Reading Soundcapes for Recordists and Listeners

An unedited soundscape recording is usually dismissed as having no ‘content’ or meaning due to its lack of visual information or seemingly typical setting. On the contrary, a soundscape recording can contain plenty of information and meaning that we perhaps have not trained our ears to hear. There are several compositional elements that can make up the 'content' of an audio recording. Some of the most common elements of a soundscape recording are layering, live improvisation, and time. Usually the combination of these elements actively by the recordist, or passively by the listener will result in a interactive, content-rich recording. A soundscape recordist tries to paint a picture in your mind to connect you to the ‘place’ and on a deeper level, to reveal the emotion and intention of the recordist, or subject. The clearer the picture is in your mind, the closer you are to the ‘place’ and ultimately the meaning of the recording.

Layering is something that every field recording has in some way. Whether it is to emphasize it or not, there is always a description of depth in every recording. The recording above is an amazing example of layering. The chanting of army-like drills initially emanates from right next to the recordist, after this group is dismissed another distant group count together and then followed by another group even farther in the campus. The depth of this recording is amazing and helps paint and vivid image of the surroundings. An immense sense of space can be discerned within this recording. The use of layers can bring you into the recording so you can 'see' more of the aural image making the recording 3 dimensional giving it a sense of space, depth, and directionality.

Live improvisation during a recording is where the recordist composes a scene with as little interference to the action as possible during the entire length of the recording. A successful improvised recording involves a recordist actively improvising with his surroundings or passively letting his surroundings interact with him to 'compose' the track. The audio track above is a good example of both active and passive improvisation. It begins with the recordist following an old man with a speaker attached to his person while he walks with a cane. The recordist leaves him and the radio is swallowed by the sounds of a street sweeper that slowly approaches him and finishes the recording beautifully. Although the recordist cannot be heard, his composition suggests his movement in a subtle way. It is a beautifully choreographed piece. The recordist still maintains his distance from the recording, but actually he is right next to you. He is in fact, you.

Sound can only exist in time. Time, is the ultimate challenge for a sound recordist to capture. This is not an 'interpretation' of time, but 'capturing' of time itself within the context of the place being recorded. The challenge and the art of soundscape recording is to capture something non-visual with something non-visual- to think abstractly about something rooted in reality. These sounds can be obvious much like the example above in which time is noted by the distant clock across the Huangpu River in Shanghai suddenly ringing telling the current time, or it can be more abstract and suggestive such as recording the season of winter within one recording such as in this recording of melting snow in Vancouver.

The creative use of one or the combination of these elements allow the recordist and listener to engage and interact with the recording. For the recordist, understanding these elements help give meaning and direction to their recordings and how they hear. For the listener, Using these elements to visualize the complete scene being recorded and allow you, if you dare, to dive deeper into the scene to seek more abstract meanings, emotions, and connections. In the old man and the street sweeper track, the symbolic fading of the old man could be further interpreted to suggest death and the sound of sweeping the waves crashing on the shores to the threshold of life beyond. The goal is to regard what you hear as something concrete and tangible. By training the ear and mind to listen and interact with these elements, the recording is no longer an empty and meaningless recording of a typical scene, rather, it waits to immerse you in a new world to create and make real.

[P.S. It must be said that one can only plan so much of a soundscape recording. The elusive and rogue element of serendipity- that single event that magnetizes all the elements to form a complementary piece- magically steps into our recording. Recordists and listeners need to listen for these and be ready to let it open new, hidden doors that tear apart the canvas we have just painted to reveal something even more amazing.]