Part One – On Framing
What makes a field recording worth listening to? This question is asked more of the auditory practice than its visual cousin, photography. Similarities between the two abound – site selection and the artist’s/audience’s relation to it, aesthetic qualities, questions of perspective and framing, whether or not the document should/can be edited (if so how/how much), and the format of presentation and publication. Both media typically require a great deal of work and time in dealing with each of those problems, but a field recording will frequently stumble at the very last one. This is undoubtedly largely because a field recording unfolds in time and requires a great deal more engagement on behalf of the audience. This requirement can be a strength through the careful balance of difficulty and approachability, the acute and the obtuse, the dynamically or structurally challenging with the harmonically or texturally pleasing. The requirement for an audience’s engagement can also prove a weakness through an artist’s inadvertent disregard for the field’s relevance and relatability to the audience outside of its location. Without diverging into cliches on the abstraction of sound in a society that gives it only passing mention at best, the practice of field recording requires a high degree of discipline to evoke a worthwhile response.
Listeners of the genre, and our readers, are by definition a wonky and idiosyncratic bunch. We exhibit patience for a particularly arcane artform with the understanding that it has its dividends, however difficult they are to explain to other sorts of listeners. Given a careful structure, a perceptive frame, or unique content, we can be incredibly gracious to the artist and their work. The Winds Measure issue of Manfred Werder’s 2005¹ is a case in point. The minimalism of its structure is almost brutalist, but in the framing of its composer, and the discipline of its ‘performer’ (Jason Kahn), it proves to be engaging both conceptually and aesthetically. It is so in the former sense through its obtuse means of physically exaggerating the existence of the performer within the recording space; ie., Kahn is never heard, but as the publication is comprehensively consumed and its practice slowly understood, the contrast of ritualism and indeterminacy, and the prolonged individual dedication to capturing it, becomes increasingly relevant. In the latter sense; the dynamics, amplitude, and (perhaps most importantly of all) the periodicity of the acoustical framing allows the work as a whole to seep into the listener’s subconscious where the anonymity of whole tracks and even discs, and the unique distinction of particular recognizable audio events or shifts in timbre, exist simultaneously.
In a different fashion, Hildegaard Westerkamp is best able to lend a similar gravity to an auditory field through its ‘performance’ via a soundwalk. The soundscape of a particular landscape, path, and vector is manifested as an artwork through the act of deep listening (both in the sense of consciously bringing sounds normally ignored to the forefront and of de-differentiating oneself from one’s surroundings) as the audience/participants/performers themselves move along and among them. Similarly, Christina Kubisch curates broadly similar soundwalks through identical environments that are, courtesy of handmade technology, suddenly suffuse with representations of the electromagnetic fields permeating them. Werder, Westerkamp, and Kubisch all work with a strict, or restrictive, framing device and achieve incredible results through a combination of familiarity with source, refined method, and respect for audience or participant.
Many field recording artists take a different approach, whereby the field is simply an aural means to an artistic end. For the sake of argument here, this approach can be broadly divided into two categories. In the first, a field is used for its aesthetic or structural properties. In the right hands, the field’s dynamics and timbral qualities will complement (or complementarily contrast) those of the whole. While it would be incorrect to call this sort of recording uncodified, as even its aesthetic qualities will find varying degrees of empathy among different audiences, they will lack the distinct symbolism of recognizable events or mundane objects. The close- and contact-mic’ing of Jeph Jerman or former Cut And Run contributor Mathieu Ruhlmann are both good examples.
Conversely, a field may be used explicitly for its sociocultural implications and how they contribute to, or interrupt, the narrative of the work. Peter Cusack’s Sounds From Dangerous Places is an example where the context provided by the associated media interacts in both constructive and destructive ways with the auditory material. The sounds of heavy machinery from an oil rig can be foreboding to the uninitiated simply by their auditory nature, but only after the chirping present across numerous recordings is revealed as not that of a frog or insect but a radiometer, does it lend a similar gravity. The more literalist or realist works of Chris Watson also come to mind. Of course, there are innumerable examples of overlaps between the two – Jonathan Coleclough’s Casino is a wonderful example of this. Even bereft of title or context a listener would find the timbrally and melodically complex, even pretty, sound environment instantly betrayed by its recognizability (or, I suppose, reinforced by it if you enjoy the slots).
Part Two – Autofictions
While I frequently stumble across these concerns listening to the music we do here, Bruno Duplant’s and Pedro Chambel’s collaboration brought them back to the forefront recently. Released on Mappa Editions from Slovakia, the artists themselves hail from France and Portugal respectively. While I happily own most Mappa releases prior to this one, this particular album unfortunately falls flat in large part due the poor framing of its field recordings.
