Sound and vision blog

4 posts from August 2013

30 August 2013

Listening to the Active Sounds of History: field recording and museums

John Kannenberg is an artist working with sound, drawing, video, performance, writing and curation who currently lives in Chicago. His work has been presented at conferences, festivals, exhibitions, and live performances worldwide and focuses on  themes relating to the sonics of space and place, the urge to collect, the human experience of time, and the meta-processes of making and observing art itself. Since 2002, he has curated the netlabel Stasisfield. His blog Phonomnesis contains writings about sound, art, time, museums, philosophy and culture.

Memory is at the heart of much human activity. Memory drives us to collect, to record, to create documents –"information or evidence that serves as an official record" – that we then spend a lot of time and effort preserving. Some of these documents are strictly personal and kept as family heirlooms. Others end up being judged by someone else as having a broader significance, and end up being preserved in places like museums and libraries in order that they be made accessible to a wider audience. There are countless institutions around the world whose mission statements may not explicitly express it, but which are essentially dedicated to honoring the human desire to remember.

So why do I record sounds? Because I want to remember them.

Essentially, that’s what my practice of field recording is about. Obviously there are more factors than this: because I find certain sounds aesthetically pleasing, or because I think that listening to a specific place might be important, or because I think other people might also find certain types of sounds interesting. But primarily, I record memories.

Compact Shelving at Kelsey Museum of Archaeology Archives (4'01")

The preservation of memory is also at the heart of where I often choose to make sound recordings: I collect the sounds of museums. Museums have always held a special significance for me, with their galleries filled with preserved memory-objects on display for people to look at, to learn about, to feel awe in the presence of their aura. Natural history museums let us walk through huge swathes of history in a relatively short period of time. Art museums let us sift through documents of cultural significance, canvases or papers or rocks or clay that echo the memories of the people who made them. As we walk through these places, we make our own new memories from the memories on display.

(Photo: Emilia Javanica)

If you've been lucky enough to travel to Paris and see Leonardo's Mona Lisa, you can share in the memory of everyone else who has done this – visiting these authentic objects becomes part of a shared, ongoing human ritual, and we tend to act certain ways when we're in these places filled with memories. We try to show respect for the alleged genius on display, we blatantly ignore the wishes of the curator and flit from object to object out of chronological order without reading anything, and – most importantly of all – we tend to remain quiet. Many of us think of museums as silent spaces, as temples of looking. Listening doesn't much enter into the ritual. But what would happen if it did?

That's what I'm curious about. Not only do I find the sounds inside museums aesthetically beautiful, but I also find them conceptually interesting, even poetic. Because the sounds we make in museums are part of this shared, ongoing human ritual, I refer to what I listen to there as "the active sounds of history". These sounds are specific to institutions dedicated to memory, mixing with and reacting to these mute historical objects that draw us towards them. Paintings absorb sounds, sculptures reflect them; no matter how quiet we try to be, there is, after all, no such thing as silence. The sounds we make affect museum objects, and in turn, the objects and the architecture surrounding them affect the sounds we make. It's the sound of art being appreciated, the music of a contemporary historical memory.

A Sound Map of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo (excerpt 5'00")

Recently, I was recording sounds inside the Art Institute of Chicago, sitting on a bench and listening to the crowd gathered around the famous painting American Gothic by Grant Wood. At one point, one of the museum visitors raised their camera and snapped a picture. A synthesized sound meant to replicate the sound of an old analogue camera shutter rang out almost deafeningly: this manufactured sound, which simulates the "classic" experience of taking a photograph, radiated out and collided with this painting that preserves a time-sensitive idea about American identity and values. It was the sonic meeting of two objects of memory, a ripple in history, a hyperreal incident of authenticity in crisis, a clash of the modern and postmodern, perhaps even a perfect moment of metamodernism. Memories like these are what drive me to keep recording, to preserve what I can of my time in these places.

(Photo: James Rotz)

A Sound Map of the Art Institute of Chicago (excerpt 2'48")

While museums tend to collect objects, it's libraries that tend to collect sound recordings (all quibbling about whether these recordings or the sounds contained on them are actually objects themselves aside). Collections of sounds tend to be catalogued like books or writings, so that when we want to look we go to a museum, and when we want to listen we go to the library – another so-called "silent" environment.

