See What I’m Hearing #2: 6 of my favorite field recordings (by Jake Bellissimo)

by Jake Bellissimo

In contemporary music, the term “field recording” doesn’t have a specific definition. Because it simply means something recorded outside of a professional studio, it has many faces in contemporary society. As a result, the “canonical field recording repertoire” is widespread, ranging from environment-based recordings to spoken word collages to folk music preservation.

No matter which branch of field recordings you’re referring to, though, there’s no doubt that the concept of recording outside a professional environment has had immense impact on new music. The idea that the sounds of our environment make the music (or are the music) isn’t a new idea, whether you’re talking about Wolff/Cagean philosophy or Ludwig Koch’s work. Being conscious of the environment around us (both in a literal and figurative sense) has shaped the way we approach sounds in the 21st century.

When I say “my favorite field recordings”, I’m more interested in what I’ve seen referred to as “pure field recordings”. You know, the recordings that aren’t altered, mixed, or made into a piece. One of the most powerful things about field recordings for me is the fact that you can just stick a microphone on a streetlamp, press record, come back an hour later, and have a symphony waiting for you.

So, to celebrate this freedom, I want to share with you some recordings that I’ve come to love—the ones that I’ve stayed up listening to over and over so I can appreciate perspectives I wouldn’t think about.

(these aren’t in a particular order)

• St Livres, Switzerland, Binaural Phonographic Documentary (2011) by Dallas Simpson
o In her own words, Simpson says that “the aim [of her approach to recording] is to capture the sound of the location itself, without using the human voice directly either as narrative or commentary.” She certainly captures that essence here, putting out one of the most blissfully smooth field recordings I have heard. Despite having many things going on (like the sounds ranging in timbre and volume), the passiveness of the environment always remains. Try listening to this on some sweet noise-cancelling headphones while in a big city.

Listen

• Sounds of Iceland (2015) by Hafdís Bjarnadóttir
o The most recent album on this list, Sounds of Iceland is a thorough collection of recordings from a wide variety of locations throughout Iceland and presented in pristine fashion. This is just a great example of an aural hike that takes you to places you (well, I guess me) have never been before. Bjarnadóttir’s role is that of a curator, recording natural sounds as a way to represent an entire area.

Listen

• Sounds of North American Frogs (1957) by Charles M. Bogert
o Oh Folkways, you always manage to push the most unexpected buttons. In this case, who would have expected that an educational album from 1957 about the sounds of frogs would end up amazing an American teen in the 2000s? It requires a bit more commitment due to the educational interjections, but the sounds are really poignant. One of those recordings I’d pin as a classic.

Listen

• Blind Date (1985) by John Duncan
o Definitely the most gruesome recording on this list, Blind Date is a field recording with a necrophilia-oriented backstory, and if you want to hear the backstory you can read that here. I will probably write more about this piece in the future, but for me it represents a very powerful field recording that changed the way I think of music. Surely not a highlight piece for everyone, but it stretched the boundaries of both what a piece of music was and what a field recording was for the time.

Listen

• Road Works on Swanston St., Melbourne (2012) by David Prescott-Steed
o I know that this is the second album from Green Field Recordings on this list, but (not only are they my favorite record label) they have the most varied and interesting recordings…not to mention, they’re also free/donation-based! There isn’t much else that I can say, so I’ll leave you with Prescott-Steed’s words:

“This recording was made during the 2012 road works in Melbourne’s city centre. In response to years of traffic congestion, Swanston Street was finally developed to make it more people friendly. Sitting and listening throughout the recording, I was intrigued by the complex symphony of mechanical sounds that occurred in the process of creating a quieter, and more personable, public area.”

Listen

• Field Recordings of Natural Sounds by Bill Fontana (1983)
o Another classic recording, Field Recordings of Natural Sounds is a great introduction to a more complex recording technique. Instead of just placing a microphone and letting the environment do the work, Fontana does his best to truly create 3-dimensional soundscapes that are expansive and encompassing at the same time.

No links available, you must do your own searching.

In the meantime, though, Fontana has other great pieces and provocative writing.

Jake Bellissimo

Composer and Arranger, Violist, Music Producer

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