Close Listening: Tracing the history of field recordings and electronic music
Electronic music can sometimes feel synthetic and cold, almost like it’s lost a connection to the real world.
Field recordings, however, allow electronic music to be grounded in the reality of the everyday as producers build compositions around samples of children arguing, birdsong and even the whirls of a washing machine. This creates the illusion that listening to a piece of electronic music is like stepping into a living, breathing world.
Brian Eno credits the invention of ambient music to being sick in the hospital back in the 1970s and a visitor putting on a vinyl filled with 18th century harp music. It was raining and Eno claims he heard the music start to synchronize with the storm outside his window. “I started listening to the rain and the odd notes of the harp together, and this was a great musical experience,” he later said in an interview. “It made me think about making music that created a landscape that you could belong to and be part of.”
This philosophy of combining music with every day sounds continues today. Bjork’s haunting 2017 album Utopia saw the Icelandic singer and her producer Arca travel everywhere from Venezuela to the Caribbean, purely to record birds singing. “A group of us got Airbnbs in the Caribeean. We’d walk in the jungles, recording birds,” Bjork told Dazed, with songs such as The Gate and Arisen My Senses built around exotic chirps, which lend an otherwise alien-sounding record an ethereal beauty. Yet field recordings can also be a lot more mundane in nature.
Matmos’s critically acclaimed Ultimate Care II is named after a Whirlpool washing machine, which is prominently sampled throughout the album’s 38-minute running time. This 2016 record creatively uses the sounds of clothes spinning around in soapy water to somehow create atmospheric, minimalist techno. Meanwhile, The Books, a duo made up of Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong, have used the screams of children to create electronic music. Their blistering track A Cold Freezin Night is built around glitchy audio clips of children throwing playground insults at one another. The origins of these sounds, you ask? They were on an old Talkboy recorder – yeah, the one Kevin McCallister uses in Home Alone 2: Lost In New York – found at a thrift store, which just happened to be filled with recordings of children being dickheads to one another.
But while these modern electronic interpretations find a way to make the process of field recordings daring and hip, the origins of the technique are a lot more educational in nature. Ludwig Koch, an eight-year-old German boy, is thought to have created the idea of field recordings back in 1889, when he used a rudimentary wax cylinder, which was a gift from his father, to capture the high-pitched vocals of an Indian Shama bird. The tweets Koch captured of birds were later incorporated into a sound book, which people could then study.
The legacy of Koch resulted in landmark 1970s records such as Songs of the Humpback Whale, a collection of whale noises recorded by oceanographer Roger Payne, who used military-issue hydrophones to capture the mating calls of whales as they echoed through the ocean. Popular 1977 record Birds and Other Sounds of the Countryside by Eric Simms also became a permanent fixture in British households, with the tranquil sound of bird song providing a naturalistic escapism amid the dire Thatcher years. Eno’s own experiments resulted in the brilliant Ambient 4: On Land, an exploration of how the lines between electronic music and the natural world can be blurred, as he utilised samples of wind and rain recorded in locations as diverse as Honduras and Ghana.
You can almost picture the KLF being introduced to these records as children, with their landmark Chill Out LP built around samples of the English countryside. According to a review in the Record Collector, this 1990 album, which uses noises including moving trains and livestock, marked a turning point for electronic music – it was the moment when field recordings became much more prominent in popular culture and a protest against using modern studio techniques. The review reads: “While electronic dinosaurs like Jean Michel Jarre and Klaus Schulze were walling themselves in with banks and banks of synthesizers, computers and electronic gadgetry the KLF were doing the opposite – making a crafted work like Chill Out with the bare necessities of musical survival.”
The KLF’s impact can still be felt today. The futuristic dancehall collective Equiknoxx also sprinkle noises of natural wildlife into their music. Members Gavin Blair and Jordan Chung do this by putting a microphone in a tree and then manipulating the results in the studio, with MPC drum machines allowing them to turn a hawk’s cries into sirens during the bridge of a dance track. Speaking to FACT, Chung claimed more and more electronic producers are turning to field recordings in order to escape the horrors of the modern age.
He explained: “It’s important that if the average man feels like he wants to capture this thing just to be a part of his soul or even to shape the world, it’s important that this person is able to do it – even for future generations to have these things for reference.
“It isn’t just for music either as what a particular street in Jamaica sounds like now might sound different in the next ten years and the man that recorded that just for his own fulfilment or joy… they might even end up in the national library one day.”
The internet meme culture we’re currently living through has also led to a boom in field samples, with Kanye West prominently sampling a toddler giving a sermon at the beginning of Ultra Light Beam.
Legendary American composter John Cage famously realised that silence was a redundant concept. Visiting a soundproof, anechoic chamber while at Harvard, Cage noticed he could still hear the sounds of his nervous system and the circulation of his blood. “In the same way there is always something to see, there’s always something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we still cannot,” he noted. This philosophy, of utilising every bit of natural sound that surrounds us, continues today, with Crack’s new Surroundings campaign with Shure following three artists as they make new songs out of everyday sounds from their hometowns. For them, just like Cage, there is always something to hear.