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James Wyness: Listening out for Tigers

img  Tobias

What sparked the idea for setting up a digital archive of a region-specific field recordings?
The notion of setting up an archive was less a spark than a slowly emerging awareness that this was what I was actually doing. If there was a defining moment, it happened around the time I was preparing work for a large scale sound installation, 58 Processions, with fellow artist Duncan Whitley. 58 Processions was the outcome of a long period spent documenting the processions of Seville's Semana Santa (Holy Week).

It was a wide ranging and demanding project, involving field trips over two years, numerous intensive (and intense) editing sessions in different studios and spaces, substantial interdisciplinary research, funding applications and so on. We had captured some excellent synchronised 4 channel material and distilled it all down to several 'scenes', key passages in the processions, which illustrated best the sonic syntax of the processions and touched on areas of musicological, spatial and social interest. We had played around with the notions of documentary, archive and ethnography as 'key words'. At some point I became aware of, or rather I began to understand deeply, what we were doing in terms of an archive, and was able as a result to place our work in its historical context (as art as well as research) and to relate our work to similar investigations by contemporary practitioners.

In which way did you prepare yourself for the task?

I like to know what I'm getting into so I studied photographic discourse, which is extremely tight and well considered, probably as a result of pressure in its formative years from representational painting and illustration. I had a good look at issues of representation, from the dark manipulations of the corporate media, to aggregate approaches towards representing a subject or subjects.

I learned that an archive is never complete, but always seeks completion. When the Seville project ran its course, I began to look to my personal resources, initially going back to work that I had begun on the Scottish Border Common Ridings, large-scale festivals with a range of sonic, spatial and socio-historical interests. I then realised that my material circumstances - limited means and a relatively isolated rural location -  meant that I had been working over several years on gathering sounds from two specific locations, the Scottish Borders and Northumberland. Two locations on the map, but in fact one region united by a shared human and natural history. I had unwittingly been creating an archive over several years and found myself with an excellent range and diversity of material at my disposal – urban soundwalks, industrial workplaces, festivals, storytelling, song and music, natural soundscapes large and small, accent and dialect, abstractions of all of those. So I took the next step and began to look at ways of exploiting the resources.

Did you set up some kind of unifying standards for recording the sites included in the archive?
At first, no, because I hadn't made a conscious decision to develop an archive. I work alone on this project, though I would welcome collaboration, and  the work is carried out generally without institutional support (the Scottish Arts Council have predictably shown no interest at all) so over several years I've had to build up my own recording and editing resources. Now I've standardised my recordings at 24 bit/48KHz and I try to archive my material more professionally. Working with the British Library on the Seville project was helpful in this respect. Another standard that I'd like to introduce in working with natural soundscapes for example is to examine chosen locations over at least two seasons and year on year. So, a given location is  investigated in both summer and winter over five years or so, an almost scientific approach -  ambitious but worth pursuing. In the craftsmanship department my recording skills took a quantum leap forward following the Seville project and I take greater care now with fieldcraft: positioning, types of microphone, choice of times of day or night.  And I ALWAYS back-everything-up – twice. Or at least I intend to....

Outside of technical standards I have my own performance standards if you like. If I decide, after lots of research and muttering to myself, that I'm going to do something then I do it, no matter what it takes. Last year I bottled out of spending nights recording nocturnal activity in the High Cheviot forests in winter so I'm going to have to do them this year. I also want to capture the ambience of various sea caves during storms on the Berwickshire coast so I'll have to figure out means of access and so on. I'm  generally seeking out a balance in my investigations into both human and natural history. I always manage to fit something into one or the other box and can standardise accordingly.

„Figure and ground“ draws from an installation challenging the dominant discourse of visual representation. What, from your perspective, gets lost underneath the radar by ignoring acoustic cues?
That is a very good question and to be honest, I'd write a book about it if someone would give me access to a University library for a year or two. The discourse around this topic is at the heart of some of the most interesting work in contemporary sound art.

There are two sides to this, the 'lifeside' or human social side, and the 'artside' implications. To be blunt I think we are reduced as human beings if we spend most of our waking life trying to escape our environment, be it urban or rural. This is more than me getting older and grumpier - I've always believed this – I can't help it. I can understand trying to mask undesirable acoustic environments but I can't escape a feeling that we are undergoing a regressive trend - a drift towards a general degradation in our awareness of soundscape in general: iPod and mobile phone culture, people wandering around in a daze plumbed into media devices, various attempts to escape the environment, the abuse of the loudspeaker. I'll be taking a humorous sideways swipe at some of this in my blog where I want to encourage people to report on eating and drinking establishments which punish the customers with music (or noise) that none of them want to hear. So, by ignoring acoustic cues, we're partly in denial. I'm not advocating that we should all escape to the forest – it takes time, dedication and practice to listen actively and creatively. But if we all listened a bit more we might be better disposed to demand changes to the less desirable aspects of our acoustic surroundings. This I suppose is similar to the quasi-didactic agenda of the acousmatician and acoustic ecologist.

