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Zine review: Caught by the River, Field Recording Special

Just before we went on holiday to Dartmoor I got something nice in the post: a zine, the "Caught by the River" Field Recording Special edited by Cheryl Tipp, a lover of field recordings who also happens to be Natural Sounds Curator at the British Library.

Cover art

First reaction: beautiful cover art! A fab drawing of a menagerie of animals surrounds a jolly portrait of the stereotypical field-recordist: a middle-aged man wearing headphones and carrying both a boom mic and a parabolic shotgun mic. Cute.

Inside, there's some great contemplative writing on field recording. It's got a nice amateur feel to a lot of the writing, personal and not too polished. There is the occasional bit of self-indulgence or pretentiousness but not enough to sap its appeal. And this is balanced by some more accomplished and well-written wordism from the likes of Andrew Weatherall and Jonny Trunk. Great names to have in such an issue, plus of course Chris Watson's name appears more times than anyone else's, mentioned (in passing or as subject) by almost everyone.

To give a bit of flavour, some articles I liked:

  • an account of a field recording trip (led by Chris Watson) in North India, and the sort-of-successful attempt to record a Bengal tiger;
  • a lively tribute to Basil Kirchin, someone I hadn't heard of but evidently a pioneer of tape ops;
  • a fever-induced meditation on what the world might be like if sound was a finite resource, about to run out.

The zine really reminds you to listen. I work with sound every single day but in a scientific mode rather than a contemplative mode, so it was good to take this zine out into the Dartmoor countryside.

Halfway through reading the zine I went outside into the dusk to listen. Many birds around, tweeting or whooping only occasionally, and all really spatialised sounds, locatable to one tree or another. In contrast, the slowly modulating steady grey noise of a distant car carving its way up the valley, and the lighter noise of the stream behind and to my left.

Then something unexpected: from across the valley, the sound of someone practising drumming on a djembe or similar hand-drum. At first I wasn't sure if it was a drum or something industrial echoing across the valley, but eventually the shifting rhythm patterns made it clear. A lovely quirk of this soundscape, distinctive but heavily cloaked in the big reverb of the valley.

There's certainly a question to be asked about whether the field-recordist attitude leads to actually engaging with an environment, or instead to distancing oneself from it in an objectifying "audience" mode. After all, it's a bit weird to be present in a sound environment but trying not to be present.... Either way, the practised skill of staying still and quiet and listening opens up some enchanting experiences. I'm not definite that all this sound needs to be on tape - but it does need to be heard.

Zine makes you think.

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