The practice of Field Recording – A personal retrospective

Upon the kind invitation from David Woje to be a guest in his podcast Ambisonic Spaces, I took myself to think deeply – or rather to organize my thoughts – about how my personal practice has mutated throughout these years. As I changed, evolved, or moved as a person, so has my practice.

It is a personal journey, with political implications, not necessarily going against what I have done before but there has been a shift. As David says in the episode, it became a lifestyle; it became somewhat an extension of myself. For me this is of incredible importance and very meaningful. For years, while I was studying and after graduating, I felt like I had to split myself between what I desired and the shitty jobs at the mall; later on, the shitty jobs in the audio industry. That’s just life! But personally I always had issues detaching my aspirations, my struggles and everything from the money making big machine I had to deal with to survive.

Field recording allowed me a wide space of contemplation and a portal into the world and all the beings in it. Therefore I cannot ignore the implications of sharing my works with the world. A nature sound recording can be beautiful but empty. These are some questions I have considered to hold in my practice:

  • Is this about me or about the place and its beings – human and more-than-human?
  • Am I contributing positively to the place?
  • Am I de-politicizing and contributing to the erasure and / or diminishing the importance of the stories of this place?
  • What story is there to tell? Is it up to me to share it?
  • Can I amplify the voices of the beings that inhabit the place?
  • Is it possible to immerse myself in the world views of the place and expand my horizons?

Below is the the text I have written to produce the story you can hear in the podcast. It contains links to all the references, people and works spoken of. And I’d love you to join the discussion.

If you’d like to support my work, you can contribute by purchasing my work on bandcamp or offering me a coffee, or 2, on Ko-Fi.

What made me start with field recording was curiosity and novelty. Not because what was around me was changing but because, I suppose, there was some fascination by the act of listening through the equipment.
I didn’t understand it at the time but now I have of course realized that field recording is one of the very few things that I am able to do that for once leaves me not restless – I can actually be still, both in my body and my mind. And this is not a usual thing in my daily life.
Also this activity came with a sense of appreciation and a growing love for Nature, which is a term that I would rather not think of a separate from myself – I rather use ‘more-than-human-life’, a term that I recently learnt from Kim V. Goldsmith, who is san interdisciplinary artist, creative producer and field recordist in Australia.

I had a relatively big project happening in the end of 2016 and early 2017 in Brazil. It was very touching. I visited the Atlantic Forest, which nowadays is incredibly fragmented. Initially I visited in São Paulo where I did several days of recordings in a State Park called Cantareira. I had a lot of support from the staff, people I won’t forget. And after that I spent around 3 weeks in Minas Gerais in a NGO called Iracambi. This was the first time I worked in a place that contained a culture and an environment that were not really mine, even though the little barriers of language, even though I am the daughter of a Brazilian person, I was still a foreigner and the first time I heard the sounds of this Forest I really felt like I was in another planet. The impression was very strong: the heat, the humidity, the sounds. The feeling of “tropical forest” was very clear.
It was here that I started to really think about anthropogenic noise: the park in São Paulo was located not far from the airport and there was a lot of construction around, there were neighbourhoods encroaching the perimeters of this park and I felt that was almost like a violation of the sonic space. I remember hearing the howler monkeys vocalising and this sound was almost completely blended with the sound of planes. In one hand I was very frustrated because the recording that I was trying to make was not good… but nowadays I try to remove my ego from this because this is not directly about my survival, but it was about them. So I don’t see any reason why noise pollution shouldn’t be considered as prejudicial as throwing any kind of trash or dumping foreigner or toxic substances in a place. Fast forward to 2020 I remember very well in the Wolf Sanctuary in Portugal, there was one road within the space of the forest that constituted the sanctuary that was public. And it was very popular – and probably still is – to race with motorbikes, specially in the weekends. In these days the wolfs would not howl or howl much later than usual, so it was very obvious that there has been a change in their behaviour. Why not forbid these activities in such spaces?

Curiosity continued to move me. In Brazil, in the Sanctuary, in Sweden and in other places, in the morning I went picking up the equipment that recorded during the night and I was feeling extremely excited and curious to hear what happened during the night. This was exhilarating. I continued to have this practice of unattended recordings also where I live, a very quiet and beautiful place in the countryside. However, because now I live in this situation where nature is all around me and I have the opportunity to incorporate it into my daily life, and the fact that it’s also quite a safe place; and I don’t even talk about potentially dangerous animals but there isn’t even any people I can be worried about. I was very scared of the wild boars – this a story I have told in some podcasts – that ended up disappearing with a lot of contemplation, with a lot of thinking and confrontation as well. And with this I started to come to an understanding that probably the biggest reason why I was doing unattended recordings at night was out of fear. Not that I consider myself a fearful person but it has taken me some years to actually feel at ease in these environments, outside the walls of my house. At the same time it started to bother why me that it is part of this – because ultimately I believe that there is no separation – because I do field recording very much on the art of appreciating, I have started to feel no other than a coward when I didn’t attended the recordings.
Of course I want to do a parenthesis here: if we are talking about research or sometimes imposed conditions in which the only way to record is to use a drop rig – I am not against it at all, but otherwise I will actually make my best to not do it any more. The last time that this happened was still this summer: I recorded the Iberian Red Deer rutting here in the south of Portugal. Even though I didn’t have total logistic control of the situation I still think it’s a fabulous phenomenon to be able to listen to it, but I maybe expect to be the last time I record like this.
Because it’s about the experience in nature and to bring my equipment into that as a way of creating a memory, of expressing, even some kind of homage to the place and to the nature symphony and beauty.