There is a definite element of the absurd in my practice of recording the sounds of art being looked at in museums – it might almost be considered by some people as ridiculous as listening to paint dry. But if I ever wanted to push that absurdity to another level, I would start recording the sounds of sound archives in libraries. Undoubtedly there is someone somewhere who has already done this, since the practice of field recording tends to be filled with these sorts of meta-jokes that consist of recording the sounds of things that nobody ever thinks to listen to. Many phonographers tend to document sounds that aren't just in danger of being forgotten, but which are downright ignored in the first place. This somewhat working-class attitude of sticking up for the "little sounds" appeals to me: I want these tiny, forgettable sonic events to have their chance at becoming someone else's cherished memory.

A copy of John Kannenberg's field recording-based composition A Sound Map of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo is held at the British Library (call number 1SS0007419) – a perfect encapsulation of everything the above essay attempts to discuss.

23 August 2013

Recording the Sounds of Nature - six questions with Jay-Dea Lopez

Jay-Dea Lopez is a sound artist and field recordist from the Northern Rivers region of NSW, Australia. His work reflects the social and environmental anxieties of the early 21st century. Initially trained in classical performance he now uses field recordings as a way to question our natural and social environments. Lopez' field recordings and compositions have been used in film, radio, theatre, festivals and gallery installations. His blog Sounds Like Noise brings together raw field recordings, composed pieces and thoughts on the latest happenings in the world of phonography.

When and why did you become interested in field recording?

I started field recording about 3 ½ years ago after a lifetime’s interest in sound and music. Although there wasn’t a “defining moment” that triggered an interest in field recording, I bought my first sound-recorder shortly after listening to a lecture about acoustic ecology by Bernie Krause. Krause spoke of field recording’s ability to reveal the health of environmental systems in ways that visual recording didn’t. This seemed quite revolutionary to me at the time.

Your blog posts often focus on the natural sounds of northern New South Wales, where you live. What inspires you about the sonic landscape of the region?

This is a sub-tropical coastal region with a long Aboriginal history. It was also the site of Australia’s counter-culture revolution in the 1970s. Local towns include Byron Bay and Nimbin. It is an area where World Heritage forests border farmland and the Pacific Ocean. In a short distance it is possible to record the sounds of the ocean, rivers, forests, swamps, farms and suburbia. I often think of it as my “sound bank”.

Bell-birds (1'30")

Can you recall any particular memorable recording experiences?

The first time I lowered hydrophones into a freshwater creek will always remain my most memorable recording moment. I had expected to hear the movement of water but instead was presented with melodic and rhythmic calls from water bugs. It was like eavesdropping onto another planet. We sit by the edge of creeks and streams without realising the beauty of the soundscape that lies beneath the water’s surface. Without the use of hydrophones we would never be privy to this knowledge.

Water bugs

Creek Bugs (3'33")

Listening to Art is a series of composed soundscapes inspired by Australian works of art. Where did the idea for this series come from and do you have any plans to take this further?

 “Listening to Art” was inspired by Chris Watson’s interpretive soundscape of John Constable’s painting “The Cornfield”. Watson combined field recordings to represent elements from the painting’s pastoral scene, guiding the viewer to examine the work in detail.

Inspired by this I began to produce my own series of interpretive soundscapes of Australian printmakers. Their diversity of themes and images has pushed me to broaden my field recording and compositional range. I’ve now worked with themes such as colonial mythologies, the queer experience, urban landscapes, grief, space and isolation. I like the idea of sound and vision complementing one another; they don’t have to compete for attention.


(Land, ho and Anchors Aweigh - Travis Paterson)

Land, ho (3'01")

The interest shown towards this series has given me the confidence to curate a touring exhibition in 2015. The show will comprise original work by 6 established and emerging Australian printmakers, each print with an accompanying soundscape. 

“The Great Silence” was recently released on the 3Leaves label. Could you tell us about the CD and why you decided to create this composition based on Australia’s colonial past?

