Renegotiating What’s Real

Renegotiating What’s Real Through Recorded Sound

by Olivia Bradley-Skill

“To be in the present as a listener is a revolutionary act. We absolutely need it, to be grounded in that way.”
– Hildegard Westerkamp

When I first realized that there were vast networks of musicians that existed outside the bounds of Top 40 radio, it changed my life. I was in college and had discovered the college radio station, where you could play anything you wanted because it didn’t really feel like many people were listening, anyway. I guess having my own radio show empowered me, and I started to carry myself differently. I felt less alone, more adventurous. Friends took me to see punk shows in basements and small bars. Music became a community for me, and that was exciting. 

Somewhere during that time I learned to listen to music and sound differently, too. The stranger that sounds were to my ears, the more compelling they became. Inspired by new modes of listening, I even started to make crude recordings of my own environment. My earliest experiments of making music emerged from recording the sound of water flowing from my bathroom faucet, and the wind outside, and my spoons tapping, and that sound the shower made when it turned on, somehow tying these intimate, domestic sounds to my thoughts on a relationship that was ending.

I’ve been involved in radio for almost a decade now and have witnessed my taste swing dramatically through genres and styles, but ultimately I still get really fascinated by artists and writers who encourage me to re-think how I listen. They open up my mind and perception and invite me to experiment and record and listen and play. 

Here’s a collection of music from artists who ask us to listen differently, using unconventional sources and creative recording techniques. 

“As I learned to listen to the ambience around me, I found myself being connected in new ways. It became almost like meditation, and I found myself quite humbled by it…It brought me back to a place in sync with other living organisms and I became just another one, not a doer or somebody out there trying to accomplish something.”
– Bernie Krause in The Wire Magazine, August 2014

The Glass Orchestra

All the instruments are made of glass.

David Dunn The Sound of Light in Trees

All recorded material comes from the activities in a single pinyon pine tree in the foothills of the southern Rockies. The recordings track the sounds of bark beetles in particular, which have infested forests in New Mexico due to milder winters associated with climate change.

Mamoru Fujieda – Patterns of Plants

This album is composed completely based on data derived from plants, generating melodic material through the micro-changes of the surface-electric potential on leaves. 

Hanna Hartman – Longitude / Cratere

These pieces are made up in part by recordings of the Italian volcano Etna.

Michael Prime – L-Fields

Sound materials are derived from bioelectrical recordings of living plants and fungi.

Field Works – Ultrasonic

This is an album of many collaborations, which stem from ultrasonic recordings of bats taken by Stuart Hyatt. Each artist uses the echolocations of bats as the source material of their composition.

Lauren Lesko – Thirst

Sounds are generated from a contact mic inserted in her vagina.

Various – Audible Geography 

One of my favorite compilations, which features sound artists responding to the concept of geography and how we conceive of space and place.

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay – landscape in metamorphoses

Full of richly layered industrial soundscape of churning machinery, the recordings were taken in 2007 in Tumbani, as the location was undergoing a massive transformation from green pastures into one of the industrial belts of Bengal-Bihar border in India.

Hildegard Westerkamp – Kits Beach Soundwalk

Westerkamp’s voice is included in the composition, as she makes us aware of how subtle changes in her recording techniques change what we can hear from her environment. 

Jacqueline George – Presence  

Featuring street sounds from Cairo, Egypt.

King Britt – The Bee and the Stamen 

This is an album based around sound design and experimental processes of a pollinating bee’s journey.

Various – Pussification: A Compilation of Experimental Cat Music

This compilation is comprised of material featuring content produced by the feline variety, whether it be by interacting with instruments or simply existing in some audible way. 

Magda Drozd – Songs for Plants 

Includes recordings of cacti.

Lisa Williamson – Pump Suck 

Sounds are generated by electric and manual breast pumps with contact mics attached to the motors.

Alison Knowles – Songs From The Book of Bean

On the piece “Essential Divisions”, Knowles “plays” red, black, and white beans. She records the sounds of beans moving in glass, ceramics, wood, and her mouth.

“Maybe we should stop recording altogether and simply listen. But I believe the future of field recording lies in the tension created by transforming the heard through participation, collaboration, expansion, and play, through which we can try a humbler humanity of shared spaces, and renegotiate what is real.”
– Salomé Voegelin