JrF Workshop and thoughts on listening
A couple of months ago I participated in a 2-day workshop on field recordings led by Jez Riley French. The event took place at sound//space, and was hosted by the people behind Soundfjord. Sound//space is a temporary record shop/event space/community hub lodged in the V22 project space at an old biscuit factory in Bermondsey. Jez is a seasoned field recorder, having curated exhibitions, given lectures, and held residencies worldwide. Outside his recording practice he also runs his own label, and makes a variety of microphones (more on this later).
The first day started of with a brief introduction on the technical side of things: exploring different recorders, pre-amps microphones, etc. This way everyone who wasn’t already familiar got brought up to speed, and useful practical experiences were exchanged. After that we got the opportunity to make some recordings in the space. While being there I also got to witness a re-enactment of Steve Reich’s “Pendulum Music” which was happening in the adjacent project space – a lucky coincidence. Jez had a wide range of microphones with him for everyone to try out, amongst them his own line of contact, hydrophone and coil microphones (http://hydrophones.blogspot.co.uk/). There was also a stereo condenser and lavalier microphones, and a range of professional tools such as a parabolic reflector, windshield and shock-mount accessories. He made all of these available to borrow and take into the space to experiment.
Beside all the useful practical tips (both on direct and filtered recording) and time spend actually recording, a significant amount of time was spent on listening: listening to our own and each others recordings, and sharing opinions and experiences on the act of listening. Being fairly new to the field, these conversations offered some valuable new insights and thoughts. Carrying a long lasting love for slowly evolving and droning music, the concept of long listening was very inspirational. First of all, long listening starts with long recording - or longer recording depending on the objective. By recording a certain space or environment, it is almost impossible not to disturb its initial state. Therefore, regardless whether the person recording stays present on the scene or not, it is necessary to allow some time for the environment to re-conciliate with its intruder. Similarly, it is necessary to let your ears accustom to a sonic environment, whether this is a played back recording or just being and listening in the actual environment. As time goes by one will become accustomed to, and comfortable with, the aural landscape. In doing so, subtle changes to the environment and small details become more apparent providing the listener a more detailed picture. These techniques can also be applied in everyday life, to develop an awareness of everyday sounds, noise and silence that constantly surrounds us. Ironically, the constant presence of sound results in it being taken for granted and remaining unnoticed by most. It’s only when you take time and allow yourself to consciously listen to it that it will reveal its sonic qualities and beauty. Long listening can also work therapeutically as a form of mediation. In a fast paced society it can be soothing and bring solace by forcing the listener to slow down and listen. Taking time, and solely focusing on listening also brings a certain enchantment with it. It’s a bit like being involved into a ritual that slowly takes you to a different state of consciousness.
Another thing that struck me while we were listening back to each others’ recordings and playing my recordings to the group is the different perception between listening in the environment while recording, and listening without - or in a different - context. Thinking back on it, it seems pretty obvious but at the time it particularly made me realize how strong the relationship between sound and image can be. In this respect even just looking at a single picture while listening might gave you an entirely different listening experience. I’m also convinced that different details emerge while listening without visual aids, or if you find yourself in a live environment with visual cues grabbing your attention and thus shifting your focus of the details heard. Nonetheless I believe recordings can certainly serve as an artefact recalling memories of when and where it is recorded. In this respect sound holds similar qualities as pictures do in archiving experiences and memories.
Actively being involved in field recording and carefully listening also made me accept the imperfections in recordings. Sure, it is nice to record a very clear isolated subject, but it can certainly be as interesting to have “unwanted” elements present. In a way they can make the recording more real, or raise awareness of location-specific issues. For instance if you were recording in the middle of nowhere, you would expect to have clean nature recordings but having the “unwanted” sounds of a highway miles away or planes flying over would pose some interesting environmental questions. In my experience with studio-type recordings, the aim always seems to be to have as sterile a recording as possible. However one could argue that studio recordings are still momentary snapshots, therefore “unwanted” sounds creeping into the recordings are still a part of this particular moment in time and thus holding relevant value.
All in all this was a really interesting workshop. I’d like to thanks Jez and all the other participant for this really great experience, and Soundfjord for organizing and hosting this fantastic event.