essay

57549 on recording

I keep a prism on my windowsill, carefully positioned to catch a sun beam, forcing it to disgorge its hidden colors. The prism has the telling shape of a wedge, as if broadly hinting at its purpose, that of splitting light rather than logs. As the sun makes its daily round, sweeping the sky like the hand of a clock, the wandering rainbow paints a patch of wall, or any random object that it touches. A bright and richly colored thread connected with purity and eternity, it talks of the qualities of beauty, simplicity, and truth. These are the same qualities, I suppose, that animate the inquisitive spirit, be it scientific or artistic.

Photography, already a rather old medium, has evolved a set of conventions to deal with the ambiguities that arise in using a highly technical-scientific means for artistic practice. Does truth come first or beauty? In what sense is a photograph true, and in what sense is it personal and selective and hence entirely subjective? The answer is that both are always true to varying degrees.

A photograph is a true document only in the sense that certain photons were reflected from some object at some point in time, and these photons passed through space until they struck some light-sensitive material, and were thus recorded. Literally everything else, strictly speaking, about any photograph is subjective. A person chooses the subject, the framing, perhaps the choice of lens and camera settings, and positions himself in relation to the object to achieve some desired effect. Additionally, if you consider Photoshop, which you must in this day and age, then every so-called photographic image must be considered to be nothing more, neither more nor less honest, than a digital painting. So, perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that the truth of a photograph, the fact of certain photons captured by silver or silicon, is essentially its most trivial component, and relatively uninteresting.

Many photographers view the camera as giving them a special way of seeing. “I take photographs to see what the world looks like in photographs,” said the photographer Gary Winogrand, affirming the primacy of the photographic image as a unique experience in itself, the equal of any work of art, and, most importantly, entirely separate and independent from what it represents.

We could ask many of these same questions about field recording (and no doubt I am not the first to do so).

Field recording can be a way of experiencing the world, a way of perceiving sounds that normally would be noticed only marginally, if at all. We might think of choosing what to record, that is to say, being aware that in the world there are many things worth the bother of recording them, as an exercise to sharpen the hearing, for it is useful to always pay attention to the surrounding sounds as a way of discovering interesting subjects. The activity itself can be revelatory, even if no recording is made, because we don’t normally actively listen to every sound around us that we passively hear. But an interest in making recordings inspires precisely the wish to listen closely to almost everything.

But, to paraphrase Winogrand, do we make field recordings to hear how the world sounds over loudspeakers? Can we contrast this with the practice of recording something to document it, to preserve it for repeated use? The role of these media is at least partly to stop time from passing (or at least transpose a passage of time to be heard or seen sometime later). But these artefacts also propel time forward, by the fact that perceiving recorded reality is a distinct and new experience, and separate from experiencing it in the first instance.

So I don’t really want an answer to any of these questions. I just want to suggest than any answer that might be given will likely be always partly, and at the same time never entirely, true.


A version of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 19th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“