Nature as other: Hunting for Sound in Nature 5

0418h A rich chorus of resident species now; robins, song thrush and blackbirds with a lower backing of woodpigeons.
0420h cut for a passing military jet.
0424h The thrushes are joined by a chiffchaff singing its common name, so now resident and migrant birds in unison. A blackcap now off to the right. Everything is singing at once! This is the dawn chorus, even an unusual tawny owl call somewhere in the canopy and distant ravens way off overhead.

From Chris Watson’s Ynys-hir dawn chorus diary.

The telling detail of Watson’s description above occurs at 0420h where he cuts the recording for a passing military jet. He removes the offending sound as it is not part of the soundscape he is attempting to capture, suggesting Watson’s image of nature is an ideological one in which the unnatural sounds of humans (us) need to be removed from the nature over there (other). As David Michael asserts, “The aesthetics of nature sound recording are steeped in fantasy. This fantasy is one in which our ecosystems are healthy and the internal combustion engine does not exist.”

The locations chosen by the nature recordist are often connected with ecological concerns, centering on environments that are imagined to have remained in a pristine state and where man-made sounds will not infect the recording. The audio recordings produced in these far flung locales resemble picture postcards from beautiful locations (the Antarctic Tundra), animals in their natural environment (seals, whales, birdlife and insects), the sublime (ice sheering off an iceberg) and weather (wind and storms). Watson, for example, holds a fascination with Antarctic and Arctic environments. He points out that, “Areas above 66 degrees north and 66 degrees south are difficult to access, they have very hostile environments, are mostly unpopulated… These remote regions are also exciting, challenging and still relatively unknown.” When in these environments Watson contends that there can be “no noise pollution” and that the sounds are almost identical to those heard on historical expeditions.Watson’s story is certainly alluring yet while he has gone to great lengths to identify himself with the image of a careful listener to sound, here he is deaf to the sounds he is making in the environment – the noise pollution he produces and the sounds he introduces to the environment by simply being there. Watson may yearn for the sounds of pre-settlement and of the past, but the very machinery of recording introduces man-made sounds – there is simply nothing in nature that resembles a microphone and a hard-disk recorder and the artefact, the recording, itself cannot give off the illusion that it is natural.

David Michael, “Toward a Dark Nature Recording”
Chris Watson’s Ynys-hir dawn chorus diary,” BBC Nature, http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/natureuk/2011/05/chris-watsons-ynys-hir-dawn-ch.shtml
Chris Watson, “Three Questions for Chris Wason,” http://www.liquidarchitecture.org.au/media/essays/238-three-questions-for-chris-watson

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16 responses to “Nature as other: Hunting for Sound in Nature 5”

  1. Nathan Thomas says :

    Fair point! But I’m wondering, if Watson had left the noise of the jet in, how would this affect the status of the recording? Would it be more honest, or more authentic? Would it give us more information, or more meaningful information, about the place and time in which it was made?

    • The Field Recordist says :

      Nathan, Yes it would more authentic than with it cut-out, but doubtful whether it would ever be authentic per se; depends upon numerous factors, such as the extent of other post-processing work carried out on the original recording, and even the types of recorder, preamp and microphone used, their settings and placement during recording. In fact, I will go even further by stating that the recordist’s presence affects the ambience. My own field tests using ‘drop & recover’ methods indicate that It takes about 5 minutes before the natural world starts to make itself heard following the recordist’s departure and is in fact still wary of any equipment left; so when someone informs me that they have captured a natural field recording whilst standing there monitoring their equipment, I immediately know that this is untrue in one respect, but may be true in another; for It depends upon whether you classify a human being and his activities as being part of the natural world.

      It’s an interesting consideration. I could argue that since we are living, we are part of the same ecosystem as the flora and fauna, so we must be part of the same natural world, and as such our activities, aircraft, chainsaws, vehicles, music…. noisy or not, are equally part of it: after all some animals are even noisier than we humans. Just because we have developed mechanised transport etc. does not exclude us from being part of the natural world… in fact I would love to live long enough to learn which other animal is next to develop mechanised transport and whether that animal will then be excluded from being part of that natural world by some!

      I am aware that people think that I ‘bang-on’ a bit about this, but my own approach to field recording tends to differ from many recordists by including all sound present at the location being recorded. This ensures that the final sound file approaches a more truthful representation of the ambience of that particular location at the time of recording and not some virtual location produced as a figment of the recordist’s imagination through the removal of unwanted sound such as road traffic, aircraft and other human activities.

