Unfamiliar Listening: A Brief Introduction to Experimental Field Recordings

For many, the term “field recording” evokes the greatest hits of natural sounds: ocean waves, rain, and birdsong. Indeed, one of the earliest field recordings dates to 1889, when an eight-year-old Ludwig Koch wax-cylindered the song of a white-rumped shama. In more recent history, anyone of reading age in the heyday of National Geographic may remember Roger Payne’s Songs of the Humpback Whale, inserted as a flexi disc in a collectible 1979 issue. Ten million copies of it were printed—more than any album ever produced in a single run. Payne’s classic and others like it endure for their scientific value, serving as springboards for studies of language and the potential for interspecies communication. They also spawned a robust environmental movement at a time when modernity was threatening to divorce humanity from nature. By the same token, microphones can get too close to their subjects, as in Hans Lichtenecker’s “archive of endangered races,” which documented descendants of the very peoples his comrades slaughtered in German Southwest Africa (what is now Namibia). Even the most benign anthropological motivations have fallen under retrospective scrutiny.

I will not be reviewing such projects here. Instead, I wish to examine—and, I hope, bring fresh ears to—a visceral stream of experimental field recordings. While tracing the origins of such an amorphous category can be difficult, an indisputable pioneer is Jeph Jerman, whose seminal work tops the list below. Kindred visionaries in this sphere of influence include Francisco López, Alan Lamb, and John Tulchin. I highlight their endeavors, subjective as my favorites among them are, in the interest of expanding their embrace of sameness through difference.

These recordings constitute a form of sonic travel to worlds at once internal and distant. Some are spliced and collaged within compositional frameworks in tandem with electronic and acoustic instruments, others manipulated beyond recognition, and still others presented as they are—but always with an aesthetic in mind, even if that aesthetic is simply to let sounds “happen.” Their significance cannot be overstated—not because they represent an overarching artistic ethos but precisely because they shun that motivation in favor of genuinely borderless spaces. It’s not often we can listen to a corpus of sounds without transfusing the blood of our politics and ideologies into it. Here, we can. Such comfort means more than ever in a world on its knees, wondering whether the healing will begin.

Jeph Jerman: Early Recordings ’81-’85

Also known by the moniker Hands To, Jeph Jerman first set out with his cheap cassette deck in the 1980s to document the act of listening while questioning its practices and apparatuses. What continues to fascinate about his recordings is how raw and curated they feel. And while some of his most unadulterated work (e.g., Beach Tree and Birds, 2001, A Pyrrhic Victory) is woefully difficult to track down, this compilation of early recordings is a grounded place to start. Lo-fi swaths of mostly industrial settings (e.g., “Metal Fabricating Shop, Colorado Springs”) reveal an unimaginable depth in the mundane.

Alan Lamb: Archival Recordings: Primal Image/Beauty

In 1976, Australian biomedical research scientist Alan Lamb first discovered the abandoned stretch of telephone wires that would define his artistic endeavors to come. Dubbed the Faraway Wind Organ, this massive vibrating skeleton loosed eerie songs at the touch of an air current, echoing since his childhood into a mature desire to record them. That he did, often for hours at a time, assembling choice passages into this otherworldly diptych. Whether whispering the mantras of uninhabited terrain or choiring like a Glenn Branca symphony, these requiems step out of time and ooze their way into the bloodstream.

Maggi Payne: Ping/Pong: Beyond The Pail

Maggi Payne is a venerated composer and multimedia artist whose output has largely focused on electro-acoustic constructions. Her field recordings of “dry ice, space transmissions, BART trains, and poor plumbing” congregated to astounding effect on 2010’s Arctic Winds, but 2003’s Ping/Pong: Beyond The Pail preserved another level of intimacy. Its two 30-minute tracks, recorded in a galvanized steel pail, offer complementary experiences of rainfall through the intermediary of the album’s eponymous vessel. The first catches the rain openly, while the second inverts the pail for a drum-like effect, sealing us in a metallic chamber without excuse for distraction.

John Tulchin: Location Recordings

This collection’s first track, “Fire Alarm From A Distance (Winter Park, FL.),” is indicative of John Tulchin’s questing spirit. It’s also one of the most haunting field recordings in readily available form and an entry into an album unlike any other. The pragmatic titles—“Metal Structure In The Desert (Dead Horse Ranch, AZ.),” “Log Partially Submerged In Water (Seattle, WA.),” etc.— only deepen the possibilities of interpreting them. Somehow, knowing what we are hearing makes it clear how much we miss. Thankfully, we have Tulchin to fill in those gaps with heartfelt portraits of time incarnate.