 “The Great Silence” is a term describing the way in which Australia has often erased the violence of its colonial past. The official colonial narrative celebrates the European exploration of an “empty and silent land”. This denies the legitimacy of the Aboriginal people who have lived here for approximately 50,000 years.

My interest in creating a composition based on this term started when I read about the way the colonialists experienced Australia’s native sounds. Many of the first colonialists were prisoners or soldiers. They didn’t want to be here. Their accounts of the Australian soundscape therefore reflect this with journal entries describing Australia’s native sounds as “deathlike”, “dismal”, “gloomy” and “appalling”. During one of his explorations Ernest Giles stated that the “silence and solitude of this mighty waste were appalling to the mind”. It was an interesting example of the way in which we interpret sounds through our emotional states.


My composition “The Great Silence” attempts to imagine our way into this early colonial period. It layers nocturnal field recordings from a local forest and farmland. I chose to work with nocturnal field recordings because the sounds at night still remain “foreign” to us. I wondered if we might experience them in the same way as the colonialists. Some of the recordings are treated to create a slightly unsettling atmosphere. Are our reactions to these sounds much different from those early settlers? How far has our way of listening advanced since colonisation?

The Great Silence - extract (5'02")

Finally, with so many ways of documenting our surroundings we ask the question Why field recording?

I have previously referred to field recording as a “preternatural experience”. With headphones on the sounds directed through the microphone somehow alter our sense of time. As our engagement with the sonic environment deepens the clock adjusts its flow to the movement of sound. What was once unheard and peripheral becomes central. Perspectives change. It is beyond natural, it is preternatural.

Jd lopez  

Audio works from Jay-Dea Lopez including The Great Silence (British Library call number 1CD0335802)and Systemic Collapse (British Library call number DD00000299) are archived at the British Library. For full details, please visit the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

22 August 2013

A Life with Sound

Simon Elliott has recently retired after 35 years in the NHS, building an international career in medical ultrasound scanning and technology. He has been an active member of the Wildlife Sound Recording Society since joining in 1975, and has collaborated with the British Library Sound Archive for over 30 years. He believes strongly in the role of the British Library in making the world of sound freely available for science and education.

I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in the natural world. Growing up on the very edge of Sheffield, the woods, fields and wild moorland of the Peak District were the playground of my childhood. Happy with my own company, I would potter about (I’m now approaching 60 and I still love pottering) trying to observe and get close to birds and animals, learning fieldcraft skills that are useful to this day.

Then, in the late Sixties, a few things coincided which cemented the path to my lifelong interest in wildlife sound recording: a neighbour bought me a BBC record of bird songs by Ludwig Koch, and my father returned from a business trip to the USA with a present of a very early portable cassette recorder. Naturally, I put everything together and went out into the garden to record my first bird – the song of a Chaffinch - in 1968. I was hooked. Penniless student days followed, but a successful medical career has enabled me to develop and pursue my hobby here in Britain and across the world, at all times of day and year, when those long working hours and family demands permitted. It has been a rewarding pastime, and one without limits: there’s always something making a sound somewhere, always a new recording to be made.

1969 Sheffield Star with 1st recorder
(Sheffield Star 1969)

One other item was hugely influential – a little book called ‘Watching Wild Life’ by David Stephen. My original copy, here in my hand, shows that I bought it in August 1966, and I believe it is still the best and most inspiring book about fieldcraft. The author described how to get close to wildlife and study their behaviour, with amazing pictures (over which I drooled) of him sitting in a Golden Eagle nest, watching Capercaillie and Otters, or building pylon hides just to get close to crows. To me at that time these things were a dream, and it is immensely fulfilling to know that I too have now climbed into the nests of eagles (and many others) to place my mics, recorded the sounds of a wild Capercaillie brushing my mic with his wing, and the conversation of a pair of Otters basking in spring sunshine.

