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Interview with the Seattle Phonographers Union

img  Tobias Fischer

If this were a rock band, The Seattle Phonographers Union would no doubt qualify as a a super group. Comprising of almost twenty former and active members, the formation includes leading sound artists like And/Oar label boss Dale Lloyd, Christopher DeLaurenti, Steve Peters and Steve Barsotti. And yet, the sounds and instrumentation of the Union must seem confusing for anyone who's grown up to college radio, catchy riffs, three cords and a stack of amplifiers. Instead, the SPU has made the sounds of the world its  source materials. In concert, the ensemble make use of unprocessed field recordings as part of a collective improvisation – a process which can lead to results of both surprising familiarity and bewildering alienness. These compositions, as the Seattle Phonographers Union members stress in this interview, are, however, not so much an end in itself. What matters, instead, is how the experience of their performances changes the audience's perspective on the acoustic potential surrounding us. The world is a lot more diverse and detailed than we think – if we can only open our ears and hear it.

In which way do you see Seattle as an interesting body of sound in its own right?
Steve Barsotti: Seattle has an interesting mixture of soundscapes. It has downtown traffic, train yards, an engaging park system, older industrial areas, various waterfronts and is in close proximity to forests and mountains. When I first moved here (1999) I was fascinated by the electric bus system here. And I also was intrigued by the amount of water and the bridges over it. However I am not sure Seattle is any more or less interesting than any other place I have been. I tend to find sounds of interest most places I go. My interest in recording is not about representing the locations from which I gather my sounds. I am most interested in just the sounds themselves, separated from their original source. That is not to say that I record only sounds from unknown sources but that the source is not my primary concern. I do not record for the sake of collecting the sounds of specific things but in order to just listen to the sounds produced by those things. And to that end Seattle provides as much enjoyment as any other location I have been.

Christopher DeLaurenti: I moved away from Seattle in 2011, so I can offer the perspective of an exile who visits occasionally. Most of the sound artists, composers, and improvisers in Seattle are ambitious but not competitive. With fewer than a half-dozen worthwhile places to perform and present work, everyone gets to know one another very well and very soon. We share ideas, tips on equipment, and even places to record. In the early days of the Union we embarked on recording expeditions in pairs and larger groups. Mapping an external territory collectively makes it easier to discover and chart the internal aural territory in the sounds we record.


When Ear Room's Peter Wright ran an interview with Steve Peters in 2009, even he did not know the full history of the SPU. Can you give me a short introduction into how the group was started and what some of its principal motivations were?
Steve Barsotti: There is a website, phonography.org, that was created in the late 90s (or so). It contained information about this concept of phonography, a form of field recording that borrowed from the likes of Alan Lomax, Bernie Krause, Gordon Hempton and Murray Schafer (amongst others I am sure). However, this new “phonography“ movement seemed more interested in just listening to the mass variety of sounds for their own sake, as opposed to any attempt of preservation. This website contained information about a growing list of people interested in recording this way. Somewhere around 2000 or so, Dale Lloyd started his and/OAR label and released a series of CDRs that were just field recordings. He titled the series “Phonography.org“. This collection contains dozens of artists and their recordings. In April of 2002, a fellow named Isaac Sterling realized that there was a heavy concentration of people here in Seattle who were a part of this project and invited us to present our work in an evening of listening. On April 12, 2002 we gathered at the Indy Media Gallery in downtown Seattle. Present at this meeting were Doug Haire, Chris DeLaurenti, Toby Paddock, Mark Griswold, John Tulchin, Alex Keller and myself. We started off with a kind of round-robin presentation of our recordings. Some of us did more performances, layering our field recordings or using dramatic fade ins and fade outs while others of us just presented the recordings, focusing on just listening to the content of these recordings. For our second set we proposed a group „jam“ where we improvised with our recordings. We were all pleased with the results. I think it was due to the fact that each of us are dedicated listeners and we were all very sensitive to potential sonic mud and displayed sufficient restraint. I have always felt that good improvisation is more about listening that it is about playing. And this group does that very well. Not too long after that we got another gig and Chris DeLaurenti coined our moniker, and the Seattle Phonographers Union was born!


One of the most striking passages of your mission statement is that you aim to "attend to the world, which is much more detailed and diverse than any one person's perception of it". Can you elaborate on that a bit, please – how can we attend to the world with sound and what are some of the details that are escaping our attention?
Steve Barsotti: How can we attend to the world with sound? By listening! Our culture is predominantly a visual one. We define our world through descriptions of what things look like. We even use expressions such as “see what I mean?“ to get a point across. To see is to understand. However it is sound that reassures us of our place in any location, identifies the meaning or tone of the people we are with or gives us crucial information that prompts us to act. A cavernous reverb, a growl in the voice, the light chirping of birds, an intense drone of locusts, or the thundering crash of lightning, these are all small descriptions that help convey a sense of meaning, a deeper sense of understanding of the moment. Sound gives us the spatial and emotional cues that allow us to fully comprehend our world.

I think that each of us in Seattle Phonographers Union (SPU), in our own way, are sensitive to this and approach field recording understanding this. And because our performances consist of anywhere between at least three or four people and up to 12 or so, a diversity of perspective is presented. And often, there is a difference in how we approach the same subject being recorded.

Christopher DeLaurenti: We can attend to the world together. I believe in the power of collective listening. When we listen together we also teach each other how to listen. The presence of others changes how we listen and what we hear.

Empirically, additional people in a place absorb more sound and alter how the walls or trees reflect sound. Yet something deeper happens too, a kind of communicative empathy, an emotional analogue to background radiation. I not only listen as I listen but a small part of me also begins to listen to how everyone else listens too. That difference offers a path to build and sustain human connections. In short, the context, the bodies in the room, change the "details" acoustically as well as socially and spiritually.


