The essential field recording books

The best field recording books

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This is a short list of some of the books that have helped to shape and inform Cities and Memory, from how we think about field recording and documenting our sonic environment, to how we go about mapping and presenting the imagined alternative sound world of the memory version.

In no particular order, here are our essential reads for anyone interested in field recording, sound or sound mapping.

We’d love to know what your inspiring sonic reads are, too – let us know your top choices with a comment below!

In The Field: The Art of Field Recording by Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle

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Or: how to get 20 completely different perspectives on field recording in a few hours.

Lane and Carlyle’s choice of recordists and artists is superb, from Ian Rawe’s indefatigable archiving of the sounds of London to Jana Winderen’s icy artistic explorations, it’s a deep look not just at attitudes to field recording or techniques, but to the very philosophy and impulses that drive those who are doing the most interesting work, well, in the field.

Buy this here

The Soundscape by R. Murray Schafer

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This is the granddaddy of field recording books, an absolutely seminal work.

Although some of the material is understandably a little dated now (the book dates from the 70s), the concepts it introduces are as vital and fresh now as then, from the idea of lo-fi vs. hi-fi soundscapes through to how to ‘clean’ your hearing out, how to take a sound walk and a positive, not negative approach to the soundscape and noise abatement. No one who’s embarking on field recording – or any consideration of the sounds of the world – should miss out on reading this.

Buy this here 

Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening by David Hendy

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Developing some of the ideas from Schafer’s soundscapes, David Hendy looks at the idea of noise abatement as a negative process (ban this sound! Make this noise quieter!) and how we can instead focus on positive sounds and noises and preserve our sonic environment.

In doing so, he provides a whistle-stop tour of what has constituted noise in human society from prehistory to the present day, and how we should be changing our perceptions of what noise is, and what needs to be done about it.

All sound is music, after all.

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Sonic Wonderland: A Scientific Odyssey of Sound by Trevor Cox

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Professor Cox travels the world listening to its most amazing sounds in its most fascinating places so you don’t have to, the lucky devil.

He slides down Egyptian sand dunes, making them vibrate and sing, drives along roads that play the William Tell Overture, and visits magnificent palaces and sites of natural beauty to hear them sing.

His enthusiasm throughout is infectious, and his exploration of the science and acoustics behind each phenomenon robust enough for the audiophile but more than accessible enough to give a casual reader a passion for sound.

Buy this here

A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton

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This isn’t just a list for field recordists, but also for those (like me!) with an interest in sound mapping – so a couple of entries around mapping are more than worth their place.

This epic by Jerry Brotton is more than just a tour of cartography through the ages, but more a tour of how man has perceived the world and gone about portraying and picturing it.

Investigating the concept that there is no such thing as an unbiased, purely descriptive map, Brotton starts with the earliest works from the likes of Ptolemy, ending with Google’s attempts to map all known lands (and more), giving a fascinating insight into what constitutes a map, and what picture of the world different cartographers are trying to paint with their own efforts.

And we, the sound mappers – what view of the world are we presenting?

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The Book of Legendary Lands by Umberto Eco

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As the list goes on, the further away from non-fiction and the closer to the realms of fantasy we go.

Eco’s Book of Legendary Lands is a coffee-table bible of imaginary locations, all united by the fact that someone at some time believed these places to be real.

From Atlantis to Eden via Marco Polo’s explorations of monster-infested waters (appropriate given our next entry), it’s an extraordinary book to dip in and out of, exploring some of these utopias, dystopias and places of belief and of hope.

I’ve found it valuable in giving an alternative perspective on what place means, and how our attitudes and beliefs change our environment.

Buy this here

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

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There’s a special place on the list for Invisible Cities, which was one of the original inspirations for Cities and Memory, and indeed from which the project takes its name.

Here, Marco Polo recounts his global travels to Kubla Khan, telling of fantastically-named cities with even more fantastic defining features, described in exotic, evocative detail.

