Caleb Kelly ‘Thoughts on the Representation of Sound’

Seated in a circle around a solo performer, a small audience listens intently to sound played through a quad surround-sound system. Here I cannot help but wonder about representation. 

The performer, Lawrence English, is playing the sound of some sort of a snowstorm recorded, I think, in Antarctica. The sound of wind (a trope of field recording) merges with the effects of wind (corrugated iron scrapping and rasping in the wind). During this performance I am at a loss to understand its framework. I sit in a well-lit art museum in Sydney (while it was winter at the time this is far from being actually cold – the average temperature in August 2010 was 18 degrees), listening to a recording of a very cold storm in surround sound. This reproduction of a storm bears little if any likeness to any storm I have experienced. I did not feel the wind on my face, I was not at all cold in the temperature controlled museum gallery and I could not see anything that resembled a storm (instead I see a bunch of middleclass people sitting in silence listening to the recording of a storm). Put simply the representation is at odds with the venue in which it is presented. I am also unclear as to the purpose of the performance – what do I learn from hearing this, what is the performer’s message. I wonder if it is simply a re-presentation of a modernism in the form of a pure medium (sound for sound’s sake) or if there is meant to be something tangible to be learnt from the sounds I am hearing (although what this is I cannot guess). If it is the former am I to listen to the sound in the Cagean extra-musical sense? That is, was it a musical performance and was I to think of the sound abstractly in a tradition in which all sound is music? Or was I to listen to the sound as a realistic representation of a storm, a type of immersive realism?

I have argued elsewhere that within the bounds of contemporary art these types of questions are commonly raised. Within field recording, however, these types of issues are often derided as too intellectual – academic questions ruin the fun of field recording. It should be noted that plenty of field recordists are simply out there as a hobby, and we wouldn’t ask other hobbyists these types of questions – imagine asking a train spotter about their conceptual approach. But here I am not thinking of the hobbyist, if you are performing in an art museum you are no hobbyist. If you hold a research position at a university then you are no hobbyist. Yet even an academic field recordist, such as Cusack, on being asked about conceptual challenges dumbly replied “I don’t know how to answer that. I just don’t think about that.”[i] I have argued else where that playing the anti-intellectual card does not get you a free ride past conceptual questions, nor ethical.

The crux of the issue, and perhaps why so many seem to wish to by-pass it, is that field recording as a type of representation is always at odds with what it is representing. The tools and technologies used are far from any semblance of ‘nature’ and the idea of a pure recording, untouched by post-production, is both ideologically floored (everything is mediated) and also technological impractical and impossible (recording onto a hard-disk, getting the recording off that hard-disk, uploading it to a website are all steps that mediate the recording and as such make it literally impossible to imagine a recording as somehow pure).

A representation of an environment through a field recording is always impoverished as it relies on one sense (hearing) to represent sensations that are embodied and multimodal. Yet at the moment there is something of an outpouring of interest in the form. This is especially the case in art/music field recording and in the growth of the hobbyist recordist. Both types and those in-between are out there capturing the sound of the Uncommon Spotted Warbler in a frantic bird soaked dawn chorus or they might be spotted crawling around in the seaside grasses, ears and microphones to the ground, like David Attenborough with a wooly microphone.

Why has field recording as a methodology for making music and art experienced a rapid growth in the last decade? What is it about this form of representation that has drawn such a dedicated band of exponents? There are probably many answers to this question but I want to look at one based in what is actually being recorded, in the sound waves themselves and in representation.

At the core of the representation of sound is a fundamental misunderstanding of what sound actually is. We all know about mediation in visual culture and the theorisation of it has been covered in abundance. The mediation of sound is often misrepresented within recording practices that believe in real sound. What we are presented within the visual sphere is always separated from the object we are experiencing. That is to say, the object, lets say a photograph, is over there, light hits the paper and bounces off it before entering my eyes where it is processed into optical information for the brain to look after [note I am no scientist]. Sound is completely different in that the sound we hear is actually the real sound. Sound is not a representation of something else. What I mean here is that sound is caused by a sound event of some sort – for example clapping hands – and the sound waves caused by that event head over to us and enter our body. We hear the actual sound waves caused by that event. Now take a mediated sound in the form of audio, unlike mediated visuals (the content that appears in our photograph example) the sound coming out of the speakers is real sound. A sound event is caused within the speaker cone and that sound travels to the listener.

The belief in the realness of sound comes from the fact that the sound actually enters our body. The object of vision is always separated from us; the photograph does not enter our body – luckily for us! Sound is not an object and as such an object does not enter our body but the sound waves caused by an event do. We have very direct access to sound in a way that we don’t have in our mediated, Photoshopped, Aftereffected visual world. This is not a naïve belief in the truth of sound; I am not under the impression that we can actually trust the sounds we hear. This is because like images, sounds have been manipulated, processed and worked on in Protools or such like. I am not arguing here that sounds represent the truth, what I am arguing is that we have a much more real relationship with sound than we do with the vision. This is currently manifesting in art in a number of experimental practices, as well as a rather reactionary return to ‘realism’ in field recording practices. Taking this literally field recordists draw on the language of ecology, realism and purity of the medium onto which they capture these sounds. The reactionary return to realism is an effect of a naïve belief in the non-mediation of sound.

So here I am back at English’s performance thinking about not what is being represented (it is obviously a snap shot of a storm) but why is it being represented in the context of an art museum? Is it enough for us to simply enjoy the sounds emanating from the speakers around us? Is there an ecological imperative here, if so why fly all the way to the Antarctica to record a storm, then bring back the recording and play it in an art gallery? Does thinking about these things lower the enjoyment with annoying ecological and conceptual theroising? And why is the discourse around these areas so many years behind the other arts (even music)?

More questions than answers..


[i] Note: I call Peter Cusack an academic as he is a research fellow at the University of the Arts London.