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Field recording – just like photography?

barthesI’m a big fan of Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes – one of the most enlightening books on photography I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I’m not the first person to draw attention to similarities between field recording and photography (see for example Des Coulam’s posts on Soundlandscapes), but there’s something in particular that grabs me in Camera Lucida. Barthes explains his concepts of the ‘studium’ and the ‘punctum’ of a photo – the studium basically being a formal characteristic of a photo that makes it a ‘good photo’, e.g. this photo is well-composed or well-lit. The punctum, on the other hand, refers to that indefinable ‘something’ about a photo that just grabs your eye, arrests you and moves you – it may not be related to anything around why the photo is technically a good one, it may not be the thing that you’re ‘supposed’ to be looking at first in the photo, and it may be different for each individual. But it grabs you and you can’t help it.

I think there’s a similar quality to field recording. When I listen back to recordings, when it’s a successful recording there’s always something in there that jumps out as the outstanding characteristic of that sound. Perhaps it’s something that really sums up that place – a sound that could only have come from that place, and perhaps even only at that time. But sometimes it’s something unexpected, like the beeping entry door poking out in Florence’s baptistery, for example. That’s how I select the recordings that make the final cut: there’s a ‘punctum’ there, which sums up the experience of what it was like for me to be in that place at that time. And when I’m remixed or re-editing the sounds, it’s usually that element that I focus on and try to draw out, manipulate or highlight.