(photo of kate carr via a closer listen)
welcome to issue #27 of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every other monday, and on off-weeks i publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers.
this issue focuses on the field recording of kate carr, the best example of a “sound essayist” that i know of. what is a sound essayist? read on to find out!
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one of the main reasons i started this newsletter is to have a semi-formal place to write about field recording, which, compared to most other genres, is woefully under-studied. the availability of portable audio recorders (like this, and controversially, this) that caused its boom in popularity is a relatively recent development, which hasn’t given folks much time to write long-form work on it. further, as a discipline, field recording’s boundaries abut and blur into so many others’—musique concrète, sound installation, tape music, foley work, sampling—that often any writing about it gets subsumed under these other more familiar headings. there are great long-form pieces on field recording, including the interview collection In the Field and lawrence english’s history of the genre for factmag, but there has yet to be a widely accessible book-length study of the, aherm, field.
anyway, any nascent discipline needs its terms of art, which is where i come in to either provide a new one or showcase my ignorance. i’m in the embarrassing position of knowing the definition without knowing if the corresponding term exists, though i’ve never seen it described exactly as i would like to. so i’ll provide my own term:
sound essay (n.): a piece of audio consisting of two or more recordings, taken outside of a studio setting, which are edited together with the goal of addressing a specific theme or idea.
i’d like to stress the “essay” half of the term, which i use in the original, montaignian sense meaning “an initial tentative effort” or “the result or product of an attempt.” as a verb, to essay is to attempt, to try, to take a stab at explaining or working through an idea. it has a connotation of failure as a foregone conclusion, or at least of the impossibility of perfect success. an essay in its original form was always tentative, always contingent. this is doubly true of an audio essay because its very form, like the photo essay, requires substantial participation from the listener in order to illuminate its subject.
why “two or more recordings”? first, because a crucial element of the sound essay is the attempt to make connections between multiple sounds, and second, to differentiate this form from the mass of single-session recordings of, for instance, nature sounds—which i suppose implicitly make an ecological argument, but not an argument that relies, like a written essay, on the combination of several ideas or threads of thought. the comparison with writing is important here, as the sound essay takes after the form of the written essay, whether argumentative or personal (the closest i’ve seen to this idea in print is in this book on “writing the field recording,” which compares the ways that the environment is represented in writing and in field recording, but does not compare writing and field recording directly to one another in terms of form).
all of this pedantry is in service to this statement: kate carr is the foremost sound essayist that i know of, and it is her work that suggested the term to me in the first place. now that i think of it, others have created sound essays, including graham lambkin and jason lescalleet’s erstwhile trilogy (which is an essay about the relationship between location and memory) or felicity ford’s SHEEP (which is an essay about the british wool trade). but carr’s work is uniquely situated as an exploration of the sound essay because she comes out of an academic tradition, studying under salomé voegelin and angus carlyle, in which audio is used specifically as a means of exploring complex subjects. her ph.d project, for instance, uses sound to explore brixton and belfast as sites of contestation.
carr’s recorded output consists of a series of works some of which are more “essayistic” than others. she also runs the great field recording label flaming pines. below, i’m going to focus on the six releases that to me exemplify the “sound essay,” in reverse chronological order, though her total releases number closer to 18 full-lengths.
Where to Begin (2020)
this is carr’s most recent piece (save for her AMPLIFY: quarantine track, which i in all my wisdom deem Not A Sound Essay). it began as a commission from the bbc to create a work about loneliness, but carr expanded it for release during the quarantine because we are all indeed very lonely. the audio comes from a variety of people reading love letters out loud in various languages, along with glass beads falling onto different surfaces/musical instruments and the sound of pens scratching paper. in a way, this is the perfect example of a sound essay, as its integration of language makes its theme perfectly clear while the variety within the letters that are read allows much latitude in interpretations of that theme.
“i have also sent you an artwork of mine titled ‘eavesdroppers’ and it is a painting of two small ears,” says one woman. then, later, another woman reads, “where to begin? in the beginning is normally where a story starts. but this one starts here, with you.” implicit in this juxtaposition is the idea that we, as listeners, can only ever eavesdrop on others’ love stories, with all the half-knowledge and invasion of privacy that that act connotes. we are not the “you” being addressed in either of these cases. this makes the piece even lonelier-sounding, as we’re reminded we’re only triangulating the desire between the distanced couple, a dotted line to a third point on the map of their relationship. the eerie rustles, scrapes, and clinks making up the “musical” portion of the recording don’t at all assuage this feeling—depressing, especially in lockdown, but certainly effective.
video and audio about climate change usually focuses on the melting ice caps, but for most, the imminent environmental collapse won’t come in dramatic thunderous displays but as a slow burn. a particularly hot summer may be a sign of impending catastrophe, but not such an obvious one that an observer can point to one day or event or even year as the turning point. we just have to settle in as things get gradually worse. it’s this feeling of dread that carr captures on Heatwave, recorded during a weekend of record summer temperatures in london. we get the expected sounds of air conditioners kicking on and fans starting up, but what stands out is carr’s ability to transform ordinary sounds into music. the air conditioner is a drumroll and the fan is a synth (although actual instruments do appear to help things along). if the internet doesn’t melt before the next generation, this recording will at least attest to the fact that some of us saw, and heard, the coming disaster before it came.