What is interesting to me personally in field recording is that – perhaps ironically – taught me to listen with my own ears and it has in a more or less gentle way forced me to be completely comfortable outside, sitting on the ground, not being in an alert mode, not having to look over my shoulder. And this has been quite an important mark in my life, not only as a field recordist but also has a person that walks in this Earth.
Earlier this Summer many times I took my equipment in a specific place near my home that is also very close to my heart and sometimes I ended up not recording – I didn’t want to. I started to think about the urge that so many of us have to take pictures, to tape, to record sound even in a way that is so impulsive that seems to come before appreciating. This act started to feel so intrusive to the space and to the experience of just being, which is mostly what I am looking for nowadays. So, in a philosophical way, if you will, my approach and what I have been looking for have been changing significantly in this last handful of years. I haven’t been able to publish any field recording work recently because I want to do it in a way that honours the space and life that has been recorded and for me this is not a very easy thing to accomplish.

This year, I have been involved in a very well rounded project with a team and great logistics which led me to think that I would do a very structured work and bring home fantastic recordings. But in this space I didn’t feel accepted, I always felt very uncomfortable. This can be highly subjective and even sound pathetic but honestly most recordings were… quite bad. Not so much from a technical point of view but there was not any quality to it or the sound pollution was shockingly huge. And for me, someone who has a body that is part of this planet, I start to think that to listen to ourselves – and to the place – it’s very important to be in sort of a communion with more-than-human-life. … without wanting to sound on the basis of pop spirituality – which I vehemently reject…- the lectures and writings of geographer and sound artist AM Kanngieser have been very elucidate in this aspect. And in these particular situations it’s not easy to separate intellect from instinct but I also question if it’s worth to try to do it, in a circumstance like that.

So lost as I was in the beginning of the summer, saving my equipment on the side for a long time, I can say that things have maybe revived very recently when I travelled to Orléans in France together with another field recordist, Jocelyn Robert, and for almost everyday in a week, we went to the forest at night to listen, to experience, to learn, to record… and it was so dark that the most that we could see was the contour of the trees’ canopy against the starry sky. And as our ears were getting habituated to learn the space that we were aiming to record the red deer in the rutting season, the act of sharing the experience directly as it happened was quite transformative, so here I am – or here we are – sharing a part of those recordings. Each of us had their own gear and we placed it independently without interfering in each other’s work, just naturally commenting out of intellectual curiosity, and this has been one of the most, if not the most significant experience of field recording I have had. It has really brought me something new… despite my initial reservations because I always viewed field recording too as an excuse for solitude, since I love to spend time with myself and never managed to work collectively in a context like that.

So this is where I am as field recordist today… I do have some interest in releasing this work, especially because there are some windows to explore regarding mythology of the deer and I consider beautiful the way the space is revealed through the powerful calls of this animal. I have intentions to dive very deep in these recordings so I am not in a hurry either.

Personally I am not a believer in the term conservation: I would rather that the language and the acts themselves would change to ‘protection or action’. Conservation to me reminds me of putting things in a museum – when it’s already too late to do something or when there are imperial interests to it. And even though we feel doom impending in the current climatic and political context, only taking register without providing context, without providing any personal human experience or anything that brings actual value of the place, the life and the human community that inhabits the area, it feels to me like a straight utilitarian approach to nature, which is also the opposite message I believe we all want to tell. There is an eagerness to explore very far from our homes, it’s probably a call for the foreigner, for what is new and I quote for the ‘exotic’, but I find many of this approaches extremely problematic and I’d love that the conversations with field recordists would center around the impact, the communities in which we go, how we feel as a person when we go to these places. I think there is obviously a place for all aspects of travelling far and discovering but we need to consider ways to totally remove imperialist practices and I hope field recording doesn’t fall into this abyss. This is my personal wish – that all of this can be done under the most ethical premises and that the act of sharing sounds that you record can trigger a response in the listeners. A response to be informed, first and foremost and then to be able to do something and if you are someone that worries about the Amazon rainforest or the forests in Indonesia and feel you can’t do anything directly about it, then perhaps start with all around us: our neighbours, our gardens and make better choices within our own capacity. And what is most important after all – to listen or to record?

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