      In fact the act of removal by cutting out, always leaves short sections of recording both before and after the cut which are completely fictitious, they are encapsulated within the final mix-down as two different time domains – the larger the cut, the longer the fiction and misrepresentation of the location.

      • nlthomas says :

        I’m not sure we could say that we are “part of the same natural world”, as we define that natural world as a world without us! But I take your point, we are indeed part of the same scenario, woven from the same cloth, if you will. We are not as removed or as ‘other’ as we often assume, perhaps.

        But to put my question a different way: we seem to be accusing Watson of making some kind of misjudgement, but what exactly is he judging incorrectly? Is it a misjudgement of degree (he thought the edited recording was more authentic than the unedited version, when the reverse is true, say), or is it a misjudgement of kind (he thought the recording was one thing, when actually it was something else entirely)? To be more precise: is Watson’s field recording a document (of greater or lesser authenticity), or is it something else? Can it be both a document and also something else? If so, does that something else that it also is complicate its status as a document?

  2. caleb kelly says :

    Hi Nathan
    Thanks for yoru comment – i’m not quite sure what direction you are coming from here. For me the aeroplane sounds must be left in. The sounds of the jet is just as much a part of the sound ecology as the birds and to leave it out is to pretend that we do not live in the world we find ourselves. Watson has some very extreme and bizarre beliefs and ideas about sound in the environment and about the nature of recording. The idea that the nature recording could be ruined by what ‘nature’ actually sounds like is one example.

    • nlthomas says :

      Hi Caleb,

      I agree that Watson’s beliefs are “extreme and bizarre” if one assumes that the only purpose of field recording is to document what can actually be heard in a given location. Watson clearly gives us the world as he would have wished to have heard it, rather than as he actually heard it. But isn’t this also a valid approach to field recording – as an attempt to document the possible, rather than the actual, so to speak? One could argue that if the field recordist is to acknowledge his/her own presence at the site, then this must include acknowledgement of his/her own desires, of the world s/he would like to hear – unless it is presumed that the field recordist is without desires?

      I realise I’m not doing a very good job of explaining myself here – I’ve added a longer post to my own blog that will hopefully articulate a bit more clearly where I’m coming from: http://afternoondust.co.uk/blog/documenting-the-possible-field-recording-as-a-site-of-desire

      Best wishes,

      Nathan

  3. Martin says :

    I think an “extreme and bizarre” belief is to think art has to be “true”, or to consider there is such a thing as “truth”. A photograph or a sound recording doesn’t depict the truth or “reality”, so I don’t see the problem in editing out, or adding (Watson sometimes layers several recordings).
    As for any art medium, it is a subjective point of view.
    Watson is recreating a feeling, a “vision”, not pretending to recreate any form of reality.

    What he does is recording an ecosystem. A plane passing by is not part of that ecosystem. If he was recording a plane sound he might want to remove a dog barking in the recording and I don’t think you would blame this on his ideology.
    The plane is to these “nature sounds” what the coughing noise is to the classical music concert. I agree with you that when one is in the concert hall one should embrace the coughing sound as part of the experience — why negating the audience? But if I’m recording the concert, I’ll definitely try to get rid of it. Also, I never cough at a concert, out of respect for the musicians.

    I agree that most field recordists seem to have an agenda to defend nature, but what you’re condemning in Watson’s work has nothing to do with it.
    Now, I’m not very fond of Chris Watson’s music or the genre in general. I just wanted to point out that there is not more ideology in removing the sound of the plane than there is in letting it in.

    • crackedmedia says :

      Hi Martin
      thanks for taking the time to make these comments. Two things in response – the first point is quite correct. While i am not naively believing that i am without ideologies myself, you actually sum-up my position. Watson holds very public beliefs about the nature of recording and sound. If we follow him then, i argue, we find some extreme and bizarre outcomes that do not mesh with his beliefs.

      Secondly, your position that the aircraft is not part of the ecosystem is very strange. If it is not part of the ecosystem what is it part of?! This is a very peculiar stance to take.

      • Martin says :

        Hi Caleb, thanks for your answer. An ecosystem is as an ensemble of interacting organisms. When observing one you deliberately ignore what doesn’t belong to it, including disruptive elements (in this case, the plane). Unless you are studying the effects of the disruptive element on that ecosystem. The plane doesn’t belong to the ecosystem: interaction is necessarily reciprocal, and whatever Watson is recording doesn’t directly affect the plane.I am not a scientist so maybe I’m getting something wrong here.
        To answer your question the plane is part of the soundscape, and maybe even of an ecosystem defined on another scale (the planet), but not of the ecosystem defined by Watson (usually a forest or something of a much smaller scale).

