field recording

Collin Thomas – April Triptych

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The penultimate work i’m featuring in this year’s Lent Series is both the longest and, possibly (depending on your perspective), the simplest. Collin ThomasApril Triptych was released nine years ago on the long-defunct, Berlin-based netlabel Resting Bell. There are a number of reasons why the piece is interesting, but it’s gained a new quality most recently as society has entered its current, ongoing climate of lockdown and isolation. The piece is rooted in field recordings, and at a time when it’s not possible to roam and explore the landscape as we might wish to, field recordings are a precious reminder of the massive and miniature multifaceted natural wonders out there that, for the time being, have become out of bounds.

The field recording in April Triptych is a neutral one, inasmuch as it doesn’t sound obviously manipulated or edited (actually, it comprises three recordings made in the morning, afternoon and evening), and is less about presenting specific sound objects than providing a broad ‘open’ atmosphere for the piece to inhabit. We hear generalised ambiance, leaves and trees rustling, birds calling and singing, the gentle hubbub of traffic, the purring of a nearby engine, all of which forms a passive sonic backdrop. Two additional layers are added to this. The first begins a little under two minutes in: slow-moving harmonies articulated by soft-edged sine tones, their timbre akin to an organ. According to Thomas’ notes on the piece, these drawn out chords are “an extremely elongated renaissance madrigal”, but they are sufficiently extended that they instead take on a nebulous kind of connectivity: sometimes the chords seem to be drones, inviting no sense of a harmonic past or future of which they form a part; yet at other times such a sense is distantly projected, though rarely to the extent that we would exactly think of them as “chord progressions” (there is, if you deliberately listen for it, a cadential finality at the very end). The second additional layer, which first appears around 12 minutes in, is its behavioural polar opposite: brief, sporadic piano gestures, sprinklings of notes like small splashes on the surface of a millpond, their droplets and ripples instantly gone.

i mentioned nebulous connectivity, and the same can be said of the way these three layers interact with each other. Or don’t interact with each other at all. Do the field recording and piano connect strongest because they’re less overtly ‘active’? Do the field recording and the slow chords connect strongest because they’re part of an ongoing sonic entity? Or do none of them connect, and we instead focus on one layer in particular at any one point? Certainly, though i describe them as layers there’s no obvious hierarchy among them, acting as three discrete elements each of which sounds equally prominent and significant (or insignificant). Furthermore, as i’ve indicated these elements of April Triptych have a neutrality in and of themselves, and whether or not that neutrality extends to their superimposition depends entirely on the ear of the beholder. It’s one of the reasons why the work’s length – just over two hours’ duration – is justified; it allows us to become familiarised with each layer and then consider how they might or might not be behaving or impinging on each other. This impacts very directly on our perception of the passage of time. Personally speaking, there are occasions when the piece has proven frustrating, seemed arbitrary, at which point time slows to a treacly crawl; more often, though, it takes on a transparency, and it’s as if i were listening ‘through’ it in a more relaxed headspace where the relevance, even the entire existence or otherwise, of these hypothetical interactions is rendered moot, and i accept the simultaneous presence of the three elements as if they were all part of the same naturally-occurring phenomenon.

This back-and-forth in terms of engagement says something about me personally, of course, about my mood when listening, my level of concentration, my focus (or lack of it) and so on. But equally it’s an intrinsic part of the way April Triptych operates, tapping into both a sensibility and a behavioural paradigm that are unequivocally ambient. It invites us to take interest and to ignore in equal measure; to appreciate it in moment-by-moment details that can seem random and unplanned, and as a longer-term combination of strategy and serendipity. The piece sets up and maintains an equilibrium of simultaneous tension and relaxation that i appreciate every time i come to it. And at present, when life feels so very strange and unsettling, i appreciate it even more than usual.

April Triptych is available as a free digital download from the Resting Bell website.

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Gráinne Mulvey/Christopher Fox – Aeolus/untouch, John Wiggins – The Listened To Sound, Lee Fraser – Cor Unvers

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A new EP out on the Metier label brings together two works that each exist in an interesting relationship to real sounds. Irish composer Gráinne Mulvey‘s Aeolus, as the title suggests, takes its inspiration from the eponymous king of the island of Aeolia, names better known to us today via the Aeolian harp and its associated mode. Her piece is an acousmatic exploration of material rooted quite obviously in field recordings, though subjected to considerable amounts of processing and sculpting. Throughout, there’s a strong sense that the work is, if not about, then deeply informed by the idea of sound as the result of wind and air friction. The piece begins with, and from time to time returns to, the ambiance of the open air, to the soft accompaniment of birdsong, and Mulvey’s subsequent treatment of sounds transforms them into sheets of shimmer, or as if being propelled through tubes or tunnels, or even heard only by their reverberation, making identification difficult. There’s a lovely intimate tactility in this, made more fascinating by the hands-off nature of these transformed sounds, seemingly all the product of no direct physical contact. At various points there are distinct aural similarities to The Hafler Trio (particularly Intoutof), but for the most part Mulvey avoids the clichés of acousmatic music, producing something far more abstract, yet in which its points of origin remain (just about) tangible.

