Symposium Report: Day 1 at In the Field

Day I at the In the Field symposium packed a lot into a tight schedule of presentations, listening sessions and walking tours.  The queue snaked out onto the piazza of the British Library, under a blue sky and the watchful eye of William Blake’s Newton.

Sold out on both days, the auditorium was tightly packed with what was repeatedly defined as the ‘field recording sub-culture’, or ‘field recording tribe’. Potentially a problematic definition, this- while some might enjoy and even aspire to the idea of a group uniting under a common interest, the concept inevitably becomes uncomfortable when dealing with creative expression, and the boundaries and rules that sub-culture and tribes necessarily imply. But this is for another time, and another blog entry.

The Symposium opened with a warm welcome from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Natural Sounds at the British Library, and Angus Carlyle, Researcher at CRISAP.  Although the first three presentations of the day were grouped under the heading ‘The Origins of Field Recording’, Joeri Bruyninckx from Maastricht University provided the only paper technically to brief – an absorbing look at the past of field recording, with particular focus on the period 1930s-1950s and the work of Ludwig Koch and the Cornell University recordists.  Although presenting somewhat of a change of topic – personal projects  and nature recording – the other two presentations were no less interesting.

Felicity Ford took to the podium all kitted out in wool, to talk us through some of her recent works- including Knitsonik. The first challenging point of the day emerged when she admitted to having renounced bulky and expensive gear in an effort not to alienate her interviewees  or her audience in community and rural settings.  She added she’d rather worry about how to approach her subjects and engage them than about specs and configurations, providing the example of  ‘little horrible Maplin speakers’ rather than ‘big black Genelecs’ for a recent installation.  Beautifully presented and covered in hand-knitted wool, the horrible Maplin speakers seemed to be working a treat, as we are told the audience able to get up close to the sound source and interact with the tactility of the material. Naturally, it emerged shortly after that of course Ford also wishes to achieve ‘the best possible sound quality’ in her work, ‘so that the message can be delivered clearly as intended’.  It was interesting to walk this fine line with Ford during this presentation, reflecting on choice, selection, and compromise- a reminder of the necessity for some elements of the work to occasionally be sacrificed for the overall goal.

One not for cutting corners is certainly Simon Elliott.  Professionally working in a medical capacity, he introduces his interest in field recording ‘as a hobby’, but this definition soon proves to be a decoy.  Drawing a big red line over the word ‘soundscapes’ and taking on Bernie Krause in his opening statement, Elliot quickly displays an intensely, almost aggressive commitment to recording (his bio goes on to say that ‘it’s quite normal for him to be up in his chest in a lake before dawn to place a microphone, or abseiling down a cliff to record an eagle’s nest’ – Bear Grylls who?).   I know what you’re thinking. I did too.  It could have gone horribly wrong. But it didn’t, as the goods were delivered in spades: a series of stunning natural close-ups, pristine and razor-sharp. It was a thrill to be so close to Ospreys and wedge-tailed shearwaters, as Elliott made a fair point on behalf of ‘clinical’, uncolored and unaltered recordings, for uses in reproduction schemes as well as in scientific study.

During the Q&A session, an interesting point was raised from the audience about the language utilized in the practice of field recording, and its colonial and hunting references in respect to the natural environment- with terms such as ‘shot gun’, ‘capturing’, ‘zeppelin’ and so forth, which introduced more food for thought in relation to the origin of the discipline and how definitions would possibly be different would the medium have been developed in more recent times.

Following the first session, I joined the tour of the British Library Sound Archives.  We were escorted behind the scenes and through corridors grey with the melancholy sadness of the most beautiful, now obsolete machines- wax cylinders, gramophones, DAT machines- even a rather forlorn, lifesize HMV dog. We intruded upon staff transferring information, soldering chips and cataloguing material- small windowless rooms, stale with the smell of acid and metal, home to staff utterly contagious in their passion for the material they dedicate their lives to preserving. I found this visit a particular moving experience, which also brought home the outstanding and largely unsung work being made in conservation and archiving in Britain today.

Following a lunch break, the Symposium resumed with the session ‘Public Life of Recording’ that featured arguably the ‘star’ speaker of the entire symposium.  Chris Watson is somewhat of an iconic figure in the field recording world, and it was a pleasure to discover that this did not at all thwart a soft-spoken and utterly charming persona.  From the onset he had the audience in the palm of his hand with a fantastically repellent opening- verbally taking us through the sound a dead rat makes when a cockroach is eating it from within (and yes, I did say this was after lunch).  Armed with a somewhat wonky coat-hanger prop ‘from the hotel room I was put in’, Watson lived up to expectations and delivered a thoroughly gripping talk peppered with outstanding recordings, including a spine-chilling poisonous viper, reminder of the ancestral reactions sound has the power to evoke.

Claudia Wegener’s presentation introduced the work she is currently carrying out in Africa, providing some lyrical examples of use of sound and poetry in collective and community projects and describing the challenges she is presented with when facilitating her audio projects locally.  David Velez from Colombia also took to the stage as part of this session, busy diving his time between his sound artist work (with roots in film and documentary making), as reporter (and founder) of The Field Reporter and with the Impulsive Habitat label.

Day I was rounded off to a close by Mark Peter Wright, PhD researcher at CRISAP, who presented am eclectic and diverse selection of recordings.  Featuring works by Alan Lomax and Hildegard Westerkamp among others, this one hour listening session ‘from the microscopic to the universal, natural to man-made, personal to political’ proved a suitable ending to the first day, proposing ‘the field’ as a space and a site of enquiry as wide as it is far-reaching.

La Cosa Preziosa

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