An essay on human-made sounds and the role of field recording
Let’s begin with two truths – one obvious, one slightly less so. Firstly, sound surrounds us and is deeply interwoven with every aspect of our daily lives. In fact, hearing is the first sense we can use: we can hear sound in the womb long before we are born and can see. Secondly, it’s also true that for the most part, sound is underappreciated and goes past most of us without the attention it merits.
This is even true of sound that can cause us physical harm – there are many well-documented cases of test subjects who are introduced to intrusive background noise at night, and who suffer a couple of sleepless nights but after that are no longer consciously aware of the background noise. In the meantime, the underlying increased levels of stress caused by noise remain in their systems, damaging and ever-present. This is how so many millions of us are able to survive in conurbations in which a thunderous level of background noise is normality.
What, then, is the role of field recording, and of working with sound in a creative context, to help us make sense of the soundscapes that surround us every day?
Away from the sounds of the natural world, it is in the dense cultural and social web of sounds woven by anthrophony that sound artists find the greatest riches, and can help to steer a clear path for us through the noise, to the signal.
Anthrophony is, to borrow the title of a Broadcast album of which I’m particularly fond, “the noise made by people” – as distinct from the sounds of the planet (geophony) and of its natural life (biophony).
The term was coined by legendary sound pioneer Bernie Krause, who further categorised it as comprising “four basic types of human-generated sound: electromechanical sound, physiological sound, controlled sound and incidental sound”. One could argue that biophony and geophony are value-neutral – they simply are – but it’s hard to make the same case for all human-generated sound.
From signal sounds dating back thousands of years like bells or calls to prayer, through to the beauty of an orchestra or the brutal, unrelenting noise of jet engines and war machines, anthrophony covers every age of humanity and every social and cultural context imaginable.
We are also living in the age in which our soundscapes are changing at their fastest rate since the Industrial Revolution – sounds that signified the future just ten or fifteen years ago now firmly and irrevocably belong in the past. Think of how wonderfully archaic a dialup modem or rewinding cassette player sound now, or how a mobile ringtone or startup ident can be bracketed so precisely as being from that year and that year alone.
The field recordist has a clear role to play here, not just in documenting these sounds for posterity, but in being first on the scene to show us how rapidly our soundscapes are changing.
Field recordists are the canary in the coalmine – when a soundscape changes swiftly, it is usually changing for the worse.
The phrase stolen from Broadcast is also accurate here in the sense that the majority of what we might define as “noise” is from the domain of anthrophony – unwanted or intrusive sound.
One could broadly divide anthrophony in half – the positive and the negative, as difficult as it can sometimes be to ascribe such values when every individual’s experience of sound is unique. “Positive” and “negative” anthrophony broadly equates to general definitions of desirable vs. undesirable sound, or in the bioacoustic terminology as set out by Krause, “information” vs. “uncorrelated acoustic debris”.
Positive anthrophony is perhaps the easiest to unpack – sounds with social or cultural significance or meaning, “signal” rather than “noise”, and sounds that we can generally agree have a positive impact in most cases, such as music or social gatherings.
One of the most obvious examples of positive anthrophony heard virtually everywhere in the world is the sound of bells, used for thousands of years to knit communities together, provide a sense of identity and to direct the course of days, weeks and lives.
For instance, in the northern Italian town of Villa del Conte, in which I was making some field recordings during a recent visit, the town’s bells ring three times every day (in addition to calling people to mass and so on). The first wakes the town, the second calls them to lunch, and the campana della sera brings an end to the day at 9pm sharp. Until recently, the bells were even rung by hand, with a volunteer cycling to the church three times a day to provide this social cement.
But even more interestingly, inhabitants of this small town of around 5,000 people know the sound of their town’s bell instantly and without hesitation, as if it were the voice of a member of their family. It sounds like no other bell, and it becomes the fingerprint, or the auxiliary heartbeat of the town, unifying the community in a way that nothing else can. This sound is part of their very identity.
Other sounds of sacred spaces, like calls to prayer, church organs and so on, or the sounds of iconic transportation systems like the Underground in London are examples of positive anthrophony that becomes an integral part of listeners’ lives, and enhances them.
Negative anthrophony, on the other hand, detracts from our sensory experience of the world, intruding upon the territory of biophony and geophony, or simply filling the air with “uncorrelated acoustic debris”. Humans are extremely good at processing sound signals to filter out unwanted noise – but if you take the time to listen to any given urban environment through a microphone, which “telescopes” to whatever sound is actually most present, it’s incredible how much background noise our brains are constantly processing, and ostensibly ignoring.
