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.

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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.

Event: the uses and abuses of field recordings

This is a little late notice, but I’ll be presenting at an event at CRiSAP (Creative Research into Sound Arts Practice) in London tomorrow. Info as follows:

the uses and abuses of field recording

June 9th, 2011, 3pm to 6pm
Podium Lecture Theatre
London College of Communication
SE1 6SB

Image_for_Uses_and_Abuses_of_Field_Recording.jpg

On the 9 June this year CRiSAP is holding its fifth research symposium. In celebration of the beginning of our two year EU Cultural Partnership Project, the event will explore the role of field recording in artistic practice. We have invited eight speakers who all, in different ways and for different reasons, use microphones to capture something of the world around them: Viv Corringham, Peter Cusack, Felicity Ford, Michael Gallagher, Ruth Hawkins, Bill Thompson, Salomé Voegelin and Mark Peter Wright.

For this symposium we wanted to try something a little different and adapt the PechaKucha format where, while presenters are talking, their chosen 20 slides are each projected for 20 seconds. According to its originators this “makes presentations concise, and keep things moving at a rapid pace”. We want to spice the pot a little by asking the presenters to conclude with 2 minutes of recorded sound.

This exciting event will conclude with tea and cakes and a concert featuring Viv Corringham (voice); Peter Cusack (guitar, saz, samples & electronics)

Viv Corringham and Peter Cusack perform songs, mixed with improvisation, and soundscapes created from environmental recordings – all controlled live. Songs are from the Eastern Mediterranean area, including Greek rembetika and Turkish folk, others are self written. They will be joined by flute, shakuhachi and ney player Jan Hendrickse.

“Interesting, challenging stuff…” Folk Roots

“ingeniously crafted settings… make for fascinating listening… unorthodox yet entirely persuasive arrangements” Julian Cowley, The Wire

All are very welcome and admission is free.

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Dawn chorus

During Chris Watson’s recent visit, he took a group of sound design students out to make recordings of the dawn chorus. Inspired by this, Jonathan Prior and I decided to do our own early morning excursion a few days ago, on May 11th. The dawn chorus is at its peak around this time of year. We chose to record in Holyrood Park between the Salisbury crags and Arthur’s Seat. Chris said that the best time is from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after, so we set things rolling just before 4:30am and let the recording run for an hour, right across the daybreak.

Each of us used a Rode NT4 to make a stereo recording. As you can see in the photo, the mics were pointed in opposite directions and spaced apart, so we’ll be able to use the two stereo recordings to create a four channel piece at some point.

Here’s a 15 minute clip from my hour:

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/audio/HolyroodPark-dawnchorus-clip.mp3|titles=Dawn chorus, Holyrood Park, 11.5.2011]

Jonathan has uploaded his entire hour here.

The Google map below shows the location of the recording. This should make it clear why we chose it – plenty of habitats for birds, and the topography blocks out the noise of the city really well. It’s pretty amazing to live in a major world city that has this kind of environment right in the middle of it. Holyrood Park is owned by the Queen, which perhaps explains why it hasn’t been over-run by the developments of ‘luxury’ flats that seem to be taking over most of the city.

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As time wore on during the recording, the birdsong was punctuated by a few other sounds: outbursts of croaking and flapping from what I think was a pheasant; a passing aeroplane; a cheeky honk from a train echoing off Arthur’s Seat; and a couple of noisy motor vehicles.

The biggest surprise of the morning came at the very end when we were packing up. It must have been about 5:45am, and a man came walking by, the first person we’d seen out there. He was quite well dressed, wearing a smart duffle coat. He said good morning, walked past, then came back and asked if we were professional film-makers. He said he was looking for someone to make a music video for a gospel group – could we do it, or did we know anyone who could? Part of me really wanted to say yes, just because of the unexpectedness of the offer. I didn’t though.

This sort of thing seems to happen quite often when I’m out doing field recordings. I think it’s the result of standing still for a while in a public place with some extremely conspicuous and strange-looking equipment. It seems to invite encounters.

One drawback of the location was the wind. It was a fairly still day by Edinburgh standards, but up in the park there was a stiff breeze. If you look at the map it’s easy to see how the wind gets funnelled from south to north directly into our chosen spot. Despite using a Rycote windshield (the big furry thing), I ended up with a bit of wind noise on my recording. Wind blowing on a mic creates low frequency rumble. I really hate it. To my ears, field recordings with wind noise on them sound really amateurish.

