Recent albums from Phil Edwards, Emile Milgrim & T. Wheeler Castillo and D Bayne exist at the intersection between performed sound and field recording. Many artists turn to field recordings for texture, but in these works, the originals are honored in a manner that sets them apart from their peers.
As recently as a decade ago, the cache of popular field recording sources seemed small, restricted for the most part to children, birds and rain. The best examples were found in the work of former generations: children in “Another Brick in the Wall, Part III,” birds in The Cure’s “Like Cockatoos,” rain in The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me”. But over time, the use of such elements began to seem lazy, as these sounds were frequently chosen to flesh out the sound of thin compositions. The ambient field was, and in many cases still is, particularly susceptible to clichéd uses of natural sound.
As field recordings became more popular (thanks in large part to the ability of people to find field recordings via the Internet), a sea change began to occur. Some decided that they liked the field recordings better than the music. The identification of sources became site specific (not just “birds”, but specific birds from specific locations, as in Flaming Pines’ Birds of a Feather series). Labels such as Gruenrekorder, Impulsive Habitat, 3leaves and Unfathomless began to expand the public’s idea of field recordings from nature recording to captured sound. A separate industry arose. These changes sparked a ripple effect in the use of field recordings in music. No longer could an artist simply “grab some rain from Creative Commons;” a personal connection was needed in order to justify their use.
The inspiration for The Cross Hill Recordings is a series of field recordings made by Phil Edwards at Thingwall in Wirral (U.K.), the former location of a Viking Parliament. The village of Thingwall was once called Assembly Field, which is also the name of Edwards’ label. His emotional connection to the land inspired a reverence for history and geography. But would field recordings be enough to inspire similar reverence in his listeners? Edwards decided to invite a bevy of artists to integrate his field recordings, creating a fuller, more impressionistic panorama. One hears a bittersweet irony in the contrast between traffic and birdsong on Edwards’ original five-minute piece; but one feels the heaviness of history in the bass of Will Bolton’s “Windward” and imagines the weight of war in the dark drones of Savaran’s “The Calling”. Which is “more real,” the actual sound or the impression? The senses or the intuition? It’s interesting to note that none of the pieces are particularly bright-toned, although Silmus’ “I Go Back” comes close, producing a sense of nostalgia rather than one of loss. His birdsong is looped and extended like memory and time.
Emile Milgrim and T. Wheeler Castillo take it a step further on Archival Feedback (Other Electricities), arranging their album as a “call and response” between five field recordings and five recording artists. There’s also a visual component, via a collection of prints. The South Florida setting is a nice surprise, as the region is typically known for booming bass and booty jams. Recordings of water are present – no surprise there – but “Little Haiti Ice Cream/Dominoes” is the sound of pure summer and “Everglades Electrical Chirr” would be instantly recognizable to a resident, underlining the site-specific nature of the release. Now enter the artists’ responses, beginning with the gleeful left turn of Felecia Chizuko Carlisle’s “brasshipbell.” Instead of asking, “what can I do with these sounds?”, Carlisle’s response is “these are the sounds that are meaningful to me.” This is the sort of dialogue that many field recording artists hope to initiate in their listeners: not passive listening, but an active engagement with one’s own environment. When the bass begins to crowd the sound of the bell, the atmosphere seems charred. lo.ko presents an electronic piece titled, “the worst drummer in little haiti”, integrating the previously-mentioned dominos, as if to say, “you hear that, but I hear this.” In “Ache,” Dim Past evokes both Miamis, the obvious and the subtle. It’s a dance track, then it isn’t, then it is again.
D Bayne works his piano compositions into his field recordings, rather than the other way around. The titles reference the twelve locations: “Metra Locomotive, Ravenswood Station”, “Bourbon Street.” A brilliant streaming page is the best way to engage these compositions for now, until Luminescence Records releases the album on June 5. Each track is linked to a photo and an evocative description of the setting. One learns about the Union Pacific Line while enjoying its clacking; while listening to “1 S Wacker Dr”, one discovers the work of architect Helmut Jahn. The field recordings are magnificent, but the music is a match. Bayne wraps his piano around the sounds, often engaging in a pas de deux. The resonant sound of bridge traffic divides sections of “Michigan Avenue Bridge”. In “The French Quarter,” a street singer serendipitously performs “Amazing Grace,” and the moment itself seems like grace. Bayne’s travels take him from city to shore, café to ferry, and wherever he goes, he hears the environment as music. His natural gift is to bring out the inherent musicality of these sounds by enhancing them with notes, in the same way as spices can help to enhance the flavor of food. One of the album’s finest passages arrives a minute into “East Washington Street at Night,” as the piano responds to the chaos of the streets before finding its rhythm and echoing it once again. On Meditations on Present Time, a blur occurs not only between field recording and music, but between artist and subject as well.
Upon hearing these releases, music fans may find that they do like field recordings after all, while field recording fans may find that music is not always an imposition on their favored sound sources, but can represent a meaningful integration that brings out the best in both worlds. (Richard Allen)