last year’s Contact came about through a commission by the radiophrenia festival, a two-week event at glasgow’s centre for contemporary arts that also broadcasts live on a temporary radio station 24/7 for its duration. its topic is fitting for the fest, as carr uses the piece to explore communications signals from radio, morse code, satellite, bluetooth, sonar, and wireless. like Where to Begin, the theme is communication-at-a-distance, but instead of warm voices reading love letters we get cold machinic sounds—the shriek of dial-up modems, the dopplered beeps of sonar, the soft static of detuned radio. with one exception: throughout the piece, voices read off a series of “dot”s and “dash”es hesitantly, as if bewildered by the process by which any of this can lead to a meaningful message. again, loneliness is the overriding feeling here, but a loneliness born of the alienation of superabundant, but supermediated, communication.
I Ended Out Moving to Brixton (2018)
carr calls this one a “soundscape opera” but that’s alright we’ll stick to our guns and include it here anyway. i assume that this piece is either a part of or inspired by her ph.d work linked above, as it presents brixton, the area of london to which she moved from australia, as a “site of contestation” in which local black culture is being pushed out by gentrification. she explains that:
It was through listening to Brixton that I also came to hear voices being raised about how much this area had changed, about rising rents and neglected public housing, about how many people who grew up or used to have businesses here can no longer afford to stay. I learned about the role of Brixton as a centre of Black British culture, resistance and musical production, as well as a location once known for its anarchist squats, and left wing activism. I learned about how, as Brixton has become increasingly gentrified, some of the sounds associated with Brixton's history and communities were being lost from this area. I began to hear some of the new silences of Brixton.
the variety of sounds here, from stereos to street-level chatter, is uniformly glazed over by a soothing, shifting ambient drone. then sirens periodically come blaring into the foreground, startling and clear. carr asks to what extent we let the “background noise” of a city recede into a formless hum, only to be attended to when an alarm(ing) sound pierces our consciousness. it’s in these life-sounds—the street music, the conversation—that the vitality of an area can be measured, and if we’re not paying attention it will disappear without our realizing it.
From A Wind Turbine To Vultures (And Back) (2017)
most field recordings are simply audio documents of places people usually never get to see, and this comes close to fitting that description. however, the method by which carr created From A Wind Turbine… makes it resemble a personal essay about a sisyphean task more than a simple audio diary. she spent two weeks trekking up and down a mountain in velez blanco, southern spain, during a cold and rainy winter. she stopped to record at 100-meter intervals going both up and down, and then stitched the pieces together into two sides, “ascent” and “descent.” she describes the result as “a succession of played and recorded sonic niches from the radio in the villa on the valley floor, to the vibrating low-growing woody shrubs braving the rocky peak.” more than a nature recording, this is a testament to one person’s dedication and discipline as they practice their craft. you can almost hear how miserable it was to climb up and down this icy slope every day, all to create a “transect” of a mountain few people would care to—or dare to—explore.
I Had Myself a Nuclear Spring (2016)
this release sits just this side of the border between “sound essay” and “traditional field recording,” and an argument could be made for either designation. but, retrospectively, we can see how this recording was integral to carr’s development in the direction she eventually took. she arrived at the tiny town of marnay in france to record audio of the seine, but when she stepped off the train she was surprised to see the towers of a massive nuclear power plant just off the river. she chose this area to record, and the result is—almost literally—shocking. The “buzzing electrical towers” surrounding the area and the “high capacity electricity cabling” overhanging it “rendered some types of recording almost impossible – hydrophones no longer captured underwater sounds but, due to high levels of electromagnetism, a rather bracing electrical hum.” without this information, the recording sounds poorly done, as if carr didn’t account for electronic interference when she was setting up her mics. with this context, though, the recording is frightening—the buzzing is not coming from her mics; her mics are picking it up from the air itself. it sounds dangerous to even stand where she’s standing. and ultimately that’s what makes this her first “sound essay,” as the topic of the recording shifts from “sounds of the seine” to “a condemnation of the alarming ways that humans affect their surroundings.”
of course, carr has many more albums of more traditional field recording pieces, including her recordings of doi saket, thailand, of paris, and of iceland. the transition from these location-based documentary works to what i’ve called her sound essays appears to have occurred in 2016, which is also when she began her ph.d studies—perhaps a coincidence, or perhaps an aesthetic change due to academic direction (or increased numbers of themed commissions). either way, these earlier albums are all technically proficient and interesting in various ways but those later ones highlighted above have proven carr to be a standout talent in a crowded (aherm) field of such recordists.
it’s been a while since i’ve done a quarantine quorner and since we’re all still hopefully quarantining, at least in the u.s., i figured i would recommend this great resource that the walker art center in minneapolis recently published. it’s called Creative Black Music at the Walker: Selections from the Archives. it features sections for a variety of great black musicians and groups, from anthony braxton to wadada leo smith, including performance video, interviews, photos and correspondence. i personally suggest you start with the june 13, 1980 julius eastman concert.
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