Quiet American: Plumbing And Irrigation Of South Asia

Quiet American, an homage to the novel by Graham Greene, is the sound manipulation project of San Francisco Bay Area artist Aaron Ximm. Plumbing And Irrigation Of South Asia is at once exactly what it sounds like and something else entirely. Nominally, it is a vast collection of field recordings of various community fixtures, such as a drainage pipe in Madikeri (India), a water pump in Khulna (Bangladesh), and a toilet in Kathmandu (Nepal). Other locations include Vietnam, Burma, Laos, and China. Beyond that, it is an unassuming travelogue filtered through the mesh of a respectful phonographic memory.

Jgrzinich: Insular Regions

John Grzinich is a sculptor combining found sounds and instruments of his own design. For this 2005 release, he gathered personal impressions of Mooste, a rural Estonian village. Insular Regions is among the more tactile albums in this guide’s category of interest. Its resonant intersections of wood, wind, and wire feel like a portal into another dimension. And yet, we are constantly reminded of their fleshly purview, which Grzinich sees no reason to hide. What we hear is what we get, even when we know it has been transformed through technology, because every electrical circuit runs on our conductivity.

Loren Chasse: Synthesis of Neglected Places

Loren Chasse is a humble public school teacher in San Francisco who seems never to have lost that childlike wonder for the world around him. Synthesis of Neglected Places was originally produced as a cassette in 1998 by the Unique Ancient Tavern label. Over the course of eight parts, it lives out every moment in the full knowledge that the act of recording will change its genetic makeup. As Chasse’s most crepuscular album, it speaks in tongues of light and shadow in equal measure, drawing out tasteful keyboard touches as if from within.

Loren Chasse: The Air In The Sand

Loren Chasse leaves behind precious recollections of experiences you never knew you had. That such dreamlike qualities are elicited from unabashed reality sets his work apart. The Air In The Sand shares the spirit of 2002’s Hedge of Nerves, which meshed the crackle of vinyl with sounds of the elements, expanding that aesthetic to welcome wider-reaching absorptions. By revealing the natural in the artificial and vice versa, he pays deference to the molecules common to all matter, guiding them in chorus even as they lead him in kind to voices hibernating until they can be amplified.

Click on the sub-cover titles below to see my reviews of other vital albums in this loosely allied genre.

Francisco López: Addy En El País De Las Frutas Y Los Chunches

Eric La Casa: The Stones Of The Threshold

Collin Olan: Rec01

David Dunn: The Sound of Light in the Trees

Lionel Marchetti: Portrait d’un glacier

John Hudak: Pond

Koura: Shisō

MNortham: Molt And Anecdote

Seth Nehil: Uva

Murmer: Eyes Like A Fish

Jonathan Coleclough/Murmer: Husk

Jgrzinich/Seth Nehil: Confluence

Ralph Alessi Quartet: It’s Always Now (ECM 2772)

Ralph Alessi Quartet
It’s Always Now

Ralph Alessi trumpet
Florian Weber piano
Bänz Oester double bass
Gerry Hemingway drums
Recorded June 2021, ArteSuono Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Mixed December 2022 at Radiostudio RSI, Lugano by Manfred Eicher and Stefano Amerio
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 17, 2023

Trumpeter Ralph Alessi returns to ECM with his fourth leader date for the label, this time with a newly minted European quartet that reflects his relocation to Switzerland in 2020. Alongside Florian Weber (piano), Bänz Oester (bass), and Gerry Hemingway (drums), he carves out a vivid baker’s dozen of original material.

“Hypnagogic” not only sets a tone but also establishes the album’s heart, the veins and arteries of which are traced with anatomical faithfulness by Alessi and Weber. It’s one of a handful of duo turns (including the subcutaneous title track) building on their nearly 20-year relationship as sonic allies. Abstract yet comforting, their dialogues feel like waking from a dream yet holding on to its fading tendrils. The effect is such that when the light of “Migratory Party” reveals a rhythm section trailing an even longer history, the band’s ability to balance independent voices and melismatic intermingling reigns supreme.

Both as musician and composer, Alessi creates constant washes of color. Whether in the groovier strains of “Residue” (a fantastic testimony of Oester’s talents) or in the nocturnal urbanism of “The Shadow Side” and “Diagonal Lady,” he navigates every moment as a director would a scene of actors improvising within a loose script. The latter two tunes have a three-dimensional feel that yields the album’s deepest magic.

