This past semester at Simon Fraser University, I did a directed study making field recordings around the Lower Mainland. This is a small selection of some of the recordings made. During the majority of the recording process I was accompanied by sound artist Alexandra Spence.
Rain on a Table
The making of this recording happened due to being open to sounds around in my environment, exploration with the use of a hydrophone, chance, and seizing a sonic opportunity. I was about to take a phone call on the porch area of the Woodward’s SCA building, when I heard a rain drop fall very close to my head on a table. There was drops of water falling from the roof onto this table. This specific table had a very hard sound from the attack of the drop and left with an interesting resonance. I told the person who was calling that I needed to call them back. I quickly rushed to my office to grab my hydrophone and recorder. Hydrophones are generally used inside a body of water, instead I placed the hydrophone onto the wet surface of the table, and used it as a contact mic. The placement of the hydrophone on the table, amplified the whole experience of watching this single drop of water fall onto a table. It became this magical moment to see and hear.
Another very interesting feature of this microphone placement, was the ability to pick up any frequency that resonated through this plastic table. If I was speaking, my voice would be heard in the recording, or if seagulls flew by squawking, their sound would be picked up. In the recording above, you can hear the din of downtown Vancouver and some seagulls near the beginning of the clip.
Toshiya Tsunoda, is a field recorder who explores vibrations of surfaces such as steel plates and sidewalks. Tsunoda explores the vibrations that exist throughout the surfaces we encounter everyday, and may never think about. This moment with a hydrophone was a revealing of the vibrating world that is around us. I never would have thought about my voice resonating through a table until I investigated the space with this hydrophone as a contact mic.
“The world we see looks stable, but the world we learn to hear. . .is in constant flux.”
More information on Tsunoda’s work can be found here.
I eventually experimented with other tables that were around and picked a table that was more out in the open. I placed the hydrophone on this table and hit record at just the perfect time. I noticed a very large dark cloud overhead signalling the beginning of heavy rain. The recording started out in a sparse texture with city sounds vibrating through the surface of the table. Eventually, you are able to experience the crescendo of the rain, hearing the drops build upon themselves as they fall onto this table. There is fluctuation in the density of the drops and each moment seems to be quite different once you start to listen closely. The action of the rain hitting the table reminds me of someone striking a drum. There was a randomness and an unpredictability in the sound that was quite enchanting
Raven in Lighthouse Park
Trying to get away from some city sounds, Alex Spence and I took a trip to Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver. We thought that we were far enough away from the city so we might escape the industrial hum that is ever-present in downtown Vancouver. Of course what happened is that we experienced another constant sound, the overwhelming sonic resonance of airplanes. There was a constant coming and going of airplanes resonating throughout the park. We were hoping to get nice pristine recordings of wildlife in the park, but this seemed impossible when the microphones we were using were mainly picking up the sound of the planes. What we also noticed is that the birds and animals we thought would be around, were making no sound at all.
What we experienced was a phenomenon described by Bernie Krause in his book “The Great Animal Orchestra.” (155, fog of noise) Krause describes what he observed with the birds in a recording he made at Yellowstone National Park. The birds in Yellowstone National Park stopped making sound and communicating with each other when aircrafts are flying over the park! Since the animals can’t hear each other they stop talking. The animals only begin to communicate again, when the bandwidth of the plane sound has died down enough for the animals to occupy the frequency range needed for them to communicate.
Discouraged with what we had recorded so far, we walked down a trail to see if there was a space that might have other sounds to offer. When all of a sudden, a new kind of silence fell over us, it was quieter than usual, and we heard the call of a single raven directly above us! We only had some of our gear out and we were not ready to record. We quickly plugged in our microphones, turned the recorder on, and tried placing the microphones to record the raven. This recording was made with two xx omni microphones that can be used for binaural recordings, stereo recordings, and as a lapel mic. We were only able to get the microphones placed off the shoulders of my colleague in a spaced apart way. We were in quite a rush to capture this sonic moment. We hit record and listened intently.
There was a lovely amount of reverberation from the incredibly tall trees around. It is interesting to hear the distance of the birds above. I wonder what these animals might be communicating about? There is something rather comforting about birdsong.
Gordon Hempton, another famous field recorder and advocate of the one square inch of silence, talks about the importance of birdsong in relation to humans as a species:
“I believe that our distant nomadic ancestors came forward and survived because they could hear distant, faint birdsong as an acoustic navigational beacon, if you will, and by moving toward the birdsong, they were able to find places with shelter, food, and water, and a prosperous growing region.”
He goes on to explain that the human ear has actually evolved and shaped itself to naturally amplify the bandwidth that birdsong most often occupies. More information on his work can be read about in this article.
Through the making of this recording captured in Lighthouse Park, we were able to experience the same phenomena described by Krause, the loud drawn out sound of the airplane, the bizarre absence of animal sound, the decay of the planes sonic resonance over the space, and the slow return of bird calls.
This recording is probably one of my favourite recordings mainly due to the experience of being in this moment. I was trying to record the sound of a creaking dock and I noticed a knife, a brown paper bag, and a line tied off the edge of the dock. I just assumed someone was fishing and paid little attention to it. I was really trying to focus on recording the creaking of this dock.
A man eventually came up to me asking “what are you doing” with a bit of fear in his voice. I explained that I was making some recordings of the sound of the dock. After this he began pulling on his line that seemed rather heavy. Alex asked the man “What are you trying to catch?” with him responding, “You’ll see.”
There was a very magical moment when he pulled in his line out of the water, revealing a net full of crabs. He throws his heavy net down creating a crash onto the dock. Then we hear a scuttling and shuffling of crabs all over the dock. I was bending down with my microphone trying to get as close to the sounds of the crabs as possible. It was amazing to have this visual of crabs clicking their claws and moving their legs trying to push themselves over from laying upside down. Their legs would tap against the dock in these beautiful rhythms that created a wonderful texture. You can also hear in the recording, the Crab Fisherman tossing small crabs back into the water. At the end of the recording the crabs seem to be getting tired and their movement slowed down. This is when you can hear Alex say “I feel cruel.” After this moment we stopped recording and flipped all the crabs over and watched them jump back into the water! I made this recording with a zoom H2N in the XY microphone configuration with a windscreen on.
What I also love about this recording is how implicated myself, Alex, and the Crab Fisherman are in this recording. A handful of field recordings seem to aim for a purity of sound, or recordings without anthropological sound “tainting” the documentation, but it is quite amazing to hear the audible reaction of Alex and I to the visual unveiling of these crabs, and to hear the sonic event to follow.
Now this is something we were both unaware of at the time, but Crab Fishing on the North Shore is illegal. Two men were recently faced with a $3,300 fine for illegally catching crabs on the North Shore. We learned about this from a man calling out to the Crab Fisherman on a dock above saying, “That’s illegal, eh.” And the Crab Fisherman quickly packed up his stuff and left.
Lane, Cathy & Angus Carlyle. In the Field: The Art of Field Recording.
Axminster: Uniformbooks, 2013. Print
Schafer, Murray. The Tuning of the World. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart
Limited, 1977. Print.
Krause, Bernie. The Great Animal Orchestra. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012.
Roden, Steve. “Active Listening.” Sound: Documents of Contemporary Art. Ed.
Caleb Kelly. London: Whitechapel
Gallery, 2011. 129-139. Print.
McKinnon, Dugal. “Dead Silence: Ecological Silencing and Environmentally Engaged
Leonardo Music Journal. Vol 23 (2013): 71-74. PDF.
Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism: The New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.