Work in progress: researching audio methods

Last year I was awarded an early career research fellowship entitled “Researching sonic environments: exploring audio methodologies” by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). This is taking place during 2013. I’ve been spending time with sound artists and researchers who work with environmental sound, observing what they do and thinking about its effects and functions. This all builds on a paper about using phonographic methods for geographical research that I recently published with fellow sonic geographer Jonathan Prior.

Borders-gear

The fieldwork has taken place in the UK, Brussels, Berlin and Athens, and has included doing listening walks and audio walks, attending site-specific performances, installations and an environmental sound festival, making field recordings and videos, working with audio maps, trying out different mic set ups, running environmental sound workshops, interviewing people about their work etc etc.

 

Akio Suzuki's oto-date listening walk, with Aki Onda, Tuned City, Brussels, 2013
Akio Suzuki’s oto-date listening walk, with Aki Onda, Tuned City, Brussels, 2013

So what have I actually found out? Well, loads obviously, but one of the main themes emerging is…

Decontextualising and recontextualising: making works that involve more than just sound

Field recording, the core method of environmental sound art, decontextualises sound, lifting it out of place and sending it into wider circulation: “as a listener, I hear just as much displacement as placement, just as much placelessness as place, for the extraction of sound from its environment partially wields its power by being boundless, uprooted and distinct.” (LaBelle, 2006: 211) But playback recontextualises sounds, re-placing them, and the nature of that process is crucial to how field recordings function.

To put it another way, it’s easy enough to make field recordings, but what then? Where are they going to be played back, who (if anyone) will be listening, and what kind of effects do we want the playback situation to create? This is largely a question of geography, about the kinds of social and physical spaces in which environmental audio works are presented.

If we pursue sound as sound-in-itself, to the exclusion of other aspects of life, ultimately this takes us towards an acousmatic approach which “strips sound of any visual referent, linguistic description, or direct narrative, relying instead on the qualities of sound itself, its manipulation and construction.” (LeBelle, 2006: 209). But however much context is removed – even if the audience is blindfold, a method favoured by sound artist Francisco Lopez – there is always a (multi-sensory) recontextualisation on playback. Life always involves more than just sound.

Audience with blindfolds at a Francisco Lopez concert. Image from www.bienaldegranada.com
Audience with blindfolds at a Francisco Lopez performance. Image from www.bienaldegranada.com

The recontextualisation involved in the acousmatic contemplation of pure sound is sometimes quite rarefied, arguably even bourgeois and culturally elitist: abstract electroacoustic works presented in multi-channel concerts, fine art settings such as white cube galleries, perhaps a CD or digital download for attentive home listening. This assimilation of environmental sound into the traditions of western music and fine art is likely to reinforce the conventions of those traditions, such as the idea that music is created by an individual artistic genius for the gratification of a passive audience. It’s also likely to make environmental sound inaccessible to people who don’t have the cultural capital to ‘fit in’ with those traditions.

This will tend to create a closed loop – people interested in aestheticised sound, making aestheticised sound for (mostly) other people interested in aestheticised sound. There’s nothing wrong with that as such, but its function is quite limited, providing a specific kind of stimulation for a particular minority interest group. That critique could of course be applied to this website, since realistically most readers will be those who already have some sort of interest in sound. That’s fine by me – creative and academic communities need their own spaces for discussion and exchange just like any other group – but they also need to engage with people outside those communities as well, especially when their work concerns something as radically decentred, expansive, collective and participatory as the wide world of environmental sound in which we all live.

I’m convinced that working with environmental sound has a more lively, infectious potential to enrich everyday life and ‘ordinary’ people’s (i.e. not just sound artists’ and musicians’) relationships to places and environments. That enrichment may often be quite modest and subtle, but environmental sound is pervasive, an ever-present unconscious background (Cox, 2009), so even small changes could be significant.

To get some of that potential to flow, my research suggests that environmental audio needs to be recontextualised in ways that make it more meaningful for more people – i.e. more relevant, more inviting, more connected to people’s everyday concerns, routines and spaces. Based on what I’ve observed, there are lots of ways that this can be done. I’m tempted to suggest that the more of them can be thrown into the mix, the better. For example:

  • Using sound to investigate issues that are not just about sound, but tap into a wider interest. That might be something universal like food and clothing (e.g. Felicity Ford’s work with wool), or a more specific topic such as hospitals (e.g. John Wynne’s Transplant project), international air travel (Cox and Carlyle’s Air Pressure), or even something as prosaic as hand dryers in public toilets, which soundscape composer John Drever has been researching:

Alternatively, one can work with audio in places where there are specific local issues of concern to people who live nearby, as in my work at Kilmahew and St. Peter’s Seminary, and Peter Cusack’s recent input into urban planning in Berlin:

  • Using a mix of media, adding spoken commentary, text, still images, video or dance alongside environmental audio to thicken up the experience, activate a mix of senses, furnish contextual details, tell stories.
  • Presenting environmental audio in public spaces through installations, audio walks and performances. There are many things to consider here, but maybe the most important is how people are already using particular public spaces, and how to work with that. For example Noel Lobley, who works on the Pitt Rivers Reel to Real project has been taking ethnomusicology recordings out of the archive and into the communities in which they were recorded. In one case this involved hiring a donkey cart, loading it with a sound system and riding through South African townships playing Xhosa music.
  • Bringing people together for sociable gatherings, collective listening and convivial discussion around environmental audio. Fundamental to field recording, acoustic ecology and soundscapes is the idea that we are always in the midst of a vast, uncontrollable world of sound, immersed amongst many different sounding bodies. The seclusion of galleries, concert spaces and individual home listening to websites or CDs seems at odds with that. Here’s James Wyness explaining his idea for ‘soond gaitherins’:

  • Mixing different ways of working with and thinking about sound. Carsten Stabenow told me that one of the most important aspects of the Tuned City festival he runs is how it mixes people from different backgrounds – sound artists, scientists, cultural theorists, architects etc. This involves inviting people with different perspectives on sound onto relatively neutral ground, and allowing them to hang out, eat, drink, walk and talk together:

  • Subverting playback spaces. If environmental audio work is being presented in traditional gallery or concert situations, this can be done in ways that playfully critique or subvert their restrictive spatial and social conventions. Jonathan Prior has created an alternative audio walk for the Scottish National Gallery that cheekily détournes its exhibits. For example, visitors are instructed to stop before an oil painting depicting the crucifixion of Christ, and hear snippets of an interview with celebrity magician David Blaine talking about one of his painful endurance stunts. I witnessed another example in a soundscape work, ‘Strata’, by Mark Peter Wright, Sophie Mallett, Yiorgis Sakellariou and Brigitte Hart from the London College of Communication. The piece was made for the BE OPEN ‘sound portal’, an unreconstructedly modernist surround sound playback environment created by engineers working for Arup, temporarily located in a public space in London, and deliberately designed to shut out the sounds of the city outside. The following clip starts with one of the field recordings used – the lively calls of a hawker at a London flower market, recorded by Sophie Mallett – followed by Sophie explaining how they used this to bring the messy sounds of London back into the purified space of the sound portal.

The interior of the BE OPEN sound portal. Photo by Bonnie Alter
The interior of the BE OPEN sound portal. Photo by Bonnie Alter.

There’ll be more updates here as the research progresses. Thanks to everyone who has participated in the research so far. And thanks especially to the AHRC for funding the fellowship. It’s proving to be an invaluable opportunity to deepen my thinking and practice in environmental audio, and has also helped me to build working relationships and friendships with others in this field.

Chris Watson workshop audio

Jonathan Prior and I have produced a five minute audio piece documenting the workshop led by Chris Watson earlier this year. It’s a mixture of recordings we made on our trip out to the seaside at North Berwick and a few clips from an interview we did with him at the start of the week:

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Chris-W-edited.mp3|titles=Chris-W-edited].

Chris Watson visit

This week, I’m organising a visit to Edinburgh from sound recordist and Cabaret Voltaire founder member Chris Watson. Amongst other things, he’s giving a seminar in human geography and performing a concert at the end of the week. These are public events – details below. Jonathan Prior and I are also hoping to interview him and produce a journal paper reflecting on Chris’s ways of working, what they can tell us about sound recording and its possible place in geographical research.

For those who aren’t familiar with his work, Chris is a world renowned sound recordist who specialises in recording the wildlife sounds of animals, habitats and atmospheres. His work regularly appears on BBC television and radio. He works with people like David Attenborough and Bill Oddie, but also releases his work on experimental music label Touch. Last week he had a programme on Radio 4 entitled ‘Jules Verne’s Volcano’ which is still available on the iplayer:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0106tjp/Jules_Vernes_Volcano/

Seminar: ‘Capturing acoustic landscapes’.

Time: 4pm Thursday 21st April

Place: Old Library, Geography, University of Edinburgh, Drummond Street EH9 8XP

Performance: as part of Dialogues festival, http://chriswatson.eventbrite.com/

Time: 8pm Friday 22nd April

Place: Inspace, 1 Crichton Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AB.

More incidental drones

I’ve been accruing more recordings of incidental drones so it’s about time I posted some clips. Here are a few of my favourite buzzes and hums from the last 6 months or so.

First up is the hum from a substation near to my office on Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh. There are actually two drones going on here – there is a coffee booth nearby that has a petrol generator, so you can hear that chugging away too.

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/BuccPl-substation.mp3|titles=Buccleuch Place substation]

I recorded a lawnmower through my window back in summer. It kept stopping and starting, which I found annoying. But when I listened back, this makes it even more interesting, because when the main mower stops you can hear lots of quieter drones around the neighbourhood – possibly from other lawnmowers or power tools.

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/LochendLawnmowerClip.mp3|titles=Summer lawnmowers]

The next two recordings were made near the premises of a firm of joiners, shopfitters and builders in an old industrial area of Dundee. In the first one, the machine making the droning and sqeaking sounds was an odd contraption – it had a large metal hopper, elevated about 6 feet, with wide duct pipes leading into it. My guess is that this machine was sucking dust and swarf away from the workbenches inside, like a massive vacuum cleaner. Every now and again you could hear things rattling inside the pipes, a bit like when a piece of lego goes up the hoover.