When at its most forthright (“His Hopes, His Fears, His Tears” and “Everything Mirrors Everything”), the band swings forward and backward rather than side to side, while the dramatic resolution of “Hanging by a Thread” leads perfectly to the concluding “Tumbleweed,” bringing us back to where it all began.

(This review originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

PJEV/Kit Downes/Hayden Chisholm: Medna Roso

When using the word “inspire” today, we tend to think of it from an emotional perspective. If you look it up in a dictionary, however, you will find that it also means to inhale (think of it as a combination of “in” and “respire”). In that sense, the music documented on Medna Roso, the third and latest release on producer Sun Chung’s Red Hook Records, is inspired in the most physical way one could imagine. Recorded live at Cologne’s Agneskirche in the summer of 2021, and meshing the voices of Kit Downes (organ), Hayden Chisholm (alto saxophone, shruti box, analogue synthesizer, and throat singing), and Zagreb-based female vocal quintet PJEV, the program resituates songs from the Balkans, cultivating endangered traditions in the foreground of our attention in search of new growth.

Downes’s organ is firmament in which the album’s breaths flow from the pursed lips of invisible ancestors. The pipes, resonant and harmonic by virtue of their location, feel omnipresent—never close enough to touch yet never far enough to deny. What begins as a statement of heavenly creation reveals an earthly heart as PJEV churns the soil of “Listaj goro ne žali be’ara” (Bloom you mountain, don’t regret the blooming flowers). In combination with the subsequent “Ova brda i puste doline” (These hills and desolate valleys), it captures the carelessness of youth and the darker realities of adulthood. The titular landscapes and their features are the measures of a contemplation that pales in scope, always struggling to evoke the majesty of a universe so vast that, ultimately, death is required to comprehend it.

The ensuing journey takes us two steps inward for each outward. Through the solo strains of “Što si setna, nevesela” (Why are you sad and cheerless?) floating over a gong-like substrate, the haunting call and response of “Odkad seke nismo zapjevale” (Since when sisters, we haven’t sung), and the a capella “Službu služi viden dobar junak” (Been in service, a good hero), in which the singers hinge themselves in a massive temporal pivot, we can feel the immensity of things.

Connecting these songs are six instrumental interludes where the divisions of reed, metal, and breath melt in the crucible of singularity. The resulting alloy looks like silver, tastes like copper, sounds like gold. As with the throat singing that sometimes escapes Chisholm’s lips, it trembles in the presence of something formless. Settling beneath the weight of our transgressions, it takes shape in the listening while the terror and fury of nature, but also its quiet invitation, attune us for the time being—because time is only being.

Qasim Naqvi/Wadada Leo Smith/Andrew Cyrille: Two Centuries

Two Centuries is the second album from former ECM producer Sun Chung’s Red Hook label and may one day be regarded as its most defining release. As electronic musician Qasim Naqvi, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and drummer Andrew Cyrille put 11 of Naqvi’s tunes under their triangular microscope, the cells of our listening are magnified.

“For D.F.” opens with a political charge. Written for Darnella Frazier, who captured George Floyd’s murder, it uses distortions to evoke the white noise of our collective trauma. As subtle as this music is, with its near-comforting swells and honest lyricism, it offers not a moment of reflection but the reflection of a moment, a vivid gaze at a life lost on the brink of a society in turmoil. This is, perhaps, the deepest nuance of the titular centuries, the dividing line of which is drawn not numerically but on the shifting sands of justice.

What follows is a veritable tilling of melodies made possible as much through listening as playing. The foundation is often forged between Cyrille’s tools and Naqvi’s febrile choices of color. In fortifying each for harvest, they dip into disparate references. Hear, for example, the influence of Bryn Jones in “Sadden Upbeat,” while “Tympanic” recalls Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No. 4.

Contrasts in mood abound, ranging from sunlit (“Palaver”) to brooding (“Wraith”). “Bypass Decay” is of special note, chugging like a train against (and ultimately losing to) an encroaching night. Throughout, Smith speaks (e.g., “Spiritual is 150”) and sings (e.g., “Organum”) in equal measure, but always with a message to convey in the role of griot, reminding us of something spiritual, though severed from any particular tradition. As is evident in “Orion Ave,” where the free-floating hymn reigns supreme, faith walks these empty streets alone, trailing its shadow like a burden of care.