As the conversation between the two goes on, it becomes clearer that Polo is simply describing his own home city of Venice in increasingly vivid terms.

This book is partially about perception of place, and how one place can be many things to different people at different times.

Your perception of a place is not the same as mine, so we are all living in an infinite range of possibilities, even within one city.

This wonderful book sparks off so many ideas and so much inspiration every time I read it.

Buy this here

AN ATTEMPT AT EXHAUSTING A PLACE IN PARIS BY GEORGE PEREC

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Perec documents everything unextraordinary that happens in a typical day in an average square in Paris.

Over three days, he notes the people, the traffic, the animals, the behaviours, the subtle shifts in sky, light, weather and mood that produce the daily rhythms of any urban space.

In doing so, he creates a kind of proto-manifesto for the field recordist through this heroic ‘verbal field recording’. An Attempt even inspired us to create our own sonic version of the experiment.

Buy this here

MAPPING MANHATTAN BY BECKY COOPER

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An artist distributes blank outlines of Manhattan to a selection of random New Yorkers, asking them to contribute their version of Manhattan.

The result is a fascinating look at our own perceptions of place and our different experiences of the same place, by turns moving, poignant and hilarious. Again, a visual or verbal experiment in place and mapping provides useful inspiration through which we can consider what role field recording plays in the documentation and representation of place.

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A POCKET ATLAS OF REMOTE ISLANDS BY JUDITH SCHALANSKYatlas

A book for global travellers, written from one place – in fact, the subtitle is ‘fifty islands I have not visited and never will’. Schalansky explores the globe from her home, picking out fifty of the world’s remotest locations, from the well-known like Easter Island, to barren, inaccessible rocks. Based around historical events and facts, she conjures up fifty stories rich in descriptive power and imagination to bring these locations vibrantly to life. Beautifully illustrated and conceived, it’s a must-read for those interested in exploring places from a distance.

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THE GREAT ANIMAL ORCHESTRA BY BERNIE KRAUSEkrause

Not simply about the sounds made by the natural world around us, Krause’s tour de force takes in the tension between human domination and the natural soundscape, and how the sounds of nature have been the basis for all that we know as music. He introduces and explores the concepts of biophony (sounds made by non-human creatures), anthrophony (human-generated noise) and geophony (the sounds of the world around us) to fascinating effect. A book that makes you hear the world differently.

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Surface Tension by Rob St. JohnSURFACE TENSION BY ROB ST. JOHN

A fascinating multimedia experience by Rob St. John, exploring the sounds of the Lea Valley’s waters in and near London. A beautifully-produced book of photographs of the experience and descriptions of how Rob was inspired by the waterways and his process for reimagining them – and of course a CD of the accompanying sound pieces.

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The Universal Sense by Seth HorowitzTHE UNIVERSAL SENSE: HOW HEARING SHAPES THE MIND BY SETH HOROWITZ

Horowitz’s book looks in great detail at hearing, and more specifically how it is wired into our brains and consciousness, and how it changes our perception of the world. Exploring the natural world, and answering questions like why songs get stuck in our heads and why some sounds are outright painful to hear (fingernails on a chalkboard, anyone?). An essential read to help us understand how sound affects who we are.

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HONK, CONK AND SQUACKET BY I.M. RAWES

The subtitle of this one tells you all you need to know: “Fabulous and forgotten sound-words from a vanished age of listening”. A labour of love by the London Sound Survey’s Ian Rawes, this is a fascinating whistle-stop tour of lost words related to sound, noise and listening from a bygone age, from “quobble” (the noise water makes as it boils) to rumpum-scrumpum (a musical instrument made with a board, a tin can and some string). Hours can be lost exploring these wonderful words.

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About Cities and Memory

Stuart Fowkes is the creator and curator of Cities and Memory, producing a large number of the source field recordings and reimagined 'memory' versions himself, as well as curating the project as a whole.

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