In 2020, the global soundscape changed quicker and more significantly than it had at any point in history. The work of field recording artists was given added significance, as they documented sounds that had never been heard before, had not been heard for years, or might never be heard again.
Industry slowed to a crawl. Traffic eased. People stayed indoors. Animals returned to locations they hadn’t visited in years, producing reactions ranging from enamored (dolphins in Istanbul) to terrified (monkeys in Lopburi). Birds sounded louder, even though they were singing more softly, happy for the lowered competition. And as humans returned to the streets, they brought new sounds: sounds of protest, solidarity, and cheer. Italians serenaded each other from apartment windows. Health care workers were buoyed by pots and pans. Shouts of Black Lives Matter! echoed across the globe.
At the same time, people discovered a new appreciation for nature. Nature was always there, of course, but we didn’t have time for it. We needed it, but we didn’t know how much. When access to parks and oceans was taken away, we yearned for it, and when it was given back, we rejoiced. The daily walk, the window garden, the backyard feeder became lifelines for our souls. And as we ventured outside, we began to give a closer listen to our local soundscape. At first, the silence stood out, and then, in affected areas, the sirens. But other, more reassuring sounds could be heard as well, including the pealing of church bells. In a particularly moving tribute, the bells of Notre Dame rang on the one-year anniversary of the fire: a symbol of resilience and resolve.
Due to the nature of their profession and equipment used, field recording artists are able to react quickly to sonic change. This year’s list reflects the relevance of their efforts, as eight of our top ten picks relate to current events (although we always save space for a great thunderstorm). And now, A Closer Listen presents the Top Ten Field Recording & Soundscape recordings of 2020!
BJ Nilsen ~ Pending/Auditory Scenes Amsterdam (Self-Released)
Every day for two months this spring, Amsterdam artist BJ Nilsen ventured outside to capture the sound of a changed world. He found that loud places had become quiet and congested spots had become sparse. Nature became both solace and siren’s cry. The birds and brooks sang of eternal things. In time, the children would return along with street musicians, traffic and industry, but in these shining moments, captured on tape, while the world mourned what it had lost, something seemed gained as well. This is the finest document of a single region we heard all year.
Cities & Memory ~ #StayHomeSounds Vol. 1 (Cities & Memory)
This project includes a second volume, as well as a remix edition, on top of over 500 recordings from 45 countries that can be accessed from the Cities & Memory website. The project catalogs contributions from people around the globe recording the sounds of lockdown, from quietude to sirens to singing in the rain. As an historic document, the sound map is unparalleled. One can listen from sunup to sundown and feel as if one has traveled the world in a time when doing so is prohibited. By the end, we feel part of a global community, united in crisis but also in hope.
Coen Oscar Pollack ~ Haarlemmerhout (Moving Furniture)
This year, the nearby park became a lifesaver. Even a small park offered a respite from the feeling of being trapped inside, estranged from nature. Polack’s park is in the Netherlands, and includes a children’s farm (where animals are kept, not where children are grown). The sounds of sheep, pigs and goats join those of birds and bikes, while a fine ambient wash connects the recording like sonic glue. A celebration of urban escapism, or what most of us call leaving the house, the LP is prompt and prescription.
Each Morning of the World ~ East Asia PhoNographic Mornings (Each Morning of the World)
The most recent installment of Each Morning of the World sees a world in flux, yet strangely stable. Stéphane Marin’s weekly selections, compiled every half-year, open windows into geography and culture. In this set, we smile at hearing kindergarten songs; we reflect on the pervasive nature of hook-up culture; we wince at the sound of pile drivers and relax in the presence of ponds. A wide range of activities, human and otherwise, is reflected here. The overall message is that each day we get one morning, no more, no less ~ in itself is a tiny blessing.
Ian Battenfield Headley ~ NYC Field Recordings Vol. 1 (Self-Released)
Headley was one of the first (if not the first) to present pandemic recordings in the same release as pre-pandemic recordings. His recordings of NYC in full bloom, made during happier times, provide a sense of nostalgia, along with a promise that such things will return. The Christmas recordings sound particularly poignant when replayed as the season rolls around. To these Headley adds “7 o’clock,” documenting the nightly ruckus of yells, cooking equipment and vuvuzelas that greeted health care workers at their change of shift.
Ká ~ In the Land of Lonesome Vicarages V kraji opuštěných far (Recordings on the Road)
Where does one head for consolation in a time of tumult? The poet Wendell Berry writes that we seek “the peace of wild things.” This soundscape artist wanders through the Bohemian forest of his ancestry and muses on faith and the passage of time. There are no definitive answers offered, but many deep questions. He walks by the ruins of churches, but finds sonic space for choirs; and the central piece was recorded on Easter Sunday. Whenever awe is not found in the usual places, Ká suggests that we keep looking.
Maria Chavez ~ The Rain of Applause (AMPLIFY 2020)
The closing piece of the online festival AMPLIFY 2020 was also its finest moment. The sound of protest was one of the defining sounds of 2020, and Chavez captures the exuberance, excitement, and ebullience that was always present but is so often unpublicized. Stitching together the closing moments of multiple Black Lives Matter rallies, she creates a quilt of applause, highlighting the joy of positive protest along with the hope of change. The composition lasts 8 minutes and 46 seconds, echoing the time of the George Floyd murder. This somber note lies at the heart of the piece, but is balanced by a sense of community united for a common cause.
Martina Testen and Simon Šerc ~ Biodukt (Pharmafabrik)
Recorded in Italy and Slovenia, Biodukt is the aural reflection of a day spent in the forest, distilled to a single hour. The dual citizenship of these recordings reminds us that Gaia knows no borders. The biodiversity is incredible, as is the wealth of sounds. For those who can’t get to the woods, this is the next best thing: forest bathing for the ears. The album is a reminder of geographic time, the cycle of nature and the healing power of the sea. These tall trees care little for our plight, yet they are still able to offer an unintentional solace.
Pablo Diserens ~ on australian shores: listening to birds, insects and mollusks (Sonospace)
Before the pandemic (was there ever such a time?) there came the Australian wildfires. And just before the wildfires took over, Pablo Diserens was out walking the Australian shore, documenting regions that would soon be forever altered. This album shows that any field recording can take on new meaning at a moment’s notice, as species and environments become threatened. The ravens on this recording seem to be saying, “Nevermore.” Fortunately, the bellbirds balance the mood. The full set is an indictment of humanity as it continues to ignore the very real danger of climate change and its resulting effects.
Toni Dimitrov ~ Bucharest Sketches (Green Field Recordings)
Is there any such thing as a normal world anymore? While listening to Bucharest Sketches, one can imagine there is. From a vivid thunderstorm to the sounds of ping pong and bicycle bells, the artist paints an aural landscape that serves as the best sort of travel brochure ~ after reading the review, one commenter expressed interest in visiting! We’re hoping that tourism returns in 2021, but with ambassadors like this, we’re thoroughly encouraged.