25 Mar 2012

jez riley french 'four questions' interview

Jez Riley French interviewed me about radio cegeste's programmes for his ongoing "four questions" series, which is a standard set of questions asked to artists utilising field recording in their work, and which he publishes, among myriad other projects, on his blog IN PLACE...

JrF: when & why did you become interested in field recording?

SaM: I came to field recording through radio, and in one sense the practice of field recording is inherently, for me, connected to the history of concrete sound, the set of possibilities that arrived with the invention of recording technologies and was taken up by people like Walter Ruttmann, and has been used in radio ever since.

While broadcasting late night experimental music programs in the 1990s, which were non-signposted, collaged soundscapes, with a maximum of different media and many found elements, I also included the occasional recording i had made myself on tape and dictaphone, and in-studio self-reflexive recordings layered into the shows. This was probably also when I used digital recording gear for the first time, via a minidisc recorder i borrowed from the same radio station while interviewing for an arts radio
program show i concurrently hosted. I used to walk around after interviews conducted in the hotel rooms of visiting German curators and record the sounds of the street outside. I eventually moved more and more away from the journalism and more and more toward a focus on the sounds themselves, although i've always been interested in the links between both and will probably continue to try and combine them. Glenn Gould's 'solitude trilogy' is an obvious reference point here.

My relationship to field recording is also, and somewhat more fundamentally, connected to a personal history of building collections of sonic material, and trying to deal with various questions around memory, observation and presence, by connecting these things to a kind of amateur, personal sound archiving or museology. At the age of about 8 or 9, I went through a period of taping found sounds, recording imaginary radio programs with my brother on the little tape recorder in my bedroom, and compiling sound libraries of various things, like dinner table conversations recorded without my parents knowing, and every episode of the Australian Nature TV show 'In the Wild with Harry Butler', possibly so i could listen to them later, sans visuals, but i'm not sure if i ever actually did. I had no real idea what I was going to do with these collections, and it was a long time before i learned to identify them as part of an artistic or curatorial process. They probably emerged from a similar impulse to the time capsules i buried in the nature strip outside my parents house at the same age, a curiosity around the mysteries of place and presence and transmission across time, the notion that there was someone or something to speak to who was not present but somewhere in the past or the future, the recognition and preservation of a moment that nobody else seemed to notice or find valuable. There was a real sadness to this process, a kind of haunting. At the same time I also spent hours and hours watching ant colonies and collecting crickets and lake-dwelling creatures for the terrariums in my bedroom. My interest in biology was increasingly leading me to the conclusion that I didn't want to be a scientist after all, that insect collecting was inherently suspect, although I couldn't put words to that knowledge yet, and while I was comforted by the live soundtrack of the crickets who sang all night next to me while i was sleeping, i had not yet literally connected the practices of sound recording and observation.

JrF: how do you use your field recordings in your own artistic output?

SaM: Since participating in a transmitter building workshop run by the Japanese Radio artist Tetsuo Kogawa when he visited New Zealand in 2006, i've been making programs for a mini FM station called Radio Cegeste, which I take with me everywhere. Radio producers traditionally see the radio studio a bit like the art world sees the gallery space - as a neutral, non-place, without specificity, in a binary relationship to a notion of 'in-situ' radio that 'conveys' a sense of place, that builds a 'picture in the mid's eye'. There's a long art-historic conversation around Nature and realism going on in the background here, which relates to radio sound design, and piecing together elements in the studio to build a convincing sonic vista. The mini FM transmissions i've been doing since 2008 in sites are responsive to time and place in a different way, not a more direct way, but one that is less pre-determined and more phenomenological : I collect field recordings, whether they're interview based, or silences, or libraries or galleries, or buildings or birds or rivers, and don't take them away from the environment in question but re-transmit them back into the space they were collected in, or a conceptually related place, within a certain period of time.