European Otters W1CDR0001554 BD10 (1'06")

Golden Eagle chicks W1CDR0000018 BD3 (1'09")

All these influences have led me to concentrate on recording the vocabulary of my subjects, and to work out ways of getting close to them with minimal disturbance. I set out to record their conversations, without them knowing that I and my equipment are there. This can create enormous practical difficulties, like trying to record bird calls in close up on a wave swept shore, placing a mic 20 metres up a pine tree in an Osprey nest, abseiling down to a Peregrine nest, or wading out into an icy lake in the dark to record wildfowl. But it is so much fun, and although I’m often content to sit and record any sound around me, such as waves or merely wind in the trees above, really I am never happier than sitting in my hide, on the end of perhaps hundreds of metres of cable, listening in to the intimate conversations of undisturbed wild animals.

Osprey chicks W1CDR0000489 BD16 (1'26")

I’m fortunate to have lived and worked in the far North of England for over thirty years, with relatively quiet woodland, hills and beaches within half an hour of home. I know that I would now find it difficult to live away from the sea, for this constantly changing coastline always has something to offer the sound recordist. When inland areas are quiet, even in the middle of winter our coast is alive with migrating or wintering birds, often providing spectacular but challenging opportunities. And if not there, I’m likely to be hidden away in a wood or by a lake in deepest Northumberland, day or night.

Little Grebe documentary piece (1'26")

Far from home, my favourite locations must be the Pacific Northwest of Canada and the USA, for its wonderful forests, mountains and sea life (or should I say seafood); equally, pretty much anywhere where there’s a Frigatebird soaring overhead will do, for the Tropics offer an intoxicating mix of sun, sea, and wildlife. There are sounds which take me straight back to these places, like the wistful rising song of a tiny Swainson’s Thrush in British Columbia, the penetrating calls of a solitaire in a Caribbean rainforest, or the ghostly nocturnal wailing of Wedge-tailed shearwaters in their burrows on a cay on the Great Barrier Reef.

Swainson's Thrush W1CDR0001350 BD34 (1'13")

Rufous-throated Solitaire W1CDR0000218 BD36 (1'44")

Wedge-tailed Shearwaters 022A-WA07044X0001-0002M0.WAV (2'05")

So why be a wildlife sound recordist, especially when the cameramen get all the credit? It’s over 120 years since Koch made the first recording of a singing bird, yet few people today know what we do or even that we exist, and it’s still regarded as ‘a bit unusual’ even among serious naturalists. Well for me, it has taken me to six continents and to some memorable places, and to be on location at the best time for recording forces me to be out there when no-one else is about, when everything else is (hopefully) quiet, and then be privileged to see and hear events and behaviour that few other people have seen, or more importantly, have heard.

Simon Elliott summer 2013

Me at Kites_P1030703a  

A selection of Simon's recordings can be found in the Environment and Nature section of British Library Sounds. Recordings have also been used on British Library audio publications including British Mammals and Wild Scotland.  For a complete inventory of Simon's archived recordings, please visit the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

08 August 2013

Recording the Sounds of Nature - six questions with Ian Todd

Ian Todd has been recording the sounds of nature for over two decades. He is a member of the Wildlife Sound Recording Society (WSRS) and a longtime contributor to the British Library's collection of wildlife and environmental recordings.

1. When did you first become interested in recording the sounds of nature?

I first became interested in the sounds of nature around 1989 after having been a bird watcher for a few years. I began to find myself drawn to avian vocalisations rather than the visual aspects of bird watching. I soon realised the lacunae in my knowledge, and set about rectifying this via the-then BLOWS (British Library of Wildlife Sounds) cassettes "British Bird Song and Calls", as compiled by Ron Kettle in 1987.

I soon found myself spending hours listening to the two, later three, audio cassettes; later on acquiring the CD version. Around this period, I was spending a lot of time driving as a component of my work, and this furnished me with ample opportunities for familiarising myself with the avian vocalisations of the birds I encountered as a birder.

(Illustration by Matilda Harrison; Designed by The Public)

2. Can you tell us about some of the challenges you faced in the early days when you were new to this field?

The main challenges I encountered at this stage lay in knowing what field-equipment to use, and then being able to afford what I wanted. The WSRS certainly helped on both these aspects, although in 1994 I "lost" a year by following a bad piece of advice regarding choice of microphones.

