Faithfully Re-presenting the Outside World

Originally published on NewMusicBox, June 12, 2013

It was then I first realised the difference between a painting and out of doors. I realised that a painting is always a flat surface and out of doors never is, and that out of doors is made up of air and a painting has no air, the air is replaced by a flat surface, and anything in a painting that imitates air is illustration and not art. -Gertrude Stein, Paris France

One seemingly unresolved issue in the realm of field recordings is the tension between authenticity and abstraction. One can view an artist’s work with “the field” as existing somewhere between these two different, though not mutually exclusive, concerns. On the one hand, some artists strongly adhere to maintaining the perceptible accuracy/authenticity of their location, whereas others simply take elements from it as necessary, unconcerned with the legibility of the source.

Let’s imagine a composer who is enamored with the sound of the Swiss Alps and decides to make a field recording there. This composer wants to portray the most accurate, pristine document of the aural landscape as possible. Such a composer is motivated by authenticity, likely hoping to make the listener feel like he/she is actually there, or perhaps hoping to entice the listener to travel to the location. Generally this privilege of locational authenticity is assumed to be the driving force behind field recording work.

On the other end of the spectrum, we can imagine a composer who is interested in using something from the aural landscape, perhaps the canned music played by an ice cream truck as it travels through his/her neighborhood, simply as one amongst many other sounds. In this mode of working, one does not particularly care whether or not the recording’s location (or source) is intelligible. This locationally independent, or more abstract, mode of working is assumed to belong to the realm of electronic music, and furthermore assumed to be different than field recording.

Brandon LaBelle outlines the concern regarding authenticity in field recording work, specifically regarding the R. Murray Schafer founded World Soundscape Project, as follows:

The intention behind the WSP was based on capturing environmental sound in all its breadth and diversity across the globe, preserving important “soundmarks” and gaining insight into people’s understanding and awareness of acoustic environments…To cast a net of microphones across the globe sets our ears on finding the truth of sound, so as to arrive finally at the original soundscape.

Every time I read this quote, though, I have this nagging series of questions in the back of my head: how can one realistically expect to arrive at “the original soundscape”? Isn’t the motivation to record some soundscape fundamentally based on one’s personal interpretation and, therefore, an abstraction to begin with? Could one ever say that my experience of the sound of the Swiss Alps is the same as anyone else’s?

Herein lies the issue with this supposed opposition between authenticity and abstraction: as individual listeners, we each have a different experience of the outside world. There is no perceivable “ursound” (to use LaBelle’s terminology), no fundamental source of the aural landscape in the same sense that there is no perceivably definitive color “blue.” Similarly, the tools (or technology) that one uses to capture parts (or all) of the soundscape have the ability to shape (or abstract) the document of the field further.

Michael Pisaro’s writing on standing issues in field recording work hints at some of the inherent problems in attempting to document the totality of the acoustic environment:

A recording is a reduction. The immersive sensual experience of an environment will in the end be represented purely in terms of sound. It is possible that a sound recording device will in some cases hear more than we do, but it will obviously never capture everything that is sounding. It will be limited in time and in the perceptible borders of the soundscape.

Recording abstracts the environment. Microphones are designed to accept certain frequencies, reject others, as well as accept/reject sounds from certain angles of incidence. Moreover, the impulse to make a recording in a particular place, at a particular time, using a particular set of equipment, abstracts/limits the amount of the field to be recorded.

I am uninterested in starting a kind of “punk or not punk” debate here because, frankly, it is a waste of time (“[name of recording] is a REAL field recording because of [insert rationale regarding perceptible authenticity here]”). What is interesting, however,, is that there are many works that simultaneously present a clear picture of the location and employ extreme abstractions via compositional or conceptual moves. Michael Pisaro’s Transparent City and Toshiya Tsunoda’s O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring) seem to typify this friction, and a more detailed analysis of these works will unearth what is unique about attempting to balance both extremes.

Michael Pisaro’s Transparent City

The complete Transparent City project spans four CDs (two double-discs) on the German-based experimental music record label Edition Wandelweiser. Volumes 1 and 2 feature recordings made throughout Los Angeles between December 2004 and August 2006, while Volumes 3 and 4 span October 2006 to February 2007. The liner notes explain:

Each recording is an unedited ten-minute take from a single location. Sine tones and mixing completed in Michael Pisaro’s home studio in Santa Clarita, California. Each ten-minute piece is followed by two minutes of silence.

In short, all four volumes of Transparent City feature three elements: recordings of urban environments in Los Angeles, sine tones, and silence.

The environment presented across these four discs is relatively similar sounding, filled with general city ambience and car sounds. However, Transparent City also features recurring instances of a compositional move that is simply magical: a particular sound will naturally appear/disappear out of the stereo field to reveal a soft, tuned sine tone as accompaniment. In one track, a high tone subtly fades in only to be joined by the sound of a passing car. The car and tone blend seamlessly for just a moment before the car disappears from the landscape. Sometimes the sine tone remains, sometimes it disappears with its environmental collaborator. At another point, a tone becomes a dyad when another one appears, offering a kind of chordal drone under chirping birds and air. When chords are present, the listener realizes that all coincidences of sounds in the environment can be heard as chords, that melodies are unearthed with a subtle shift of perspective across numerous sources.

