Intuitive Recording: An Exclusive Interview with Jez riley French

Jez riley French is a composer, musician and artist from East Yorkshire, UK. For the past three decades he has published, performed and exhibited his work on a wide variety of places around the world, including France, Austria, Japan, Corea, among others.

Jez’s work is based on intuitive composition, field recording, improvisation and photography, disciplines that he uses to explore his enjoyment of detail, simplicity and his emotive response to places and situations. Alongside his personal work, he also runs the site “in place” and makes contact microphones and hydrophones that are used by many artists and recordists over the world.

Here’s an interview I had with Jez talking about his approach to field recording. I also encourage you to read other fantastic interviews with jez, since I wanted to make different questions that could complement the existing information about his work: Simon Scott interviews JrF, John grzinich interview with jrf, Jez Riley French 4 Questions on Field Recording.

Could you tell us how your approach to sound has evolved over time? I read somewhere that you’re recording sound since 12!

JrF: yes, I started recording sounds (at first by accident in the back garden) with a portable tape recorder that I was given as a present by my mother. I’ve come to realize that I was very lucky to begin a close relationship with listening at this early age because I didn’t get tied up in all the theoretical or technological constraints that can sometimes cloud the simple act when one is older. I listened to ‘sound’ as music without worrying about the definition. For me at an early age it opened up a huge amount of possibilities for both music and sound to be unconstrained in my thinking.

Over time, my intuitive response to sound has become more highly focused, especially in terms of when I record. I think too that as my interest in sound / music is so closely linked to the rest of my life then I would hope that my approach to it has developed, deepened & become more fully rounded with time – that I am getting closer to something all the time, or, that I am more free to simply enjoy listening and creating.

Do you have any favorite sounds to record or places you love specially because of their sound?

JrF: well, I do like to record church spaces & I always visit a few wherever I am. I have no religion myself but there is a stillness in these spaces that remains. Also, of course, the way they are built often means the acoustics are very rich. I was a choirboy when I was much younger & I also have a fondness for choral music (tallis, byrd, howells, perotin etc etc) so perhaps there is a link between all of those things, but mostly I like the stillness one can often find in a church space.

I also really like to find & record surface vibrations, so I suppose these are favorite sounds to record – though each one is very different if ones listens closely enough. The same is true of using hydrophones – I’m always fascinated by what sounds I can find in pools, streams, rivers, canals & the sea.

So I guess there are certain ways I explore the audible & inaudible that are ‘favorite’ (at the moment) rather than specific geographical locations.

Do you have a specific way or method to listen?

JrF: I think the only way to answer this is to say that the way I listen is defined by who I am. With so many people now using field recording as a creative process it is the individuality of the person doing it that matters. It must be this way otherwise all that happens is people record sounds with no individual personal motivation. It would take me too long to explain all the different ways in which I listen – I think that is the best way to answer – to highlight the fact that ‘listening’ is an endless exploration in itself.

Do you find any differences between music and sound at all? How is that relationship reflected in your work?

JrF: the difference between ‘sound’ & ‘music’ is down to either dictionary definitions or scientific ‘facts’ – & while those things serve a purpose they can be used in ways that restrict rather than expand each area. For me, I hear ‘sound’ musically because my emotions are engaged, even when i’m listening to or working with sounds that are related to acoustic principals & that require some understanding in the science behind them in order to capture them. I believe that the problems with these definitions & indeed with ‘sound art’ stem from the way music became disconnected from ‘the arts’ in the early 20th century. Music always was sound – but with creative process applied. Of course as music became more & more devoid of purely creative influences, became more of an entertainment industry, then the definitions changed, but I don’t feel the need to call what I do ‘sound art’ just because it fits in with what certain sections of the art world wants to call it.

Yes, ‘music’ is sound with an emotive or creative process applied & what I do is always influenced by my emotive response, so I call it music – & music is the (looted perhaps) root of sound art – it was sound art before the term sound art was invented – the only problem was that large sections of the artistic industry didn’t have the interest to look beyond the mainstream at experimental / art music – & sadly, still don’t.