Another aspect of your collaboration is that only specific operations, such as EQing, are allowed, whereas others, such as looping, are not. Tell me about the dos and donts of the group, please, and why they are important to you.
Steve Barsotti: For me it starts with the idea that I want to present the recordings as something worthwhile to listen to, without any additional adornment. No looping or beats or sampling then transforming the sounds into thick pads and the such. There is beautiful work out there that does all this for sure but I choose to eschew this approach and demonstrate that these recordings are valuable all on their own, that there is something interesting happening with these recordings that needs no other conditioning. As a group, however, we have refrained from explicitly spelling out any specific set of rules. I believe this is because we would never reach any real agreement as to what this all means exactly. I think one person’s perspective of a “pure, unprocessed” recording might not be agreeable to another. And I think this is so because there are so many possible interpretations of what processing means. Processing happens all along the way of getting a recording. First off, I think a recording of an event is an abstraction of that event just as much as is a photograph of an object. As soon as we decide to record something, we process that sound. Then we choose a mic. The mic may be cardioid or it may be omni directional. Those both interpret the sound differently. Then we decide how close or far away to mic the sound. If we mic it more closely we will get more of the object emitting the sound and less of the environment that includes that sound. Which is the real sound? Individual and separated from its habitat, or blended with all of the other sounds that make up that environment? And then maybe I record the sound but put my mic into a tube that happens to be lying on the ground. Toshiya Tsunoda has a collection of amazing records that have him shoving mics into discarded coke bottles or crevices in the road or drainage pipes or some other location that we would never otherwise be able to hear. But that sound exists in those locations regardless of his microphones.

Then we have the recording medium or device. Even though at this point we all use digital recording gear there are differences between the devices we use. Some have more line noise than others, some have better analog to digital converters than others. That processes the audio. Then we hit the start record button, and then the stop record button. We have now segmented that sound from reality and abstracted it. That is a profound processing element. Then we load it into a digital editor to maybe clean it up a bit, (The use of EQ tends to be used to “clean up“ the audio, not transform it. Remove some low-end rumble from the truck in the distance; remove a bit of hiss from some line noise, that sort of thing) or further edit it by selecting a smaller portion of the initial recording. Then there is the performance aspect. We start and stop the sound, possibly not playing the full track that we have. Then we fade it in and fade it out, or maybe pan it across the speakers, all of which continue to transform this sound. And none of this takes into account the use of contact mics or hydrophones or magnetic coil mics (http://tinyurl.com/me3x4kd) each of which transduces some energy source into voltage fluctuations, which then can be used as sound. The use of these alternative transducers further complicates the issue. How do we talk about processing with those sorts of recording devices?

So you can see how trying to create a set list of rules for what we do would be difficult.


In the aforementioned interview wit Steve, he mentioned that the live performances of the SPU are about the only ones he still feels comfortable doing. In which way does working with field recordings instead of more abstract sound sources change the improvisation process? What are some of the specific challenges and risks involved?
Steve Barsotti: First of all, improvisation covers such a wide range of activities that it is impossible for me to think about a set improvisational process in which to compare what we do. Second, so many of our sounds are both field recordings and abstract sounds at the same time. There are quite a lot of recordings that offer up no identification of their source. So I can talk about our improvisational process but don’t see field recordings and abstract sounds as mutually exclusive.

In general, improvisation is about the process of listening, evaluating, and contributing. And I think that is exactly what we do. It is very easy for a performance like this to become sonic mud, to have a whole bunch of people playing sounds at once and have it be unintelligible. Doing this requires patience, restraint, and a willingness to listen. I think what makes our group successful is that we all begin by being sensitive listeners.

Other issues that come up for me with this process involve the medium of delivery. Playing back files from a CD player or a computer is different than playing an instrument. The changes in sound come from the changes that happen (or don’t happen) in our recordings, not by manipulation.


From your experience over the years, are you finding that the selection of materials is more important for the end results or the way individual members work with them?
Steve Barsotti For me specifically it is both. The selection of materials is relevant if we are attempting to migrate towards an outcome. For example, four of us did a show at the Seattle Art Museum as part of an opening evening of events for an Aboriginal painting show. We had each spent some time in the permanent Aboriginal collection in order to influence the recordings we chose. However I also see the recordings as individual instruments that can be brought out and played in different ways. I have a set of recordings that I usually bring to every gig. I know these recordings well; know their amplitude peaks and dips, know their intensities and rhythms and the such. I know when it would be good to play them and when not to. So in that instance it is about how we work with them.

Dale Lloyd: My view is that both are equally important. I prefer to have a decent array of recordings to work with so I am more apt to find appropriate and interesting elements to contribute at a particular moment. Also, certain sounds tend to be easily recognizable and can wear out their welcome if used too often. If I were performing in front of a completely different audience each time (like on a tour), this might be less of a concern. For local performances where a certain percent of the audience have seen the group before, I would prefer to not use the same sounds very often. That said, one nice aspect of SPU performances is that the same set of sounds usually don't cross paths more than once, so it's possible to get different effects with the same recordings due to their being used in a different context each time.

Christopher DeLaurenti: Working with field recordings removes the temptation to play "guess the plug-in" when performing with others. Also there is a greater chance that the contour of a sound will conform to something already known in the natural or technological world. Even a "best guess" of how a sound might change over time opens a wider path for my intuition to select, place, and shape a sound in the mix.

In my years with the SPU, the essential selection of material became unimportant. We have all recorded cicadas, trains, etc. How and when they appear live in the mix makes those mundane (and, perhaps when heard individually, not so interesting) recordings live through artistic choices of timing, presence, volume, and juxtaposition.

Seattle Phonographers Union interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Seattle Phonographers Union