Trying to be optimistic, however, I believe we are hard-wired to rely on our listening skills for survival and it'll take more than a few social and commercial trends to get rid of our connection to the essential nature of sound. Or maybe it's part of evolution. Personally, I'd like to pass on the gene that tells my kids to listen out for the tiger in the forest.

Sound has a very particular position among the arts in this respect, doesn't it?
Over on the art side, if you work with people as an artist, if your practice involves you in a meaningful engagement with 'the people' from all walks of life, you find that sound is still a fascinating medium, full of surprises and inviting creativity on so many levels. It's also much harder for the forces of corporate manipulation to appropriate environmental sound. Consider the plight of the 'art' photographer. Everything he or she does is subsumed into the fashion industry within days. We should also look at the funding of environmental sound art, its definition as a sub-category within the visual arts, at the lack of appreciation of its vital features by curators and administrators alike; misunderstandings, lack of critical knowledge, right down to a rejection of the need to actually listen critically to work, and to persist in asking that work be represented through visual media. All true and all happening now.

I've been favouring a certain critical stance, almost a posturing, a gendering of sound in other words, where sound (I seem to recall reading of sound as the 'handmaiden' of the image in film) is contrasted on multiple levels with the power of visual dominance, a power structure capable of manipulative strategies expressed in patriarchal terms.

To offer a critique of some of the attitudes I've encountered, I've tried in my blog to be positive by adopting a pseudo-radical position where I consider key works of nature writing from a hard-line 'Sonicist's' point of view. Though probably inappropriate, I'm emulating Marxist and feminist literary and arts critics, looking at things from one perspective, and carrying out revisions. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson, despite his iconic status in the history of literature and thought, represents a very visual world with no sound in it at all whereas Susan Fenimore Cooper offers a much 'fuller' universe, a more engaging representation of the natural world, because she takes account of sound, and does so with exquisite finesse. With Emerson what gets lost is what gets lost by ignoring anything else that is crucial. There's also a political dimension. Realism is the dominant mode of representation in our corporate consumer led world. We are given representations that we are told are real and millions fall for it – via television, radio, newspapers, the whole show. Representations are capable of misrepresenting which of course leads to distortion and manipulation. I happen to like the idea of that by offering representations in sound alone an artist can make a political statement without being overtly political.

Another aspect of the original installation was to explore the notion of the cultural representation of natural environments. What kind of insights did you gather from these explorations?

First and foremost that field recordings have very little to do with the natural environments from which they were captured. Once you get that sorted out in your head life becomes a lot more simple and straightforward. Next that a lot of science and a raft of other human endeavours are in essence representations dressed up as the truth. To take one example, many people I'm sure believe that David Attenborough's nature documentaries have something to do with the real world. The filming is certainly a feast for the eyes, the sound and background music are well put together and he has a very nice voice and seems to be a very nice man, though he has become a caricature of himself as they all do. But his work, like the work of the landscape painter and architect, is the work of the flower arranger. Ultimately a forest is entered, not viewed.

Then there's the carbon footprint issue which again most people shrug off as irrelevant. Here we have a team of highly paid professionals running up a huge fuel footprint to tell us that the planet is worth saving. I might of course be a teeny bit envious but you must admit I have a point.

As you might have guessed I've never been one to do as I'm told. I've always had a problem with authority or assumed authority which is to my mind what many of those who represent 'nature' claim to be, an authority on this or that, or even to have the 'final word'. They are in fact charlatans, mountebanks and peddlers of snake oil – I mean that in the nicest possible way – they are peddling in 'realism' – the dominant mode of representation, capable of manipulation and deceit and ultimately of misrepresentation. It's at this point in the discourse that the artist can step in and, having acknowledged  all the aforementioned problems, begin the work of fabricating environments, deceiving the unsuspecting listener but without sinister intent.

On a less contentious level, the installation sound | environment | representation was ultimately created to engage an audience and for people to enjoy. I took the (recorded) sounds of wind and water in motion, ambient and more active soundscapes, local wildlife, readings from a range of various sources on representation and natural history, backed up by a handwritten notebook with citations, field notes, reflections and so on. These were representative of the environment in question but you had to trust to my honesty and integrity. I could have just as easily stripped a lot of the sounds from the Internet or from other people's work.

