essay

57275 lost recordings

As a field recordist, I sometimes think of myself as little more than a hobbyist. It’s only part of what I do, after all, and the recordings I make become part of my bank of source material, which includes many kinds of sounds, some recorded, some found, and some created from scratch. Any item might suddenly suggest something to me and be used in a composition. So simply having an audible signal with interesting qualities to begin with is sufficient means and motivation to begin a work.

In the field, I prefer to use a very small hand-held recorder and several pairs of in-ear binaural microphones by various manufacturers, which are “prosumer” quality at best. However, even these simple items can be cumbersome. It takes more than an instant to untangle the headphone cables, which always seem to mate like snakes in my bag, and seat the mikes in my ears to begin a recording. The recorder also takes time to start up as its micro-controller boots into a rudimentary operating system and the ‘ready’ screen appears. My working methods have evolved somewhat so that I can work within these limitations, but capturing a fleeting sound is nearly impossible unless you have the opportunity to prepare for it.

Things often happen quickly out in the field, and inspiration can be quickly squelched by adverse circumstances. It is common that unexpected sounds take me by surprise, and by the time the recorder can be prepared and initiated, the interesting sound is often already well underway. This is not a problem for long continuous atmospheric sounds of indeterminate length with no particular beginning or end, nor for sounds that can be predicted in advance. But for some sounds, those with definite beginnings and endings, which are discovered and dealt with as an improvisation, it usually entails compromise.

Last spring, from the window of my room in a guesthouse in Tbilisi, I suddenly heard the ringing of a nearby church carillon. The sound was very strong and pleasing as it came through the window into my room, so I scrambled for my recorder, which had been packed away, and hastily dangled the mikes out the window. The result was a very nice-sounding recording that, sadly, begins abruptly, starting as it does in the middle of the emission.

The next morning, assuming the same bells were rung daily on a schedule, I was out on the street in front of the church before 9 o’clock. There were many people around, arranging flowers on graves, cleaning the tombstones, talking to the priest, and walking about in the church yard. I sat on a bench, prepared for the carillon to begin. And I waited, but it didn’t ring that day. So this fragmentary recording from the day before is all that I have.

tbilisi carillon

Tbilisi carillon, near Marjanishvili Square

The next day, as we continued our journey through Georgia, we were on our way to visit the monastery of David Gareja near the southeastern border. Some two weeks before this, we had been in Svaneti, in the northeast of Georgia. There, we became familiar with the Svan defensive towers, made of flat stones, and easily identified by their characteristic form. We had also been told the story of a Svan community that had been relocated in the late 1980s to Udabno, in the southeast near David Gareja, because of a landslide that had destroyed their village. So, when we passed a cemetery on a grassy hillside, and saw smaller versions of these Svan stone towers marking some of the graves, we decided to stop for a closer look.

As soon as we stepped out in the warm springtime air, we could hear the faraway, plaintive singing of a woman’s voice, broken at times by the sound of anguished weeping. There is a tradition among Svan women, in which they sing a song of mourning, pouring out their grief over the graves of their loved ones.

I started recording while still scrambling up the hill through the dry rustling grass, and soon came upon a winding gravel foot path. I moved as invisibly as I could up the hill toward the sound of the singing. I began the recording long before it could be heard well on the recording. But, as I neared the ridge of the hill, it was not possible to stay hidden, and as soon as the woman saw me, a stranger approaching, she abruptly ended her song. So all I have this recording, a brief, tantalizing fragment, to support my story.

svan song of mourning

Svan song of mourning


More about the journey to Georgia can be read here.

Part of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 13th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“

The following filecasts are connected geographically:

57063 tbilisi metro, sounds from the Tbilisi metro
57072 marks, collection of Tbilisi walls
57080 sentinel, includes a field recording from Tbilisi
57092 mountain of song, music along the road to Mestia
57121 road to ushguli, from Mestia to Ushguli in winter
57167 roof of the world, sounds at the Jvari Pass
57275 lost recordings, suggestive missed opportunities