Listen to Nature: An Introduction to the Pleasures of Field Recordings
The controlled environment of a recording studio allows musicians and producers to bring new, ready-to-be-published music to life.
In this day and age, the tools we have at our disposal to make music are endless, transforming your digital audio workstation into a de facto recording studio with professional instruments and effects available only to the best-selling musicians until a couple of decades ago.
While the industry has been inevitably gravitating towards machine-based music production, certain fields favour a more "natural" approach, based on the complexity and unpredictability of sounds that surround us.
This is the case of field recordings, a branch of audio production focused on using, preserving, and studying the sounds of life, be it a rare bird in the Amazonian region or the rush-hour traffic in New York.
Since the end of the 19th century, natural sound recordings have expanded to become an all-encompassing field of study based on aural experiences: from ethnomusicology to bioacoustics and a significant impact in modern music production in genres such as deep techno and vapourwave music.
Despite being a niche discipline, the applications of field recordings range from historical purposes to the production of soothing music for restless kids.
The technological advancements of the last decades empowered music producers and allowed them to travel around the globe carrying portable and professional recorders, further expanding the scope of this fascinating subject.
In this article, I'll delve into the history and development of field recordings, highlighting the sound artist who pushed the boundaries of this specialisation.
Plus, I’ll show you how you can start a sonic exploration to improve your well-being and awareness through the natural concert happening around you every day.
HISTORY OF FIELD RECORDINGS
Brian Eno. Credit: AVRO
Sound recordist Ludwig Karl Koch captured the oldest-known recording of a bird song in 1889, when he was eight, while still living in Germany with his family.
In the late 1920s, he was commissioned to develop a cultural branch of the gramophone industry and started recording and cataloguing animal sounds.
He moved to Great Britain during the war, where he continued his research and became a broadcaster for the BBC.
His recordings became the foundation of the BBC's Library Of Natural History Sound.
Although valuable for scientific purposes, Koch's popular sound books and other critical natural recordings were collector items until the 1970s, when musicians discovered how field recordings could interact, and enhance, musical compositions.
Brian Eno was perhaps the composer who truly changed the relationship between music and the sonic environment. His ambient projects, starting with “Music For Airports" and concluding with the magnificent “Ambient 4: On Land”, is a landmark in aural exploration through natural sounds.
Not unlike John Cage in the 1950s, Eno concluded that the way music compositions interact with random natural elements, including silence, creates a vivid and realistic soundscape that electronic music alone can't convey.
Since Eno's explorations in the 70s and 80s, technological advancements have made portable recorders more accessible and refined, allowing artistes and scientists to explore the intricacies of sound environments and use this material to showcase and creatively use the aural beauty of the world.
THE SOUND ARTISTS TO FOLLOW
Francisco López. Credit: Francisco López
Spanish sound artist Francisco López is one of the most prolific and influential sound recordists today.
His body of work comprises recordings from all around the world, from Patagonia to the streets of New York City, carefully crafted and blended to magnify the intricacies of sonic environments.
His passion for biology and ecology led him to explore the depths of immersive sound environments, with a series of releases (over a hundred and counting) that defined and transcended the boundaries of the genre.
You can start exploring his diverse discography from the immense compilation “A Bunch of Stuff (1980-2020) – 40 Years of Sonogenic Composition”.
Nature recordist Izabela Dłużyk has become a household name in the world of natural sounds thanks to her evocative wildlife recording, with a particular focus on bird voices.
Blind since birth, Dłużyk has explored the sounds of forests in her native Poland, which resulted in her most iconic works so far: “Soundscapes Of Summer" and "Soundscapes Of Spring”, depicting the seasonal change and life cycle of nature through sounds.
Lawrence English. Credit: Greg Harm
I’ve known Lawrence English for a long time, but until lately, I was more interested in his ambient releases rather than his field recordings work. Through his label Room40, the Australian sound artist has released at least one album every year since the early 2000s, using found and natural sounds to build immersive soundscapes.
His works focus on the sonic perception of environments and led him to travel to the most desolate areas of the planet to capture a variety of sounds interacting with space.
Looking at his diverse discography, a personal favourite of mine is the incredible Selva Oscura, a collaboration with William Basinski to explore the acoustic topography of an imaginary landscape.
Chris Watson. Credit: Gavin Thurston
Wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson uses nature sounds to take listeners on a journey through time. His release “El Tren Fantasma” uses audio from the Ferrocarriles Nacionales De México, a train line that used to connect the Pacific to the Atlantic.
It’s a vibrant acoustic experience that captures the atmosphere of a journey that can no longer be taken today.
Another great release is “In St Cuthbert's Time”, recreating the sounds of the Holy Island (Lindisfarne) as they might have been experienced by St Cuthbert in 700 AD. An exceptional endeavour that emphasises the historical value of sound.
Kate Carr. Credit: Jonathan Crabb
The delicacy and refinement of Kate Carr’s soundscapes blur the boundaries between field recording and composition. Her album I Had Myself A Nuclear Spring is a powerful sound map of a desolate French town by the Seine which conveys the impermanence of landscapes.
Thomas Köner is a German sound artist active since the early 1990s and whose diverse body of work focuses on using source material to create ethereal dark ambient soundscapes.
Over the years, Köner explored different genres, but perhaps his most crucial field recording works are those released under the Dutch label Barooni: “Nunatak Gongamur”, “Teimo”, and my favourite, “Permafrost”.
Enrico Coniglio. Credit: Gianni Papa
I could go on forever, but the last artist I’ll recommend is Enrico Coniglio, a sound recordist who can capture the fragility of both natural and artificial environments with incredible clarity and poignancy.
The soundscapes included in his Alpine Variations emphasise both the timelessness and vulnerability of mountain landscapes. A powerful reminder of what we have and what we might lose.
APPROACHING THE GENRE
Starting to listen to natural sounds and field recordings requires decent audio equipment, but most of all, it’s an art form that demands patience, a sense of calmness and focus which can be hard to obtain, at least at first.
Speaking of hardware, you’ll need good-quality headphones, possibly studio headphones which don’t enhance lower frequencies but provide you with a transparent sonic reproduction.
The same goes for speakers: look for ones that can perfectly reproduce the spatiality of sound and deliver pristine sound.
Options are endless and depend mostly on your budget. For hi-fi speakers, you can try the KEF Q150, which can provide excellent sonic clarity and can create an immersive, cinematic sound in small/medium-sized environments.
Regardless of your audio gear, learning to listen to your environment is crucial if you want to enter the world of field recordings. The beauty of natural sounds lies in the depth and intricacy of the sonic texture, which you can discern only when you quiet your mind.
So go outside, close your eyes, and listen to your surroundings: wherever you are, there’s always beauty in what you hear, so long as you keep your ears open.
Put on your best headphones and check out these tunes by some of the most incredible field recording artistes.
Cover Credit: Sirichai Asawalapsakul/Vecteezy
Celebrate nature’s world of sound at Soundtrack: Earth
Elevate the way you listen to field recordings with KEF
Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.
May 17 2023
Thank you very much
What an excellent article.
(Small detail: in 1920, there was no Nazi government in Germany ;)