The other work on the disc, Christopher Fox‘s untouch, is the first of a two-part work (untouch—touch) for solo percussion. While the second part involves the soloist striking Thai gongs, untouch reconfigures their actions to the triggering of sine tones. There’s something genuinely uncanny about this abstraction (surely enhanced by seeing it in performance) both in the nature of the tone’s timbre – which doesn’t bear any meaningful similarity to gongs yet knowing about the second part continually brings them to mind – as well as their unfolding over time, begging the question of whether their continuity and the patterns that briefly emerge are arbitrary or closely-controlled. An intriguing, unconventional pair of works. Read more

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New digital release: Could you not watch one hour with me?

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Available today for free download is Could you not watch one hour with me?, a conceptual work i created a couple of years ago. Inspired by an act of worship that takes place today, Maundy Thursday, the material heard in the work comprises a one-hour recording made during The Watch, a night vigil that has no formal liturgy or structure, consisting solely of the silent thought, meditation, worship and prayer of the faithful. Presented in this context, my intention is to confront the connotations of that question, exploring notions of substance and absence, silence and sound, focus and lassitude, emptiness and the sacred. The work revisits from a fresh perspective the well-established idea that there is no such thing as silence. It also throws down a challenge in its title, asking, even daring the listener to sacrifice an hour to an end that may appear futile or meaningless. It is my sincerest hope that, in rising to that challenge, one might discover a depth and richness that transcends the silence, and perhaps even a glimpse of the holy.

The work is dedicated to the memory of Rudolf Otto.

For more information and to download, click here.

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Navigating the sounds of the cosmos

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It’s been with no little excitement that i’ve watched the Curiosity Rover landing on Mars this week. Astronomy has been a back-burner interest of mine since i was a boy and, not surprisingly, i’ve been especially fond of the sound recordings produced by NASA from the data received by Voyagers I and II as they’ve travelled through and beyond the solar system. So i was intrigued last year to see an independent release of something called Voyager: Sounds of the Cosmos, a large-scale compilation of these NASA recordings, made available in three versions of increasing length, titled ‘Grand Tour Edition’, ‘Standard Edition’ and ‘Legacy Edition’ respectively. However, as i’ve spent more time with it, i couldn’t shake the feeling i’d heard these before, so i did some elementary investigating. It turns out—and the compiler, one Philip Graham (aka RazorEye), admits this on the Wikipedia page—that the compilation is a bootleg of earlier NASA releases, some of which are still readily available. However, new track titles have been invented and there’s also a bit of duplicity and misguidedness going on, so for the benefit of others who love these sounds as much as i do, i thought i’d just flag up the facts regarding this material, in order to make an informed choice possible. Read more

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“a hush, almost sacred”: Steve Peters – Here-ings

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As will have been obvious from my two “Best of” posts at the end of last year (here and here), i’m very taken with the work of sound artist Steve Peters. i’ve been spending a lot of time with his work of late, and one release has particularly impressed me in all sorts of ways. Peters is clearly a composer with both an acutely sensitive ear as well as an innate sensibility to the contexts in which sound occurs; nowhere is this better illustrated than in Here-ings.

Subtitled ‘a sonic geohistory’, Here-ings takes the relatively unusual form of a book and CD, the former illuminating the contents of the latter through a combination of prose and poetry (also by Peters), plus photographs contributed by Margot Geist. Essentially, the project consisted of Steve Peters spending a great deal of time at a site in New Mexico called The Land, set aside for site-specific art that engages with the environment surrounding it. Feeling that he would prefer to let the place ‘speak for itself’ rather than asserting his own creative impulse, over the course of a year, Peters made a series of hour-long field recordings at The Land, each occupying a different hour of the day, totalling 24 hours of material. Furthermore, each hour was recorded at a different location within The Land, so his recordings succinctly capture the entirety of The Land, throughout a year, conflated into a day’s worth of sound. Read more

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