To take another example of bells, I was recording in Amsterdam outside the beautiful, imposing Westerkerk, a huge church in the centre of the city. The midday bells of the Westerkerk would, in past years, have been far and away the loudest sound in the district, performing much the same social function as those of Villa del Conte. Today, however, even directly outside the church you can hear the roar of traffic throbbing far above the bell toll, which is scarcely audible. And this is in Amsterdam, a city that has done far more than most to curb negative anthrophony through admirable transport initiatives like its legendary bike-friendliness.
Countless research papers tell us of the impact of our created sounds on nature, too – pulsing, regular waves of solid noise that are simply not present in nature, like engines, air conditioning, construction, aircraft and so on. Some urban bird species have been forced to change the pitch of their mating calls, at great potential risk to their own survival, while whales and dolphins can no longer communicate properly through the din of shipping traffic.
The good news should surely be that of the three classes of sound, anthrophony is the one we are best placed to do something about. The problem is that once a soundscape is lost or changed, it’s extremely difficult to do anything about it – the aural equivalent of a skyscraper erected in your front garden without planning permission.
Both sides of the equation need to be tackled. On the positive side, it’s not only vital that we preserve culturally- and socially-significant sounds, but also that we take time to highlight and celebrate these sounds wherever they occur.
Why must it always be sightseeing, and never sound-hearing?
Negative anthrophony comes in many forms, but there’s no question that the bigger the city, the more it is magnified. Big cities are seemingly designed to be the perfect amplifiers of negative anthrophony – tall, hard-edged buildings lining long, narrow streets full of traffic. You couldn’t design a better vehicle for pumping long-wave, low-frequency background noise over huge distances if you tried. Meanwhile, the citizens of Atlantis are hardly about to go into litigation against Maersk for ocean-based noise pollution.
Even in a city like New York, in which one recent survey places noise as the most complained-about problem by residents, very little meaningful action is being taken. Put simply, noise and noise pollution have to become critical vote-winning issues before they will be tackled meaningfully in urban spaces.
Fundamentally, though, in order for any of this to happen – positive or negative – we must first begin to listen actively, and learn to appreciate the sounds that surround us, and their fragility.
Online culture’s increasing visual focus hasn’t helped us out here – “pics or it didn’t happen” is a real phenomenon, selfie culture is going nowhere and social media channels push video and images above all else, further sidelining our primary pre-birth sense.
As much as sound is under-appreciated in everyday life, so changes to our sonic environment go under-reported and unprotested in a way that we could never countenance for our visual environment.
If the field recordist stands alone as the canary in the coalmine to warn us of changes in the soundscape, then sadly this warning often comes too late for us to do anything about it.
But what of the artist, or of the creative reflection on the sounds that make up our everyday lives?
This is where art and creativity can begin to make a meaningful difference, recontextualising sounds that are so everyday as to become part of our unconscious background, and re-elevating them to conscious consideration. It’s a case of document and eyewitness, but it’s also able to make a wider statement and deliver a message.
If we can help people to listen again to the sounds in which they are immersed every day, then we can also help them to appreciate them.
And with appreciation comes concern, comes protection and ultimately comes action.
There’s a role here for public art to include sound, from the periodic Aeolian harp sculpture in a city centre to bigger works like The Hive, the internationally-recognised environmental sound installation by Wolfgang Buttress at the Milan Expo in 2015. And, please, let’s “hang” more sounds in art galleries all over the world.
Perhaps the most famous example of sound art built in a city is the wonderful sea organ in Zadar, where sound was carefully woven into a restoration of the sea front, which now plays beautiful melodies in unison with the tides, bringing people physically closer to sound in a manner that’s both approachable and welcoming, not standoffish and cerebral.
In the online space, there is plenty of space for projects like Cities and Memory. As an open and collaborative project, it now features more than 100 countries and over 5,000 sounds, aiming to use these reimagined sounds to help people hold a spotlight up to the sounds that surround them every day and listen differently.
The emotional resonance this generates helps us to see how one person’s experience of sound is different from another – and as with any other experience, it’s only by sharing these perspectives that we can collectively move forward.
One last example – a field recordist friend of mine was telling me about his hometown of Haarlem in the Netherlands, in which (again) the town’s bells were removed for restoration. Upon their removal, hardly anyone in the town noticed that the bells were no longer chiming in the hour. But when they were returned some weeks later, the reintroduced sound of the bell was greeted like a lost child coming home – absolutely the talk of the town, with hardly a soul failing to mention how welcome the return of that familiar sound was, and how they had failed to realise they missed it so much.
This little anecdote is a capsule summary of all that is both good and bad about anthrophony. We adjust to the unpleasant and overwhelming sounds of machinery, flight paths, passing trains, intrusive air conditioning or throbbing traffic until we no longer notice them, though they may still do us harm – and though they subdue or bury the biophony and geophony at which we might otherwise marvel. And we fail to remark upon and rejoice in the beautiful signal sounds that punctuate our lives, often until it’s too late.
Field recording is one important way we can keep reminding ourselves how important it is to keep listening to our world.