Why didn't you?
I was intrigued by the notion of the 'truth' of an environment and who holds the authority to that truth. I listed about 100 '-ologies' – scientific and other academic disciplines that could be studied in relation to the environment and considered the possibility that as much 'truth' about the environment could be had by sitting quietly under a tree and listening carefully. Quite a Buddhist notion in fact.

It was an incredibly rewarding journey. I looked at representation from as many angles as possible – the philosophical discourse further back than Plato right up to hardcore postmodernists and beyond. There are very few resources on sound and cultural representation but there are some fine pieces of work and I learned a lot from my research. I transferred findings relating to film and photography to phonographic forms where appropriate. I understood that a recording has absolutely nothing to do with reality, whatever that might be, and is culturally and technically determined. Yet so many artists and recordists don't seem to get this. I still find professionals talking of the loss in quality or even purity between source and recording. This has led me to work in slow time on a kind of unified field theory which will look at the material process involved in making certain forms of environmental sound art, at notions (temporary working definitions) of lifeside, fieldside and artside .

Was part of the motivation for reworking these sources into figure and ground to demonstrate how concrete sound sources can directly spark a creative process and that there is a very immediate link between the arts and our environment?

I would broadly agree that concrete sound sources can directly spark a creative process and that this motivated me in part. To begin with you have an endless  resource of unique sounds, all day and every day– things go on in nature all the time that you couldn't begin to emulate in art. It's no different in the world of sound, just that you have to work quite hard to get at the interesting stuff - at least I've found that to be the case, others with better ears and resources might have an easier time of it. Then there's the re-presentation of the sound sources which sets off creative sparks in the listeners.

There is of course a very immediate link between the arts and our environment, regardless of how wide or narrow you take your definition of the environment to be. This is crucial and is occupying a lot of my thinking just now. There is some excellent work going on in non- urban centres which broadly investigates this link across various art forms, for example in rural Estonia and Portugal. One of my many ambitions is to try to visit these projects and to attempt to do something similar in the Borders, taking advantage of its considerable natural resources.  This will never be sexy work for the 'big' sound art establishments as it is too people- and process-based and too hard to control and manipulate to their own ends, but this type of work in my opinion is the most rewarding and critically important work to do in the current climate as it is innovative and primitive at the same time.

You've mentioned Vipassana Meditation as a rewarding listening strategy – was it also a useful compositional process for the album?
Yes, I've been practising and studying various meditation and listening strategies for a long time now but I first mentioned Vipassana as a practice which linked listening and compositional strategies in my doctoral thesis. Perhaps as a result of suspicion of new age fudge in the arts most people give me the 50 yard stare at the mention of recommended listening strategies and Eastern meditative practices. One reviewer scolded me for my sleeve notes and didn't like being 'told' to listen in a meditative way because he was just home from a hard day at work and busy eating a prawn curry!

To elaborate slightly, Vipassana is at the opposite end of the spectrum from meditative practices where you lose yourself or become self absorbed through chanting or focusing on candle flames and the like. It's essentially a practical course in self diagnostic psychotherapy, a temporal process in the first instance. What happens later is up to the individual: enlightenment, satori, none of my business really. It's also about eliciting an intense level of awareness in the perceptive process, including thought processes, without clinging on to what passes by. You sit and you try to relax, then you label thoughts as they pass – for the average bloke this might be 'food, sex, football, politics, more sex, even more sex, food again.' Or something similar. Honesty and awareness, no flashing lights or gurus in loincloths. Now it struck me that something very similar goes on with a particular listening strategy, say, in listening to someone else's music or sound work – you just let it pass without too much analysis, yet try to maintain an even awareness, labelling as the syntax unfolds and the 'meaning' of the work unveils itself. Then you apply this as one of several listening strategies in the compositional process. I found the Vipassana technique to be useful in auditioning this album, figure and ground, where I wanted to create a legitimate, feasible environment, despite the fabrications. I spent many hours listening over and over, whittling down, adjusting and balancing till I had what I wanted.

In which way, exactly, did you develop the materials of „figure and ground“?

I came across an interesting angle on the concept of figure on ground in a talk by film-maker Mani Kaul. He talks of perspective in the arts (as opposed to the presentation of a figure on a ground) as a political and artistic means of appropriating space and thereby of oppressing others. I liked the resonance of his argument and looked at ways of applying the underlying concept to sound art.

