Perfect Sound Forever


Field recording sources:Luc Ferrari (courtesy of Forced Exposure) and the Walt Whitman Rest Stop in New Jersey

Sounds From Behind a Screen
by Daniel Barbiero
(April 2021)

Listen. A boarding announcement in three different languages. An inquiry about baggage, someone is being paged. A family sitting at the next table, talking about the kinds of mundane things families traveling talk about--how much longer before their connecting flight boards, where's the nearest outlet to charge a phone, did they remember to turn out all the lights before they left. These sounds make up what we might think of as the indigenous music of way stations--airports or train stations, hotel lobbies, highway rest stops. These are what sociologist Marc Auge calls non-places--places we transit through on our way to somewhere else, places to which we have no attachment other than of a passing, transactional nature. These are "atopias" in which we are, by definition, out of place and strange among strangers. And these sounds are the soundtracks to those places, sounds of limited, if any, interest and sounds which are most likely forgotten the minute we exit these places.

Listening to a field recording of a place like an airport or highway rest stop reminds us that it's very difficult to identify a place on the basis of its sounds alone. The languages in which some of these conversations, announcements, and other verbal transactions are conducted may provide some clue as to their whereabouts but, particularly at those crossroads of international travel or trade, this will not necessarily produce a positive identification. Listening to this or to any field recording remains an essentially acousmatic experience--an experience akin to listening to a sound from behind a screen. Its source is hidden from view and thus hidden from certain detection.

It's this anonymity, bound up with the acousmatic nature of the field recording, that makes it an appropriate vehicle for capturing the sounds of a place like an airport.

In a sense, a field recording subtracts much of what it is that gives a specific place its specificity; it involves a kind of erasure of the particularity of identity. Consider that a place is a multimodal nexus of sound, sight, scent, touch, temperature, and other conjoined qualities at this particular moment in this particular location. A field recording presents us with only one of these modes--sound--and thus by necessity strips away many of the qualities through which we recognize, and feel ourselves a part of, a concrete place.

By reducing the unique contingencies of a specific place to its audio traces, the field recording creates a kind of generic image of the place--an image that discloses it as being neither here nor there. This is true even of places we know intimately--places that to us are the exact opposite of an atopia. For example, if I make a field recording of a brook I live near--one whose daily changes I observe, whose unique and dynamic combination of flora and fauna I've become familiar with-I reduce to the single dimension of sound the multimodal profile made up of sight, sound, smell, and touch that is part of the background of my daily activities. The field recording is of a specific brook at a specific time, a record of the unreproducible contingencies that define a specific place at a specific time. When I listen to it later, though, these contingencies drop away and what I'm left with is a collection of sounds--the rustle of water punctuated by bird calls, the hollow crunch of dry grasses moving in the wind--that I imagine could've been recorded by any brook at any time. Reduced to sound, the contingent is effaced by the general. My brook, the site of accidents of geology, topology, and fauna converging in their irreducible peculiarity, simply becomes "Brook, the type." In a sense, field recording reduces the particularities of being in favor of a generic Being.

The kind of generic being that field recordings convey is symptomatic of non-places and other atopias. Their music--the sounds that fill them--provides general clues as to what they are as types of places. We are likely to hear these sounds as the sounds of an airport or a rail terminal--any airport, any rail terminal.

Eavesdropping I

The sounds we hear on a field recording of a public space like an airport, rail terminal, or rest stop aren't heard. They're overheard. In a sense, when we make a field recording of a public place, we are engaged in eavesdropping. Or rather, we are engaged in making a record of the eavesdropping we got involved in--deliberately or inadvertently--while passing through in the company of others. In such a place, eavesdropping is virtually unavoidable.

Eavesdropping is a particular variety of overhearing, which is itself a particular variety of listening. Listening becomes overhearing when we unintentionally hear a conversation not meant for our ears; overhearing becomes eavesdropping when done with the intention of hearing something not meant for us. Whereas a conversation can be overheard without my designing to overhear it, eavesdropping involves the decision to overhear and the effort to realize that decision.

Listening becomes eavesdropping when the act of listening raises the possibility of embarrassment. It's an embarrassment that something not meant for others has been heard. Interestingly, this embarrassment can arise on both sides of the equation: both for the speaker who doesn't want his or her words to be heard by a third party, and for the listener, who, while eavesdropping, is aware of the impropriety of what he or she is doing.

A key feature of many public places--in particular those atopias and non-places that seem to exist for no one in particular and anyone in general--is the implicit promise of anonymity. If the non-place is a place constituted as much by a contract between the place and the user, anonymity is one of the key conditions of the contract. Translated into practical terms, anonymity means "invisibility," the aural equivalent of which is inaudibility. We discreetly pretend not to hear the conversations around us, conversations that don't concern us, and that reflect purposes, desires, and indeed entire lives not our own. This kind of privacy--a paradoxical privacy because of its public nature--is a courtesy extended to others whose intimacy we have no claims on. But it is a particularly weak form of privacy.

