Sound and Time

On using field recording and sound maps to investigate time

In this short article I wish to broadly outline two interlinked approaches to working with sound that intersect with temporality in interesting ways. I do so from the perspective of someone who considers these things predominantly from an academic rather than an artistic perspective, yet – and I apologise for implying a false binary – I have also used both of these approaches within creative research projects (including for TIK) that are not generally supported within academia. Due to space limitations, I only give them a tentative and partial shape, yet hopefully I will give enough to be able to point to their usefulness in thinking about these relationships.

Field recording (or phonography) involves recording sound outside of the parameters of a controlled studio space. The very act of field recording requires a heightened sensitivity to the temporal dimensions of sound events. The wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson considers his work as ‘fishing for sound’; indeed an image of Chris using a hydrophone to record below the water surface in a fjord appears to make this assessment literal.

Chris Watson recording underwater sounds using a hydrophone (source: http://www.chriswatson.net/)Chris Watson recording underwater sounds using a hydrophone (source: http://www.chriswatson.net/)

To ‘fish’ for sound requires a good deal of patience on the recordists’ part. Often a field recordist will have no idea what sounds to expect, especially when using microphones to access sound worlds that are usually inaccessible, and so a recordist must learn to be still and listen for long durations. Even when there is an expectation of certain sounds, you are often not in control of the timing of these events. When I recorded a dawn chorus in Scotland in May of 2011 (1) this required setting up microphones before 4am, as morning birdcalls are at their peak before the sun rises. This is to say that a recordist must be in tune with the timing of non-human sound worlds, even when this is ‘antisocial’ when judged by human time. Additionally, a recordist also needs to be aware of their body’s own internal rhythms, especially respiratory rhythms, so that they are regulated and rendered inaudible in recordings.

Field recording can act in such a way as to frame particular sonic rhythms in soundscapes that may otherwise pass undetected. Using different types of microphones that pick up different frequency ranges, and changing the directional placement of microphones, will affect what is framed, akin to the way that a photographer frames a shot. Even very subtle changes to a recording technique can give vastly different results, shifting certain rhythms in and out of the foreground of a recording. Some of my favourite sonic rhythms include the repetitious call of cicadas as they cyclically transition from fast energetic singing during the hottest hours of the day, to longer gaps between each sonic iteration as the sun starts to set. Another is the rhythm produced by the common periwinkle (a species of sea snail) as it grazes on algae on the side of rocks in tide pools (2). The temporal nature of these rhythms is governed by an organism’s chronobiology, which is the cyclical characteristics (both timing and duration) of certain biological activities, which are affected by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun, and also the relative levels of light (so-called zeitgeber cues).

Recordings are processed for different presentational formats – film, radio, sound installation pieces, live and recorded musical arrangements – but field recordists are increasingly using sound maps as way to present untreated recordings (3). Sound mapping is essentially a method of representing sonic information on a mapped territory, which invariably involves embedding geo-located field recordings on a digital map interface. I think there are a number of reasons for their increasing use, including an alluring (but false) sense that a map is an objective format for the presentation of sonic information, even though all maps can only ever be partial projections of the values of that map’s creator. Perhaps less cynically, I also believe that sonic maps are now more frequently produced, as they provide a better context of where sounds have been recorded than purely relying on textual information, using a familiar and user-friendly visualisation to do so. Additionally, the ubiquity of appropriate consumer-level technology (open source maps, pocket GPS instruments, cheap digital recorders) means that they can be easily produced, even if on a limited budget.

Detail of my own sound map showing field recording markers in Bratislava, Slovakia (source: http://12gatestothecity.com/acoustic-map/)Detail of my own sound map showing field recording markers in Bratislava, Slovakia (source: http://12gatestothecity.com/acoustic-map/)

While the potential for sound maps to represent spatial characteristics of sound should be fairly apparent, they can also invoke temporal considerations in subtle but no less significant ways. When we upload field recordings to a sound map, they become something like a sonic ‘snap shot’, representing a particular location at a particular time. One of my favourite sound mapping projects, the London Sound Survey, approaches sound and time from intriguing perspectives (4). Firstly, a variety of sound maps of London have been produced that feature different types of sonic information: one of these is a day sound map, and another is a night sound map. Here, then, we are invited to make comparisons of sonic qualities based on diurnal cycles within the same location. Secondly, a visitor to the LSS website can switch the map that sounds are embedded within between contemporary and historical maps, including a map from 1898 that displays levels of poverty and wealth in London, and the first Ordnance Survey map that dates from 1805 (5). Overlaying contemporarily recorded sounds over historical maps holds a great deal of potential for researching the relationship between sound and space, and how these may change (or not) through time.

The London Sound Survey interface, showing contemporary sound markers laid over Charles Booth’s poverty map of 1898 in the areas of City, Spitalfields, and Waterloo (source: http://www.soundsurvey.org.uk/index.php/survey/london_map/waterloo/348/)The London Sound Survey interface, showing contemporary sound markers laid over Charles Booth’s poverty map of 1898 in the areas of City, Spitalfields, and Waterloo (source: http://www.soundsurvey.org.uk/index.php/survey/london_map/waterloo/348/)

Lastly, I want to consider the relationship from the perspective of how sound maps can act as repositories of sonic information for the future. We can conceive of sound maps as sonic archives, in the same way that we can think of other types of media producing archives (photography and film). In the UK, the British Library is at the forefront of producing archival sound maps. One of the sound maps produced by the Library is incredibly provocative in how sound maps can archive sound data. Between 1950 and 1961, researchers recorded interviews with people (predominantly rural male farm labourers) from across 313 localities in England, as a way to capture English dialects. Excerpts from all of these recordings have now been digitised and uploaded to a map at the point where they were originally recorded (6). Listening to some of these recordings is incredibly evocative, capturing not only interesting historical stories of people’s daily lives, but also the rhythm, stress and intonation of voices, and the sonic qualities of the recording technology, such as the hiss and crackle of tape. Sound maps being produced now can be considered as future archives – not just those that capture oral histories, but also environmental sounds and total soundscapes. Fortunately, field recordists seem to have a tendency to approach distribution rights of recordings from a copyleft perspective, perhaps more so than photographers and film makers, which will ensure that vast amounts of sonic data will be freely accessible to all in the future, provided that this data is archived properly.

As the political, social, ecological and material organisation of the places in which we live inevitably change through time, so too will the sounds of these places. Sound maps, then, are significant historical records of these places, inviting all kinds of comparative research projects (comparing historical and contemporary sonic qualities) and artistic practices. This potential will only continue to grow as new types of sound maps come on-stream, in so doing reshaping the way that we think about sound and time.

Resources
The following are a few more sound maps that readers may be interested in viewing and listening to:

European sound map project: http://www.soundseeker.org/
Radio aporee global sound map: http://aporee.org/maps/
Sound map of Montreal, Canada: http://www.montrealsoundmap.com/
Murmur, an oral storytelling sound map project: http://murmur.info/
New York sound map: http://www.soundseeker.org/

Footnotes
(1) An hour long dawn chorus recording can be listened to here: http://bit.ly/dawn_chorus
(2) You can listen to a recording of this that I captured using a hydrophone in Dunbar, east Scotland, here: http://bit.ly/commonperiwinkle
(3) Often field recordists will do very little post-production of field recordings, maybe just adding fades to the beginning and end.
(4) You can access the London Sound Survey sound maps here: http://www.soundsurvey.org.uk/
(5) The Ordnance Survey is the national mapping agency of Great Britain.
(6) This sound map can be accessed here: http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-Maps/Accents-and-Dialects

by Jonathan Prior