Tuesday, June 16, 2009
and/OAR interview: Isobel Clouter & Rob Mullender
Jez riley French talks with Isobel Clouter & Rob Mullender about their
latest CD entitled "Myths Of Origin: Sonic Ephemera From East Asia".
*This is the third of an ongoing series of artist interviews revolving around
the latest releases on the and/OAR label.
JrF: In the sleeve notes to ‘Myths’, Isobel comments that it is often a story that
begins her interest in field recordings. I asked Isobel if she could relate the
story behind the trips to China & Japan that resulted in this release:
Isobel: I guess the starting point was trying to find a way to understand
man’s relationship to the sounds of the environment, something that is
actually very difficult to describe. I began by looking into cultural
mythologies relating to sounds of the environment and the selection of
singing sands as a starting point allowed us to look at a cross-cultural
approach. I guess the ignition for the trip came when I failed despite my
best efforts to find any actual recordings of the sands, even though they
were so well documented in literature as several sources revealed.
Starting close to home we travelled to the Isle of Eigg where Paul Burwell
had apparently recorded sounds and with good weather and good fortune
we managed to locate and record our first sample of singing sand.
Why East Asia? Well there were two main reasons, one was to meet with
the members of the Japanese soundscape association who had developed
the project ‘100 soundscapes of Japan’ which looked directly at the
Japanese cultural relationship to the sounds of the environment. Among
the 100 soundscapes were two of the singing sand beaches which were
of great interest to me and a range of myths and sounds which were
recorded as part of my trip. The other reason was to meet with Professor
Shigeo Miwa whose amazing work and website brought together stories
of sounds of the sands from around the world and it was through him I
was to learn more about the sands, environmental pollution and how to
access the booming sands of China.
Just as an aside it may be of interest to know that we made a
concerted effort to record sounds of booming dunes in Sinai in 2000 but
this attempt failed due to the fact that area we wanted to access was
in a military zone. Just to point out that not all trips are successful.....
there is a risk....
JrF: For me a sense of enjoyable exploration is essential when making
recordings – it’s the reason I enjoy it & if I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t
do it. I guess I have little interest in the scientific end of field recording.
So with that in mind how much of the content on the CD is made up of
sounds that you went to Asia intending to capture and how much did
you allow yourself to abandon any preconceived goals? Did you, for
example, have a responsibility to achieve certain results?
Rob: Well the project does have a professed environmental flavour to it,
since the whole 'musical sand' thing is very susceptible to pollution, and
part of Isobel's remit in going to get the booming sand recordings was to
highlight this issue. I wasn't present during the Japanese leg of the trip,
which is where the more travelogue-y recordings were made, having
joined Isobel in Beijing afterwards.
We ended up recording a fair amount of stuff in Dunhuang, which had
no specific purpose other than to hang onto events which caught my ear
- the odd parade of drummers (surprisingly, quite a few), and a bike ride
along the main road to the Mingsha sand mountain stick out in my memory.
Field recording as an act for and of itself isn't something that I do that
often - I tend to embark on a project to articulate a particular idea; or
rather, let ideas and materials find each other, so to speak. If that can
be done in an environment with a microphone of some sort, then all well
and good, but this puts material that I've recorded incidentally into an odd
category. It's not noise, but its not entirely signal either.
JrF: Next, the prickly question! I wonder whether you had any qualms
about using terms such as ‘singing sand’ or ‘booming sand’? I know there
is sometimes an institutional requirement for things to be given a name
but perhaps there is a danger, especially given that these recordings
were partly initiated to serve as founding material in the British
Libraries soundscape archives and indeed that Isobel is curator of these
archives, that applying or reaffirming these names will result in a loss of
wonder for those that go to hear these sounds in-situ? In short, if we
give a name such as ‘singing sand’ to the natural phenomenon it
represents do we not run the risk of taming it in some way or turning
it into an event with defined human expectations?
(nb: this question came into the equation following a comment in the
sleeve notes stating that the recording of ‘booming sand’ was one of
only two in existence. There are in fact several others that I know of
& no doubt others. These include recordings used in film soundtracks to
emulate airplane formations flying overhead. Perhaps there are only
two with the name ‘booming sands’ attached to them?)
Rob: We do stake out territory when ascribing names, but occasionally
the referent is a special case, and the actual experience of it will stand
up to all sorts of prior abuse. I imagine though, that nothing would
contribute more to the dynamic that you describe than distributing a
recording of the thing itself... The sands occupy an odd position with
respect to most other recorded 'natural' sounds, because unless you are
very lucky, and get some 'natural booming', human agency is a key
ingredient in the recording. in all but one of the Badain Jarain recordings,
considerable effort was required to get the sands sounding, and so that
put us squarely in the auditory 'action'. I do feel that perhaps from this
angle , one is in a position to be a little more anthropocentric in one's
attitude toward the thing. It occurs to me now, that at the risk of
sounding trite, perhaps we had a go on the world's biggest musical
JrF: When & why did you become interested in field recording?
Isobel: I had a sort of epiphany when I was at the National Film and
Television School in England in 1997. I came from a background in
architecture and was studying production design and art direction at
the N.F.T.S when I got the chance to make my own short film. While
working with the sound designer and composer I was struck by the
amazing possibilities that design in sound allowed. Having spent years
designing what was to go in front of the camera, dominated by actors
and governed by the perspective of the camera lens, the sound world
allowed 360 degrees of possibility. I could tell what was behind a
closed door, or far away in the distance, behind my head, up close,
the range of perspectives and palette was extraordinary and the
freedom to create worlds so inspiring. I soon began experimenting
with recordings and found a world that continues to interest me and
evolve on a daily basis…
Rob: Probably from collecting old ethnographic albums from labels
like Ocora, Phillips Unesco and Barenreiter Musicaphon, maybe fifteen
years ago now. I began to listen to the acoustic context within which
things were recorded much more critically, and began to understand
how this was an entire cultural artifact in its own right.
