When I started making location sound recordings there was not really the sense that it was a practice in its own right. Sound recordings were atmospheres for film, a grainy layer hiding behind the music, an element of “real life” intruding into a piece of performance art. For me the main reason to work with field recording was that I found the richness and spatiality of the sound way more interesting than anything I could achieve in a sound studio or by using synthetic sound. Gradually I became interested in capturing a sense of place with sound, using recording as a tool to explore the urban fabric and the idea of the sound archive as a personal diary, linking sound with memory. These days I tend to use field recording to tell stories, often using the form of a headphone-based soundwalk. As the soundwalk is a form without many conventions, I consider myself free to use any or all of the approaches and techniques available, from ‘pure’ documentary recording to musique concrete and foley.
One of the advantages of the current spread of the practice of field recording is that I have become aware of the large range of different approaches – both practical and theoretical. What used to be a polemic between the poles of musique concrete and acoustic ecology has been expanded and transformed by the work and thoughts of many. And when I’m asked to define my position as a phonographer I have to think harder about where to stand.
For me field recording is a special case of listening. The creative work happens while actively listening to the world through my ears, through microphones while recording and through loudspeakers when re-working the recordings in the studio. The ‘live’ listening can be seen as a performance, an improvisation with the sounds of the environment. Although – as my previous remarks have suggested – I am not a purist, this ‘live’ process is still the most important of all.
The ‘replayed’ listening is more complicated – it is not truly ‘acousmatic’ because it is listening for something that I remember hearing before – trying to re-discover my interest, my attention, my choices in making the original recording. Often I will change the sound to bring these aspects in to the foreground, to make things more apparent for other listeners. Some people might regard this as ‘tampering’ or ‘cleaning’ or ‘noise-reduction’, but for me, every decision you make about what to record and how to record it is an aesthetic decision. Sound exists in our perception and by the time a sound enters our ears and we start to hear it it is no longer ‘pure’ in any way. Any action we take to record a sound changes it forever. But that’s not a bad thing. The field recording community isn’t just the sonic equivalent of a community of trainspotters (or boat, windmill, power-station, bird, bee, or fish spotters). Artistic work is surely not just about collection and preservation but about creation, interpretation, transformation and communication. It is about listening and thinking. And whether our work is autonomous or politically engaged, philosophical, social, ecological or musically hip is up to us and our audience.
Justin Bennett 2013