Many sound artists are also respectable specialists of some aspects of the wildlife or certain environmental issues, whether it comes from a former educational background like it is the case for Francisco Lopez or it is a self-taught practice and passion that grew along with the experience of working with sounds as it is for Yannick Dauby.
Marc Namblard is not only one of them, he has also made of his interest in Nature his everyday work as a nature advisor and as an audio-naturalist. That is why he seemed the right person to ask a few questions about the plural aspect of being a field-recordist. Indeed, what we refer to when we are talking about field-recording always seems to imply interdisciplinarity and means to navigate in between questions relative to music, ecology, sound engineering, and so on… In the end, it seems difficult, if not impossible to restrict field-recording to its only designation. This is especially true in the case of Marc, whose work, in order to be described, makes it necessary to speak plural, so here he shares some of his influences, knowledges, practices and theories…
— You introduce yourself both as a sound artist and as an audio-naturalist, you went to an art school and you work as a ‘nature advisor’… Are all these things one only approach for you or is there a clear distinction between these activities?
They are distinct fields of activities, but as time goes these approaches tend to get closer in my various practices. For example, I happen to include listening moments in my environment discovery tours more often. I am also regularly being asked to present my sound work in the form of discovery workshops, for very different audiences. So, all of these activities are not so much separated from each other. I became an adept of alternating and diversity as a general rule for my work. I don’t care for reducing the ‘experience of the outside’ and that of nature to an only point of view. As much as I don’t want to confine my diverse sound practices within one clearly defined, completely marked-up approach. I’m going through all these fields a little like a wanderer, who is not so sure where he’s going but clearly knows where he does not want to go.
— When a project starts, is it defined as one approach? Does it slowly get a color?
My projects are never clearly defined, they are not when they start and I am hoping that they are not when they get their final form either (that is, when a final form exists, which remains quite unfrequent for me). That especially applies for my work using sounds. Even if, according to situations, I would introduce myself either as an audio-naturalist or as a sound artist, I actually think that I am permanently standing right in the middle, and that all audio-naturalists do, actually, even if it seems that they are not always aware of that fact. That’s because it is in the nature of audio-naturalists not to be scientists. Their main purpose is to experience listening in the wild, mainly guided by emotions, desires and fantasies… even if they occasionally have to be after quantitative objectives (I especially think of professional audio-naturalists who have to move a lot and make their trips ‘profitable’, which is not the case for me).
Besides, I am convinced today that as soon as as we position and aim microphones at something – whether it’s in the wild or not – with in mind the idea (however vague) of doing something that might have an effect (however small) on our and other people’s lives, then we are already involved in an artistic research.
— According to projects or fields, are you mobilizing distinct practices and methodologies? Or even distinct knowledges and ways of thinking?
Are your recording techniques always elaborated according to the object you want to capture (ornithology, geophony…) or is there also a place for unexpected sound phenomena, empirical or experimental discoveries?
Both. Indeed I choose my equipment according to what I want to record. For instance, I would not use the same equipment for recording a thunderstorm or a choir of crickets. And that would be true for recording two species of birds with completely distinct habits. The nature of the field might also have an influence on the choice of equipment.
That being said, among all my listening and recording experiences, I happen to have discovered sonic phenomena I did not even suspected. For example, the first time I immersed hydrophones into a flooded meadow in Alsace to capture the singing of pelobates, I realized that the aquatic environment was a lot less quiet than I expected. This is how I discovered the stridulations of aquatic heteroptera and the rhythmical crackle of some algae. This was a revelation for me, even if I’d probably heard about it before.
— If these different approaches happen to merge in your work, there are, however, distinct forms of knowledge: that of the naturalist who knows and identifies animals or is able to track down geophonic phenomena, that of the sound recordist who carefully handles a technical apparatus, that of the artist who develops a singular aesthetics…
Yes, and all of these knowledges are of course permanently in progress. That is especially true for the naturalistic work. A naturalist is condemned to be an apprentice for life. We learn continuously and we constantly call our knowledge of environments and animals back into question, as we are making new experiences and encounters. More than often, I actually have the impression that ahead of me is only the vastness of what I don’t know. But it is also what I have never had the occasion to listen to, and most of the time, I have no idea of what it might be. This is a feeling that is quite difficult to express, and yet it is strangely familiar. It is a confused feeling, which is altogether exciting and frustrating, happy and gloomy.
— How did these knowledges were constituted in your case? Are some of them the result of educational and professional experiences while others would be self-taught and empirical?
With experience and sharing. And most of the time self-taught. I learned a lot from people whose backgrounds and sensibilities were very different. Hundreds of hours of theoretical learning about the forest environment, for example, will never replace a short excursion in the woods with a great naturalist. I have the chance to mingle with some them from time to time, in my small corner of Lorraine. If I could, I would spent most of my time doing only this. But as I am always afraid of annoying, I do not go to them as much as I would like.
Likewise, in order to improve my techniques of recordings, the best I could ever learn was by working alongside other sound recordists and musicians, some of them non-professional. I always had a hard time processing knowledges and techniques coming from disembodied people, that is to say, people I have never met and with whom I do not share any kind of emotional connection. Things I am learning from books, for instance, from authors I do not know, with whom I have never had the occasion of exchanging at least a few words, always feel laborious to process and even more to share with others. I’m never feeling self-confident enough when I attempt to share knowledges and techniques I learned that way, I think one might hear it in the tone of my voice, my unsureness, even though nobody ever told me so. There are exceptions, though, people like Yves Paccalet, people I feel I can trust blindly even if I have never met them.