The opening ‘Autofiction # 1 l’Oeil Écoute’ (‘The Ear Is Listening’) combines a selection of fields by Duplant with the synthesis of Chambel. Despite the piece’s length, the former’s contributions are actually quite narrow in scope. Each recording (sounds like it) is of a large public space heavily populated with voices. The amplitude falls lower in two places, occasionally the beep of a security system or some such device is heard, there is at least one section where the spoken language of the crowd is no longer French…. but besides that the listener might as well just sit on a bench in a mall for 42 minutes – none are identical and yet they are all bizarrely undifferentiable.
As discussed earlier, a degree of puritanism in the use of field recording can be successful, so the concept of purposefully limiting the scope of the work is not at fault. However, given Chambel’s contributions of varying sine tones and distortion, the music declares itself as something other than an unadulterated document or meditation. To that end, there are focal transitions scattered across ‘l’Oeil Écoute’ between synthetic and recorded components, some of them curious and unexpected. For example, the strangely step-filtered synthesis around minute 9 and the ensuing bass tone that is occasionally modulated in a fast and rolling fashion is quite pleasing. Or it would be, except that it continues for a further 9 minutes, and largely overpowers whatever unique folds in Duplant’s fields’ sound envelope might have been worth listening to. What does make it through the tonal bed from the field only does so through amplitude alone, and then only at the very beginning and very end of the section, with both segments appearing to be from the same field recording. This sort of muddy and confusing approach is repeated across the entire track.
Another point of interest could have been the repeated beeping tones that begin around minute 17 (reminding me of the accessibility ramp warning signal played by public buses all over Canada (the globe?)). They appear to be present in the field recording itself, and I immediately became optimistic that they offered a chance for some interplay between the field and Chambel’s synthesis, particularly as they are so close in timbre (if they are not in fact part of the field – touché, I am in error). Instead, the drone that has already been playing for the past 8 minutes continues virtually unchanged through the next 5 minutes until the piece as a whole fades to silence at 22:30.
Here again, understanding that the piece is only half-over, the listener might expect a change-up in approach. Indeed, there is a cute if brusque chunk of musique concrète akin to flipping a tape over in a cassette deck. What do Duplant and Chambel give us on ‘side b’ of ‘l’Oeil Écoute’? Another few minutes of the exact drone and near-exact soundscape as that which just faded away. I will admit that I struggled to pay attention past this point until the end of the work. In the dying minutes the artists have something of a deft touch whereby several fields from earlier in the piece are repeated while the synthesis becomes more aggressively dissonant – revisiting them in a new light or with a different mood, as it were. Further, the very last recording is of some distant chamber music which finally finds harmony with the underlying squeal that accompanies at least a dozen minutes across the latter half of the piece.
This is what makes Autofictions so frustrating. There a moments of inspiration, aesthetic pleasure, or structural motif that catch the listener’s attention, but they are so bathed in a muddy monotony (again, 42 minutes of it) that I end up giving credit to those rare moments of thematic cohesion only reluctantly. They do not release tension or tie up loose ends, they are singular events in a piece that is almost oppressively event-less. There is just enough structural intervention by the artists on the uninspired content to leave it too noisy and unrepetitive to be absorbed osmotically as ambient or minimal music might. Simultaneously, it lacks the dynamism or attention to textural or timbral detail to warrant careful listening. It’s possible that some more careful mastering might have revealed different interplays between field and synth, but we have to take the album in the form presented. As such, Chambel’s clearer moments of expression and Duplant’s more evocative recordings are more often than not at odds with one another.
When a piece of music ‘works’ for me on the first listen, or even after several, it is easy to approach it on its own accord. How does the music achieve what it evokes for me and why? When a piece of music ‘fails’ for me, I will (often through a sense of my own density with these things) read as many liner notes, artist interviews, technical manifests, and promotional materials as I can to better inform myself of the artists’ intent. Whether this should be relevant to the success of an artwork is an enormously complex and divisive issue that shouldn’t be tackled here. That aside, my perusal of Duplant’s notes on the release only served to justify my initial impressions.
All my new pieces with field recordings are “autofictions/self-fictions”. Field recordings, like always with me came from lot of places. I don’t care about where were recorded the sound, but much more how to create new entities, territories (the self-fictions/autofictions), which are both fictive, intimate and personal. I like the idea that listeners will enter in that fictive places like if they were real, like they did with a great novel.
The statement is old-hat, if not pedantic. Once you introduce any sort of editorial or synthetic process, the fiction of the representation is inherent to the method anyhow. Of course, even the faithful reproduction of an unedited recording is the creation of a new entity, by way of both the changes in fidelity through recording and playback (even if minimal), and more importantly in how the captured event’s/field’s reproduction acousmatically so radically changes its framing that it cannot help but be a ‘fictive place’, regardless of the artists’ intentions.
A more gracious listener could extrapolate that he is instead differentiating between the act of framing and that of composing. As previously discussed, that line gets particularly blurry and contentious in the use of field recording. Given his dismissal of location (and one assumes other metadata, to borrow the term), it appears Duplant is firmly placing himself on the side of composer. While that characterization might be appropriate, it does nothing to help the listener’s approach to the work. In fact it may even detract – if these are stated to be purposefully created artificial sound environments, why not make them worth visiting?
