The Last Field Recordists
The advent of digital audio has coincided with an explosion of field recordings, natural soundscapes witnessed and shaped by the skills of heroic recordists like Bernie Krause, and Chris Watson. Certainly field recording has a significant pre-digital history as well. But the portability, relatively silent operation, and long recording time made possible by digital equipment has transformed the documentation of audio in the wild. Krause, Watson and many others have traveled the world in the last thirty years, placing mics on the tops of glaciers and under the ocean, in rainforests and in deserts. The audio archives they have been creating are unlike anything made with analog equipment in the 20th century - when heavier machines, louder self-noise, and shorter recording times led to a greater focus on particular sounds, rather than the wide-open, multi-dimensional soundscapes captured today.
However, as Krause takes care to point out whenever presenting his work, “Over 50 percent of my archive… comes from sites that are now completely silent or so radically altered that the biophonies and geophonies can no longer be heard in any of their original form.” Digital technology arrived just in time, it would seem, to record the last moments for many of these natural soundscapes.
Could it be that the technology itself is somehow destroying the very soundscapes it documents…?
If so, it wouldn’t be the first time. Harry Smith made this same observation about the 78 rpm records he collected on his landmark Anthology of American Folk Music:
The eighty-four recordings in this set were made between 1927, when electronic recording made possible accurate music reproduction, and 1932 when the Depression halted folk music sales. During this five year period American music still retained some of the regional qualities evident in the days before the phonograph, radio and talking picture had tended to integrate local types…
Only through recordings is it possible to learn of those developments that have been so characteristic of American music… Then too, records of the type found in the present set played a large part in stimulating these historic changes by making easily available to each other the rhythmically and verbally specialized musics of groups living in mutual social and cultural isolation.
In other words, phonograph recording itself altered the cultural environment it was able to document for the first time. Hence the tight chronological parameters to Smith’s collection: brief enough to stay close to the pre-recording landscape that the recordings themselves quickly destroyed.
But how, if we take this analogy literally, would field recordists’ unobtrusive mics and small digital recording media speed the decline of the natural world?
Climate change certainly can’t be blamed on naturalists like Bernie Krause and Chris Watson, who take great care with the environments they explore. But the mere fact that they can reach these places is tied to the carbon consumption of global travel – not theirs per se, but its universal availability. And then there are the machines they employ – again, not their particular ones but the development, manufacture and widespread use of these devices. We are all becoming more aware of the toll taken on the environment from the materials used to build our phones, for example – and by the discarded heaps of them every time they are updated. Surely there has never before been so much recording-capable equipment built and thrown away and built and thrown away… all of which is encroaching on the environments they make it possible to document digitally.
Both these activities – global travel through carbon use, and the manufacture of disposable industrial products – are not new to the 21st century. But the scale of them is. And scale is at the root, as I have suggested elsewhere, of so many problems in our newly digital economy.
Putting digital recording devices in every pocket may be the contemporary equivalent to Harry Smith’s records circulating in every community. We can now easily document everywhere we go, in audio and video - yet everywhere we go is more and more rapidly deteriorating from the vast amounts of resources devoted to enabling that documentation.
At the height of lockdown last year, I turned often to Chris Watson’s transporting radio programs made from his field recordings, because they took me places while I was stuck at home. And this week, I was finally able to personally visit the wonderful audio-visual exhibition by Bernie Krause, The Great Animal Orchestra, at the Peabody Essex Museum in nearby Salem, MA. It, too, was transporting.
But sitting in a room at the museum, wearing a mask to protect myself and others from possible infection, I couldn’t help but think that the current pandemic may well mark the end of a brief golden era for field recording, just as the Great Depression did in the 1930s. Because even when we can travel again – some of us are already, of course – nowhere we go will sound as before.
Listening to: Trace: Sound Design Works 1986-1989, by Yukata Hirose
Cooking: first tomato of the season, sliced and sprinkled with lemon and salt
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