On Narrative Listening, Part 3 – The Sense of Eternity

Push Play

In every attempt to define field recordings the genre gets juxtaposed to studio recordings. Once upon a time in a land with dusty roads and workers on the field this was the right way to put it. A young man with a guitar and a convincing voice, a story to tell would sound different leaning against a band wagon. In a studio nothing would be left to chance. Producers developed the studio sound even more. In the golden years of FM radio cities like Detroit or Philadelphia gave their name to a certain style. To oppose field recordings nowadays to studio recordings is slightly ridiculous: the sounds out there cannot be found in a studio.
Not yet.
The definition holds also a paradox. Thanks to very advanced technical equipment the recordist can built a virtual studio in the field. The computer offers programmes to master the sound. The result is that most ‘field recordings’ have equal studio quality. When major record companies decide that ‘field recordings” have a commercial value, one can imagine that the recordings find their final mix and a new sound in a studio.

Celebrate the World

Anyone making recordings of a non musical nature, must have felt a sense of wonder while listening to it through headphones at the very moment. The surrounding world changes. Listening while recording makes you more attentive. Hearing is a means of orientation. Hearing more forces you to orientate more.
A shift in existential presence leaves space for reflection. A sense of wonder brings out a feeling to share the experience.
I can imagine that this is how religion could develop. People who shared the same sense of wonder at a certain time decided to listen to someone who could explain it all. Once the initiates were conscious of their mission history could start moving.

Publications stress the interdisciplinary collaboration between field recorders scientist sociologist architects. The list of possible collaborators differs. The utopian notion is evident. The mission is to improve the world. Several methods are used, but the act of listening is the most important one. Field recorders don’t whine when they complain about wacky equipment. They understand the importance of presentation. Holy trees, temples or cathedrales, add a ritual, a ceremonial dress and some incense, the words serve only to induce the trance.
The modern day field recorder needs the best audio equipment you can get, 8 or 80 speakers should make it possible for the listener to loose his ‘self’ and become one with the sound.
Translated to a medial level such a performance can be defined an ‘event.’ A field recorder is more then an artist, he is on a mission. Bullets can’t hit him.

When using that other rhetoric weapon in the battle for awareness – immersive listening – one should try to reflect a bit on his own existence. Relax, empty your mind, not necessarily put of your shoes, look around without trying to hear more then you see, also for the simple reason that you cannot hear the clouds, and you cannot hear the horizon and you cannot hear all the lives behind them windows and you cannot hear tomorrow and you cannot hear the youth of your grandmother and you cannot hear the grass grow – ssshhhhht! – you don’t have to realize it, but you are immersed in life. To add exclusivity to an obvious quality of our existence is a rhetoric trick.

Another trick, almost touching for its naivity is the discovery that some sounds are in danger of extinction. This made me think. What are eternal sounds?Which sounds were here since the beginning of time and will be here until the universe implodes with the final Big Plop? No scientist or anthropologist or geologist or archeologist can help you to find an answer. Everything moves,

A sense of exclusiveness paired with a belief in something higher is at the core of every religion.

“It devolves on us now to invent a subject we might call acoustic design, an interdiscipline in which musicians, acousticians, psychologists, sociologists, and others would study the world soundscape together in order to make intelligent recommendations for its improvement.”

–R. Murray Schafer

On the 18th of July, 2011, the birth day of Murray Schafer, the second edition of World Listening Day will take place. One of the things you can do is create your own little ashram. This is how: ‘Participate introspectively by simply paying attention to your soundscape.’

Shaking the Genes

One morning I woke up to the sounds of a lawn mower, a cruel machine that destroys the dance floor of bees and butterflies. My first thought however was of an acoustic ecologic nature. The high pitched roar of the motor was very disturbing, like the voice of someone engaged in an angry discussion. If only the sound of the motor would have been of a different nature, I could have continued sleeping in a peaceful way. Using a lawn mower makes sense. When I was still young, some six years ago, I daydreamed about living in a villa with a giant lawn. I would own a Ferrari red lawn mower, that looked like a life size Dinky Toy. First I would shave myself, dress sharp and then drive around the lawn on a Sunday morning before kissing the wife and kids and go to see the match at the stadium. Of course my kids would grow up to become respected and well situated members of society. Their genes were okay, by no way shaken in disorder by nerve-wracking screaming machines, like the leaves blower that has replaced the comforting sweeping sounds of the broom, or other poor people’s devices that bring to every household the sounds of a giant factory at its peak production hour.

Defining the Borders

I came across an interesting example of Acoustic Democracy when I was in Kopenhagen on Easter Monday in the year 2011. The story told by my host unravelled the origins of Danish language. It was a story full of information on the different dialects of his country. But out of the filologic/demografic details a giant cloud grew, similar to an invisible radio-active cloud, that rose above Kopenhagen and slowly moved over the whole country. Its fall out fed the native tongues with drops of a strange language. I visualized small communities on the coast, fishermen and peasants whose wives would bake bread and apple cake in the oven. A pastoral image of couples who lived on a flat land under an immense sky. When they saw a cart or a wanderer appear on the horizon they would know he would talk to them in a foreign language.

The political measure to install the Kopenhagen dialect as the official Danish language defined and influenced up to present days the relation of the Danes with their capital. It also explained to me why the populists were strongly represented in the parliament. Populism parasites on destabilized socio-cultural borders. A new radio-active cloud of unsettling information had brought back discontent.

