NMSAT :: Networked Music & SoundArt Timeline

1923 __ Field Recording
Comment : Pioneer record producers like Ralph Peer liked to call their work in the South “recording expeditions”, leaving a false impression of camping though the mountains in search of pure-hearted rustic musicmakers. (William Howland Kenney, “Recorded Music in American Life 1890-1945”,1999)« In 1923 [Charles Hibbard, a recording engineer] arranged the machine, that he could put into a trunk, and everything was designed in New York. The field recording machines were practically hand-made. They ran with weights. You had to have a tower six feet oof the ground made of wood so you could fold it up and put it in a trunk. there were these large weights like a cuckoo clock that ran the mechanism with a big governor on it to keep the regulated speed. You had a 1/2 inch thick wax on the turntable and the sound was cut right into it. ». (Ralph Peer)Field recording is what happens when the situation of the recording session is not predetermined like in a sound studio. In the field, one can't predict what will happen, the environment forces the recordist to react to the events. (Yannick Dauby)Field recording is the term used for any recording produced outside of a recording studio. Field recordings can be either of two varieties. Field recording of natural sounds, also called Phonography (a term chosen to illustrate its similarities to photography), was originally employed as a documentary adjunct to research work in the field and foley work for film. With the availability of high-quality portable recording equipment, it has subsequently become an evocative art in itself. Both processed and natural phonographic recordings (such as the Environments series) are available. Field recordings can also refer to on-site recordings of musicians, such as those pioneered by John Lomax, Nonesuch Records and Vanguard Records, where the use of a recording studio for these recordings is impractical. Field recording often involves the capture of ambient noises that are low level and complex, in response the requirement from the field recordist has often pushed the technical limits of recording equipment, that is, demanding low noise and extended frequency response in a portable, battery powered unit. For this reason field recordists have favoured high quality, usually professional, recorders, microphones and microphone pre-amplifiers. The history of the equipment used in this area closely tracks the development of professional portable audio recording technology. Field recording experienced a rapid increase in popularity during the early 1960s with the introduction of high quality portable recording equipment (such the Uher and Nagra portable reel-to-reel decks). The arrival of the DAT (Digital Audio Tape) in the 1980's introduced a new level of audio recording fidelity with extended frequency response and low self noise. Amongst these technologies, other popular means for field recording have included the analog cassette (CAC), the DCC (Digital Compact Cassette), and the MiniDisc. Today the latest generation of recorders in use are completely digital (hard disk/Flash) based. Techniques have developed to include creative placement of microphones (including contact microphones & hydrophones for example), diffusion of captured sounds and highly individual approaches from recordists. Field recording was originally a way to document oral presentations and ethnomusicology projects (pioneered by Charles Seeger and John Lomax). Field recording is an important tool in bioacoustics and biomusicology, most commonly in research on bird song. Animals in the wild can display very different vocalizations from those in captivity. The use of field recordings was in the avant-garde, musique concrete, experimental, and more recently ambient was evident almost from the birth of recording technology. Most note worthy for pioneering the conceptual and theoretical framework with art music that most openly embraced the use of raw sound material and field recordings was Pierre Schaeffer who was developing musique concrete as early as 1940. Field recordings are now common source material for a range of musical results from contemporary musique concrete compositions to film soundtracks, video game soundtracks, and effects. often use recordings from the field e.g. a locomotive engine running, for evocative effect. This type of sound functions as the non-fictional counterpart to the sound effect. During the early years of commercial recordings, the speeches of politicians sold well, since few people had radios. The HMV catalogue for 1914 - 1918 lists over a dozen such records, by Lloyd George and other politicians. Probably the last time such records sold well was in 1965, when the LP "The Voice of Churchill" reached number 7 in the Uk album charts. This was immediately after his death. Field recordings have only very recently been recognized as a genre in art. Therefore it is quite a young business we are dealing with. Although ethnographers already recorded vocal performances and rhythms of foreign cultures about 100 years ago, they did not think it was art or even a creative discourse with their environment. What those ethnographers might have thought of such colonial sounds was the fact that at best they sounded artistically to them. So recording those sounds, however, seemed to offer the possibility to categorize the world as a whole in a scientific way. Not so today: Contemporary artists who deal with field recordings today do no longer have the idea of putting sounds on stock (though it cannot be denied that some of those people have fallen for the act of collecting sounds). Well, apart from this special purpose, field recordings seem to have changed over the last couple of centuries. They represent themselves as a very special kind of music. But let’s stop here to think about some essential questions: Are we really allowed to take field recordings for music? Does every sound that is not scientifically recorded automatically become music? What is the difference between noises and music ? And what position has language in comparison with noises and music for not only being recorded but also recognized and artistically arranged ?. (Stefan Millitzer, "Tones, Sounds & Noises - Part 1", 2006, FieldNotes Issue #1, Gruenrekorder)
Source : Kenney, William Howland (1999), “Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945”, New York Oxford, Oxford University Press.
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