        The reason I wrote in the first place is because I had the exact same argument about editing out with my sister, who photographs performances. She considers that she captures a moment “as it is”: if there’s a trashcan in the frame, she either finds another spot to shoot from or leaves the trashcan in the picture, even though she admits not liking it. My position is that the trashcan should or should not be there according to whether the photographer thinks it belongs in the picture or not. I don’t understand why you should leave it if you find it disruptive. Photoshopping out doesn’t mean being more or less truthful to the reality. The unaltered photograph or sound recording is not a capture of reality, but an interpretation. But I think we agree on that, based on what you wrote at the end of your article.

        Therefore the problem with Watson is the claim to reproduce reality and that claim only. Whether he alters the sound recording or not is, to me, irrelevant. I’ve never heard him claim such a thing, but haven’t read much of his writing. Could you point us to an example?

        Watson usually records ambiances and adds “close-up” recordings of specific sounds, editing the recordings into a composition. He also talks about “time compressing”, editing 10 hours in 10 minutes so you hear the evolution of the soundscape during a day. see here : http://www.escoitar.org/Binauralmedia-interview-with-Chris
        These actions, as much as the edit of the plane, are fabricating a result that corresponds to Watson’s interpretation of what he experienced (as opposed to reality). This interpretation might be nostalgic of a fantasized world exempt of man’s noises, but I tend to think of it as an artistic choice, that one can like or dislike. I still don’t understand why you condemn it. I might change my mind if I read what you’ve read!!

  4. soundslikenoise says :

    You have raised some good questions regarding the practise of editing and the “fiction” that they create. As someone who works with both field recordings and altered sounds this is of great interest to me.

    I would like to join the debate by stating that all field recording is a “created fiction” in one sense or another. For example:

    1. Where we choose to aim the microphone raises certain sounds to the foreground while relegating others to the background. In effect this creates “the subject”.

    2. The use of filters and equalisers either in the field or studio also “fictionalises” our recordings to an extent. This reflects on our desire to create the subject.

    3. In post-production our choice to begin/end (fade in/out) a recording involves a decision enhances the status of the subject. However this action might not accurately portray the dominant soundscape of a particular area.

    So, in defence of Watson, if his choice of subject was the dawn chorus of Ynys-hir then the overhead jet, though present, was not part of that subject. If his choice of subject was the general land mass of that region then the overhead jet would have been more pertinent.

    Finally, at every step of the recording process there is some kind of a decision made by the recordist which is removed from the original experience of listening in situ. The claim that some recordings are more “authentic” than others always strikes me as defending a certain hierarchy in field recording and is ultimately false.

    • crackedmedia says :

      hi soundslikenoise. thanks for the comment. i totally agree that this whole thing is mediated, from beginning to end. There is nothing about field recording that is not produced by an individual with aesthetic tastes and an agenda.

      • Nathan Thomas says :

        There is nothing about field recording that is not produced by an individual with aesthetic tastes and an agenda.

        But weren’t the bird calls we hear in Watson’s piece made by real birds?

      • crackedmedia says :

        Hi Nathan
        Are you saying you believe speakers are real birds? When you listen to speakers you believe the sounds you hear were made by, in this case, a bird? This would be a strange position indeed.

      • Nathan Thomas says :

        It would indeed be a strange position, if I believed that the sound had no life or history prior to its production by the speakers. But why stop at speakers? Surely only the energy in my ear drums that makes them vibrate is real sound, and the connection between that energy and anything else is pure illusion? Pressure waves being merely an excuse to explain away the appearance of causality?

  5. Caleb Kelly (@caleb_k) says :

    Things are getting confusing here. Previously you stated the playback of a recording of a bird is the sound of the real bird. Now you are questioning the nature of sound itself. I’m unsure of your position.
    My position is that the mediated reproduction of the bird is not the real bird, just like a photo of that bird is also not the real bird… This is old hat in media theory but something that field recording continues to have difficulty with. Watson believes in real sound, and that a real sound can be recorded and played back and retain its real ness. My position is that mediation is just that and nothing mediated is real, especially sound that ports through so many levels of mediation before it gets to those ear drums.

  6. Nathan Thomas says :

    Ahh sorry I think I misunderstood – I thought that the statement “There is nothing about field recording that is not produced by an individual” was meant to claim that the bird call itself was somehow produced by the artist, as if there never really was, at some point, an actual field, with actual birds, in which the (actual!) field recordist stood. Hence my bewildered question regarding the realness of birds, which only led to more confusion!

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