I normally stick my headphones on the moment I leave the house or office, like a pathetic music junkie craving his fix. This means I sometimes miss out on sounds which are part and parcel of our environment (beeping horns, screeching tyres, ambulance sirens, etc). For all the great music on my iPod, much of which is featured on these pages, there is a lot to be said for putting the earbuds to one side on occasion and just enjoying the sound outside. I inadvertently did this myself last week, and as I was cursing my stupidity for having to do without for one lunchtime stroll, I walked past a bush that was alive with the chirruping and general conversational hubbub of sparrows. The intensity of the chatter made me stop a listen for a few minutes, marvelling at the way the birds communicated with one another.
Given that I have recently acquired a couple of birdsong records and am reviewing this new work of field recordings at St Leonards-on-Sea by Son Clair, the irony that I would normally have obliterated the sound of the sparrows in favour of something more ‘musical’ is not lost on me. On the surface this suggests that I’m quite happy to listen to recordings of birds from the comfort of an easy chair but try to avoid listening to the birds themselves outside. Would I travel to the Serengeti armed with Chris Watson’s Outside The Circle of Fire as a soundtrack? Would you?
There is, however, a purpose behind these field recording albums, and it’s not just to bring us sounds we wouldn’t normally hear – it is to focus our attention on the world around us, whether it’s as close as the back garden or local park or as remote as the South Atlantic or a Zebra carcass. So having heard Birdsong, am I more inclined to listen out for birds, to sit awhile and let nature happen? It’s definitely a possibility. But what Son Clair brings is a heightened experience, editing and layering his recordings to provide a level of authorship that just sitting on a bench doesn’t manage.
In the same way that artists and sculptors of last century focussed attention on the everyday by placing items in a fresh context in a gallery, so the sound artists are doing now; taking them out of context and offering them up as a listening experience. So one can justify listening to Birdsong rather than sticking one’s head out of the window. It does not replace actual bird song but it does offer a new way of hearing it and for that we should be grateful. (Jeremy Bye)