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‘Strata’
Exchange between Richard Pinnell and Patrick Farmer

The fourth part of an ongoing exchange between Patrick Farmer and Richard Pinnell, the first can be found here, the second here and the third here.

Part IV

Richard:

Probably unsurprisingly, questions of authenticity always seem to concern those involved in the act of field recording far more than those that merely listen to it. If I am approaching a piece of music I generally want it to move me, jar me, stun me with its beauty- affect me somehow. I don’t really feel that questions of material authenticity necessarily have any bearing on that. If we look at the sounds used for Strata- however “untreated” they may be, the way they have been chopped up, layered, combined with other sounds surely removes them from their “authentic” state.  Like an organically labelled sponge cake a piece of music formed out of only “naturally occurring” field recordings may hold a kind of ethical superiority to some people but for me personally all that matters is the end result. While I can appreciate the craftsmanship of one that sets out in search of rarely heard sounds, and presents them beautifully to ears that may not ever hear them otherwise, this is a different thing to any suggestion that an “authentic” sound should have more merit than another. Plus, imagine how uninteresting the sky above Turner’s seascapes would be without that intense emotional drama exaggerating everything, or how dull Monet’s water lilies would appear painted photo-realistically.

Your thoughts on Caroline, and the comparison to the frozen pond of is are beautiful, and I immediately went and found my copy of that disc which I had shamefully forgotten, to play it again. I am put in mind of the wasp inside the recorded bamboo cane on your solo album of field recordings. In that instance, as with the frozen nature of the pond, the bamboo becomes a layer of processing in itself. It is an authentic processing one might say, as it has been stumbled upon by an alert ear, but should such “authentic” processing be viewed differently to an EQ filter applied to a recording if both make the material more interesting? The truth of course is that pushing a virtual slider on a computer rarely results in something as interesting as that which can be stumbled across in the field, but I don’t think this is exclusively always the case, and certainly something does not become more interesting simply because it has been left untouched. We of course will never hear recorded music that breathes Gertrude Stein’s air, and of course any suggestion of authenticity becomes fraudulent when viewed from such a perspective anyway. The minute you frame something as an artist, commit it to recording and reproduction processes and allow it to be played back in a multitude of different listener settings then indeed the air is sucked away. Such thoughts however, the rationalist in me will constantly remind us, are an irrelevance when we come to discuss a recording on a CD!

 For me, a measure of perhaps a different kind of authenticity with music, and with field recording in particular would be its sense of purpose. This of course is a difficult notion to raise regarding any music, but with field recording it becomes even more complex. If you record one chosen thing, why do you choose to record it? In the case of Tarab’s disc the answer seems clear- to gather material of a certain tone and colour that can then be sculpted into something new, something that contains an emotion and energy of its own. Much of the material Olivia Block’s Karren also serves this purpose. For that record Block seems to have set out with a clear idea of how the composition might work, conceptually and structurally, and then gathered together the relevant parts to fit. The music feels like it has a sense of purpose, a reason for existing beyond the presentation of uncovered material. I am not for one minute sitting as a smug outsider suggesting that field recordists have no sense of purpose to their work, I am very sure that each has his or her own drivers, but I personally connect much easier to work where my perceived purpose of it is as something much more than the presentation of a set of field recordings. So to return to my earlier thoughts on Strata- the most interesting work involving field recordings is, for me at least, that which uses them merely as material for something else. Something that may indeed rely entirely on the essence of what the field recordings contain, but a new composition, a personal statement by the musician(s) involved.

 So, having said all of this, having made such bold statements, I am troubled as to why I have been greatly enjoying Marc and Olivier Lambard’s new release Cévennes over the last week. That album portrays predominantly untreated phonographic recordings of the mountainous Cévennes region of France. I suspect I know why I like this album so much, but as I know you have been listening to it also I will wait to hear your thoughts on it before I attempt to unravel mine.

Patrick:

Authenticity has been lagging slower and slower behind its conception for years now, at least in this field we’re discussing, which is so new, though it shouldn’t be, new that is. I was reading a literary biography of Virginia Woolf and read that toward the end of her life she started to write a history of literature, which was never finished. She had wanted to begin by depicting the image of an individual alone in the woods, listening to the birds. She said that such a thing was the beginning of literature. I think material authenticity is only really an issue when, as you say, the individual presenting said recording, whether as a part of a talk or a release, makes that an issue. Claims of a falsification of reality are often leveled, but how much ground can such a query cover if the recordist is not presenting said recordings as being a typical example of reality? To dig up a fusty poetic onion, listening to a recording can be, a cause for a willing suspension of disbelief.

The falsification of reality is something that often gets leveled at the recordist, regardless of whether he or she lays claim to any notion of such a level of control. Truthfully, I think those who put their work on a pedestal of legitimacy, some might say value, are only kidding themselves, opening themselves up to a far greater degree of possible falsification in the resultant inspection. This calls to mind an image of the magnificent and wise individual, presenting sounds that they have found to others, as if they were granting them access, allowing them to encounter a world that is ultimately beyond them. Anyway, that aside, let’s change tack.

