It is a recovering of sonic phenomena that would otherwise be lost. We traveled from Boston to the small town of Kittery, Maine with Ernst Karel and Jed Speare to do some field recordings before a live performance they were to give later that evening at the Buoy Gallery. They are members of the New England Phonographers Union, a fluid congregation of sound artists that play on the contextualization and recontextualization of clips of acoustic information. Traveling around with recording gear, they seek out the sonic identity of spaces, sound objects and events; the New England Phonographers Union probes soundscapes for an acoustic signatures that can be reassembled (unprocessed and untreated) in an improvisational setting.
The Union was formed as an outpost of the Seattle Phonographers Union, a similar group formed in 2002 that strives to make familiar sounds foreign and foreign sounds familiar. There are also like-minded Phonographers Unions in New York, Chicago, London, and Montreal, and the main link between them all is the idea that by playing back found samples from our acoustic ecology, we can become more attuned to our world. All of these groups seem to owe their roots to the World Scoundscape Project started by R. Murray Schaeffer and Barry Truax at Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s, which strove to create encyclopedias of our acoustic ecology and document the relationships between different sonic spaces. Drawing on this history, the New England Phonographers Union shies away from field recordings with a distinct melody, opting instead for the natural vibrations that can be picked up in our world. As the Boston Phoenix wrote in August 2008, “the hum of an electrical appliance, the whip and whistle of wind, chattering voices, the clang of machinery, and a host of ostensibly non-musical noises are all grist for the phonographers’ mill.”
Christopher DeLaurenti of the Seattle Phonographers Union has pointed out that good practice in field recording requires an awareness of listening as a form of mediation. During our time spent out on the docks and under the bridges of Kittery with Ernst and Jed, this notion kept coming up. We watched them stand huddled from the wind, microphone placed as closely as possible to the sound source as they tried to keep still for upwards of ten minutes at a time. And yet, the presence of the microphone shifts how we perceive the thing being recorded. “There’s a great illusion that I’ve always had about field recording, like being so attuned to what you’re doing that you feel very invisible, very inconspicuous,” Jed told us. “It’s really focusing on the moment.”
It is a recovering of sonic phenomena that would otherwise be lost, and a recontextualization of the aural data into a new, varied soundscape during collaborative and solo performances. During a performance, the phonographers are invisible in the space of the gallery—they set up their laptops and sound mixers in the corners of the room so as to recede into the darkness. It seems that we are not meant to acknowledge their presence, and the further that you move toward the middle of the room, the more their phonographic solos blend into an overwhelming sense of aural immersion. We have never seen the objects, people, and spaces that originally created the sounds we are hearing, and we cannot see how they are being replayed in the moment. Stripped of all context and visual cues, the shades of musique concrete coalesce into a map of the sonic environment being created right then and there.
The act of field recording constantly reminds us that our ears are not just receptacles, but filters as well. And when the specific sounds that have been plucked out of our noisy world are moved into an improvisational setting, we become aware of chance. As Jed told us, “in an improvisation setting, the ways that one contributes is by doing something and sticking with it and/or playing a kind of sympathetic or supporting role and balancing these things. Or just staying out altogether.” The members of the New England Phonographers Union work with and against the sounds deployed from each member’s sound database, strategically re-presenting sounds into a broader spectrum that resembles a modern classical composition. In a special moment every once in a while, the members’ clips speak to one another in a way that could not be planned—a flat-line hum perfectly works with the rhythm of a swing, or two sanguine vibrations perfectly mirror one another in a call-and-response pattern. It is our world, remixed.
But out in the field, back at the moment in which the data is collected and samples taken to the gallery for examination, it all comes down to what “catches the ear,” as Ernst says.
“These strange creaking sounds are kind of interesting.”