When is a field recording not a field recording?
The dawn chorus arises from silence in a soft drone, followed by the sound of footsteps on gravel. Kate Carr is setting out in the forest, as she has so many times before, foraging for wood, scraping for scraps. A whippoorwill startles her; Carr freezes, but the microphone does not. The frogs begin to awaken and croak, announcing the return of the light, making their first mating cries of the day. And then the loon, calling across the bog, confident before the sun. We can hear the lapping of a stream, the early animals catching a bath. After five minutes, the neighboring birds have joined the chorus; and the drone, like the low hum of electrical wires, has continued to grow.
Now the squirrels are out, foraging for nuts, chattering to each other as tendrils of light stretch across the horizon. A bird whistles into a canyon and receives its own echo. Will it be fooled into thinking it is hearing another bird? The unmistakable sound of a goose bisects the recording, a lone flyer waiting for the flock. An owl hoots before going to sleep, ceding sonic space to a lone, loud cawing crow. By the end of the recording, everybody is awake, participating in the chorus; even the water has grown more active, as if energized by the light and heat. Astonlshingly, Carr catches the sound of multiple fowl honking the same note at the same time, and that’s how she ends, because the moment is impossible to top.
And now the caveat: none of what we wrote above was real. If not for the liner notes, we might have been fooled as well. false dawn is “a foley forest of bird horns, frog rattles, bags of rice, bug clickers, bottles of water and squeaky toys,” created in a studio, a loving mirror. The amazement is the convincing nature of the artificial recording. The chilling undercurrent is that one day, should species extinction continue at its current rate, this may be all we can hear. If we could synthesize every sound, would we be so saddened at its passing? Or would we say, “that’s okay, I was never going to visit a forest anyway”? The underlying lesson: we can imitate nature, but we can never fully recreate it. While forests still exist, it’s fun to have our senses tricked. (Richard Allen)