(There may be a sense in which the cellphone conversation carried on in public creates a virtual non-place around the user--routinely broadcasting in the open conversations that otherwise might have taken place privately, face-to-face. I can recall one subway ride several years ago in which a middle-aged woman on a cellphone described in quite graphic detail the specifics of a medical procedure she'd just had. She made no attempt to speak quietly and this breach of convention led to a good number of uncomfortable looks directed her way).

All of us in an atopia that is either literal (that is to say, in a physical space like an airport or train station) or virtual (within earshot of a cellphone conversation) are at least potentially eavesdroppers. Because we implicitly agree not to listen to the conversations of the strangers around us--to whom we too are strangers--any listening done in a non-place takes on the character of eavesdropping. But it is a particular kind of eavesdropping peculiar to the nature of the non-place. Usually though, eavesdropping is done surreptitiously--the eavesdropper listens while attempting not to be noticed in the act of listening.

Eavesdropping II

The difference between eavesdropping in the classic sense and eavesdropping in the non-place is that in the latter case, we do it openly. We're excused for doing so: it is not a place in which an expectation of privacy in a strong sense can reasonably be assumed. Consequently, we're at least partly licensed to eavesdrop. Our being here is both temporary and anonymous; temporary and anonymous beings relinquish strong claims to privacy--the atopia, the non-place, will see to that. The listener, who in another setting would perhaps be hidden, is revealed here as another anonymous, adjacent presence in plain sight. The overheard conversation also reveals something about the speaker, but of a different order--something presumably we aren't meant to hear.

If those families talking over fast food at the Walt Whitman rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike speak about mundane things, it's because, seen from another angle, those things aren't mundane at all, but instead, they define them as families--their shared tastes and aversions, daily activities, gossip, etc. that, along with their habits and traits, constitute them as a sort of comprehensive culture in microcosm.

In a public space, eavesdropping always exists as a possibility in a way that it doesn't in a natural environment. Listening to the sounds of nature is just listening. When I sit on my front stoop in the evening, listening to the crickets and last cicadas of late August, there is no violation of an expected privacy. The meaning these sounds have to the creatures making them is largely opaque to me--I can't "appropriate" their meanings through listening as I could through listening to a conversation whose sense I can understand. Overhearing a conversation in a language I don't understand falls somewhere in between. While I can't make out the semantic content of what is being said, I can glean some sense of meaning by listening to the prosody of how it's said, including the tones of voice, the dynamics, and other cues that convey something of the emotions behind the sense.

Eavesdropping involves an appropriation of meaning when we can understand enough of the overheard conversation to make use of it--to formulate an opinion, good or bad, of the speaker or of the situation he or she is speaking of. Or, in some extreme cases, to act profitably on information not meant for us. When we can't understand the meaning, we're left with the music of it.

A Stolen Intimacy with Ghosts

Composer Luc Ferrari, speaking to Brigitte Robindore in an interview published in the Autumn 1998 issue of Computer Music Journal, expressed something crucial about field recordings taken of the ordinary voice when the speaker is unaware of being recorded. As he put it, "to discover speaking through the medium of recording is a rather astonishing thing. When I heard this natural speaking, I discovered its intimacy and its musicality." Both qualities are inherent in the natural speaking voice; what is it about field recording that allowed Ferrari, and presumably other listeners, to discover qualities that are always everywhere right in front of us? It's that the audio field recording, in presenting sound only, as a matter of course isolates those qualities and focuses our attention on them. This is the other side, the humanizing side, of field recording's acousmatic nature. There's nothing to see there, only to hear.

Qualities of intonation and inflection--markers of the emotional force of a spoken communication--constitute the prosody of everyday speech and lend it a pattern of affective shadings unique to the speaker. If the semantic or referential content of a spoken communication is in principle common to speakers of that language, the affective music conveyed by the speaker's voice is a contingency that belongs only to him or her. Ferrari is undoubtedly right when he describes it as "a mysterious and profoundly human thing and a profoundly sensual thing." In the absence of visual cues, these musical cues take on an importance equal to any semantic meaning; in the case of a language we don't understand, the music becomes its meaning as far as we're concerned. These affective markers are accidents of the moment that field recording immobilizes, captures, and preserves, as if in amber.

Ferrari is right to emphasize the intimacy implicit in the ordinary music of the spoken word. This music, at once enfolding and clarifying the speaker's message, is meant for the receiver of the message and, presumably, no one else (unless the speaker wishes to be overheard, in which case the music of how something is said becomes a deliberate thing crafted as carefully as, and thus equal in importance to, what is said--this is how one "sends a message," through inflection as well as diction). Ferrari gives the example of a German woman he recorded in the process of buying potatoes. Even in such a mundane activity, the music of her voice was such that Ferrari confessed that by hearing it, he felt "the same intimacy as a psychoanalyst in discussion with his patient."

