This year has seen a wealth of artists incorporate field recordings into their work, from birdsong to sounds of crashing waves. April Clare Welsh asks Nabihah Iqbal, Equiknoxx and more what this resurgence means.
An eight-year-old German boy called Ludwig Koch produced the first documented bird sound recording in 1889, using the rudimentary wax cylinder his father gave him to capture the high-pitched tweeting of the Indian Shama.
Koch became a leader in the field of nature recording, a practice that has – if you’ll excuse the pun – progressed by leaps and bounds with the advent of technology. Now anyone with a smart phone can lend an ear to their surroundings and record the world around them. Musicians working across genres continue to weave all manner of samples and field recordings into their work. This year saw a wealth of music that used found sound with an especially deft touch.
Birdsong was a sound that soared above the rest. Peppered throughout albums like Björk’s Utopia and Equiknoxx’s Colón Man, these cries, caws, coos and hoots fed our ears a tiny worm of hope, offering us the fleeting chance, perhaps, to reconnect with a disaster-stricken planet that saw much destruction including hurricanes in the US and Puerto Rico, flooding and landslides in Sierra Leone and a massive earthquake in Mexico City.
On Utopia, which was released in November, Björk worked with Venezuelan producer Arca to build a patchwork of birdsong into the LP’s sound design. Comprising both of field recordings taken by Björk herself in Iceland and archive recordings from Arca’s home country Venezuela, the album opens with the sound of birds mutating into alien blips, a sonic touch that adds a sense of otherworldliness, helping to stage the album’s utopic fantasy. With ‘The Gate’, the birdsong is warm, exotic and nurtured by chirping cicadas. It’s a song teeming with as much life as a hothouse. “A group of us got Airbnbs in the Caribbean. We’d walk in the jungles, recording birds,” Björk told Dazed of the album’s origin story.
That same month, Björk’s mix for Mixmag featured various samples from sound recordist Jean C. Roché’s Oiseaux De Venezuela along with a suite of birdsong from Iceland. Björk has been committed to environmental causes throughout her career and her activism has taken on many different guises. On Utopia, her art does the talking, freeze-framing beautiful snatches of nature as a form of sonic therapy. In these moments she is telling us to actually stop and listen to the planet.
Future-facing dancehall collective Equiknoxx, comprised primarily of production duo Gavin “Gavsborg” Blair and Jordan “Time Cow” Chung, also sprinkle bird noises into their musique concrète-edged sound. The pair’s vivid artwork and logo often features a hawk in flight and they are known for their signature hawk call, which throbs in and out of their music like a siren. It can be heard on their recent album Colón Man‘s opening track, ‘Kareece Put Some Thread in a Zip Lock’, for example. According to Blair, there’s also a sentimental aspect to the hawk sound. “After using the sound for a year or two my mum told me my name Gavin actually meant ‘hawk’ or ‘little man’,” he says.
Although the bird noises heard on Colón Man and their 2016 DDS compilation Bird Sound Power have be largely manipulated in the studio, Blair points to one particular track that platforms the raw material: 2010’s ‘My Heart Is Hers’. He says the pair’s methods for recording these natural sounds vary. “I have been convinced in the past to put a recorder on a ladder and put the ladder up a tree,” he laughs, recalling his early involvement with the field recording practice. Blair says that he used to record “the sound of pipes running… anything around the house really, because I didn’t want to use a sample pack that said something like ‘Timbaland drums’ or ‘Neptunes drums’.” These days, his preferred gear is the Zoom H2n Handy Recorder – a favorite amongst field recordists – or his Samsung cell phone. “Sometimes it’s the shittier sounds that actually work best, because it’s not like we’re trying to capture a bunch of waves at the beach and use it deliberately as a percussion sound,” he says.
Chung believes that there is something meaningful in the simple act of recording your surroundings, namely as an antidote to the horrors of the human-made world. “We live in an age where we’re able to do these things and it’s important that if the average man feels like he wants to capture this thing just to be a part of his soul or even to shape the world, it’s important that this person is able to do it – even for future generations to have these things for reference,” he says. “What a particular street in Jamaica sounds like now might sound different in the next ten years and the man that recorded that just for his own fulfilment or joy… they might even end up in the national library one day.”
