Afternoon Dust

Documenting the Possible: Field Recording as a Site of Desire

There’s an interesting discussion going on over at Caleb Kelly’s Sound Thoughts blog about the nature of field recording to which I’d like to draw attention. To summarise: the discussion centres around Chris Watson’s Ynys-hir Dawn Chorus recording, in which the morning calls of various birds and animals can be heard. Kelly argues that an edit Watson makes in order to cut out the sound of a passing military jet results in a less authentic field recording, because while it seeks to remove traces of human intervention in a natural soundscape, the edit is in fact itself a human intervention, altering the record of what is found. Kelly essentially accuses Watson of creating a fantasy world of pristine natural sounds, one that denies the effects of human activity and even the presence of the field recordist him- or herself, and that has all the authenticity of a bioacoustician’s Disneyland.

Let’s not beat about the bush: I agree that attempting to reach some essential truth about an acoustic environment through the selective removal of elements of that environment is a non-starter, and I’m as much in favour of moving beyond Schaferian sound ecologies as the next post-poststructuralist. However, I have some reservations that I’ve attempted (badly!) to explain in the comments.

In a lot of discussions about field recording, one detects signs of the following assumptions:

  • that field recordings are a kind of document;

  • that the purpose of documents is to accurately describe a given actuality;

  • that the quality of a document can be measured by judging the accuracy and authenticity of its description of actuality.

So according to Kelly, Ynys-hir Dawn Chorus is a poor document because it does not accurately describe the actuality of what it purports to document; if the sound of the military jet had been left in it would be more accurate, and therefore a better document. There are two possible closely-related dangers here. The first is that Ynys-hir Dawn Chorus is not a document; the second is that a document is something other than what Kelly understands it to be. But to explain what I mean as clearly as I can, I’m going to have to talk about photography for a bit. Yes, I know everyone hates it when phonography is discussed as if it were photography! But hopefully the analogy will be useful in this case.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the photographer Eugène Atget produced many thousands of photographs depicting innumerable details of Paris life, capturing everything from portraits and street scenes to sharply focused details of wrought iron gates and other architectural details. He marketed his photographs widely, with many ending up in the collections of museums who were interested in the vanishing architectural styles and techniques they depicted; however, he also advertised them as “documents for artists” — as studies to be copied by painters, designers and architects who needed, say, a realistic windmill in the background of their history painting, or authentic-looking period furniture to include in their faux-Napoleonic interior design. In other words, they were sold as practical objects, with their usefulness directly related to the accuracy with which they depicted their subject.

However, in the years following World War I Atget’s work began to receive enthusiastic praise from an unexpected quarter: a loose association of young avant-garde artists known as the Surrealists. What so amazed and astounded certain Surrealists (especially Atget’s neighbour Man Ray) about the photographs was the combination of an apparently strict objectivity with elements of chance, serendipity, and the uncanny, leading the young artists to view them as evidence of the mingling of dream with waking life. Atget permitted his photographs to be published in a number of Surrealist journals (one of which was perhaps not incidentally titled Documents), under the condition of anonymity. Perhaps most interestingly, the Surrealists did not seem to challenge the photographs’ status as documents; indeed, their purported efficacy as evidence of a higher surreality in which dream and waking life mixed was dependent upon their documentary accuracy and authenticity.

But enough talk about images, for now — let’s return to sounds. It is clear from the removal of the sound of a military jet that Watson’s field recording does not present us with the world as he found it; rather, it presents to us the world as he would have wished to have found it, as he would have liked it to have been. Furthermore, the recording and accompanying notes in which the edit is detailed tell us what was necessary to arrive at this desired world: namely, the removal of mechanical or human-produced sounds. This in turn tells us something about what kind of agency humans should have in this ideal world: they should be listeners, not producers of sound, occupying a position outside of the realm of sonic activity. All of this is accomplished through the reconfiguration of pieces of the actual, rather than the invention of new pieces — one could say that Ynys-hir Dawn Chorus restructures the actual according to the specifications of desire. Thus, the aesthetic of the document remains in place, even though the structure has changed; Watson makes use of a “documentary style”, to draw on Walker Evans’ delightful phrase.

So Watson’s recording does three things: it proposes a possible world hidden within the actual; it outlines a plan of action for how to actualise this world; and it designates a specific place for humans within that world, a specific way for humans to inhabit it. To an art historian, perhaps this is beginning to sound a little like the stated aims of a number of twentieth-century avant-garde movements — the Surrealists, naturally, but the Situationist International’s battle-cry of “beneath the streets, the beach!” also springs to mind. The site of field recording is both a site of scientific investigation and a site of desire. From this perspective, how far is field recording from automatic writing, or the Situationist dérive?

All of this will read as perfect nonsense to the vast majority of field recordists, who are in no doubt that their dreams and desires have absolutely no influence over what the sounds captured by their microphones actually mean. But perhaps the notion of field recording as a practice of documenting the possible, rather than the actual, provides a ground from which a number of critically effective strategies and approaches could be cultivated. In particular, it suggests ways in which field recording could be used to challenge the dominant myth that the world in which we live is a single, monolithic actuality, rather than a multitude of overlapping and sometimes contradictory possibilities. It is unlikely that Watson had such ideas in mind when he produced Ynys-hir Dawn Chorus, just as Atget was not thinking surrealistically when he shot his wrought-iron gates or shop window mannequins. However, just as Atget’s photos show us Paris as it could have been, maybe field recording has the potential to let us hear the world as it might be.


Most of the ideas around photography mentioned here, including Atget’s influence on the Surrealists and the complex status of the document in art, were raised by Sophie Berrebi in her lecture series “Photography in Contemporary Art”, spring semester 2012, Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Haran, Barnaby (2010). ‘Homeless Houses: Classifying Walker Evans’ Photographs of Victorian Architecture’.Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 33, No. 2 (2010), pp. 191-210.

Edwards, Steve (1993). ‘A Walk on the Wild Side: Atget’s Modernism’. Oxford Art Journal , Vol. 16, No. 2 (1993), pp. 86-90.

Nesbit, Molly (1992). Atget’s Seven Albums. Yale University Press.