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.
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.
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.
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.
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.