Could you explain who is the intuitive composition process you implement? what do you want to tell with your compositions?

JrF: the term ‘intuitive composition’ was one I started using many years ago when I felt what I was doing in live performance wasn’t really just improvisation. There is a structure that develops naturally when a performance ‘works’ & so, I feel this term describes that process – a moment to moment development of a composition based on ones inherent intuitive response.

I don’t know how I can answer the second question here – what I want to say. With each live performance I simply hope to create something that reaches that point where the music arrives. With compositions that aren’t live performances then what motivates me is to create works that resonate with me & the key to deciding which ones to then make public is also down to intuition – deciding which ones I feel will offer listeners something substantial.

What gear are you normally using in the field?

JrF: well, firstly I don’t feel the equipment I use is that important. Listing it for example, wouldn’t (I hope !) say anything about what I create from the act of recording. However as you asked….in my basic kit at the moment I have a Sound Devices recorder, a Korg MR2 recorder, several conventional microphones (omni, binaural, etc), my own (JrF) contact microphones, strung contact microphones, adapted coil pick up’s & hydrophones + cables, wind shields, adaptors etc. However I do like to travel light so often I only take all of this equipment if i’m doing something specific.

I don’t use any software to process recordings – I edit them in terms of cutting their duration & very occasionally I might eq some noise from a recording. But basically what interests me is the sounds themselves, as they are. When i’m composing with different recordings then my approach is very simple & clear & doesn’t need a complex editing suite.

I wonder if making your own tools and also selling them to other artists has changed something in your approach to field recording. What has this meant for you?

JrF: making my own equipment has meant that I’ve been able to experiment in different ways sometimes & perhaps to take more chances in terms of exposing equipment to risk.

When it comes to selling them….well, I used to just make them for myself & for friends but a few years ago I set up a blog about field recording & tested all the hydrophones & contact microphones I could for that. I was quite shocked at the poor quality of some of the products on the market or at the prices they were being sold for. I heard also that lots of people had bought equipment & it had actually not encouraged them to continue exploring sound because it hadn’t given them good results. So, I decided to begin selling mine to the general public. I should point out here that this fascinating audible world we live in has given me so much pleasure & therefore helping other people experience some aspects of that is something I believe in a great deal.

Selling JrF products has brought me into contact with lots of interesting people & also contributed to me working alongside Chris Watson on the Wildeye location sound recording courses here in the UK for example.

I see you distribute the majority of your work on your own label, engraved glass. How has this model worked for you over the years? any particular thoughts about it?

JrF: I was talking recently to another artist about this & I think one reason is that my first real interest in music was when the whole new wave / experimental / do-it-yourself scene was beginning here in the UK. So, the ideas of having full creative control over ones work was important to me from an early age. Its really that I like the whole creative process too – the design of the artwork & the process of ‘making’ the releases. Having said that, I also think that when one has ones own label often it means other labels don’t think you’re interested in releasing something on another label. So, i’m always open to suggestions in terms of releasing work on another label of course, but, as with every aspect of what I do, there always needs to be a connection, a particular empathy.

What is the latest sound you recorded? what’s coming next?

JrF: I’ve been recording lots of micro-sounds – ants eating apricots, tiny aquatic insects. Also balustrades in various locations & lights / lighting supports in Japan & Korea. Some of these recordings are for two different projects: a composition for the arts festival in Topolo, Italy & also for the ‘international lighthouse relay’ project as part of the Folkstone triennial. Both of these compositions will be available on a limited edition cd, the Folkstone piece will be exhibited too & then there is a double cd ‘weaves / audible silence # 2’ coming soon.

What advice would you give to anyone interested in field recording?

JrF: listen, listen, listen ! & don’t wait to save up for expensive equipment – if you can only afford a second hand mini disc recorder, get it & get out there with it. Higher quality equipment is great of course but only if you have good ears & can listen. Also, don’t think of sounds as something to be recorded all the time, to collect – learn to enjoy listening for its own sake.