3. Your recordings tend to focus on natural soundscapes rather than individual species. Is there a particular reason for this?

Once I started to use a pair of Sennheiser ME66 short-gun electrets I increasingly realised that it was soundscapes I wanted to pursue. In reality, I'm not all that interested in single-species clinical portraits, and probably never have been. Even when I regularly used to listen to these, in an effort to improve my oral identification skills, I frequently found myself "peering" into the backgrounds, a practice I had first developed when getting to grips with the BLOWS ID cassettes.

4. Your recording locations have included France, Spain, Macedonia, Turkey, Poland, Colombia, Goa and The Gambia. You've also recently returned from a recording trip to Finland. Where next?

I'm not entirely sure of where to go next, but Colombia is again a possibility, and if so, then we would like to go to Los Llanos, the flat plains to the east of the Andes.  My friend, Sean, is married to a Colombiana, and has visited the country well over a dozen times, but even he's never been to this region.

Also, I understand that there may be a sound-recording expedition to Mongolia in the offing, but this is as yet, uncertain, and perhaps "hush-hush".

5. You've contributed several hundred recordings to the Sound Archive, many of which are now available on British Library Sounds. Your recordings from The Gambia and Goa are particularly popular with users - Passing Cattle with Native Cowherd and Common Langurs and Forest Birds come to mind. Can you tell us a little about these particular recording trips.

Passing Cattle with Native Cowherd - I doubt I could have invented a more apt name - was recorded near the creek at Tanji on the Gambian coastline, at around 1555 hours GMT ( "Gambian Maybe Time") on the 5th October 1997. It was a Sunday, but certainly not a day-of-rest either for the sun, or for me.  The Gambian heat was relentless, and the earth at Tanji parched and Godless.  I was skulking about trying to find shade, and happened on a desiccated little coastal field, near the beach. As I crouched under a bush, I heard an approaching racket, and realised that a small herd of miserable-looking cattle - skin and bone would have  been a good descriptor - was about to pass through my field. I deployed my microphone-rig (crossed pair of  ME66 pair of Sennheiser electret short-gun microphones) and took in the soundscape, somewhat fearful all the time for the safety of my mic-rig. The cowherd gave me a cursory nod.

Passing Cattle with Native Cowherd

Sean and I visited The Gambia three times in the 90s - October '96, October '97, and finally in March '98.  The middle visit was by far my best for wildlife soundscapes, even though at the time my recorder was but a humble prosumer MiniDisc recorder (when one reflects that this recorder was working on around one-eighth of the bit-rate that I now use, I'm surprised that the material sounds as "good" as it does!).

The Homeward Journey before Dusk

Actually, I was using the same MiniDisc setup and bit-rate for the sounds I captured (badly, I think) in Goa, in early 1999. This time there were four of us on the trip, Sean again, and two bird-watching friends. I was the only sound-recordist, so I was hard-pressed to be able to take time out for my soundscaping. However, I did capture the sounds of these Common Langurs (Presbytes entellus) crashing through thick foliage in the Bondla Nature Reserve in Eastern Goa, one hot afternoon in January, and I knew what they were, which is more than I can say for myself regarding the avian identifications, as I never got around to sorting these out. No doubt I could if pressed, however.

Common Langurs and Forest Birds

6. Finally, with so many ways of documenting our surroundings we ask the question Why field recording?

Put simply, because this is what I've found myself doing, and what I've come to be interested in.  Also, I'm not trying so much to "document" my surroundings, as to CAPTURE them. Sound is my best way of achieving this. I'm no photographer, and I can't paint landscapes. Anyway, I've long realised that I'm hooked.

Actually, in 2004, after a trip to Shetland, I did do some serious soul-searching, as the soundscapes that I achieved there were on the bland side, but it didn't take me long to realise that I was simply not interested in any other approach.

Ian Todd image
(Photo: Robert Malpas)

Further recordings from Ian Todd can be found within the Soundscapes and Weather collections in the Environment and Nature section of British Library Sounds.

For a complete list of Ian's recordings, please refer to the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue