Bandcamp hosts an amazing array of field recordings from around the world, made by musicians and sound artists as well as professional field recordists. In this column, we highlight the best sounds recorded outside the studio and released in the last month. This installment features recordings of rivers and wetlands; roosters and horseflies; cell phones and sneezes—and rumors of a mysterious man living alone on an island.
Moniek Darge/Vanessa Rossetto
Compact Disc (CD)
Moniek Darge and Vanessa Rossetto represent two different generations and two different approaches to field recording, nearly diametrically opposed in their subject matter and method. Since the early ‘80s, Darge has recorded “soundies” of sacred spaces in India, Crete, Hungary, and elsewhere, seeking to communicate the experience of inhabiting far-flung locales. Rossetto is more diaristic, drawing from everyday events—she’ll travel to San Francisco and record in her rented room, or to New York and record herself sleeping. On albums like The Actress, she combines such mundane materials into long hallucinatory lo-fi dramas. For Dream Soundies, the duo meet in a very satisfying middle, recording at Lincoln Center (and other unknown locations) to craft a hypnagogic “soundie” of the city. Across four long tracks, the natural, the artificial, and the human overlap and repeat until it’s unclear what’s real and what’s not. There are live animals and toy animals, real dogs, and dog toys. A rooster from an earlier soundie crows while pigeons coo in real time. At various points, the listener might be on the street, at a disco, or underwater. Snippets of dialogue emerge as if people are lost in this land between past and present, here and there. And throughout, the song of a music box recurs like a motif, a fitting symbol for the album’s themes of artificiality and repetition.
Listening to Marja Ahti is like riding a train in a foreign country, the landscape changing gradually, each successive vista completely unexpected and yet, in retrospect, perfectly situated. Before you know it, you’ve arrived in a different place entirely. Tender Membranes works similarly, with its seemingly unrelated vignettes building a sort of unpredictable logic. “Shrine (Aether)” begins with a mind-clearing bell before a horsefly enters the scene, a dreamlike state interrupted by harsh reality. This juxtaposition recurs throughout, with shimmering ambience alternating with less ethereal interventions. Ahti cites the French musique concrète composers as an influence, and here we see an extension of Luc Ferrari’s careful combination of environmental sounds with studio trickery in his Presque Rien series. Her materials are so deftly handled that at times it’s unclear what is instrumental and what is not, but each sequence fits flawlessly in the voyage of the album.
Ahti & Ahti
Ahti & Ahti is Marja Ahti’s duo with her partner Niko-Matti. Nokivesi (or “soot-water”) is based on a dialogue in Finnish about a mysterious man who lived alone on an island. Nobody knows how he got there; he would only wade back to the mainland to ask for “soot-water,” or coffee; he took his own tonsils out. Across two long tracks, an elderly man and woman ponder over his motives and way of life. Ahti & Ahti’s audio accompanies their story without explicitly illustrating it—a boiling kettle could be for the couple’s tea or the man’s coffee, crackling wood could be from their stove or his campfire, splashing water could be lapping against a supply boat or a solitary shore. These recordings encourage contemplation of this unknown man’s life and the ways that he still affected his community from a distance. Like the best tales, it is obliquely told, more suggestive than descriptive and therefore endlessly fascinating.
Paweł Kulczyński recorded Biosignatures up and down the Wisła river in Warsaw, Poland, using electromagnetic sensors and hydrophones as well as more traditional microphones. He explores the relationship between the natural and the man-made in the context of the climate emergency, and the songs are appropriately harrowing. On “Walking on Eggshells,” crunching ice tumbles into roiling water and dissonant blasts boom overhead, while on “Anticipatory Grief” birds and sirens compete to be heard. Like a soundtrack to the end of the world, everything from insects to city infrastructure is connected in a nightmarish tableau that dramatizes the dystopian changes we have seen and are yet to see.
Andrew Ciccone’s recording philosophy is summed up in a casual remark on Omphalopticon’s “Baby Tornado Sand Sequence.” At the end of the track we hear him pause and say, “Oh wait—I wanted to record this,” followed by a harsh squeaking gate opening and closing. On Bespoke he has collaged such seemingly annoying sounds into a wryly humorous whirlwind that finds creative possibilities in the mundane. Juxtaposed against these moments are frankly bizarre intrusions, like daydreams interrupting daily life. For example, “This Is a Drill” and “The Sniffle-Sneeze” include about as much drilling and sneezing as one would expect, while “Oh! Wordly Worldy” features a surprising amount of Cookie Monster. The album’s centerpiece is the 16-minute “The Going From Room to Room,” which segues from his northeast London neighborhood to a Guatemalan street parade to a cartoonish impersonation of physicist Richard Feynman. “I’m drawn to whatever moves me: whether something provokes laughter, fright, emotion, confusion, memory, imagination, whatever…Everything else gets discarded,” Ciccone says. Bespoke is the hyper-concentrated solution that results from this process, 99% absurd.
Zizia is a duo comprised of entomologist Jarrod Fowler and astrologer Amber Wolfe Rounds. Together, they make truly confounding music: the list of collaborators for Genera includes parasitic wasps, hermit crabs, and carrots, while its sources include Aphex Twin and Meshuggah; field recordists Eric La Casa and Toshiya Tsunoda; and, somehow, H.P. Lovecraft. All of these sounds are charted, sequenced, and combined via a rigorous system that involves planetary scales, drum programming, and Audacity. All you need to know, though, is that the result is a growling, morphing wall of nature that incorporates all of this eclectic input into a strange new biomass, equally beautiful and horrifying, and urgently demanding further study.
Le Jardin Perdu / Talweg
For Le Jardin Perdu / Talweg, Antoine Bellanger roamed the Basque region with two items: a second-hand cassette recorder and a clay ocarina. With these limited tools, he crafted an odyssey from city to country, using lo-fi recordings as a basis for delicate, hollow melodies played through his simple unfired ocarina (it cracked in the kiln, leaving only the recordings made when it was unfinished). In tracks ranging in length from six seconds to 25 minutes, Bellanger alternately builds lovely French pop songs (“Forêt forêt”) or lets the recordings speak for themselves with minimal accompaniment (“Baroiseaux”). Encompassing raw recordings of bird calls and footsteps as well as complex earworm melodies, this is the product of a talented songwriter looking to absorb everything he encounters into his sound palette—a strange but lovely excursion through the French countryside with an adventurous chanteur as a guide.
sea foam floods the road
Darcy Spidle, who also records with jaw harp and harmonica as Chik White, makes field recordings of the wind and weather around his Novia Scotia home. As Hurricane Lee approached in September, he headed to nearby Lawrencetown Beach to document the coming storm. The resulting track, “long beach,” demonstrates the strength of the waves as they foreshadow the violence of winds gathering force behind them. The hurricane itself forced Spidle to find novel solutions; finding it far too intense to record on the beach, he instead placed his microphone in an outdoor chimney. Thus, on “chimney” the brunt of the storm is filtered through the natural reverb of a narrow stone flue, turning overbearing winds into an eerie, ghostlike resonance. Similarly, “last winds” records the end of Hurricane Lee from the safety of an office window. Crickets make themselves audible through its last gasps, a sign of a return to normalcy. On sea foam floods the road, we hear more than the naked power of the storm—we hear a subjective experience of it, converted into a drama of man against nature.
Compact Disc (CD)
Tom Bickley is a veteran of the Bay Area experimental music scene, having been composer in residence at Mills College, director of the Cornelius Cardew Choir, and certified by Pauline Oliveros to teach the meditative practice of Deep Listening. Despite this impressive resume, Jepson Prairie is Bickley’s first commercial release as a composer. He brings to the album a calm, patient approach informed by Deep Listening, using woodwinds, strings, and chimes to complement the natural tones that appear in field recordings. “Grant Street” transforms construction noise from his home in Berkeley into a blissful hum; “Middle Armand Bayou” features finely chopped aquatic recordings from the wetlands outside of his native Houston; and the title track, recorded at a nature preserve in California, works simple birdsong up into an immersive, sparkling soundworld. It’s often difficult to ascertain where nature ends and Bickley’s interventions begin—the highest compliment that could be paid to compositions so utterly sympathetic with their source material.
Compact Disc (CD)
Gil Sansón was thinking of his friend Richard Garet. The street sounds of his home in Caracas, Venezuela reminded him of their early days in New York City with such frequency that he attempted to bridge the gap across time and space. Con richard (por la adversidad a las estrellas) begins with city sounds that fade in and out like memories, lingering longer with each repetition. Sansón combines new recordings from Caracas with archival pieces from New York to blur the boundary between the two cities, bringing them ever nearer. But eventually, the sounds of interruption emerge: busy signals, static, cell phone interference. Gently drifting across 45 minutes, this collage speaks powerfully of connection and disconnection, of the distances that circumstances create and of the bonds that close them.