Exchange between Richard Pinnell and Patrick Farmer
Again I struggle to disagree with any of that, though now find myself wanting to go and get the Cornford disc back down from the shelves and give it a better listen. One point you make that really chimes with me is the way you outline the sheer joy in just listening to things, without any real intention to use the sounds for anything. At work in my day job there is a machine used for compacting cardboard down so it can be sent away for recycling. Occasionally the machine is overloaded, or filled with particularly tough cardboard boxes, and then, when put into motion it gives out the most incredible straining sounds as half a ton of stiff cardboard is reduced to a small cube. Every so often I find myself walking past when the machine is started up and more often than not I am stopped in my stride by the extraordinary sounds. I make no attempt to record them, but they brighten up an otherwise ordinary day.
That mere enjoyment of sounds I do share with you, and also with Lee Patterson, of whom I have my own pondweed tale. A few years back, probably actually around the same time you mention first meeting Lee, I was one of a little party of people that had been at a series of concerts in a tiny village in Derbyshire. The organiser of the events, who lived in the village had mentioned a stagnant body of water nearby, and so during a break between performances Lee, with the rest of us following, set off to drop his home made and self-invented hydrophones into the pond to listen to what lied beneath. Though we all got a chance to catch a glimpse of the incredible world of activity in the pond, all I remember was Lee disappearing into a world of his own, knelt obliviously and somewhat precariously in a puddle over the edge of the pond as he was captivated by what he heard. The rest of us near enough disappeared to him. The recordings Lee made on that day, along with the many thousands of others he has captured down the years did not all get released on swathes of CDs. He makes recordings for his own enjoyment, fascination and research. He shares that sense of a “hobby”with you, which I would translate as an intense joy at discovering the world around us. The crucial point to add here however, is that Lee does not let his inherent capacity to just enjoy capturing sounds impact upon his decision making when it comes to releasing music publicly. All too often the ability to gather up recordings in such a manner then translates into CD releases and downloads of ill thought through material. Knowing when something is really worth sharing and when it is not seems to be an issue that affects field recording more than it does other genres.
Anyway, Patterson anecdotes aside, I truly think that illuminating the act of listening for the sheer pleasure of listening is always a good thing to do. Ultimately, (and clearly I take the side of the non-musician here!) I think it matters not whether there is any supposed authenticity to a recording, or even if a recordist suggests there should be any. What matters, as you have alluded, is how the listener perceives the presented sound, which will of course be different for every listener. Certainly some will think they hear cicadas in Stephen’s earbud recordings, and whether this is a figment of their imagination or not probably doesn’t matter. How we perceive music of any kind is mostly as much about our own imagination as it is about what the musician intended, and should that ever change the act of listening to music will become an impoverished thing. A few years back, again at work in my day job I played Lee’s fried egg recordings to a few work colleagues, asking them to tell me what they were listening to. Very few identified the sound of something cooking. Most thought they were hearing running water of some kind, but the recording proved popular even to those that weren’t told what they were listening to. The pleasure came from the detail and texture of the actual sound, not from identifying what it might have been. Of course I contradict myself here as I often talk of wanting to know as much as I can about a musician’s intentions and working practices when I try and make sense of a piece of music, but this tends to be only when I am trying to commit words to paper about a particular CD. I tend to always start with whatever fanciful ideas I may have about a piece of music and then seek to clarify or replace them when it comes to trying to write about it. The initial naive exploration of music is usually a lot of fun. Trying to look like you really know anything about it is often quite the opposite!
So to Cévennes. I have really enjoyed listening to these two CDs of field recordings over the past couple of weeks. These pieces, by Marc and Olivier Namblard are what we then could loosely call unprocessed field recordings in that the brothers have not deliberately sought to alter the recordings they captured around the rural Cévennes region of France. The recordings are significantly different to Tarab’s Strata in that we are to take enjoyment as listeners merely from the natural features of what they have captured. There is none of the arrangement and recomposition of the materials as with Strata. A few fades from one recording to another aside, the only composition here consists of the Namblard’s choices of which recordings to use and how to order them.
I think two things attract me to these recordings where other similar works have often failed. Firstly, the clarity and recording quality of the recordings is remarkably good, so bringing the sounds to life much more easily, but technical prowess alone is never going to be enough. The recordings manage to mix familiar sounds (birdsong, thunderstorms, running water etc) with other less easily recognisable sounds, and it is these other recordings, sandwiched between those that we understand that give the album a sense of mystery and even a nervous sense of danger that seems to draw on our imagination. I feel, having listened, that I know something about the Cévennes region of France, but then also there is plenty I do no know, and am left to imagine. The curious, animalistic, and frankly frightening sounds that briefly pierce the darkness on Disc 2’s Présence for instance offer a sense of the unknown. The liner notes on this particular track, in contrast with the detail on some of the other pieces seek to heighten the feeling of drama here, offering us just the line;
“Black night. At the heart of the pine grove, attentive and hesitant, a presence.”
Here the Namblard’s seek to engage with us as listeners, draw us into what we imagine the dark forest to be like, relying on our own fears, fascinations, childhood stories and previous experiences of such places to paint pictures in our own minds. This degree of interaction with the listeners occurs often across the two discs. The Namblards seem to want to directly interact with the listener rather than just present us with a set of aural photographs. Different to the use of material to construct something new as with Strata, nevertheless there is an attempt at narrative composition here as the choice of recordings do not just show us how Cévennes sounds, but they seem to try and place the listener in the centre of fanciful situations. The sense of place within these recordings is actually not as acute as the sense of atmosphere. The swirling winds and wailing storms of the track Bisa could probably have been recorded anywhere windy, but coupled with the character of the album as a whole, and the feeling of encroaching danger presented by the other tracks around it that storm becomes part of the narrative. The vibrating wire fences caught in the storm feel foreboding and oppressive rather than just ingenious and beautiful as such recordings on other albums have sounded. The Namblards have cleverly made an album that plays with the mind and invites fiction as much as it offers up simple documentation. For some reason though I suspect you have heard the album very differently?