A number of field recording-inspired releases from artists associated with the New Age and ambient genres were released this year, including Kate Carr’s From A Wind Turbine To Vultures (And Back) LP. Carr says her recreative process for the album involved “a lot of sliding about in freezing mud on steep inclines.” The record documents the sound artist’s two-week residency at Joya arte ecologia in Velez Blanco in southern Spain during which she taped “a sonic transect” of the mountain facing the villa in which she lived. The result is a recording that really captures the minutiae of her environment, picking up everything “from the radio in the villa on the valley floor to the vibrating low-growing woody shrubs braving the rocky peak.” Plugging into the extreme isolation of her surroundings, Carr calls it “a quiet and strange document,” which she hopes conveys something about remoteness “and a sense of a physical journey through a very specific landscape via sound.”
Elsewhere, Isle Enchanted by Wave Temples, one of this year’s best Bandcamp releases, is infused with hypnotic seascapes of waves crashing against the shore – ‘wellness’ in sound, if you like, that also pays its respects to Māori culture. The LP was inspired by “notions of Polynesian paradise and the Māori underworld,” and was recorded live at Hawaiki, the traditional Māori place of origin. Cloitre, which was released in June by Thomas Köner and Jana Winderen was recorded live from the cloisters at Evreux Cathedral in Normandy; Winderen’s solo work has in the past sought to unravel the beauty and the mystery of nature, often recording “the hidden depths” of the oceans “with the latest technology.”
Field recording is, however, not confined to the documentation of natural sounds. Plenty of artists forgo the organic tones of biomusic to find inspiration from the ordinary and the everyday. Theo Parrish has been known to roam the streets of Detroit with a microphone in his hand, while this year, new XL Recordings duo Smerz spoke of splicing snippets of café conversations into their music. “Field recordings are like a intuitive way of working for us,” Smerz member Henriette Motzfeldt told FACT in October. “It’s just the feeling, right?” her band member Catharina Stoltenberg added. “If you think something is cool and then you throw it in there and if it fits, it fits and if it doesn’t, you take it out again.”
Field recording-inspired releases can also inhabit a socio-political dimension. Last year NON co-founder Chino Amobi reimagined Brian Eno’s Music For Airports as Airport Music For Black Folks, an album inspired by the European airports he visited while on residency in Berlin. Philadelphia-based artist and activist Moor Mother uses the medium of oral history to make a vital statement about racial politics in America. On her vinyl-only The Motionless Present, released back in March, she collects unreleased poems and soundscapes, heard as warped, radio-like recordings on tracks like ‘4 Oakland’; the heartbreaking ‘Time Distortion’ samples the dash-cam video of Sandra Bland’s arrest. In January, beatmaker The Riddlore re-worked African field recordings that he had gathered in Uganda and other parts of East Africa “to bring a new Afro inspired bass sound” that took the form of an album release for Ugandan label Nyege Nyege Tapes.
While some artists seek to evoke the audio topography of foreign countries, other are privileged enough to be able to travel to these places in person and record their findings. In June, Japanese ambient legend Chihei Hatakeyama crafted a release for Lawrence English’s Room40 label that worked like a sonic travelogue of his trip to Turkey, “weaving in location recordings” from a variety of spots, including the “labyrinthian bazaars” and places of architectural significance. NTS DJ Throwing Shade, who this month released her debut album under her given name of Nabihah Iqbal, has a background in ethnomusicology that informs her long-running radio show’s global perspective. Iqbal has, to date, travelled to Japan, Pakistan, Jamaica and China to produce radio shows that celebrate the musical traditions of the country, while also making her own field recordings on location that have ranged from the sound of a giant drum in Tokyo to mento recordings in Ocho Rios.
Iqbal emphasizes the importance of redefining the boundaries of field recording, which has its roots in Western colonialism. She praises the democratization of technology in ultimately helping us to achieve this. “I think it’s amazing how it has made the whole world of music more accessible to everybody, whether it’s making field recordings or recording your own music or whatever,” she says. “Many people maybe hold that old-school view of what a field recording is perhaps because they have inhibitions about making their own recordings. They don’t realize that anyone can do it now…. I’m a brown girl [who grew] up in London, but I’ll definitely have a different viewpoint and a different approach to what I’m doing compared to someone like Hugh Tracey or any of the other colonial anthropologists.”
She also notes that we can glean beauty and meaning from giving the natural sounds around us some attention. “There’s just something quite special about being able to focus on something on a very small scale and finding the beauty in things like that,” she says. “We need those sorts of things to just motivate us to carry on doing what we’re doing and living and helping each other.”
April Clare Welsh is a news writer at FACT. Find her on Twitter.