Mini FM is the perfect medium for this kind of thing because of its battery powered, and sometime solar powered mobility, and also because due to the small radius of transmission, and the distortion and the weak signal and the picking up of other radio frequencies while transmitting, there's a lack of realism beyond a certain point, you cannot help but hear the sound of the medium itself. Moving out of the broadcast studio into this kind of more fragile, more mobile, more ecologically aware, site-specific way of using radio has given a lightness and greater experimentalism to my understanding of how radio can work, it's meant that the field, or the situation, or the location, can be easily included without overdetermination or mystification. So in the process of making programmes as 'experimental documentaries' in gallery spaces, or on public transport, or within the high fences of biosecure eco-sancturies, i've been connecting field recordings, as a way of being placed in-situ, in a site, with radio, which through this process also reveals itself as sited and material.

JrF: do you regard 'natural' sounds as a musical element (bearing in mind that the conventional definition of 'music' is rapidly becoming obsolete) or as sound? is this definition important? does it matter?

SaM: Post John Cage it's pretty hard to think of any sound as not being listenable as music. There's still the tendency in sound recording communities to want a clean recording, to go out into the field and capture something at the source, at the origin, and bring them back to the studio, but when i'm recording natural sounds, because the nature of Mini FM means the playback is going to compromise the recordings in various ways, i'm not so interested so much in that Acoustic Ecology notion of getting rid of the human element, or in the most perfect way of capturing them, or in what i've come to think of as 'the greatest hits of nature', but more how this recording relates to the concept of the show i'm making, and how different recording methods can produce different materialities of sound that all react together to produce something quite specific. A few weekends ago I did an interview on a radio show called Avant Gardening that I co-host on Dunedin radio station Radio One, with the Dunedin musician Peter Stapleton, and he played one piece he made for a collaborative gallery installation, which layered cicada drones recorded in his home town of Christchurch, and the evocation of summer that came through the piece was so absolutely recognisable as being of that place, despite the fact it was all recorded on a cassette Walkman, using accessible non professional technology, as a lot of the experimental music from New Zealand has done. Without those recordings we have no sonic record of these events, but it's also a particular aesthetic choice which has informed the development of a certain strand of lo-fi sound here.

Doing Radio Cegeste has been a way for me to activate radio as a live medium which has instrumental potential within this kind of context. The programmes i've been doing with the little station include live collaborations with experimental musicians, and the narrowcasting to small radios in the context of live sound performances. Prior to this i wasn't involved directly in a musical output, and didn't think of myself as a musician at all, but I've come to understand the activation and making-audible of radio waves as a way of reading the space, as these waves are around us all the time, mostly without us knowing. To make them audible, via receivers as translation devices, and also to put new signals into the radio waves, via the transmission of field recordings and musical sounds, and experimenting with the relationship between electromagnetic instruments of various kinds, seems to itself problematise the notion of musical vs. 'natural' sounds in ways that are quite interesting. The same kind of thing happens when listening back to a really scratchy 78rpm recording, and the object-status of that recording becomes part of the history of how its sound has reached your ears, in ways that are completely inseparable from the sound itself.

JrF: has the act of making field recording had an effect (positive or negative) on the way you listen to your everyday surroundings and how has it affected the way you listen to other music and sound (if at all)?

SaM: As I did when I was little, I still really get quite caught up around the ethical tension between experience value and use value when it comes to sound recording. As in : what am I doing this for? Am i recording this sound to listen to it in the future, or to preserve something, or to heighten my sense of the present? These are questions i've never been able to answer, and it's a confusion which also seems to be an inherent, embedded part of time-based observing and recording technologies themselves. But doing radio in the way i do it now is one way i have found of releasing the burdensome monumentality of the process of collecting, and speaking back in an active way to the idea of the archive as a search for a totality which locks something down, like pinning a collection of butterflies to a board.

In a way, i'd be lying if i said i haven't learned to listen far more avidly through the focused sensory process that recording involves. the experiential process of walking around with headphones on grounds the perceiving subject differently in the world. It can take you to places, to sensorial understandings, on a macro or micro level, which you wouldn't normally be able to go. But really the headphones, and the recording, are a prosthetic, an extension of being grounded in the process of embodied listening itself, which is a decision and an act that comes prior. A sound artist i know once told me about moving away from making music, into the practice of sitting in a place for 20 minutes a day, to listen to the sounds of the world, like he would listen to a piece of music, without recording it, just being present with it. This end-point to the idea of recording, and perhaps to the whole notion of the intentionality of music as well, like Duchamp giving up art to play chess, is often on my mind.

thanks Sally