I was watching over a panful of bubbling mince the other day, thinking about sound. It was characteristic, immediately redolent of a specific place and very distinctive, all of which can make for a good recording. It didn’t bring to mind water, rather it was thicker and more suggestive of the comfort that can be derived from a hot meal on a cold day.
The more I listened, the more I appreciated the detail.
I was contemplating field recording influences this morning. Yes, I know. Don’t say it.
In my defense, there was a trail on the radio about a forthcoming Steve Lamacq 6Music show broadcasting from the British Library. Continuing their excellent celebration of libraries, it will include a piece on the library’s Sound Archive and, while I’m typically not that bothered about Steve Lamacq’s show, rather preferring Marc Riley’s regular couple of hours just afterwards on a weekday, I shall make a point of listening.
Here are my musings, in letter, word, sentence and paragraph format. It really is an astonishingly good record, so here’s the link to buy it if you want:
Released in 2003, Weather Report is a 54-minute album by Chris Watson, the noted sound recordist, once more renowned for being one of the three members of experimental electronic music group Cabaret Voltaire. Chris Watson has been active and influential in broadcast and location sound engineering since the early 1980s and with Weather Report, we see a continuation of his profound interest in the natural world and the process of capturing the diverse and endlessly absorbing audio that surrounds us every day, that fills the planet on which we occupy a small part. From the start to the finish of the three tracks that constitute the whole experience, this is a superior example of the pleasure of just listening.
Track 1 is entitled ‘Ol-Olool-O’ and compresses a day in the Masai Mara, chronicling life and environment. As soon as it starts it feels colossal, the large mammalian growl giving way to layer upon layer of unfamiliar (at least to those who haven’t visited the area) birdsong, already producing an effect of landscape that can’t be controlled or measured or contained. Human existence passes to arthropodic, to avian, to meteorological, the pervasive background music of the climate remaining as an over-current the whole time, be that wind or rain or thunder.
‘The Lapaich’ is presented in the same fashion, edited together to allow the listener a full sonic depiction without having to be in the Scottish highlands. There are intricate blends of rushing water, rain, wind, birdsong, deer, gulls, corvid screeches. Likewise, in ‘Vatnajökull’, we hear birdsong that is exotic in its unfamiliarity with dominant seams of wind and water ambience, but the similarities between tracks 2 and 3 end there. ‘Vatnajökull’ is an entirely unique encounter with an Icelandic glacier and its surroundings. With its deep, reverberant creaking, cracking and organ-like, musical wailing, we are haunted by the unnatural sounding phenomenon, but only unnatural in the sense that it is something we could so rarely hear. Watson describes his activity as ‘putting microphones where you can’t put your ears’ and this is never more pronounced and immediately compelling than with the final 18 minutes of Weather Report.
Despite the presence of a very occasional effect to accent an opening scene, the album can be described as an expansive auditory play, written without the direct involvement of human editorial power, but presented as an overlay of sound upon sound. Watson presents nature in its vast dignity, each segment ‘teetering on the border between representation and abstraction’ (Schryer, 2001 in Rothenberg & Ulvaeus, 2001, p.125). There is a very powerful sense of the overriding respect and awe that Chris Watson clearly has for the natural environment in which he immerses himself.
Weather Report encompasses exquisite detail. It is cinematic, sprawling and intricate. It generously depicts the ‘great improvised complexity of the natural world, a concert [that is] endless and immense’ (Rothenberg & Ulvaeus, 2001, p.9) in order to remind us of what is around us, the nobility of the world that we can grasp if the focus on rapidity and modern self-absorption is removed, allowing us to ‘listen to music and hear a world in which the presence of man is contingent, even irrelevant.’ (Eisenberg, 2005, p.209). This is music of the outside, mysterious but wholly within reach if we pay attention for long enough.
Here’s a little something from last month, on the way back from a trip to Bavaria and with the customary waiting around at the airport, there is normally plenty of time for something like this. Here is part of Munich airport.
I’ve done very little intricate editing and left it at over 8 minutes. The confines of a departure lounge like this, regardless of its size or great expanses of glass, has a characteristic audio climate. Often carrying boredom and wanting the journey to have finished sooner than is ever possible, I sometimes just listen, picking out the details that accompany this environment. Scraping chairs, tinkling crockery, tapping shoes on tile and the unceasing, murmuring background chatter of voices. The gate announcements are obviously the most direct reminders of location and the pressure of time, two instances of which I have kept here.
8 minutes might seem long, but then so is the queuing, sitting and standing.
Back in the late summer, we stayed at an excellent and incredibly relaxed B&B near St Buryan in Cornwall (Boskenna Home Farm and I can recommend it very highly). At some point each day, this impressive chorus of crows reverberated round the farm buildings. This being one of my favourite sounds from the natural world, I had to make time for a recording.
Incidentally, this constitutes my 40th upload to the stock media marketplace Pond5. My collection is here.