I am about to embark on a period of sound recording, primarily in the outdoors. Final destination as yet unknown. Before I do so I want to to explain my ideas on what I believe takes place when we make recordings and play them back in a manner that might be considered as ‘faithful’ to the original. This isn’t a discussion about technology as such, microphones and speakers for example, though the use and development of recording technology obviously have a place in the wider discourse. Nor is it the unfolding of a subjective or personal aesthetic, a clever cosmogony or even an ontology, designed to set me apart from everyone else, though fundamentally there are elements of subjectivity in my very choice of ideas to adopt and develop. This is very much a discussion that converges on specific topics of anthropological interest and on social matters more generally. I've always believed that the social sciences offer more satisfactory explanations of artistic processes than purely technical, aesthetic or other philosophical descriptions and understandings. What I'll be explaining is what I actually believe takes place when we record and play back sound (and I might add when we make certain kinds of movies and photographs) and how these are socially received.
We now have an established and blossoming field of academic sound studies which sits, uncomfortably at times, alongside a vast range of personal and small collective belief systems on the agents, actions, contexts and results of the processes involved in audio recording. Thankfully not all of this is technical and a lot of it is helpful and well thought out. Academic research has strengths and weaknesses driven as it is by the need to publish which carries with it the need to recycle the thoughts and writings of canonic individuals groups and institutions. Much of it overlaps with what others are saying which results in progress by very tiny increments to the overall mass, at times of great value it must be said. Some of the research is contrived and perhaps even insincere in that the writers don’t really adhere to what they’re writing or have worked practically to establish the truth of what they claim. I find it difficult to take seriously ideas that refuse any grounding in the world of production and the body, making and listening for example.
The non-academic discourse, including reviews and opinion pieces in independent sound journals and online platforms, is a separate study. What I like about some of this is that we occasionally find examples of ongoing long-term and large-scale research, field work and production that leads to or is driven by a theory or a methodology which the artist sticks to it or modifies as required by conditions, producing interesting work along the way. I like that a lot even if I don’t agree with the theories or appreciate the results. It’s what drives the collective practice
In the early to mid-2000s I found myself doing a lot of work with sound recordings, investigating problems of representation, documentary and ethnographic forms and as a result questioning many of the accepted theories, hypotheses and beliefs on what was becoming a quasi-musical genre, that of field recording. Because of the added levels of complexity brought about by techniques of abstraction, the discussion around how electroacoustic music fits into the picture should be for another day. I began theorising what I was doing along the lines of a chain of several different modes of activity, behaviour and attention, differentiating between the one who simply listens as they walk with no particular goal to the one who listens attentively or with intention and even adopting specific strategies, to the recordist who listens selectively through headphones with quite clear intentions, to the artist or engineer who listens to the work-in-progress and finally to the listeners, the audience, of the final work. Though worthy of consideration and elaboration this is all very obvious. But within this I discovered another important thread, brought to light by the work of the French sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss and clarified by further reading and understanding of the problem of representation, especially in the realm of photography. This was my first practical understanding of what Mauss calls the chain of contagion, in the context of sympathetic magic.
I’ll call this my hypothesis or theory and by this I mean something I believe to be true (so far), something useful in understanding the mechanics of what I do, what I can do in the future and perhaps even why I do it. This understanding of how the recording process operates, from listening in the field to listening through loudspeakers, has served me well. It’s based on a close reading of A General Theory of Magic by Marcel Mauss and is quite simple. Before you log off let me stress that this isn’t a trivial or light-hearted humorous theory. It’s as scientific as can be, a working hypothesis that replaces all the others I’ve worked with and which waits to be superseded by a better one. I’m not interested in talking about pulling rabbits out of hats or calling upon demonic or celestial forces, rites in other words, and neither was Marcel Mauss (though I can and will discuss later some correspondences between artists and magicians). If you read the prologue you’ll find that Mauss is not interested in the plan or composition of the magical rite but in the nature of magic’s working methods, the beliefs, feelings and agents involved. As he says, ‘In magic we have officers, actions and representations..’ (p23)
This then is a theory based on the social conditions around field recording and how these resemble point-by point those of sympathetic magic in particular. The process of sympathetic magic is best explained by J.G Frazer, as quoted by Mauss. There are two laws of sympathetic magic, the law of similarity and law of contiguity. '‘Like produces like: objects which have been in contact, but since ceased to be so, continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed'. One might add as a corollary ‘The part is to the whole as the image is to the representation.’' p15. What does this mean? I take it to mean that the contact, the massive complexity of that contact, between the recording device(s) and the real world, once broken, distanced from the source, appropriated and reproduced, continues to produce its effects (more or less), even into the realm of emotion and sentiments. Someone records a few minutes of wind in the trees and plays it back. I believe I'm listening to the forest itself. I can't help myself - its there, clear as day, even if I'm tucked up in bed with the headphones on. There is something profoundly contagious at work.
For sure it could be argued that all I’ve done is to go through Mauss’s text and make correspondences between the various aspects of magic that he discusses and aspects of the recording process. However the points of similarity are too strong for me to ignore and it’s in the following blog posts that I’ll explain why.
Finally none of this relegates or denigrates in any way those idiosyncratic statements or working hypotheses of other individual artists who will have put in every bit as much (if not more) effort into figuring out what they do and why as I have. Indeed it’s the accumulation of knowledge produced by dedicated research, field work and production that drives my ongoing enthusiasm for audio art.