Sha: Under Cover of Night

On May 25, 2023, reed virtuoso and composer Sha graced the suburbs of Greater Boston with a private house concert, his last performance of a six-month residency in the States. As the focal point of an eclectic crowd bound by trust and camaraderie, he embodied a sense of belonging rarely felt in a musical setting since the pandemic siloed musicians from their listeners. I was deeply grateful to have witnessed this unfolding, working its regeneration through a series of themes connected by tissue grown moment by precious moment. In the company of such warmth, mutual admiration, and creative seeking, along with a sprightly pug named Zoe (more on her below), we had only affirmation to share in the resonant chamber Sha created for those gathered.

Best known for his work with Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, the Swiss outfit in which he adds critical exhalations to wood and wire, Sha had never considered himself a “solo” artist until he was asked to play in that capacity for a music festival in Tehran. The suggestion of that experience led to his first unaccompanied album, Monbijou, a 35-minute suite of three pieces originally recorded in the hollows beneath the box girder bridge it was named for. Listening in such intimate quarters, however, it was clear that in his approach, the artist is never alone. Rather, we were invited by default into a sense of community teetering between mortality and charity.

The title composition began as if from afar, activating the bass clarinet like a fog horn calling out to the souls of the recently departed. Thus, it welcomed variations of color and monochrome with minimal embellishment. On the latter note, despite a modest yet potent array of foot pedals, Sha kept his technological interventions tasteful and sincere, using them not to mask the sounds but cultivate them. (Even his liberal use of circular breathing felt like a necessary apparatus.) Whether adding reverb to mimic the music’s cavernous origins or making use of loops to consummate the palette at hand, he never once let the artifice of his accoutrements hinder appreciation of what was otherwise being rendered before us in real time.

A magical hiccup occurred when, at one point, the above-mentioned Zoe barked in the background. Sha happened to catch her instinctive utterance in a loop, recycling it like a wordless mantra between rasps of intercession for some minutes. Through the insight of repetition, the canine voice became a haunting textural element, a sense of home lost amid the waves of a future calm.

Sha’s uniquely percussive approach to his instruments called forth a fresh aura of expression in primordial terms, reminding us that rhythm is necessarily collective. From this tunnel emerged a train loaded with melodic freight, placing us at the windows, where we could watch as if listening (and vice versa). The scenery flowed by on repeat until changes suggested a forward progression into territories yet to be rendered.

For the second piece, “MM,” Sha horizontalized the bass clarinet to make way for an alto saxophone, in the bell of which he sharpened an array of motivic pencils to mark the paper of our regard. With a requiem’s solemnity, he cast a shadow across the room, made all the more bittersweet for making me acutely aware of the cars going by outside the window. Knowing they would never hear or share these moments with us, I felt honored to be privy to them. As in the brief “Intro,” ironically closing the set by way of encore, its hints of dance turned every pause into a portal of understanding for the wider world, quieting into the rustle of clothing as we prepared to applaud what we had just been given.

Just as the sun’s corona cannot be seen without covering its source, Sha’s music reveals its spirit through obfuscation. This was especially apparent when the digital cloak fell, leaving lungs and bass clarinet to converse with the space’s signature frequency, fading like a technology whispering its final will and testament.

(All pre-concert photos by Tyran Grillo, except for Zoe, who appears courtesy of her gracious human family.)

Shibui: s/t

Shibui marks the full-length debut of the eponymous Bostonian sextet. Led by bassist and composer Tim Doherty, whose music filters out all but the most necessary light, the album nestles five numbered pieces in the simpatico auras of pianist Bradley Goff, clarinetist Céline Ferro, percussionists Derek Hayden (primarily on marimba) and Curtis Hartshorn, and drummer Kyle Harris. Welcoming a range of moods and shading in a smattering of guest percussionists and string players, it treads some obvious influences, from the precise flow-speak of Steve Reich to the modularity of Nik Bärtsch (on whose Ronin Rhythm Records the band’s follow-up release is slated to appear in June). More obvious is the hybridity of the fruit growing therefrom.

Within the introductory “1.3,” the spirit of the band’s name (a Japanese term encompassing nuances of austerity and understated quietude) reigns supreme, though multivalently enough to accommodate grace, nuance, and realism. Less like a needle to a record and more like a hand into a stream equalized by the measure of careful observation, it drops us carefully into a song already in motion. Amid the blissing out of piano and marimba, the bass clarinet adds earthier colors to the water. In a parallel universe, “1.1” and “1.4” are rendered in cooler dialects in which bass and drum lines pop, skip, and leap. Meanwhile, the marimba snakes across frozen ponds and other crystalline formations.

