the experience of listening for everyone rather than a limited, exclusive, few. In any discipline there will always be a hierarchical structure which defines what is of value, a canon to instruct us as to what is “good” and what is “not”. As we have seen in art and literature the inherent danger of a canon is that it benefits some while disadvantaging others. Is this recent debate the beginning of such a process?

It is true that the time needed to listen to the work of field-recordists can be extensive. Just as there will always be too many books to read, too many galleries to visit, and too many movies to watch, there will also be too many field-recordings to listen to. Narrowing your focus of attention to either a few favourite field-recordists or areas of field-recording, as you would with any other discipline, will overcome this problem.

Every debate should forward some positive elements so this post will conclude with a promotion of some field-recordists whose work I listen to regularly. By following their work over the past few years I have listened to sounds from all corners of the earth, they have sharpened my ability to listen and broadened my sense of place in the world:

Sebastiane Hegarty: a British artist, writer and lecturer whose recordings have featured on radio and film.
John Grzinich: an American sound and video artist now living in Estonia, he also co-ordinates the MoKS residency program.
Des Coulam: a British ex-pat living in Paris, he documents the many sounds of Parisian streets, arcades and subways.
Vladimir Kryutchev: a Russian reporter and field-recordist who documents the sounds of local village life.
Magnus Bergsson: an Icelandic field-recordist whose recordings focus on the urban and natural spaces of Iceland.
Ian Rawes: a reporter and field-recordist for the London Sound Survey.
David Velez: a Colombian field-recordist whose recent essay “El Coyote” is an immensely insightful and sensitive reflection on why he chooses to record the subjects that he does.

18 thoughts on “Field Recording: the current debate.

  1. Thanks for taking time to move the debate forward. I’m especially interested in the issues raised in your first response and I think that everything else hangs on this. I’m trying to find time to write my own contribution. My desire to respond comes from having to represent the kind of work that ‘we’ do to others, mainly artists, who want to find a ‘way in’ and as you suggest we need a much firmer theoretical and theoretical base from which to work. Not everyone agrees with this, but in my view it’s essential.


    1. Yes, it’s hard to develop theoretical interpretations or an analysis of field recording when you are juggling your own practise alongside other life commitments. Still, we are all only in the early stage of this discipline so I’m sure there will be a better discourse as they years progress.


  2. Nicely summarised points, Jay-Dea. There are some really interesting discussions taking place at the moment around these issues. I, for one, find it a really healthy environment to be in right now. Change, development, re-assesment and movement, of any kind, is always good in my eyes (ears). From a personal point of view, it’s really making me reassess and re-analyse my own place within this field regarding my own work and also how i perceive and understand the notion of ‘quality’ in other people’s work also. These recent questions posed have also served to highlight what diverse directions this field-recording/phonography/anthropological (etc) community are moving into. Interesting times…


    1. Hi Martin – yes, there’s always room to reassess and question what we are doing, but as long as you don’t lose faith in your own work/interests. Reading some of the criticisms about field recording I think it could be easy to sway to the power of the loudest voice.


  3. nice one jd, the only point i would slightly disagree on – although you do point out it is a perception – is that the discipline fails to foster more of an audience. i still think there are an increasing number of people getting involved in field recording, across the world, from what i have personally witnessed over these last few years of travelling…


  4. Great JD!!!!!

    I agree with most of the statements. I have to disagree on the first response though. I think that more than a theoretical workflow what’s needed most is a framework based on pedagogy and didactics. We need to provide the audience with simple tools to get closer to this kind of listening experience. Then, once reached we can, internally, explore a theoretical background for it. There is a certain need for simplification, just to overpass the first obstacle based on prejudgment that, for me, is the most important and complicated step. Then when you have achieved a clean, brand new listener, you can start to talk about a few more things. But first of all lets present it easily. Make no mistake I’m not saying that the general public is dumb, on the contrary, the general public is eager to hear those kinds of things but we have to be able (sorry for the word) to “sell” our work the best we can and convince the audience that there are some interesting works to be heard, in a concert, website, netlabel or soundmap.

    As Simon Whetham states I’m also sure that a new audience is rising-up. I just have the local data from my city (Valencia, Spain) as time goes by more people know what this is about, more people are getting interested and new listenners are welcome everyday. This is partially because we are trying to show this kind of framework outside the inner-circles of experimental music or sound art. Here we are trying to mingle with photographs, graphic designers, visual arts galleries, and their potential audiences. Finally those are the new listeners, those who come with clean ears.



    1. Hi Edu – good to hear from you. Looking at all of the public programs you have managed in Valencia I think you are leading the way in Spain in relation to inviting an audience to enjoy the world of field-recording. If only we all had the same energy as you!

      I think your last comment is quite important – I agree that we should find innovative ways to combine field-recordings with other disciplines such as photography etc. This could easily introduce a bigger number of listeners into this domain. I appreciate the need to establish “sound” as a world unto itself, but field-recordings hold other exciting potentials in the arts and sciences don’t they?