— It seems to me that field-recording and phonography practices today are dealing and sometimes playing with ambiguities: between music and documentary, electroacoustic and naturalism, abstraction and testimony… Where do you stand yourself, in between which ones of these ideas are you moving?
I actually like it in this ambiguity, and I’d rather be moving around instead of sticking to a defined position, a little like Knud Viktor does in his own way. This is simply because my sensibility is plural and all of these approaches of the ‘sonic environment’ seem equally interesting to me. I actually don’t establish any hierarchy among them. What matters to me is the sincerity and quality of the work. I can be very touched by the documentary approach of some audio-naturalists (for example, I’m thinking of the superb recordings of seals by Douglas Quin, which would move me to tears every time), by a radio work by Yann Paranthoën, an electroacoustic piece by Yannick Dauby (especially the fabulous ‘Arches’ he composed as a homage to the wolf), or by the ethereal and atmospheric music of Biosphere. I have all of these things in my mind (even if it can be a little nebulous) when I am manipulating sounds with my computer or mixing desk. They give way when I’m out in the field, though. Then my body and mind ‘let go’, only to deal with events, places, the confrontation with the cold, hunger, etc., focusing on practical things.
— One might see the naturalist as somebody who exercises his aural ability to ‘identify’. In contrast, the electroacoustic work might imply the necessity for ‘unlearning’ certain preconceptions or cultural habits of the listening; I’m thinking of what Pierre Schæffer called ‘reduced listening’, that is: the possibility of hearing the acoustic phenomena alone, the sound object apart from its environmental or cultural context.
Do your knowledges as a musician, a naturalist, a listening flâneur imply something to ‘unlearn’ as well, something to get rid of so as to hear ‘better’?
Yes, probably, but curiously enough I’m only able to engage in such a process when I’m starting a work of composition. But moreover, I’m not such a big fan of that idea of ‘sound object’. I would rather regard sounds as ‘sound entities’, living and equals, and that include sounds produced by way of natural forces, for example. Even when the composition is mainly naturalist, I force myself to consider all sounds with equality, to pay them an equal attention. That imply to abstract from the sources, somehow, even if I also have to take the ‘ecological coherence’ of the montage in consideration, which forbids me to put things together haphazardly – that is when I have to momentarily get back to considering the sources.
However, at first – that is: in the field – it has proven more difficult for me. I would have hard times trying to get rid of the affective connections I have with what I’m listening and recording. I cannot resolve to set on neutral ground a choir of obstetrical toads and the nasal and sputtering whirr of a passing moped. No matter how hard I try, it’s too much to ask. I’m receiving a lot of sounds from my everyday environment as proper nuisances. I’m willing to be told that I am another victim of cultural preconceptions – which is probably true -, but that won’t make any difference in the end. Besides, I don’t think that our listening would only be constituted of cultural conditionning. Some sounds have a direct impact on us, and we might react to them in ways that can be very ‘animal’, like with defense reflexes. Such sounds might have unexpected emotional impacts, without us understanding exactly why. That being said, I’m not discarding all anthropogenic sounds at once, far from it. I might get there someday, especially if I become unable to go in the wild for recording sounds, or if it becomes impossible to record the smallest bit of natural sound without having the humming or roaring of some machine in the background. And that is not a fiction today, we’re getting there… At least we are around my home.
— You are not regarding the work of an audio-naturalist – and neither that of a ‘nature advisor’ – as a way of constructing and transmitting a knowledge, but more as creating a familiarity, making possible an encounter with an environment. I am listening to your audio works somehow in the same way: for me, they feel more like opportunities for astonishment than just preservations and documentations of sound phenomenons. Yet, this question of documentary objectivity remains a key issue for many sound recordists – maybe more in the English and Amercian worlds, which have been marked by Murray Schafer and acoustic ecology a little deeper than us French.
What is your relation to these issues: documenting the word, preserving the disappearing sounds, accounting and recounting…?
I think that this appears as a cross-over approach in my work, but it’s not planned or calculated. It is something I sometime put the emphasis on, according to the context, like when I’m leading a listening session dedicated to ‘natural sound heritage’ awareness in a territory, for example. This is a part of what motivates me, but to be perfectly honest I’m not sure it is the first thing. This is not what gets me up at 4 in the morning to record birds in a forest or to climb 3,000 metres high to record the barely audible shrill of a rare mountain cricket. No, what pushes me more than anything is the experience and pleasure of the field. Which is very selfish in the end! I should not say it…
— As a conclusion, what extra and precious thing would you say an artist’s point of view, an aesthetic relation to the world is enhancing the environmental and ecological issues with?
It is a complementary aspect, which is essential to get the attention of some people that would not react otherwise. This might be just a truism, but we are currently deciding of the life expectancy of the human race on Earth (and of many other species, obvouisly). The ecological and environmental issues are still underestimated, and yet I’m convinced that they will determine the future of the entire Humanity during the coming century. In the end, all means are worthy of a try and nothing must be discarded. Man himself holds the key, but he is a ‘composite’ animal and if we want to act on him efficiently and for some time, we have to consider him as a whole. I believe that without the help of art it would come close to impossible.
Itw & translation: pm / Photo: Martine Schnoering
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Region of Lorraine:
Artists and references:
Knud Viktor: http://soundexplorations.blogspot.com/2011/11/phonographer-knud-viktor.html
Douglas Quin: http://www.antarctica2000.net
Yann Paranthöen: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yann_Parantho%C3%ABn
Yannick Dauby: http://www.kalerne.net/yannickdauby/