In an interview with Fifteen Questions, Duplant states his current practice to be:
…An assemblage of recorded sequences in which we recognize a succession of various events and we reconstruct in our imaginary a possible narrative that may have been at the origin of these sounds. I try to organize the different sounds, puts them in relation, creating associations but also contradictions in the mind of the listener….[On Autofictions] I push the concept to incorporate some discreet electronic sounds (played by my friend Pedro Chambel) in my compositional process, which I use in the same way as sounds recorded across different places to create two entities where we no longer know where we are (inside, outside, here, there, elsewhere) neither to recognize the truth of the false.
Again, if the intent is to compose an environment that invokes a fictional narrative for the listener to follow, the static and claustrophobic nature of Autofictions has the opposite effect, leaving the listener little reason to be invested in which elements are recorded and which are represented. By way of comparison, listen to Kostis Kilymis‘s newest album, A Void, building on the ideas explored in, among other releases, Crystal Drops (previously reviewed here on Cut And Run). The sound sources are similar and their dichotomy between unaltered field and tonal synthesis nearly identical. Kilymis’s intent is a sort of inverse of Duplant’s and Chambel’s: he is defining locational meaning through the deconstruction, synthetic reaction to, and virtual reinforcement of the fields themselves as opposed to using fields and tones to construct a new non-existent space. The effect on the listener of A Void, however, is what Autofictions fails to achieve – dynamic, timbrally rich spaces with distinct narrative arcs that build and release tension.
The second piece, ‘Autofiction # 2 Un Lieu Des Possibles’ (‘A Place of Possibilities) opens with some key differences from the first. A delay line is applied directly to a field itself, exhibiting a technique that was not (obviously) used anywhere in the first side of the album. Further, natural sounds make their first appearance as chattering birds. The dynamics of the piece also start off in a more cohesive fashion – slow, murky, dense, yet understated. Here, finally, is the tension that was so lacking on ‘l’Oeil Écoute’. (The structure as a whole (aptly or no) reminds me of the title ‘But It Was Like 30 Intros In A Row’, by Machine Woman.) And yet….
By the time one of the mild (guitar?) distortion swells hangs long enough for a slight change in the backing field, the listener is likely to have forgotten the emotive and tense nature of the opening soundscape because they have (once more) been listening to a virtually static scene for 19 minutes. Granted, the listener will be less able to distinguish between the piece’s artificial and natural sources, which plays more directly into Duplant’s stated intent. Occasional bells, shifting tones and brief sections of noise all flicker in and out of the murky field overplayed (for all 44 minutes) with an inexplicable tape hiss throughout. However, their appearance is arbitrary, both structurally and chronologically. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes they don’t; sometimes their sound envelope is similar to the fields’, sometimes not. As before, the track is too dense, riddled with snatches of conversation, and accompanied by arbitrarily improvised instruments and electronics to provide ambience; then again there aren’t enough subtleties or thematic events to warrant deep listening. Some listeners may find it more palatable for its rather monolithic nature – after the shift at minute 19, the track quickly returns to its initial dynamics for its remainder. As a result, is perhaps more successful in creating a ‘fictive place’. But again, the listener has to ask if it is one worth visiting only to sit still for the duration.
The answer for me is no. Autofictions sounds too often like two improvisers ignoring each other’s sound, playing past each other with little regard for the end result. Its field recordings are largely static and only rarely exhibit interesting timbres, while also purposefully devoid of contextual meaning and framing – leaving the question open as to why they’re even there. The synthetic elements are occasionally attractive, but on the first piece pass through the fields like neutrinos, with neither impacting or responding to the other, and on the second piece never managing a presence beyond ambiguous directionless noises. I don’t mean to single this album out for its problems; indeed, there is an ever-growing sea of similarly executed field-recording based work out there. But there’s the rub, as both of these artists have already proven that they know better.
In fact, each contributor to Autofictions has released more worthwhile material just in the last year. Listeners and readers would do well to instead try Pedro Duplant’s ‘split’ with Pierre Gerard, Études, released earlier this year on Duplant’s own label Rhizome.s. The album proves Duplant is more than capable of the self-reflective structures and attention to textural detail lacking on Autofictions. Pedro Chambel and Duplant even have a previously released duo. All We Have Learned And Then Forgotten, on Columbia’s Éter Editions, is another study in minimalism with a similarly muddy acoustic range but which exhibits far more discipline in execution and makes for a worthwhile listen. Lastly, Autofictions is the first and only stumble for the barely 2 year-old label Mappa Editions. I heartily recommend any previous record in their catalogue, particularly Sarah Hennies’s Orienting Response and Diatribes’s Sistere, and continue to look forward to their upcoming output.