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/joiners-drone.mp3|titles=Joiner’s machine drone]

Around the side of the building was a metal shuttered door, through which could be heard more droning and various sounds of metalworking:

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/DundeeJoinersDoor.mp3|titles=Joiner’s door drone]

The next recording is from near a hotel, Ten Hill Place, in the centre of Edinburgh. There is a basement with air vents from which various drones emanate. They change in pitch periodically, as though the machines are stepping up and down in speed or something.

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/HillPlaceVentFan2.mp3|titles=Hill Place vent]

Next up is another vent recording made at the rear of the university main library. There is a loading bay with a massive air vent at the side. I suspect from its size that it’s related to the heating system for the entire building. It’s pretty loud when you get up close.

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/MainlibRearVent.mp3|titles=UoE library vent]

Finally, a kind of semi-drone recording I made on Infirmary Street in the centre of Edinburgh. I was just walking home one day after work when I heard all these sounds coming from a grill close to street level. At first I actually thought it was some kind of band, fans of Einsturzende Neubauten or Faust perhaps, practising in a subterranean rehearsal room. I was quite into it. Listening closer, what I thought were primitive drums turned out to be hammering, punctuated by power tool drones.

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/InfStConstruction.mp3|titles=Tearing down old buildings]

One of the things that both annoys and amuses me about Edinburgh – and most cities come to think of it – is how you can never get a  moment to yourself. Infirmary Street isn’t a main road so I was hoping I’d be able to record relatively undisturbed. But just as I was hauling all my gear out of my rucksac to get set up, a group of about 30 European men came walking by trundling suitcases behind them. It was a slightly surreal moment, standing there in the street with a big furry mic and fat headphones, with these proto-industrial sounds coming from who-knows-where underground, and a whole delegation of Dutchmen traipsing past..

Some unanswerably large but nonetheless pressing questions

I’ve had an abstract accepted to a workshop on ‘Geography and the New Empirics’. My title is “Some unanswerably large but nonetheless pressing questions about ‘audio-visual’ methodologies.” At the moment I like deliberately pedantic titles. Here’s the abstract:

Empirics – audio-visual methods

And a link to the workshop website:

http://www.scgrg.org/geography-and-the-new-empirics/

It takes place at UCL and the RGS in London on 20th-21st January 2011. It’s being organised by Harriet Hawkins and some other geographers.

I’ll be using my presentation as an opportunity to open up some debate around questions like: what is the status of audio-visual media in research? How can audio-visual media function in a research context? How are audio-visual media, such as digital video and audio, different to written text – given that text is clearly visual and, arguably, also aural (since reading requires a voice of some kind)? These concerns have been nagging me more and more as I’ve been working with audio media over the last couple of years. I’m becoming convinced that, if people like me want to use audio-visual media and have this recognised as a legitimate way of ‘doing’ academic research, we’re going to need to address these kinds of questions much more thoroughly than has been the case thus far.

I’m particularly interested in thinking reflexively about the process of making and playing back audio and video recordings, in the same way that ethnographers have spent a lot of time thinking about what it is to produce texts for research purposes. It strikes me that there is nothing straightforward about this. When I take a mic and a recorder out into the city, record sounds, then edit the recordings, compress the files, upload them to a website or play them back in presentations…it’s all too easy to slip into believing that what I’m doing here is in some way ‘capturing’ sound so that the original experience can be ‘re-lived’ later.

I’m inclined instead to think about audio recording as a form of performance in which a whole host of elements are orchestrated together – sound vibrations, air, mics, headphones, ears, fingers, level controls, meters, eyes, silicon chips, electrons, and so on. The result is by no means a ‘captured’ sound – as though the sound had been caught like a bird and put in a cage, to be let out later. Instead what you walk away with is a trace left in some particles, be that magnetic or electrical or whatever, on tape, hard disk or flash memory. That trace can then be used later as a kind of script or score for another performance, again involving lots of different elements all working together – e.g. hard disk, computer, amplifier, speakers, air, ears. The behaviour of every element in the system affects these performances, and if one part misbehaves or breaks down the whole thing can fall apart, sometimes very beautifully.

The magical feat of technology is to hide this whole process inside a black box, and to accomplish the hiding ever more effectively. Think of the shift from wax cylinder to vinyl, tape, CD and now MP3s. At each stage the process becomes more invisible, and the technology arguably less prone to failures. This makes sense if you want to sell stuff to consumers. The illusion is part of the allure. Failures – vinyl crackles, chewed up tapes, CDs skipping digital glitches – expose the process, killing the magic. So they have to minimised as far as possible.

But in research, I want to be reflexive about what it is I’m doing – I see that as an important part of the process – so I want to open up the black box(es) and think more critically about exactly what is going on. Just as electronic and experimental musicians have come to value and even fetishise glitches, hisses, crackles and other hardware malfunctions (cf. Pole, Basic Channel, Position Normal, Oval, Matmos, Phillip Jeck, William Basinsky, Autechre, Alva Noto, Ryoji Ikeda etc etc) maybe researchers could use such failures as openings, chinks to be prised apart to expose the workings..