Enrico Coniglio’s most recent release is a result of his trip to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands in 2016. Departing from the layered and sequentially arranged fields of much of his work (Astrùra and Solèra are both prime examples of that method), Aʻā is instead comprised of two rather short field recordings. While the dynamics and content of each piece are different, both their recording on “binaural microphones and a cheap digital recorder” and the binary nature of their content binds them together.
To the first point. Purposeful distortion obviously has a long history in contemporary music. Early precursors include Junior Barnard’s and Goree Carter’s over-driven blues and rock guitar from the late 1940s.
The idea of accentuating an existing melody by reducing its fidelity eventually bred attempts to produce audio content via that method itself – I imagine there are much earlier examples, but one that continues to stand out for me personally (all the more so in its distinction from the majority of her subsequent recordings), is Pauline Oliveros’s A Little Noise In The System from 1967. It is all the more impressive given its composition on a Moog system – a device largely used at the time for noodly space-age synth wonkery.
By the era of bedroom- and synth-pop throughout the 1980s, incidental distortion had gained its own sort of credibility (justifiably or not) as a mark of independence or authenticity and a rejection of the polished consumerist artifice of studio recording . Note that this was largely an incidental reversal of the role of distortion in those early works of Barnard’s and others; themselves an attempt to instrumentally reproduce and capitalize on the raw and gravely sound of blues vocalists’ popular in the era. Most recently, it’s appeared in the simple(-istic) romanticism of lo-fi house, which may have arrived as a natural evolution of vaporwave. Like any artistic practice, the use of distortion has cycled between the avantgarde and the fashionable. Somewhere in the last decade and a half, it finally found its place in field recording.
In contemporary field recording practice the technique has focused on purposefully (and often heavily) obfuscated soundscapes, frequently of a journalistic or diaristic form. Dakim’s release on Senufo Editions comes to mind.
As does most of Gabi Losoncy’s catalogue.
This approach typically unfolds as a single unedited recording of the artist (given their typically urban habitat, often literally) ‘in transit’, using, for example: poorly manufactured piezo mics stuffed in their pocket; ambient noise bleeding into tangential conversations with friends; bootlegs of odd concerts, and so on. Another less common approach would be typified by Toshiya Tsunoda’s formal experimentation with location and landscape – placing microphones in such radical configurations as to alter the sound of very often mundane soundscapes to the point of near-unrecognizability – or alternately, framing a sound event so specifically as to locate/create a subsequent or nested event.
Enrico Coniglio’s Aʻā, on the other hand is a publication of singular soundscapes with a focused narrative using sub-par recording devices. To varying degrees the devices themselves colour the recordings. Particularly in the case of ‘Famara’ however, they also add a fair amount of the track’s content. Obviously the effect here is more subtle than most of the previous examples, but they serve as a reminder of the tension between low fidelity’s use as an aesthetically pleasing or political tool versus it’s recognition simply as a contributor to total harmonic distortion and an aberration to be reduced as much as possible. (Or, in any of a variety of idiosyncratic listening politics, eliminating noise in every element of a production/re-production system except for a limited set of conditions often determined by social fashion – for example, driving electrostatic speakers with a vacuum tube amplifier).
Which is all to say that I suspect I am not the only listener to first read Coniglio’s reference to a ‘cheap digital recorder’ as apologetic. After further listening, it seems the nature of the recordings themselves present the listener with two possible narratives, either: Coniglio has decided that the characteristics of the digital recording reinforces and/or recontextualizes the events themselves, or; he tacitly accepts that the sonic qualities of the events outweigh the loss of fidelity he was to inevitably introduce. I would argue that both narratives are at play for each track in their respective order.
‘Famara’ is a short recording of the eponymous beach at the north end of Lanzarote. As the sonic qualities of such an environment tend towards drone, the listener has the time and space to deconstruct the tonal and timbral development of the piece. As such, it is becomes evident that the modulations and harmonic overtones of the sea’s swells crashing on the beach are enhanced to a focal point within the work’s range by the recording equipment itself. The rather claustrophobic dynamic range (dominated by mid-low frequencies) is offset slightly by the hiss of what is either/both the frothy leading edge of the waves on the beach or of the pre-amps – it seems the former for most of the recording until the last minute and a half when the microphones are re-positioned relative to the sea. In its loss of stereo balance, the latter becomes more apparent – suggesting it may have been both all along. Through some combination of environment and technique, the result is a near textbook example of Brownian noise.
‘Teguise’ is so-named after the municipality in which Famara beach is found and is a slightly confounding recording of what is clearly an artificial environment. The first recognizable sounds are akin to shoes on a polished wooden floor, and while the most likely scenario is some sort of team practice in an indoor gym, not only is there a complete lack of vocals over its nearly 11 minute length, but there is also a cascade of odd sounds that can only be described as muted horns. Ironically, the audio fidelity of the recording of an artificial event seems higher than that of the natural one on ‘Famara’. It may be partly due to the stochastic nature of the sounds on ‘Teguise’ themselves – the listener must reckon with their timing and spatial location before engaging with their timbres and qualities. It is an exciting and engaging listen. Were I to encounter ‘Famara’ on its own, I wouldn’t give it much thought. It finds a more distinctive purpose alongside ‘Teguise’, however, as the latter offers a striking counterpoint to the former’s muddy dynamics, phasing drone structure, and narrow stereo array.
While I’ve made much ado about one of the only liner notes provided and some subtle sound qualities, there are other aspects of the work to explore. Coniglio states the work is “dedicated to all people suffering from Hodophobia,” which may lend itself to interpretations, personal or otherwise, beyond the mere fact that they are recordings from away. Any considerations in this regard should take note of the fact that Lanzarote is a popular tourist destination. The title itself, Aʻā, refers to the Hawaiian name for a specific type of slow-moving lava, the surface of which has cooled enough to produce small glassy crusts producing a rather remarkable sound as if flows, which may be beneficially compared to Coniglio’s recordings.
While the Canary islands are indeed volcanic, they are also frequently referred to in tourism marketing as ‘Europe’s Hawaii’. Perhaps a joke?