The set’s highlights happen to contain some of its darkest turns. Case in point is “1.5,” in which the starlit contributions of a glockenspiel only serve to emphasize the night that makes them visible, while a clarinet oozing lyrically above the trees coaxes tears from every branch as if they constituted an essential oil. The finality of “1.2,” given special urgency by bass and its reeded cousin, gives over to strings of such sublimity that the finish demands a restart.

While such music is too easily characterized as cinematic, there is also something undeniably photographic about it, breaking down moving images one precious still at a time. And if it may be called minimal, it is primarily because the sparse arranging allows listeners to weave between every instrument, picking up hints of fragrance along the way.

Shibui is available from Bandcamp here.

Enrico Rava/Fred Hersch: The Song Is You (ECM 2746)

Enrico Rava
Fred Hersch
The Song Is You

Enrico Rava flugelhorn
Fred Hersch piano
Recorded November 2021
Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 9, 2022

Pianist Fred Hersch makes his ECM debut in intimately grand fashion with maestro Enrico Rava on flugelhorn. Their meeting at Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI yields some of the most effortless jazz you’ll likely hear this year. Hersch’s opening embrace eases us into Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Retrato em Branco e Preto” as if the set could open no other way, fanning expository poetry in place of lantern flame. An old-town quality prevails, navigating cobblestone streets on tiptoe yet never losing its footing.

Contrary to immediate expectation, this is followed by a free improvisation, which tempers the familiar with new shades of meaning. George Bassman’s “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” gets a delicate and rhythmically endearing treatment, while the title track by Jerome Kern is enigmatically transformed into a crystalline snowdrift of memory. Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” walks a fine line between dream and reality, giving way to artful abstractions that reveal two minds with lifetimes more to say, as do the originals that precede it. Whereas “Child’s Song” (Hersch) conveys innocence with a nostalgic, summery feel that harks to yesteryears, “The Trial” (Rava) renders an entanglement of spiral staircases and other modern architectural details. All of this leaves Hersch alone with “’Round Midnight,” floating into the promise of a new day, uncertain though it may be.

These musicians achieve the extraordinary by sounding like one unit without sacrificing their voices. They dance as few know how, unfolding a love letter one page at a time until only a wax seal seems appropriate to protect its contents from the sun’s bleaching touch.

Julia Hülsmann Quartet: The Next Door (ECM 2759)

Julia Hülsmann Quartet
The Next Door

Uli Kempendorff tenor saxophone
Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded March 2022
Studio La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Produced by Thomas Herr
Release date: August 26, 2022

Although Julia Hülsmann has crafted a hearty sequence of trio records for ECM, including 2017’s Sooner and Later, there has always been something even more intimate and honed about her quartet with tenor saxophonist Uli Kempendorff, bassist Marc Muellbauer, and drummer Heinrich Köbberling, as is refreshingly obvious throughout “Empty Hands,” in which Hülsmann throws notes like petals onto the waters of life to see where they might flow. As they did on this album’s predecessor, Not Far From Here, these effortlessly attuned musicians navigate her sound with familial affinity. After “Made Of Wood” deconstructs the introductory mood, a melodic breeze wafts over the keys, carrying over into “Jetzt Noch Nicht.” Taking two forms—initially as a duet with Kempendorff, later as a swinging outing for all four—it delicately offsets tracks like “Fluid,” an emblematic realization of their capabilities that rejoices in the ongoing moment.

Muellbauer contributes three originals with a more geometric approach to time and harmony. In his “Polychrome,” the piano is a wavering shadow, the saxophone a refraction of light stepping sideways past us, while in “Wasp At The Window,” a locomotive whimsy ensues. The landscape outside our window remains the same, but its description changes along the way. Hülsmann’s ability to carry so much cargo in so fine a mesh is marvelous. Kempendorff and Köbberling offer a tune apiece. The former’s “Open Up” balances emotiveness and restraint, and the latter’s “Post Post Post” is a standout for its liminal expressivity.

No Hülsmann set would be complete without an ode to the popular canon, and her reading of Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April” is no exception. With charming comfort, it promises hope at the end of a long and harmful tunnel that none of us saw coming.