Tannehill Iron Works. DAVID MICHAEL
(self release 2010)

 Review by Cheryl Tipp

Sultry is the first word that comes to mind when listening to David Michael’s ‘Tannehill Iron Works’. There’s an oppressive air hanging over the piece, created by the constant hum and drone of cicadas, amphibians and other insects revelling in the sweltering conditions. This unrelenting blanket of sound is occasionally broken by snippets of birdsong or the whistle of a passing freight train but overall it’s an acoustically humid affair.

This feeling is not limited to Michael’s composition alone. The Tannehill Iron Works site is steeped in its own heavy history. Slaves once worked this land, hand cutting and transporting sandstone blocks for the construction of Tannehill’s three large blast furnaces. The nearby slave cemetery, holding the graves of some sixty individuals, is a haunting reminder of Alabama’s dark past and, once realised, adds another more chilling dimension to the oppressive nature of the soundscape.

The intensity of the atmosphere increases as we approach the end of the piece. Darkness has fallen but, as the heat hasn’t diminished, the katydids begin to work themselves up into a frenzy of activity. There seems to be no respite here. As one group falls silent so another takes its place.

A brief sound at the beginning of the piece, that of something hitting the microphone, raised some questions in my mind. What was the source of this sound? Did the recordist accidentally touch the microphone or reposition it? If so, why was this not edited out of the final composition? Or was the source natural; something falling from an overhead tree perhaps, or maybe an animal brushing past. These initial questions provoked further thoughts about the presence of recordists in their own recordings. In his interview for ‘In the Field: the art of field recording’ Ian Rawes of the London Sound Survey gives his personal take on the subject:

“My aim is to turn myself into the hole in the wall through which you hear what’s on the other side. I determine where and when that hole is but I reject recordings if my own breathing or footsteps are in them and can’t be got rid of. Otherwise it’s like taking a photo when your finger’s poking out over part of the lens.”

In contrast, other recordists have put themselves at the heart of their recordings. One example would be Andrea Polli’s recording ‘Walking on Taylor Glacier’ which was included on her 2009 Gruenrekorder release ‘Sonic Antarctica’. In this case the recordist is not merely a witness to the soundscape but is actively contributing to it. Polli has since commented that this recording is a favourite from her archive:

“That recording doesn’t involve sonification, doesn’t involve interviewing scientists, it is just my footsteps, it is just walking on this glacier…”

The same active role of the recordist helped shape Isobel Clouter and Rob Mullender’s CD ‘Myths of Origin: sonic ephemera from East Asia’ (and/OAR 2008). Here we hear the laboured breathing of Clouter as she ascends one of the Badain Jarain Desert’s singing sand dunes. This is then followed by the gentle hiss of sliding sand as our recordists descend and in doing so force the dune to resonate.

It’s interesting to consider what role the recordist should take in their recordings, whether they should be present or not, and I don’t believe there is any right or wrong approach. Ultimately it depends on what the recordist wishes to achieve. This tiny bump at the beginning of ‘Tannehill Iron Works’ is certainly not a blot on this sonic landscape, but it’s definitely made me stop and think, which is surely one of the greatest things about field recordings.


[David Michael, photo courtesy of Impulsive Habitat]

David Michael website

Cheryl Tipp

Wildlife sounds curator at British Library.