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
David Dunn: The Sound of Light in the Trees
Lionel Marchetti: Portrait d’un glacier
Jonathan Coleclough/Murmer: Husk