Reflections on loudness
by Yiorgis Sakellariou *
The idea for this text was born from an online conversation about volume in field recordings and in music generally. Initially the discussion was focusing on a review by Frans De Waard at Vital Weekly of Peter Lanaerts’ album Quies, released by Very Quiet Records. It was a very interesting thread, people were debating about the review, ways to listen and volume levels in recordings and live music. I stepped in to share my experience of sometimes feeling “disapproved” because I play field recordings based music “too loud”. I wrote a few things on that thread but I’ll try to elaborate more in this text.
When I play my music in concerts I like making extreme volume changes, from producing no sound at all to blasting full-range noise. Many times these changes are very sudden and dramatic. As a composer I need to add elements that create a mark which can make an impact in the listener’s memory and help him or her to follow the structure of the piece. I believe that extreme dynamic changes help to create a sense of alert and awareness that increases both the musical as well as the sonic interest of a sound work which consequently motivates the audience to listen more acutely. My intention is not necessarily to create a floating sonic environment with “accurate” and “realistic” sounds that will represent -or at least attempt to- a previous listening experience or a specific location. My interest lies upon the extraordinary and mysterious side of sound, not in what we hear (birds, animals, a river) but how we listen and engage with the heard. Playing back a soft crackle in a high, “unnatural” volume adds a new and maybe unexplained dimension to it and the same can happen if I play back a loud and violent hiss in a very low, barely audible volume.
Every music performance, regardless of style or genre, is unique and strongly dependent on the room it takes place and its characteristics. However, when music is performed through speakers on high volume a very distinguished connection between sound and space occurs, not better but much different than when it is done with lower volume. Naturally, this requires correct mixing and use of EQs so that the produced sounds make the concert room vibrate and frequencies resonate according to the venue’s acoustics and architecture. Furthermore, loud sound becomes much more physical in connection with the audience. For me this condition is vital because as the sounds get physically intense, the listeners perceive them not only through hearing but also by feeling them. The sounds are embodied on the listeners who can challenge themselves in a mental and physical level. A concert or a recording doesn’t necessarily have to be a mere documentation, representation or statement but an experience which will be unable to be lived through in no way other than engaging with sound-as-such, frequently including its extreme physical side and diverse volume range.
So, to explain the feeling of “disapproval” that I sometimes have, I really can’t understand why I must not break the “rule” which says that field recordings practice should be focusing mostly, or even exclusively, on sounds listened from a pianissimo to a maximum mezzo-forte volume. I think this canon is probably established because of the rather generalized misconception that nature, and therefore its sounds, is calm and quiet. There are a lot of natural elements and activities that produce sounds reaching almost unbearable decibel levels. Waterfalls, thunders, cicadas, strong wind through trees, big waves crushing on rocks, earthquakes – to name a few that I have encountered. I’m certain that everyone’s experience can add to this list and make it a very long one.
I also like recording human-made, urban and industrial sounds which I consider equally thrilling and “natural” in their own way. Of course there’s still a huge debate on what is “nature” and “natural” sounds but the fact remains that passing trains, steam engines, ventilation drones and so on are sounds of our environment as well and are not only exciting to listen to but also very loud. To register all these sounds, rural or industrial, I must turn the input level of the recorder really down and afterwards I can play them back at any volume I feel is more suitable for my piece and appropriate for the concert space, in case of a live performance.
In conclusion, not only there’s a great variety of loud sounds “out there” which can legitimize a high decibel playback level, there’s also a compositional and aesthetical choice that I make each time I boost the volume up, or turn it all the way down. I enjoy playing and listening to silent and quiet pieces but I’d definitely not consider that as a canon or an appropriate way to approach field recordings or music in general. In my opinion it’s best to listen to every single concert or album with open ears and mind. Love it, hate it, question it, reject it but in any case be prepared to face the absurd and what we may consider inappropriate or “wrong”. There’s been a lot of discussion lately in The Field Reporter regarding how to record, produce and listen to field recordings. Above all, I sensed a big question rising about how to keep doing this beloved activity and, even better, to improve and evolve it. Creating dogmas about “proper” volume is certainly not helping towards that direction. I don’t really think anyone has actually done that, but let’s just keep it in mind so we don’t fall into this trap.
Thanks to Jez Riley French for asking me on that online discussion to explain why I use loud volume. It triggered me to think and write a bit about it. I also thank him for the photograph (which shows a member of the audience during my concert at the Field Fest festival in Brussels, in October 2011). Finally, thanks to David Velez for offering this platform to share my text.
* Guest editor, sound artist, manager of the Echomusic label and Sound Art Master student.
* The Field Reporter only claims authorship and responsibility for the material written by its editorial team.
** Top photo courtesy of Jez Riley French
[Yiorgis Sakellariou, photo Lina Velandia]