Knowing when something is really worth sharing and when it is not seems to be an issue that affects field recording more than it does other genres.
I think that that so much of that is leveled squarely in the mind of the listener. I can well imagine that if we were to tally up all the recordings of, for ease of use, EAI, and all the releases that could in some way or another be categorised as field recordings, then the former would surely outweigh the latter, perhaps even twice over. When these two transitory categorisations are held up to the same light, which, you and I will obviously do from time to time, field recording, regardless of how many releases are actually put out, will always suffer because part of what draws you and I to this particular world of sound worlds is our disposition toward the unnamable. So much of what has been released and subsequently experienced by the two of us over these past few years will have in no small way lent itself to (beyond the terse moniker of EAI) concepts that are beyond our ability to express, partially if not on occasion wholly bereft as they are of a nominal everyday association – what do either of us see in our minds when we hear such things? Field recording will always suffer, regardless of how many people send you recordings of rivers, good or bad in your mind, in comparison. Because of its sheer everydayness, it will stand out in ever starker contrast to the areas of music we profess to admire, and so it makes perfect sense that we would both generally prefer those releases and ideas that seek to incorporate the two in ways that will push further the bounds of the unnamable into areas that are even harder to write about.
Beyond description, this is how I have heard Cévennes…. I shown signs of a struggle when considering notions of sentimentality within this thing here. It’s a very strong feeling, but not one I entirely understand. William Carlos Williams said that no part of a poem is sentimental, that each part is as vital as the next. Perhaps that’s part of it. But that’s what Williams thought. Perhaps against my better judgement I will admit that I possess an inherent distaste for the classification of natural recordings, especially ones that align themselves with elements of conservation and thus overt dichotomies of seperation. This is not a simple premise by any means, I am terribly conflicted. Do I have strong opinions about say, fracking? Of course I fucking do. Would I enjoy a CD release of the sounds of fracking? Beyond the sounds themselves (met with morbid intrigue) I doubt it. I am tempted to proportion blame squarely at my feet. To treat this as a failing of mine and mine alone. The message this imaginary CD heralds is potentially one of both importance and integrity – so is it the reductive and uncanny element that bothers me beyond the inherent message? Maybe.
I’d bring to mind Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, made in 1992, a documentary concerned with the decidedly mythical symbolism and its absurd manifest reality in the burning oil fields of Kuwait. Within this method of documentation, which is of course able to develop and portray a large multiplicity of angles there is a possibility of a telling and showing of sensual experience and conveyance that is able to reside closer to the margins of totality, and as such is able to benefit from multiple marked digressions (Herzog’s voiceovers for one). These digressions are in essence, narrative supplements, and so as cause to the many fluctuating patterns they serve to reinforce the document and that which it is attempting to capture, in part creating a moment of the sensual politic of an aesthetic object.
Do I think then, that recording need by necessity be passive? Of course not. Likewise I would tend to disagree with an individual claiming that field recording cannot be political. Perhaps I should stop looking for resolution and it is better to accept that it really is as complicated (or simple) as being a matter of time and taste. These are matters close to both heart and experience, intrinsically bound to personality. Sound will always carry its own message beyond the parochial concerns of individual disposition.
I suppose this is just one of my many contradictions. I love knowledge but within so many strains I am loath to think of its origins. My concerns with ‘nature’ and its representation can, I believe, boil down to distance. So often said concerns, in their manufacture, present the human race as being separate from the natural world.
I grew up in the country, we moved around a lot, but an average distance between our home and a town or village was around 9 miles. I spent most of my youth up trees watching badgers, disrupting fox hunting parties, listening to echoes in abandoned quarries and erecting bridges over streams.
In essence I don’t think I’ve changed much. And so my beef with those who are essentially telling of careful, personal observation feels like nothing more than petty and projective infighting with different versions of myself.
The more I look and listen, the more time I spend in deliberation of such matters, the less certain I feel and the stranger it all is. Don’t get me wrong, I revel in this, but on occasion it does begin to irk me. When confronted with such matter-of-factness in a field I profess to adore – I can’t help but feel that I am back in my youth, listening to the transient reverberations skimming the surface of the quarry, rattling around the rocks in endless disparity.
A lot of this has risen in the wake of Cévennes – as Yannick Dauby so aptly states in his liner notes – it isn’t so much about collecting sounds as surrendering to your listening. I take that to mean, treating listening, and in this case, what you are listening to and that which has enabled this particular letting go, as an opportunity to stop thinking. What is also interesting to me however, is what one thinks about the moment one stops listening and picks up on the thought that has essentially been temporarily realigned to the seemingly silent background. Cévennes, like many of the albums we’ve discussed in our little conversation here, is an enigma. It could so easily have fallen into the hands of dogma, the recordings themselves are incredible documents of place that would lend themselves perfectly to such a regime (though perhaps they are a little too perfect for that / so good that they have become somewhat alien) but the words that accompany this release are generally so light that could so easily have not existed.
Whilst, by necessity, wishing to avoid making bold statements, I feel that this is one of the most accomplished and quietly passionate field recording releases that has also managed to avoid its own pitfalls I have yet to encounter. I can’t bring myself to talk directly about the recordings therein, they are so far beyond my experience that I feel my words would flop to sleep as soon as they were imprinted onto this document. The fact that, due to spending so much time with Cévennes these last couple of weeks, I have found myself reaching for one of my old books, written by one of the founders of Ethology, Konrad Lorenz, says it all and will hopefully say more than we have said here.