When we set up, it all sounded fine in the headphones. We then retreated maybe 200 meters away, to avoid the mics picking up any rustles or other noises from us. After a while, there were a few gusts that must have been too strong for the Rycote fur. I actually have an extra high wind cover – a sort of fleece jacket that goes under the furry stuff – so I’m going to start using that more often from now on.

In the clip above, I’ve reduced the wind noise by applying some low shelf EQ in my audio editing software using a plugin. I cut about 12dB at 240Hz, with the Q set to minimum for a gentle slope. Luckily, the birdsong is in a much higher frequency range, so cutting the low end like this hasn’t messed up the recording too much. If you listen carefully (e.g. at about 5:17) you’ll still hear a bit of wind rumble, but much less than on the original..

Listening to a dead rabbit

As I mentioned in my previous post, last week sound recordist Chris Watson came up to the University of Edinburgh for a visit which I’d organised. It was fantastic. An amazing man. As expected, I learned lots about field recording, but he also turned out to be a great storyteller, full of tales about his many travels, including recent visits to both poles, and stories of Factory Records, David Attenborough and so on.

As part of his visit, Jonathan Prior and I ran an audio recording training day for researchers and PhD students from the university. About ten of us travelled by train to the nearby seaside town of North Berwick, chosen to give us a range of environments to experiment in. Journalist Neil Cooper also joined us to write a piece for the Herald newspaper, which you can read here.

By the beach, with a thick haar (the local word for sea mist) rolling in, Chris showed us some of his equipment, including a parabolic reflector mic for very focussed work, such as isolating particular bird calls, and a pair of miniature omnidirectional mics he uses for more ambient recordings. As the name suggests, omnidirectional mics pick up sound from all around the mic capsule. Compared to cardiod mics – which pick up sound in front of the capsule – omnis are less sensitive to wind and handling noise and also tend to have a flatter, wider frequency response, particularly in the low end.

One technique Chris uses with the omnis is to attach them to a wire coat hanger. This gives a nice spacing for stereo, is super-lightweight, and very versatile: the hanger can be hung from vegetation or spiked into the ground.

Like all non-coincident stereo techniques, the coat hanger setup compromises mono compatibility, but if you can live with that the resulting recordings are superb. As I’ve said here before, my main mic for field recording is the Rode NT4 which has a fixed 90 degree XY pair of cardioid capsules. This could be seen as the opposite of the omnis, in that it is directional and coincident. I find the directionality useful, especially in urban environments where I often want to block out the traffic noise coming from behind me. However, compared with the omnis, the NT4 sounded quite ‘closed’, almost slightly stifled, whereas the omnis were incredibly open and natural sounding. Obviously this is all subjective, but I was taken aback by the difference. For ambient soundscape recording, the omnis were definitely better in my opinion. Plus there is the versatility of having two tiny, lightweight mics to position as you wish. The only advantages of the NT4 would be mono compatibility and directionality. Better get saving for some of those omnis…

I experimented with both the NT4 and the omnis recording the waves rolling in and the general ambience of the beach. Chris’s tip was to make several recordings from different perspectives and then layer these – he said in his experience this would give a more recognisable impression of the sea than just using one recording. Listening to the results I’m inclined to agree. The following mix was made from six different recordings, including some made very close to the breaking waves and others made further back up the beach:

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/N-Berwick-Beach-Sea-mix-1.mp3|titles=North Berwick sea mix]

During a break for lunch, Chris spoke about his experiments attaching mics to animal carcasses to record birds feeding. The most well-known example of this is on the track Cracking Viscera from the album Outside the Circle of Fire. He produced that track by attaching mics to a zebra carcass, enabling him to record feeding vultures. However, it seems that Chris has used this technique on a number of occasions, starting one Christmas with a mic’ed up turkey carcass, pinned down in his garden using tent pegs, and starlings descending to peck at it, to the delight of his children. Deadpan, he explained that even though his daughter had left home by that point, their turkey was still big enough to fit four mics inside for a surround sound recording. Another story involved a roadkill rabbit and some ravens on the Isle of Mull. I quickly got the gear rolling to record this:

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Dead-rabbit-clip.mp3|titles=Listening to a dead rabbit]

A few notes of thanks, first to Chris for sharing his incredible expertise with us. For help with funding and organising his visit, thanks to: the Institute for Academic Development; Martin Parker and Jules Rawlinson from music; Dan Swanton and Jonathan Prior from geography; and my admin team in CRFR (all at the University of Edinburgh)..

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.