Ferrari's likening of the intimacy involved in listening to the recorded voice being comparable to the intimacy of psychoanalysis is as telling as it is apt. Certainly, the information imparted during psychoanalysis is intimate, but the intimacy of the psychoanalytic exchange is all one-way, a transaction in which the patient gives and the analyst receives, with no reciprocal return of intimacies required, or even desired, of the latter. This is the situation of listening to the field recording of strangers' voices--it is an intimacy taken rather than shared or bartered. It is entirely asymmetrical. In that sense, what is involved is something like a violation of the informal conventions governing intimacy. But this asymmetry is just something inevitably built into the act of recording a stranger's voice in the field, in its candid everydayness. It is the same asymmetry that structures the act of eavesdropping. No wonder that Ferrari refers to these kinds of recordings as being akin to "stolen photographs."

Ferrari's comparison seems just right. Not simply because the recording was presumably taken without the consent or knowledge of the person recorded, but because, like a photograph, the recording contains the image of a vanished moment. Its immediacy is to that degree something unsettling--stripped of context and reduced to a mono-modal existence as sound alone, the recorded voice takes on a phantom-like quality. The field recording of the overheard music of spoken prosody in effect puts us in intimate contact with ghosts.

Appendix: A Sampler of Overhearings

Luc Ferrari's 1968 recording "Presque Rien, ou le lever du jour au bord de la mer" captured sunrise in the Croatian seaside village of Vela Luka. The "almost nothing" of the title refers to Ferrari's essentially leaving the original recording untreated. "Presque rien" is generally considered the founding document of contemporary field recording.

Jaye Kranz of Melbourne, Australia made this recording of a lone blackbird at dusk. Recorded eavesdropping on the conversations and communications of the non-human world has a very long history. As an 8 year-old boy, German-born Ludwig Koch, who later went on to a career as a sound recordist and broadcaster in England, made in 1889 the first known field recording of birdsong with an Edison phonograph his father had given him. Koch recorded the sounds of a captive white-rumped Shama bird. More recently, the 1970 album Songs of the Humpback Whale, recorded with hydrophones, was something of a popular sensation at the time it was released and helped create a vogue for recordings of the sounds of nature.

Field recordings of certain kinds of radio transmission represent a particular form of eavesdropping- eavesdropping at a remove. An intriguing example is the Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations created by Akin Fernandez. The Conet Project recordings capture shortwave radio transmissions of voices reciting numbers or letters- presumably coded messages used by intelligence agencies to communicate with agents in the field.

Similarly, Juan Jose Calarco's album Espectro contains recordings of shortwave and LF radio transmissions of various kinds, including numbers stations and boat communications. Interestingly, the title of the album translates as specter or ghost; Calarco seemingly recognizes field recording's intimate ghosts by name.

A more ordinary bit of eavesdropping is this recording of what's described as "an over the top woman" in Arrowe Park, by UK field recordist Colwynn. This is pure eavesdropping, an overheard, intimate slice of life in the guise of a momentary emotional outburst over in a flash and just as quickly forgotten--if it hadn't been recorded for posterity.

Kate Carr's 2014 album Overheard in Doi Saket is a sound document of her travels in Thailand. Carr's recording of a temple ceremony allows us an aural window into the intimacies of a religious gathering. Similarly, Chris Lynn's album Qixia collects recordings made when Lynn was in the Qixia district of Nanjing, China in 2016. Wednesday Lesson on Courtship is a recording of teachers of the Qixia training college discussing an upcoming lesson on courtship. The conversation is subdued, but pervaded by an amusement that comes through in laughter and tones of voice. Listening to it, one feels less like an unlicensed eavesdropper and more like an invited, yet silent, participant.

Qixia also includes a recording of the Nanjing train station at night. The train station, as the paradigmatic non-place, provides the optimum setting for recorded eavesdropping. Non-places, my 2017 collaboration with Cristiano Bocci, was organized around the overheard voices of those transiting through non-places in America and Europe. Our composition "Bruxelles Gare du Midi" features recordings of a train station in Brussels as the compositional core of an improvised musical performance.

Finally, Matilde Sambo's field recordings provide a kind of basso continuo for "Sentieri Paralleli,: a long composition in which the overheard is juxtaposed in creatively revealing ways with the sounds of electroacoustic instruments.

For further investigation, the label Impulsive Habitat specializes in releasing albums of contemporary field recording. The Framework Radio show, a regular broadcast hosted by Patrick McGinley, is dedicated to field recording and phonography.

Also see our interview with field recording artist Stuart Hyatt

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