  5. Nice post! I guess the nature of field recording in a way prevents it from getting the attention we field recordists sometimes would like. For me some of the essence in what I do is based in the ecology and respect for nature, the attentive listening and focus on every nuance and change in landscape, either urban or natural. In that lies the whole process of the recording, the preparation, the planning, the trip itself, the context and framework, the cultural, mental and spiritual mindset, the choice of equipment and so on. When I return home, with a SD-card of data, I consider alot of the process to be done. In order for me to reattach to the sounds in the recordings, it often requires some tweaking, amplification, compressing
    and constant relistening. What one often ends up with is some sort of hyperrealism, “truer than life”-recordings, that more reminds me of the canonical movement of the “modern” or progressive. Part of peoples expectations, in my experience, when introduced to fieldrecordings, is that they expect to either hear something spectacular or something bland. To discover something beautiful in modest recordings takes time and experience. If we as fieldrecordist constantly chase the most exotic sounds or locations, to “sell” our “genre” I feel we shoot ourselves in the foot. Its more important to me that people listen and reflect in their surroundings, than that they are listening to cd´s. For me, again, the interest is not on the mediated end, but in the mindset, not to be active in it, but to listen and document. So maybe the process of tuning people in to fieldrecording not necessarily starts with the recording-bit, but the mindset-bit. Nice blog, looking forward to read more of it!


    1. Thanks for your insightful feedback. I like your use of the word “hyper-realism” in relation to listening to field recording. I think you have outlined an important point, that field-recording is part of a long process, with the listening to the post-production of a captured moment being the last of many enriching stages. I look forward to hearing more of your work in the future.


  6. Very interesting post. The point about amateur recordists could be compared to the prevalence of bedroom music producers since the development of DAWs, but luckily I can’t see how a bad-techno-remix equivalent would develop in soundscape recording! Do you know of any possible developments of some sort of theoretical base?
    Thanks for the recommendations.


    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure about the publication of any book related to field recording and theory, however two books that I really enjoyed concerning our relationship with sound were: David Toop – Sinister Resonance; Sounds and Perception – ed. Nudds & O’Callaghan.


  7. Hi everyone and thank you JD for your post.
    Here I would like to share my opinion about the fact we need a stronger theoretic basis about field recording practices. I think the 20th century has already offered us all the theoric basis we need. Have we already forgotten the futurists, Luc Ferrari, Pierre Schaeffer, R. Murray Sheffer, Olivier Messian, Walter Ruttmann, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp and its ready-mades, histories of cinema, photography and many many others? If I read all of them and I understand their meaning, I have all the strong theoretical structure I need (if I need one). Do we have to justify our existence as an artistic practice? If someone says to me that what I do is not art (or music) I will invite him to read all of these previous pionneers. And anyway I can also quote John Cage : “don’t call it music if the term chokes you” 😉
    What I do in my practice is what I want to hear. I try to compose the CDs I want to listen to. That is the point. If I as a composer (or field reporter 😉 ) do something for my own benefits as a listener, so perhaps other people will find the same benefits in listening to it. The big history of the arts of the 20th century has freed me from the old ways of thinking about what is art or not.
    I will share here another quote I like. Allan Kaprow wrote : “Art is what makes life more interesting than art”.
    To resume all of this I could say that if Luc Ferrari’s “Presque rien” is considered as music and/or art, all kind of field recordings practises are art and/or music. Is anybody still to say or write that Luc Ferrari “Presque rien” is not music ?
    I am not good at explaining my ideas in a text like this and I hope my English is good enough to be understood well and to not betray me and what I wanted to share with you.
    All the best from Paris !


    1. Hi Frédéric – thanks for your insightful comment. Hopefully those of us who are active in field recording are aware of (and respect) the futurists that you mentioned; I’m sure most of those names go beyond the scope of the sound discipline.
      Like any form of artistic process I think there constantly needs to be some dialogue as to why we work in field recording, for example why do we choose the subjects that we do, how do we treat/present those sounds to an audience? For this reason I think contemporary theory is welcome as these reasons change over time.
      Sounds and the world that they emanate from are in a constant state of flux and so the thought that interprets them shouldn’t stop in a previous century no matter how illuminating those ideas were at the time, but indeed let the past inform the present. Whether it be art theory, literature theory, or the theory of sound I’m always interested in how contemporary “thought” evolves alongside the current needs of a society, and I like the idea of theory and practise being capable of informing each other. Ultimately though, this shouldn’t rob us of our intuitive response to sound.


  8. “2nd: the rise in cheaper technology has enabled less professional recordists to saturate the pool of field recordings with “second-rate” work. ”

    Are there really any people to believe this ? If anyone who read this and believe about this opinion, please explain it to me as I don’t understand it as possible…


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