JrF: How do you use your field recordings in your own artistic output?
Isobel: For me from the outset any interest in field recordings begins
with a story, I guess this is a hangover from my interest in narrative in
film and the relationship between man and the sounds of the
environment. I am a researcher by nature and I like sounds to have a
meaning, or cultural context so projects are usually governed by an
initial idea which may come from a literary quote and the artistic
envelope develops as part of the approach to recording an event. I am
primarily interested in the relationship between sound and the
imagination and the real sounds which are often referenced in art.
The results so far have been primarily a form of documentation and
capture. I like sounds to stand up by themselves without my
reinterpretation of them muddying the waters, although I have some
ideas for projects where that may be appropriate, so far I am merely
lifting a curtain and helping others to hear something (that was not
Rob: The recordings I make at the moment are not generally of
sound, but of voltages generated by light sources, which I then
treat as audio. There's a lot of activity happening in front of our
noses (literally) which goes unnoticed because of our visual flicker
threshold. The temporal resolving power of the ear enables us to
hear what we can't see - for example, some digital lighting systems,
such as the ones you find in up-market shops, seem to use techniques
such as pulse width modulation as a way of 'dimming' light. All they're
doing is altering the amount of time when they're on, compared to
when they're off, but at frequencies way above what we can detect
with our eyes. When 'sonified' though, they can be surprisingly musical.
Natural systems of modulation, such as water, smoke, or foliage tend to
have a strong noise element to them.
I tend not to compose too much with what I record, or alter the
sound. The interesting part for me happens at the 'light' stage of the
process. For example, a window is a mixer, by virtue of it reflecting as
well as transmitting. Likewise, the sea.
(nb: JrF: there are several recordings of windows operating in this
manner available – for example Minoru Sato & Toshiya Tsunoda’s –
‘Ful’ & indeed my own recordings of windows at the Josef Sudek
atelier in Prague – egcd029)
I'll probably go back to recording normal audio more in the future.
For example, I'm working on a sound-driven cutting tool which I'm
going to use to interview retired engineers, using their own lathes as
a recording device. The cylinders will most likely be lengths of 4"
PVC soil pipe, which can be played back on any lathe with the
correct screw cutting pitch and chuck speed selected, and the
right shaped 'needle'.
Jrf: Are the terms 'music' & 'sound' important to you, either in the
way you feel about the sounds you capture and use or in the way
your work is viewed by others.
Isobel: Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm … I like to think that there is some
musical element involved in the recordings, either tonally, rhythmically
or otherwise, but having just listened to the entire and/oar catalogue
which I was accessioning for the British Library Soundscape collections,
I don’t think I could claim to approach the recordings from a purely
musical aesthetic. As soon as you make a recording and remove it from
its natural context you have changed the shape of that sound and
moved it into another realm, I have not tried to bend the recordings to
suit that realm (musical), rather I hope that the recordings find a niche
of their own where someone comes along and finds them and enjoys
them for what they are… (bagpuss aesthetic)
Rob: In terms of 'music', these things are in the ear of the behearer,
and are contingent upon unknowable conditions; I know I've already
used the term 'musical' above though, so I suppose it must mean
something. My ears tend to perk up when discreet pitches arise from
unusual contexts. Does that count as musical? 'Sound' is slightly
different, in so far as I tend to make a distinction between sound
and audio. Infra and ultra sound are inaudible (although the former may
be felt), and so need to be thought about differently, in my opinion.
Maybe events too quiet, or too short to be heard should be on the
'not audio' list. Or too boring.
JrF: What effect (positive or negative) has the act of making field
recordings had on the way you listen to your everyday surroundings and
how has it affected the way you listen to other music / sound (if at all)?
Isobel: There are many parallels between sound and production design in
film, you only notice it when it is bad or exceptionally expressive yet the
work that goes into making even simple sound requires a good palette to
start with, which I realised as I started to experiment with sound and that
is when I started to really listen. I am a big fan of radio and am very aware
of a well recorded programme that uses sound. Unfortunately in the main
domestic market not much has changed in the last few years, it is still rare
to hear good sound on radio, it tends to pop up in specifically focussed
programmes as opposed to the norm. I wish there was more attention
focussed on sound in radio and programme formats allowed to develop
naturally… there is so much more we could hear.
From a musical point of view my head is going through a phase where I
can’t seem to do anything else sometimes when I listen to music, my
brain seems to focus in and I get lost there for a while (not unusual but
particularly hazardous at the moment)… I had an extraordinary experience
last year when I was recording Fingal’s cave where the sea began its own
concert and I literally couldn’t move, part fear in the big cave with waves
booming and resounding and the unexpected sounds of voices with no
bodies that appeared in my ears and on the recordings, and part locked
in syndrome, the sound was so amazing to be immersed in, truly
pleasurable… but that really is the sounds themselves……
Rob: This is a difficult question to answer. In terms of natural audio (as
opposed to photophonics), I live in the west end of London, so my sonic
environment is characterised by a heavy preponderance of brown noise,
with a bit of screaming and smashing glass added. This tends to blunt
your reception to the more subtle things going on around you, and this
has had an effect on my enthusiasm for recording my sonic environment,
but made me more receptive to other peoples' recordings, perhaps...
I'm answering the question backwards... It most likely has changed the
way I listen, but I would have a hard time explaining how. I would have
similar difficulty answering how taking photographs has changed how I
see my surroundings or reproduced images... part of me wants to say
that these things are just tools, but I know that It's rather more complex
than that. I should think that several books could be (have been)
written on this subject.
I feel it allows the listener to imagine what it’s like to be there....