essay

57390 no train of thought

What do I think of what my eyes see and my ears hear, especially in anticipation of making a recording? Words can only partly describe what and how we perceive. The descriptions are riddled with holes. Details that are challenging to describe are often left as openings for the reader to fill in. Recordings also reveal important omissions, but of an entirely different kind. Machines have limited perspective and flexibility; they can mimic but not entirely replace human tissue.

A camera makes an image from a single perspective, and what is beyond the frame is left out. The lens gives the image an angle of view and a depth of field, each of which also efface, enhance or omit. In movies, the duration of the shot, as well as movement of the camera, become important. A sequence of frames is not a fragment ripped from reality, it is only a token, like a phantom standing in for something solid. There are similar issues in sound recording. A microphone may range from omnidirectional to highly directional, and various designs and electronic systems produce different effects of proximity, isolation or accuracy. During reproduction, a feeling of presence is highly prized, but is usually lacking in all but the highest quality recordings and reproductions.

It is common practice in movies to edit multiple points of view together into an apparently seamless whole. However, this does not actually fill gaps of perception, but rather exploits them to create the effect of the passing of time, which lacks the structure of a certain number of discrete frames per second. Time does not proceed in fits and starts like movie frames, yet this contrivance presents a convincing illusion of time. Filmmakers have, over the course of 12 decades, evolved techniques that emphasize continuity. It is well understood how to hide blatant discontinuities between shots by matching eyelines, cutting on action, or similar conventions. Film cutting is generally invisible to audiences, at least until someone points it out.

Interestingly, what works in a linear time-based medium such as film, where juxtaposing two different images results in the impression of continuous time unfolding, doesn’t necessarily work as well in the medium of sound, where analogous juxtapositions are often used to explicity signal abrupt change, rather than mask it. Continuity in audio is better served by using such tricks as fades and overlapping sound, or a very careful kind of editing that matches waveforms.

There are always things these devices can register that we cannot. We can make these things visible and audible by manipulating them. Machines can help us reveal a hidden truth. Scientific detectors and music-making devices are both called ‘instruments.’ Choosing what to include and what to leave out is the primary creative act when using recording instruments to make art.

Let’s try to look at it from another angle. My eyes move freely on their lubricated gimbals. I can direct my vision to one thing, but normally, my eyes move swiftly from thing to thing, which my brain assembles into a coherent space. My ears can bring one sound among many to attention simply by will, and other sounds seem to fade away when I do so.

I can be sitting in my room, and maybe I hear someone walking up the stairs in the corridor. Then I might remember how, in an old place where I no longer live, I had always heard the woman who lived upstairs from me whenever she ascended or descended. Perception is full of layers, it dances with memory and mood and the tempos of the body. Suddenly, reality is out there floating before me. And it is also inside me projected onto an interior screen. It surrounds me, I surround it. I walk in the center of a sphere that floats along with me. Its inner surface beyond reach. It is outside me. I sit here inside myself, and I’m not even sure, at this moment, what I look like.


A version of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 16th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“