But initially the album figure and ground began as an investigation into the stridulation of insects – with summer approaching this seemed to be a natural follow up to the installation. I considered all the possible ways of representing insect stridulations: actual recordings, processed electroacoustic sounds, synthesised sounds using analogue tools, sounds made by contraptions designed to imitate the stridulating mechanisms of the insect. I began by plundering my library of glitchy electroacoustic sounds but soon found myself getting caught up in the strategies of electroacoustic composition. I had set out to do something specifically different so I rid myself of all the complex gestural stuff and focused on the different layers of the ground, masses of wind and water in motion, and on listening intently to the figures, sounds that might actually figure (if you excuse the pun) in the recording. I heard tree creaks, tiny drops of hail on dry leaves in the middle of a high wind through the forest, a salmon leaping, a lone bird in winter. I tore the river apart by filtering in different ways and I put it together again; I 'permitted' myself the process of filtering the river sounds for the perverse reason that that's what happens if you stick your head underwater. During the recording I had also walked away from the river and re-approached it, turned my back to it and noted the effect, so I tried to replicate these actions in the mixing. I then added some external ingredients, figures from the archive, integral to an underlying concept of location, adding to the uncertainty around the sound sources and encouraging closer listening. A narrative of sorts began to emerge which I encouraged.

How satisfied are you with the outcome?

In the end I can't decide if it's a successful piece or not, but that's less important to me than breaking away from established forms and doing something I wanted to do, to let things run and to get away from contrived compositional complexity (which has its place to be sure), avoiding contrapuntal density. Despite the seeming simplicity of the piece, dozens and dozens of hours of work went into it.

The next release in the series will develop the figure and ground relationship to take account of different dimensions other than background and foreground. My email correspondence with Giancarlo Toniutti, an artist I much admire, has been most helpful in exploring new possibilities.

I also want to carry out more deliberate sonic intervention whilst on location and to take found materials and objects back to the studio and into performance situations. This in some odd way seems to tie in with the notion of border, an artificial intervention in the landscape, a necessary concept in my archival efforts.

But who will know what the sounds are and where they come from? In figure and ground many people though the wind was the rain, the river the wind and so on. Others thought that many of the sounds were synthetic, enhanced white noise. Interestingly only one person guessed the sound sources correctly each time and he was blind.

From experience, do Scottish listeners react differently to the material than “outsiders“?
This depends on the material under consideration and the manner of its presentation. If, in basic terms, one of the things I do is to capture sounds, representational materials, from the environment, and then reframe them, then the recorded material is essentially dislocated and may or may not have  an obvious relationship with its source. So one parameter in the creative process is how much you let the listener know. From there the knowledge that the recordings are local or regional can give the listener some sort of stake in the material, in the overall creative process and in its manifestation as a work of art. I enjoy that aspect very much – it's what I would call true interactivity. I notice a heightening of concentration, often a recognition and a consequent satisfaction as the work unfolds to encourage further recognitions.

With the spoken voice, accent and dialect, an area I plan to develop further in the mid-term, the recognition can be more intense, even celebratory.

As a lone artist in this project it's become important to me to work as much as possible with people. I need to learn how best to work with the ways in which people might engage with environmental sound. This then feeds back into how I might then work with the field recordings. It's also important to work in the right way with people, something I'm still learning with each project. For example I want to document the activities of a local pipe band from rehearsal to preparation to full blown performance in four channels. This might take up to a year's work. I also want to investigate the curious habit that Borderers have of twisting their vowels into unfeasible phonetic structures, particularly around festival time and particularly amongst themselves. Both projects will require sensitivity. Each will demand different approaches. I can't be a fly on the wall in these documentary activities so I need to learn how they will engage with the material, their own sonic produce if you like, and with me, so that we can all have have as smooth passage as possible through each project.

There are some excellent models for this sort of work by the way; those I favour and admire tend to be rural or non-urban based and quite unassuming. In sound art you now have a drift towards 'official' versions of sound as art, based around personalities and media institutions disguised as arts bodies. This model tends to output 'one-offs', safe pairs of hands, nice objects to look at. This is understandable though in my opinion regrettable. Then you have long term research based processes, often involving 'the people'. The funders and institutions can't really get a handle on some of this process based investigative sound art which I happen to think is very high art, in the same way as I think a lot of the best traditional music is high art music. We have processes, events, interventions, documenting and archiving. Outcomes are non-commercial, hard to categorise, yet of immense aesthetic value.

Homepage: James Wyness
Homepage: Khora Records

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