Songs from my Courtyard

My courtyard in Berlin Neukölln is of relative beauty, by no means comparable to the grey empty tombs in other parts of the neighborhood. It is spacious, has vanilla coloured walls and blooming plants and flowers and it is well isolated. A corridor under a front house apartment connects the courtyard with the street. The same at the back side where it gives out on a silent garden. I never saw people there. The place holds a mystery.

One of the obvious characteristics of the courtyard are the surrounding windows. In an acousmatic sense these windows function as faders on a mixer. Depending on mood, visitors and time of year the songs in my courtyard follow different patterns: kitchen radio, talking, sometimes a piano or an accordeon or my bollywood music. Voices resound, clonking and clanking can be heard, playing or crying kids. The volume level is always very controlled. Only once Italian guests added a sense of mediteranean folklore.

Since a few days the soft mumbles of my old radio I listen to while having breakfast has found an additional voice. It is warm outside, my kitchen windows are opened. From somewhere a woman’s voice exercises are heard. I stick my head out of the window, say kssh to the cat who came to poo – I live ground floor – and try to locate where my new neighbor lives. No chance. The vowels whirl around like dandelion’s seeds. During breakfast I think of medieval musical notation, the one without bars, no division of time. From a short visit to a little monastery near Montalcino that I envision over a slice of bread and honey, I get to conceive more worldly things like a silent sound installation. Why not print the lady’s Ha’s and Hu’s one by one on an A4 sheet. I always have liked the ‘choose life’ t-shirts Wham! came up with. I would hang this ha and hu sheets in the corridor; everybody could sing along when going away or coming back home: an ode to joy!

Of course I didn’t realize this art project, neither did I play out loud the sounds of bark beetles. Someone’s awareness is an intimate territory, that shouldn’t become a working ground for idealists.

Whenever I open the gate and enter the corridor, the vanilla courtyard opens itself to me. The world becomes more quiet. I look at the left corner and notice that I am not at home, yet.

The End of the Football Season

The part of town at the other side of the river was built against a small hill. A road curled between the houses. It had the shape of a thrown away shoe string. We did what all wanderers do when they are walking upwards a hill: we stopped and turned around. Krakow laid under the haze of a hot afternoon. The roofs of the city seemed to have lost their shape. I tried to look further, imagine the town in a vast middle-european landscape. “Krakow is a lazy town,” I heard my host say.

We were on our way to the old stadium, a thing to do at the end of a football season. I imagined cracked concrete and wooden stands, vegetation slowly taking over, ravished roofs and fences that would not survive the next storm.

On the top of the hill we entered the park, passed little cabines where tickets were once sold. Walking up the lane I saw something that reminded me of an archeological site. No! The stadium had been torn down, and these were the neatly curated remains. “No, this is it.” My host had thought of an elegant quiet place, far away from the touristic torrents downtown. I had prepared a nostalgic pilgrimage, while trying to remember if the great Ajax ever played Wisla Krakow.

But football is stronger then deception. This stadium reminded of my own days as a football player, being one of the thousands who got out of the house on a Saturday morning. It was not much of a stadiun, horse shoe shaped the surrounding tribune, stands only, up to eight rows at either side and maybe fourteen behind the goal. The darkened grey of the concrete went very well with the pitch that rested before us, flooded by sunlight.

We sat a while in the shade. I recorded the remnants of matches from the black and white age. Birds sang. I leaned backwards as I used to when watching a friendly game in the pre-season. After the recording and a thorough discussion on child migration in Upper Schlesien in the years 1834-1852 we got up. Our next destination was an artificial hill at a ten minutes walk.

But when we walked back unconsciously paying respect to the football ground, we saw a man in his early fifties step on the pitch. Not only his determination was striking, but also the fact that the only thing he wore was a pair of dark blue old fashioned underpants. The athletic years of the man were way gone, judging from his belly: a thin man’s belly it was.

We watched him in awe, while he continued his walk to a position somewhere mid field. Suddenly spasms went through his left and right leg, as if he had stepped in stinging nettles. He shook them briefly. For an instant I couldn’t believe what I saw. But this was evidently the reflex of someone who as an active player had walked on the field for a long series of years.

You don’t see it anymore. Not so long ago when players were welcomed by the roar of their supporters and often risked to disappear in the clouds provoked by bengal fires, you could watch them exercise a strange ritual. Some of them spurted for ten meters and ended it while jumping up and beating air with a fierce hammer move of their chest and head. Others ran backward at top speed in a zigzagging move. Supporters started to call out loud the names of the players of their team, and cheered when this one responded with a held up hand.
This doesnot exist anymore. Stadiums have a one million watt amplification system. Before the match starts, supporters chorusses get blasted away by a tune as heard at the beginning of your average television show.

The man had come a long way. We walked on, and at some twenty meters he walked along with us, hands on his back. He wore glasses, maybe he was an ex-referee. At some point he turned around and we continued our walk towards the mysterious mount. “At the beginning of the summer the sun stands exactly over its top.” My host said.

Shortly after we entered rural Poland. I felt happyness and a country life I had never experienced. Here was the land of smiling girls with a young pig on their arms, where a couple of goose goggled in the yard and cherry trees carried big juicy cherries every summer. Here you’d only arrive on a thirty years old bicycle, a skyblue one.

Time to record all this, just for the memory.

“I have lost my microphone. It was in a small matchbox.”

We walked back, eyes pointed to the road. I was sure to find it again. In a lazy town, people would never break my day.

The man sat on one of the rows, still not dressed. A couple sat not far from our place. I jumped up the rowes, walked to our seats. It was still there.

picture by Marcin Barski


One response to “On Narrative Listening, Part 3 – The Sense of Eternity

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