Katharine Norman is a writer, composer, teacher and sound artist with a particular interest in acoustic ecology, listening, sound and place. Her work traverses several creative disciplines, with an emphasis on sound and text.
In 1996 she edited ‘A Poetry of Reality: Composing with Recorded Sound’ an issue of Contemporary Music Review which included influential papers by contributors such as Barry Truax, Luc Ferrari and Jean-Claude Risset. Her own paper “Real World Music as Composed Listening” considered the aesthetic implications of employing sounds from the real world as musical material. Her 2004 book ‘Sounding Art, Eight Literary Excursions through Electronic Music‘ included a chapter on maps and cartographers, documentary sounds, sound ecology and composed listening with reference to the work of Peter Cusack, Barry Truax, Paul Lansky and Francisco López. Much of Katharine’s work engages with field recording as a sonic practice, as a text based practice and in terms of the range of ideas that find their expression in works using field recording from the perspective of both the composer and the listener. Recently she was one of the keynote speakers at Crossing Listening Paths, the 2011 International Conference of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) in Corfu, Greece and has also just guest edited two issues (16/2 and 17/3) of the peer-reviewed journal, Organised Sound (Cambridge University Press) on the theme of Sound, Listening and Place.
The following is taken from a recent telephone interview with Katharine in which we discuss these two recent experiences and her views on field recording activity in those contexts, particularly in the UK.
We started by discussing the recent Organised Sound experiences:
KN I wasn’t that surprised, but we received far more submissions than the journal had previously for a themed issue, and, I think in part that was because I went out of my way to promote the call for papers to quite an interdisciplinary clientele. I didn’t just go for the usual electronic music areas but also disciplines such as anthropology, landscape studies, philosophy and some of the submissions came in from those kinds of areas. So the number of submissions was partly because I made an effort to get a wider range of submission but also, I think, because the subject is really pertinent at the moment: there’s an lot of interest in it, and what really seems to be becoming known as the field of ‘sound studies’ is infiltrating all kinds of disciplines, in different ways.
CL Absolutely, I think that’s right. It seems to me however that much of the field recording activity in this country is being carried out as part of a wider methodological approach to environment or place or as a method of documentary possibly more than as an artistic practice. What do you think?
KN Yes, you’re right, there are some really strong figures in the UK who have become known as “sound recordists” who also have an aesthetic bent – I mean people like Peter Cusack and Chris Watson who have international profiles. I wonder why that is? I wonder if it’s because sound has always been quite important or, at least has not been ignored in the more experimental fine arts institutions like Central St Martins and other UK centres. Although there is also a great deal of phonography going on in North America as well—especially Canada, of course, coming out of the interests in ‘acoustic ecology’ there.
I don’t know if you belong to e–mail lists such as nature recordists? There are some really ‘big’ names in sound recording there, people who work on TV documentaries and nature recording specialists and there do seem to be quite a few British people on the list. Perhaps the British interest in sound recording you feel exists is somehow tied up with the UK broadcasting tradition – the BBC has had an enormous influence, and that kind of high quality recording of the natural environment often issues from people who have a background in broadcasting.
CL Yes I think that’s true. Would you say that most of the papers submitted for Organised Sound which discussed the practice of field recording viewed it as being very attatched to context ?
KN In general terms, yes. Though there was such a variety of work you couldn’t really cite a typical case. I think all the papers were concerned with sound retaining its environmental and contextual ‘meaningfulness’. There was, for instance, one writer who’s primarily trained as an anthropologist, writing about Spanish communities and recording lost communities – villages that have been flooded by water diversion for example; there was someone in the UK making a psychogeographic piece about the imagined sounds of London sites that are no longer physically there; there were several essays about specific pieces of music that were about place – for instance a paper discussing works by Annea Lockwood and Frances White. So yes, the vast majority of papers in these journal issues are in that sense, about works that keep the sound very much connected to the environmental context, and there are also some discussion of that in relation to film – as well as those theorising in a more general way. You can read all the abstracts on line here
CL Was there anything that came in that really surprised or delighted you or that you weren’t expecting?
KN They all delighted me, even the ones we couldn’t accept. There were a couple of writers I haven’t come across before who I found interesting because that particular journal has historically quite a close community and I think that this theme actually opened the submissions, and I hope the readership, beyond that. I’m just finishing revisions of my paper which is discussed three composers, each working with rainforest sounds in the works I discuss: Steven Feld, Francisco López, and David Monacchi, who has devoted his compositional life to ecology and sound.
CL You were one of the keynote speakers at the Crossing Listening Paths the 2011 International Conference of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology in Corfu, Greece. (Katharine’s presentation is available to read here) Did you feel there was anything emerging that was new or different?
KN It’s quite a small conference, of about 100 people maybe. I know the World Forum from helping to edit the journal Soundscape for a while and I know Hildegard Westerkamp, as a friend, from living in Vancouver . I wrote an essay for the journal afterwards in addition to my keynote which sort of talked about the fact that the organization is rather small and perhaps could be more proactive about making interdisciplinary connections, and affiliations. say the focus of the WFAE is on artistic work and people working in acoustic ecology as composers and artists. There is an interest in more interdisciplinary work. This year one of the keynote speakers was Christopher W Clark, a bio-acoustician –his work is partly to do with tracking orca whale populations and underwater marine ecology and brought the valuable and completely different perspective as a scientist. There are also quite a few people in the WFAE community whose work is related to urban planning urban planning. I think they’re trying very hard to move into a more interdisciplinary stage which is rather difficult with such a small organisation which is also its an affiliation of small national organisations.
CL Yes. Whatever happened to the UK branch of that?
KN I gather it’s relaunching at the moment (details can be found here) they really need to go out and get members!
CL Does your current work involving field recording?
KN At the moment I’m writing a piece for piano and digital sound which doesn’t use environmental ‘nature’ recording. It is based on piano sounds and spoken text. I do make environmental recordings, though. I’ve been recording a minute or two of sound from my window every morning for just over a year now, and taking photographs I don’t know what I’m going to use the recordings for but it’s more a sort of discipline to think about sound and listening and landscape. I’m interested in thinking about ordinary landscape – ordinary experience of sound in our familiar environments, not so much domestic landscapes necessarily but just the way listening is part of our normal, quotidian experience but in quite profound ways. I’m actually talking about that at a conference later this year (Affective Landscapes) – and hoping to write a paper or possibly book chapter from that.
An audio interview with Katharine Norman can also be found on Kyriaki Karydi’s blog