by Brian Olewnick
Every so often, more so in recent years, a release passes across my desk and through my ears whose contents consist of unadulterated, unprocessed field recordings. Now, I have, I daresay, hundreds of recordings that utilize field recordings to one extent or another but even those wherein the entire contents are sounds picked up by a mic left out in the desert or beside a highway or within the hull of an old boat generally involve some degree of manipulation by the person involved, some sculpting, some design element. These can, in the right hands, be extraordinarily beautiful documents. I'm thinking of Toshiya Tsunoda's "Scenery of Decalcomania", for example. The choices he makes, the weight he assigns to the various elements work to create a composition which seems for all the world to be "just" a recording of a scene but, in fact, is an idealized situation, a fictional world more incisively etched than what you're likely to hear yourself, as a blank wall by Vermeer contains more in it than you're likely to see, looking straight into one.
Tom Lawrence's "Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen" (Gruenrekorder) is a set of ten recordings of just that, as well as a good deal of plant life. All of the sounds--and there's an impressive variety of them--were recorded beneath the surface of the water, the mic often positioned quite close to the stridulating insect. The sounds are reasonably fascinating--how could they not be?--all clicks and whirs and guttural buzzes and whines, sometimes possessing an eerily human quality, like a covey of muttering old crones or some guy iterating a brief, pained cry. It's certainly a world unobtainable by ones even were one to immerse head in fen so there's a certain value having been exposed to it as all. The question is, is that value one of a purely educational or scientific sort and, if so, how to deal with it when presented as "art". There's also the issue, beautifully recorded though it may be, of how much is lost hearing these sounds issue from two speakers; if nothing else, the reality is a surround-sound experience. How to evaluate? Try as I might, I can't really rate this water scorpion's croak over that Great Diving Beetle. No reason to, of course, but after a listen or perhaps two, what does one derive from this. I now have some idea of what the insect life in this fen and, by extension, other small bodies of water, may tend to sound like which is all well and good, but am I going to go back to this to refresh my memory? In all likelihood, no. Unlike the example given above, the Tsunoda, I don't think there will be layers to continue to peel away, relationships to discover for the simple reason that there's not a human decision maker, at least not one making decisions of much import aside from track length. Or perhaps decisions were in fact made and the hand that made them lies a bit heavy, smoothing the sounds into a kind of sheet that, for all its wealth of sounds, carries with it a kind of sameness, a sameness that I very much doubt would be heard in situ, where one would be making his/her own decisions on how to listen, on how to balance the rich, subaqueous sound world. Somehow, something essential seems lost in the translation to disc, more so than is, of course, always the case with music transferal generally.
Eisuke Yanagisawa's "Ultrasonic Scapes" offers a case that is, in one sense, at an opposite end of things but in another, comes up against the same problem. He uses a bat detector to makes his recordings. One track, indeed, depicts bats while another goes after a choir of cicadas but the majority, eight out of ten cuts, pick up the faintly heard, to human ears, sounds of the industrialized world, including electric gates, street lights, muted TVs and computer innards. As with Lawrence's disc, one is privy to sound environments normally hidden from, um, view although in this case, one imagine that, given a quiet enough space and the desire to do so, one could discern a good bit of it. But again, it's presented "as is", without manipulation or intent save for determining track length. Are the sounds interesting? Sure, for the most part, all of them, I suppose. Are they more interesting than what I can hear almost any time I want by merely concentrating on what happens to be within range? I'm not so sure. Granted, bats and cicadas aren't flitting about at the moment, and the intensity level is pretty high here but I think we've all enjoyed a good refrigerator hum, savored the ultrasonics emitted when the TV is muted. I'll be on a ferry this weekend and fully intend to lean up against the engine housing, letting the dull roar vibrate ears and body. The awareness of all the sounds around us which, surely, we've all been practicing to one extent or another at least since finding out who this John Cage feller is, makes experiencing a similar set of sounds through speakers a somewhat diluted event. Not only is, unavoidably, a good bit of spatial resonance lost but, as mentioned above, one feels a bit coerced down the recordist's chosen path. It's one thing, perhaps, to be so led in the course of a composed or improvised piece of music, another when it's something apart from the person making the delivery. You'd somehow like to be introduced to an area, then let alone to discover things on your own, an impossibility, I guess, given existing technology.
This is not to say that either recording isn't worth listening to. They are, in a way (The Yanagisawa more so than the Lawrence, to these ears), even if they leave me with an extremely unsatisfied sensation. They both succeed, as near as I can do, with doing what they set out to and do so admirably and attractively but I can't shake the feeling that I'd rather dip my ear in a pond or press it up against a street lamp myself.