Bogong residency 1: Fidelity

Two bubbling brooks — one in Finland, one in Australia

The following four posts come to you as an outcome of my residency at the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture, in the Victorian Alps 350km northeast of Melbourne. Part 2; Part 3; Part 4.

It seems a little facetious for me to come to Bogong Centre for Sound Culture — with generous assistance from Naturestrip — when I’m so disillusioned by the object of field recording. I enjoy the practice of field recording, and the subtle thrill of recording an otherwise ephemeral phenomenon, but the employment of field recording in my artistic practice doesn’t extend much beyond that selfish act.

There is a renaissance of interest in interrogating the role of the field recording in sound-based practice. Several sophisticated theories and frameworks have been put forward. It’s a dense literature, tending away from the objective, documentary status of the field recording as an historic artifact, towards a subjective, aesthetic appraisal of sound and listening, and our cultures and practices associated with them.

During my time at Bogong, for the next few days, I’ll be writing a few blog posts trying to come to terms with these new theroretical engagements with field recording, and their relation to my practice, to Bogong Village and its centre for sound culture. The first will be a discussion of fidelity.

Fidelity

The dull roar of the Kiewa river permeates the entire area here. Bogong is situated maybe 30 metres above some rapids leading into Lake Guy, a reservoir where it meets Junction Dam, and this rather ordinary noise continues along the river in each direction. Waking up after the first night here, for a split second I thought I was staying at my parents’ house — they live next to a highway in a semi-rural suburb south of Bunbury (200km south of Perth), and likewise, that dull noise is an omnipresent facet of acoustic life there.

I’d never valenced the highway noise as a bad thing until I left home to study music composition in Perth. After then, visiting my parents always accompanied a slight frustration with the noise — if *only* there weren’t the highway, home would be perfect.

This confusion between river noise and highway noise is intriguing. I’d mistaken something generally conceived to be *good* (the river, nature) with that which is *bad* (the highway, artificiality). Waking up that morning, I had that mild frustration that came with the highway, before remembering that I was at Bogong and this was a river, I had no need to be annoyed, yet I couldn’t shake this association with the highway.

Sound culture, if that can possibly be united into a single entity, has for the past half-century tended to perpetuate this good/bad dichotomy of natural/artifical sound. Arguably credited to R Murray Schafer’s “The Tuning of the World,” one of those books that has long since passed its use-by date yet still gets cited, sound culture tends to favour what Andra McCartney calls the “hi-fi soundscape.” The hi-fi soundscape is free of noise — using state-of-the-art recording equipment, devoid of anthrophonic pollution, isolated. The recordist and recording equipment assume an invisible and inaudible position, becoming a spectator of the soundscape. Clarity is key here. Lo-fi soundscapes, however, are characterised by a lack of clarity — urban life is the usual implication of the lo-fi soundscape. Sounds cannot be easily picked out, there is a lack of control.

McCartney points out that this rhetoric of fidelity privileges a one-dimensional view of the relationship between nature and humanity:

“The ideal of hifi seems to be related to ideas of authentic experience, of solitude, and of control of the environment. The authentic mountaintop of the hifi sound system and the idea of the hifi soundscape are both represented as retreats from the noise of urban domesticity. Is this what we want to represent to people? That in order to find ecological soundscapes, one must drive away from the city? That quiet, isolated sounds are ecological, and overlapping sounds unecological? What happens then with bird nesting colonies and tropical rainforests?”

“What do we do with noisy nature?” she asks. In this spectrum of fidelity, the rushing river is paradoxically unecological on the basis of its incessant crashing.

The primary reason I’m here at Bogong is to test out a new framework for injecting sound into environments using speakers, and considering the theoretical implications of that practice. In doing this, I hope to put aside this polarised notion of fidelity in favour of exploring the complexity of microphone-speaker relationships in the context of field recording. My first run, pictured, played a recording I made of a bubbling creek in Finland (as part of the Arteles residency in January) through a cheap, bluetooth (and weatherproof) Skullcandy speaker against a creek running through the Mount Arthur Firebreak track. The results are intriguing — listening back to it there’s a very slight sense of artifice, of mediation. Given the low fidelity of the speaker and the rolled-off high and low frequencies, there’s a lack of clarity of what is actually the object being recorded here. Since the speaker occupies the same space as the creek, this accentuates that uncertainty — had I simply stacked the two separate recordings together (in the studio), this effect would not be as prominent.

This process also revealed the necessity of getting the speaker volume and mic placement just right because that’s impossible to fix in the studio, so the next few days will be committed to getting this balance right.