Field recordings are music, material and method

By George Grella Photos by Emma Shore July 07, 2022

In 1889, Ludwig Koch used an Edison phonograph and wax cylinder to record animal sounds, and his recording of a bird’s call is the earliest extant field recording. (You can listen to it via the BBC Sound Archivewith a comment added by Koch later in his life.) That a field recording is a document, preserving the sound of a place that is both geographical and temporal, is fundamental. However, the concept of field recording is not only a genre in its own right, but also a method that can be integrated into all existing and imaginable genres; a bird’s call can remain a bird’s call, or it can be transformed into material that becomes part of a great audio creation, of any kind and in any style.

Like the recordings themselves, the use of field recordings as musical material dates back a hundred years or more. A Look at the History of Music and Audio Shows Bela Bartok and Zoltán Kodály collecting folk songs, thus inventing ethnomusicology; Pierre Schaeffer recording the sounds of trains and, in 1948, merging them into Railway study primarily concrete music; Brian Wilson works home recordings in the Beach Boys animal sounds; Anna Lockwood assembling field recordings in A sound map of the Hudson River; Ottorino Respighi orchestrating a Bird Calls LP in his Pines of Rome; and Einojuhani Rautavaara using bird song recordings in his Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for birds and orchestra.

Good quality portable audio recorders have become much cheaper over the past 20 years than they were in the 20th century, democratizing the field. The 2020 pandemic, with so many musicians staying at home, has produced a proliferation of field and field recordings. Alongside so many recent examples, a few classics expose the possibilities of these documents. Below is a release guide that shows what field recordings can be and how they can work with and within other forms of music.

Francisco Lopez
a bunch of stuff (1980-2020) – 40 years of sonogenic composition

Francisco López is one of the most important field recorders of the last half-century, practicing what he calls “sonogenic composition” – pieces of music generated in some way from sound material recorded in the field. His most famous album, La Selva, is made up of sounds collected at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, and although this album is not available on Bandcamp, it is taken from this huge collection of outtakes from López’s career; almost 12 hours of music that travels from the rainforest to the streets of New York and beyond.

Merzbow/Lawrence English
Eternal Stalker

Lawrence English has produced several fine recordings in the field both as an artist and for others through his Room40 label. This new release brings him together with a noise musician Merzbow and poses a fascinating question: where do field recordings and noise generation meet and intersect? English recorded sounds from a complex of factories, while Merzbow makes sounds that are “industrial” in the extreme. Eternal Stalker is a disc that sways between comforting weight and disturbing abyss.

Thibault Jehanne

Recording sounds means, first of all, choosing what to record and finding an environment or setting that has intriguing sound material. For Thibault Jehanne, it is the April 25 bridge in Lisbon, Portugal. This remarkable album takes a collection of sounds gathered as you approach the bridge – the traffic, the wind, the vibrations of the structure – and synthesizes them into a long-running work that could be ambient music, could be an electronic symphony , could be an audio travelogue, or maybe just a dream.

Kate Carr
I myself had a nuclear spring

Like Thibault, a leader in contemporary field recording Kate Carr found a fantastic place to record. In 2015, Carr took a train to Nogent-sur-Seine in France and discovered a nuclear power plant nearby. Around the electric towers, she found “an apocalyptic landscape” of “muddy swamps, corroded machinery, screaming birds”, with electric hums racing through the water. From those sounds came this otherworldly album, rooted in a specific time and place, but resembling a sci-fi movie soundtrack.

Claire Rousay and Patrick Shiroishi
Now I’m found

This beautiful album is both delicate and soaring. Recorded remotely from the artists’ respective homes in San Antonio and Los Angeles, there are field recordings from both that merge the two locations as if each artist were in a separate room in the same house, the listener sitting somewhere in between like Claire Rousay go to the piano, or Patrick Shiroishi takes his saxophone. The field recordings add a haunting emotional complexity to the music the two create.

Chris Watson
El Tren Fantasma

This imaginary train journey comes from another of the most crucial contemporary artists in field recording. The Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México once operated a rail line connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts. Chris Watson, who was among the last passengers on the trip, gathered archival sound recordings to create an audio document of a trip that never happened. That this “ghost train” of sound is the remnant of real people and real moments in time speaks to how field recordings are all, in some ways, hauntings of the past.

Field work

Stuart Hyatt is another important figure in field recordings, particularly in capturing the sounds of our natural surroundings. For Ultrasonic, he collected the echolocation sounds of bats and handed the material over to a group of musicians including Machinefabriek, Kelly Moran, Sarah Davachi and Chihei Hatakayama. The result is a collection that transforms echolocation into a lullaby vibe, literal poetry and rhythmic minimalism.

Every morning of the world (various artists)
North American Phonographic Matinees

For this anthology, Annea Lockwood traveled to the Housatonic River in New England and recorded what she heard. This piece is from a larger collection that is part of an even larger series for FM Resonanceit is Every morning in the world, itself part of the soundscape concept of elevating (and preserving via field recordings) the value of the sounds present around us, which is seen as a creative world distinct from our own. Curator Stéphane Marin asked the artists to record (or recreate) their own personal listening points from the morning.

Jean Kannenberg
A sound map from the British Library Sound Archive, London

Not just a field record, it’s a meta field record. Jean Kannenberg makes field recordings and sound maps and is also director and chief curator of the Portable Sound Museum. He has created works like audio tours of various museums that follow the form of John Cage 4′ 33″ and a “possible soundtrack” for the great science fiction novel, A hymn for Leibowitz. He made this unique piece by recording his tour of the British Library Sound Archive and editing together three hours of material he found there – a put in abyss it is the sound of the present reflecting on the sounds of the past.

NYC sounds COVID-19

From the end of March 2020 and until June of the sad first year of the pandemic, the musician Geoff Gersh got in his car and basically drove all identifiable neighborhoods in New York, some 375 of them. He parked, stuck a microphone to the window, and recorded five minutes of every sound that came his way. It was an unusually quiet time in the city, and it was a chance to hear sounds usually masked by traffic noise. Although the traffic never really stops and some neighborhoods are dominated by the noise of cars and trucks – especially the disturbing sound of morgue trucks outside Brooklyn Hospital – there are birds almost everywhere, sounds of people outside and even someone asking Gersh for a few spare bucks. The end result is not just a unique sonic document of the current pandemic, but a key moment in the history of the wider soundscape.


Helix introduces new population genomics method in cardiomyopathy risk study


UL Solutions Introduces Battery Case Thermal Runaway Rating, UL's First Test Method to Help Select Electric Vehicle Battery Case Material

Check Also