When I first met Lee Patterson, before a show I had co-promoted in Nottingham, we were in my kitchen, which was open plan, stretching itself out for half of the house, the French windows were open, and Lee placed on the table a gaggle of minidiscs, crudely hooking up his player to the shitty little system we had at the time. I certainly hadn’t heard what ensued, but he was so gracious about it, his respect was leveled solely at the sounds that were encoded onto that silly piece of plastic, and the organisms that had created said sounds as we were hearing them in this form. What we heard was a recording of photosynthesising pondweed, which no one in the room had even thought of, let alone experienced. He gingerly introduced it as something he’d recorded in a body of water by a duel carriageway, if I remember correctly, this was about eight years ago. It took me four years to record such a thing myself, hornwort,

ceratophyllum demersum, in a dipping pond, oddly enough, sandwiched between a railway line and a duel carriageway in Wales. I’ve only recorded it on one occasion since then, on the Isle of Grain, the Hoo Peninsula, in a silo full of rainwater and insects. Anyway, what I’m saying is that these recordings, whilst I wouldn’t for a moment say they are the sound of photosynthesising pondweed and believe it, I’ve never actually heard it, are essentially outcomes of a child like openess and a genuine enjoyment. I really do think it can be that simple. And why shouldn’t it be? When I used to record out of doors, every day pretty much, I reveled in whatever occurred and half the time I had no idea what was happening. I don’t do that now, so much, I do other things, force of circumstance in many ways, but making the recording was as much a tool as the recording itself, or even the thought of making a recording. I didn’t need an excuse to be outside, recording wasps in bamboo or distorted vibrations of street cleaners underneath piers; field recording for me was and is a hobby. As important to me as say, Lepidopterology was to Vladimir Nabokov, watering volcanoes was to the Little Prince, or Ikebana was to Hiroshi Teshigahara.

It’s unfair, even ignorant, to assume, as many do, that if a recording is presented in predominant isolation, Cevennes for example, as opposed to being a cog within a mechanism, or a wall of a structure, which is where I would place Eamon’s Strata, that the individual/s concerned must therefore be planting their feet on the salty ground of representation and authenticity, especially, if said recording has ecological overtones – as if there were really now any sort of gap between humanity and nature. So again, it seems to me that such a great deal of this present discussion falls at the feet of the listener. As regardless of what the individual chooses to publish or not within their release or installation, we shall experience what we want to experience.

Something I find very interesting in relation to all this talk of authenticity and the listener, is that when a person listens to a recording that they think sounds like something, Stephen Cornford’s Music for Earbuds is a beautiful example; when a person says, oh, that sounds like a cicada, even though it’s feedback produced by an earbud and a tapehead, and they know that it is feedback produced by an earbud and a tapehead, I can’t help but wonder if they have heard said insect before, in their travels, or in their locale, or whether, like so many people today, they are basing this comparison on a recording of a cicada that they have heard. I suppose what we should be talking about beyond anything else, is the jewel-encrusted brilliance of said album, but it raises an interesting point, and it’s one that I have read or heard mentioned in various ways. Is it easier to think of the sound issuing from one’s speakers when they listen to Music For Earbuds, as the sounds of insects or the sounds elicited between a single earbud headphone and a cassette Walkman tapehead?

We shall make things into whatever we wish, regardless of what the author or composer has in mind – and in Stephen’s case, beyond the title, which is very cheeky, he laid down the bare minimum of means. Though Stephen, or ironically, my conception of Stephen, is no doubt playing with that premise, reversing it. Music for Earbuds is, beyond being an ingenious work, an old idea reworked into a new context. Of course track 03 brings to mind, not only in the sounds themselves, but their placement within the stereo field, a cross section of a jungle, at a specific time of day, the squelching nature of the feedback leading the listener into all sorts of flights of fancy, leaps I believe Cornford has impishly encouraged, most of which, the listener will have never heard in the flesh, only on recordings, there’s that notion again. But I don’t know, on this occasion, as in so many quasi-filmic occasions, I love to think of the individual, sat alone in their studio, slaving over the mechanism, rather than a dense jungle. It’s a perfect example of a flat thing posing as something that it’s not and never intended to be, yet could very well be. Are the two images really that far away from each other anyway? Many people might think that Music for Earbuds is a comment on the increasing gap between humanity and nature, though I would, if pushed, state that it says the opposite. But I’m probably wrong, as I think the album is so good, that it can be exactly what it says it is.

Apologies, I haven’t given Cevennes a proper listen yet, except in your car. I have a few indistinct memories, battling for control in amongst the sugar rushes and nonsense, of certain creatures rising above the din on your car stereo – a memory in part that brought me back to Stephen’s release, as my memory of my reception of some of these sounds is really quite similar. So I was hoping you could actually start talking about it please.

(To be continued)

Richard Pinell’s The Watchful Ear
Patrick Farmer website