What's Outside? - Adventures in "Feeled" Recording

What do the following passages from Navel-Gazers all have in common?

“There is a recording on the track Rooftop Gardens from the Sheraton hotel in Anchorage, in which I enter the revolving doors from the street, move through the lobby and up to the top floor with a rattling elevator. This upward movement sets a narrative in motion, entering a fictive garden with all its greenhouse technology sounding. It finally ends in a sense of elevating or evaporating into a dense cloud. When I made the record I was interested in this kind of associative narrative, that's really based on the sounds themselves, but becomes a poetic event.” 
-Marja Ahti, Navel-Gazers #38

“One of the things I fell into the habit of doing during this time was making audio recordings of myself at work around the home: the sounds of the camera and of myself shuffling around and setting up different situations - sometimes there would be music on in the background, or sometimes not.” 
-Graham Lambkin, Navel Gazers #30

“In these times we had a jersey cow named Ruby on our small farm in Italy. I had learned to milk her and also bought sheep milk to make very good pecorino cheese. We had built a cantina to have the cheese well-ripened - I was really busy with this job! And so she also had a male calf in these days. I wanted to record his moohing, but when I approached him with the recorder, he was silent! I did not feed him half a day, and finally he moohed!” 
-Limpe Fuchs, Navel Gazers #9

They all describe…. field recording? Is that accurate? On some level maybe, but something about the term doesn’t sit right with me to describe this kind of practice. The term field recording relates to academic fieldwork, where researchers venture out “into the field” to observe nature, gather samples and so on. That is to say: not only is it an academic term, but it’s one which relates to the empirical/ observational/ analytical side of academia, the process of picking things apart to make sense of them, much as we do in the discussions here on Navel-Gazers. The activities described above on the other hand, are clearly motivated by creative, constructive artistic impulses. Just the opposite, or so it seems to me.

Paul Margree and I hit upon this topic in Navel-Gazers #43, where he expressed some reservations about straight-up field recording, in his own sardonic way:

“I’m not trying to spatialise a load of beautifully recorded fruit bats, you know.. like me and Werner Herzog dragging the ship up the mountain with a bunch of white guys with expensive reel-to-reels from a university in France… no. It’s supposed to be that this is a shit tape, it’s choppy to begin with.”

Is there another term we can use? We might say “mobile recording” but this makes one think of a mobile phone, which is a viable tool for this sort of activity but just one of many - a really misleading term I think. “Location recording”? Maybe? I don’t know… it seems that none of these terms get to the essence. There’s just something… missing.

Above is one of the numerous ambiguities of language I’ve encountered over four years interviewing artists from all different backgrounds. In my mind Navel-Gazers is really all about making albums, if I’m honest. And yet several of the people I’ve spoken to don’t necessarily describe their work as albums. Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman’s “Anosmia” isn’t an album at all, it’s a 43 minute radio show but it was a perfect subject for discussion here. Is a release with no physical component - like say Sponge Dreams or oxtensmoot - technically an album? Or a compilation such as Minecxio Emanations? All were more than suitable for conversation, it’s the term which doesn’t fit.

To cope with this ambiguity I’ve often framed Navel-Gazers as simply being about “recording”, that is until my discussion with Freida Abtan. Freida said that she defines recording more narrowly as the process of capturing live sound on a microphone to a recording device, but refers to the process as a whole - within which recording is just one possible activity - as “electronic composition”. 

That changed my thinking but everyone’s perspective is different. When I used that terminology with Beatriz Ferreyra, she insisted that her work is electroacoustic rather than electronic. Zhu Wenbo balked at the term “sound art” - and for good reason, if you read his explanation. There have even been Navel-Gazers who are reluctant to describe their work as “music”! Some terms are just loaded with cultural and commercial baggage and expectations, just as the academic flavour of the term “field recording” gets under my own skin.

To return to that term, I’m recalling a discussion at the pub after Eddie Prevost’s improv workshop a few months ago. One player was making the case for musical expression through raw, unadulterated field recording. And it’s not that I don’t find that approach alluring as an idea - on some level we’re all looking for something authentic out there… but I’m always left wondering: where is the artist? I want to hear from them. I’m reminded again of Aurélie who was quite critical of artists “disappearing” into their work:

“We are very easily making our own prisons I've realised. That's the thing about being an artist, you have the freedom to break from certain rules, so why not try once in a while when you feel like it? …it's all very beautifully made but… what are you actually trying to say? Why are you so afraid to be present in your piece?"

These discussions have impacted my thinking too. In the DIY music world - at least here in London - such dialogue is commonplace in the context of live events. Because the events are so small, the barrier between the performer and the audience is blurred-to-nonexistent, and players are in a constant discourse about their creative process and different theories and schools of thought.

The reason I started Navel-Gazers is that I’d very quickly plugged into London’s experimental music scene and was impressed not only by the music itself, not only by the scene’s vibrancy and its openness but also by the quality of the dialogue with people I was meeting at events. And yet whenever someone released an album, it seemed those discussions were not really happening. There’d be a few congratulatory comments on social media maybe, or if they’re lucky a review in The Wire. Perhaps it’s a casualty of the information age. I do seem to recall that kind of discussion when I was a record store clerk in Philadelphia in the 2000s. The sheer amount of material being released nowadays is also overwhelming to listeners - anyhow, I’ve opined on that before.

I’ve since identified a handful of other practitioners, by the way, who are doing their part to fill that gap. Tone Glow and Crucial Listening both deserve a mention here - if you’re after more album-focused discussion like the kind I do here, I highly recommend both.

There is one thing I’ve come to terms with: there is definitely something intrinsically solitary about - to use Freida’s term - electronic composition. It was the topic of my essay What’s Inside? - Recording and Isolation, to which this essay is an informal sequel. It’s no wonder that in this era where such an excess of peoples’ time is already spent staring at computer screens, so many musicians are taking it to the streets with handheld devices for a bit of.. well, whatever you want to call it. “That kind of” recording. What better way to reengage with one’s surroundings?

The fact is there is really no such thing as a hands-off field recording. The “Observer Effect” comes for us all. The sound recordist selects the device, the location, when to press record, the positioning of the device, perceives some sort of musicality in the sounds and decides the way they are later framed and presented to the listener.

Perhaps the sound recordist goes further. Perhaps they’re in motion at the time of the recording, perhaps they speak into the device, or ask others to speak, perhaps they intervene directly in the sound environment by flushing a toilet or opening a gate. Perhaps they intervene by distancing themselves from the device, or distancing the device from the sounds by enclosing it in a box or behind a closed door or under a blanket. Perhaps they collaborate with another participant who is using a separate device. The variations are endless.

That is the direction I’ve personally been moving in my own work and it’s heavily influenced by the discussions we’ve been having at Navel-Gazers. It’s been said before but artists need other artists, to really get inspired. It’s not enough to have a lot of clever ideas on your own and develop them in a vacuum - you’ve got to go find what’s outside.


In the meantime, can anyone help me coin a term for this more participatory, sensory variant of field recording? Some kind of a pun or a play on words? It’s on the tip of my tongue…

I’ll leave you with a quip of Martin Clarke’s from Navel-Gazers #1:

“Field recording is a way of exploring. An excuse. But at the same time I never questioned it. It was just something that I needed to do. The kit went in the bag wherever I went as though it was the most normal thing.”

Let's not overthink this. Thanks to everyone who has appeared on Navel-Gazers - 63 individuals so far - you’ve really been giving me a lot to consider. See you outside!


1) Field recording device in my backyard. 

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