Pisaro’s unedited field recordings authentically present the aural location but become something entirely other when combined with tuned sine tones. One could think of Transparent City as a kind of training regimen for reinterpreting the soundscape of Los Angeles. In a way, it is a digital proof of concept of Cage’s 4’33”: Pisaro adds simple, musical accompaniment to urban Los Angeles to assert the musical appreciation of the aural landscape. One is also reminded of Joseph Fourier’s theory that any complex sound can be divided into a collection of sine tones. Transparent City proves the utility of this theory, giving the listener countless examples of sine tones disappearing within environmental sounds.

The other significant move in Transparent City is the recurring two minutes of silence following each track. Transparent City retrains the listener’s interpretation of an aural landscape, and then confronts the listener with his current landscape, enticing him to imagine Pisaro’s sine tones flowing in and out of his surroundings. This recurring silence becomes more fascinating as one progresses through all four discs. The final appearance of one’s own landscape at the end of the collection, through ears that have been reoriented to atomize their surroundings, is shocking.

This idea that the aural landscape is endlessly divisible, and endlessly musical, is not a new one, but the sheer viscerality of its presentation, and augmentation, in Pisaro’s hands is truly unique. This extreme re-framing of the field would not happen without the abstracted sine tones or the raw, unedited recordings of Los Angeles working in tandem. Taken together, then, Transparent City is a work which depends on both aural authenticity as well as conceptual or compositional abstraction.

Toshiya Tsunoda’s O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring)

Toshiya Tsunoda’s work represents a truly unique mixture of extreme procedural discipline and vivid recordings of the outside world. His work runs the gamut from recordings made via a microphone inside a bent pipe to the sound of a subject’s biological functions (recorded via stethoscopes) while he sits outside listening to his surroundings. O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring), recently released on his own imprint, Edition.T, is another fascinating example of pushing a procedural operation to an extreme on field recorded source material.

Recorded on the Miura Peninsula (in Kanagawa, Japan) during the springtime, Tsunoda’s work here spreads across two CDs with a simple, recurring compositional device: randomly he loops a tiny fragment of sound for various durations. The first time this happens, it sounds almost like a CD skipping: lush jungle sounds are suddenly interrupted by a few seconds of a harsh, repeating, rhythmic glitch. Though a seemingly simple gesture, Tsunoda plays freely with the length of the loop, as well as how long it repeats and the time between instances of looping.

Throughout both discs, loops start and end without warning, and the lack of consistency across each instance of looping is jarring: a bird singing is suddenly interrupted by some tiny fragment of the background clicking rhythmically for several seconds. Sometimes the loop is long enough to sound like it actually belongs to the environment preceding it, sometimes it is so short it sounds like a drill. The effect is like freezing a tiny atom of time, or like viewing cellular behavior under a microscope.

From Tsunoda’s liner notes:

I decided to present the recorded materials as a composition with the least amount of modification, mainly by replacing one unit with another. This is one of my trials to present a “subject” as a piece of work—which can be called field recordings—that contains the accidentalness. We cannot manipulate the accidentalness. The only way for us to relate to the events is to closely observe what is happening there.

I love this quote because it typifies the give and take between intentionality and chance in field recording work. The only way that we can observe “accidentalness” or chance (or perhaps nature?) is to put the natural world under an extreme microscope. When doing so, we see that our normal fidelity when observing the world glosses over a tremendous amount of activity. Similarly, Tsunoda hints at the play between intentionally choosing a particular location, with a particular set of sounds, to record, but hoping to be truly surprised by what can be found there.

The title of each track allows the listener to zoom in even further on the sounds. Here Tsunoda is even more concerned with authenticity of source than is typical for an artist working in this domain. Tsunoda gives the listener a location (the Miura Peninsula), and then a subset of that location (“the sounds of ashes bursting in the fire built by fisherman”), and then repeatedly pushes the listener deeper and deeper into the sound. At a certain resolution, one is confronted with the grain of the environment (hence the title “Grains of Spring”), the endlessly divisible atoms that make up the outside world. Tsunoda loops the sound to allow one’s ears to adjust to the fidelity of the alien sound world therein, only to suddenly snap back to the normal fidelity of the aural landscape.

Similar to the Pisaro, Tsunoda’s work fundamentally changes our perception of the outside world. If the soundscape is as unstable, depending on our perspective, as it is presented throughout O Kokos Tis Anixis, at what point can we say that we have actually heard it? Does this atomization, this fragmentation, get us closer to understanding the fundamental nature of sound, or does it simply prove that a wealth of activity is occurring on endlessly deeper levels? The disorienting nature of listening to this seemingly random interchange between high alteration of a location, which is otherwise presented to us “as is,” is simply incredible.

Both of these works typify a fascinating interaction between conceptual constraints, or abstractions, and accurate portrayals of an environment. It is clear that a similar effect would not have been possible by simply recording the urban sound of Los Angeles or the natural sounds in the Miura Peninsula. Similarly, though, a sample-based electronic music piece would not have tied these sounds to their origin. It is truly the combination of both, seemingly opposed, motivations that yields a listening experience rarely encountered. They prove that a field recording does not have to merely document some outside landscape, and that one can still document the outside world faithfully while pushing further via extreme compositional procedures. The friction between holding authenticity and abstraction at the same level yields a truly productive experience. We will never hear the world the same after work like this.

Works Cited

Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, Brandon LaBelle. 2007.

Ten framing considerations of the field,” Michael Pisaro. The Experimental Music Yearbook. 2010.

Transparent Cities (Volumes 1-4), Michael Pisaro. Edition Wandelweiser. 2007.

O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring), Toshiya Tsunoda. Edition.T. 2013