Where is the Field of Field Recording?

Text written to accompany the cassette ‘Beijing 2016–2017’, released on Zoomin’ Nights Recordings, December 2017


[photo and design by Li Song]

What effect can captured sounds have in the world? What process are we setting in motion by switching on an audio recorder at a certain moment, and then switching it off again after a certain period of time? What is the significance of this act by the holder of the recording machine? What is the significance of the movement from sound as a register of location, to the abstract representation of sounds, to the registration of their playback format as a new location?

All the pieces on this cassette represent cuts out of time, taken from specific locations (in this case, between 2016 and 2017 in the city of Beijing, China).

As snippets of sound, maybe they actually tell us very little, as they are abstracted from their original situation and limited to the single sense of hearing. Yet in themselves it is expected that they provide some minimal description of a place and time; they can be appreciated as a limited reportage of the situations they were recorded in.

Beyond these sounds there may also be a presumption that the listener can hear a “truth” about these situations. Maybe this truth appears by separating the sounds from the original environment encompassing all sensory data, through the process of abstraction that takes place in the recording process, between the creation of the sounds by various in situ situations, and the subsequent capturing and representation of the sounds by the recorder.

Such an expectation of a truth would have to be approached with caution, in that the various technologies involved are by their nature mediations, interposing themselves between an original and a listener. The truth may lie more in those technologies than in a message purportedly being transferred.

But the pieces also work as a whole, as an arrangement of sound pieces on the technological form of the cassette tape (or in a different way as the digital download). Their presentation on cassette is specific; the pieces deliberately lack intervening silences, and are without fade-ins or -outs, to prevent them from being considered as entries and exits from the situations each piece is recording, a movement that might imply narrative progress.

The pieces are also very simple in terms of their technical generation. No audio equipment specifically designed for professional results was used; the pieces were all recorded using an iPhone’s internal microphone, in mono, with no protection from wind noise for instance.

By pointing out here these aspects of the production and presentation of the recordings, I am trying to expose the essential “distractions” from the ostensible subject matter of each piece. Such distractions would include the emphasis on the technologies involved, on a particular quality of the recording, on the idea of representation itself (that the recording represents anything but its reception).

These distractions represent the fundamental, insurmountable disconnection between the original setting and the playback of the recording. It is not even worth thinking there is any possibility or hope of recreating any aspect of an original setting. Each hearing therefore is a new setting. But it is certainly possible to hold an idea of the original setting in our heads while simultaneously knowing that we are absolutely in the here and now of the listening process.