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Jez Riley French's 4 Questions on Field Recordings: Jez Riley French

img  Tobias Fischer

When & why did you become interested in field recording?
When I was quite young (around twelve I think) I was given a small portable cassette player/recorder. I walked around listening to tapes & recording playful things. Out in the garden one time I pressed record instead of play – after about ten minutes I realized why the tape wasn’t playing & then on listening back to the sounds of grass, neighbours mowing their lawns, birds etc I thought it was more interesting than what was on the cassette before. From then on I just enjoyed listening to the sounds around me & I didn’t divide between ‘music’ & non-musical sound. At that age that was very liberating for me.

How do you use your field recordings in your own artistic output?
I’ve used field recordings for several years now, alongside instruments and objects in live performance (improvisation / intuitive composition). Before that I just listened. I never process the sounds – at the most I will sometimes build a piece up by using a loop station pedal for example. I don’t use computers or processing for lots of reasons but the biggest one is that for me I find there is enough variety and creatively interesting sound without the need to use those methods. Perhaps when I feel there is not enough variety in the sounds as they are then I'd consider transforming them, but I can't see that happening. I'm still excited by the exploration and discovery. Besides it's also possible of course to find new sounds from the advances in technology anyway - like through 'inside / internal' methods of sound capture.

I also create pieces using just field recordings – again, so far, I have always done this via intuitive composition. By that I mean that I create these pieces ‘live’ (in a studio / home studio or performance setting). I prefer this to using computer technology to compose. It allows me to feel that I am still involved in the element of momentary, emotive response in some way - at least to the sounds of the environments. This is one of the reasons why I tend to do a lot more site-specific work when performing in public these days. Recording in & around where the performance will take place adds further to the intuitive response.

Occasionally, I find that I have enough interesting material to release the field recordings just as they are. ie. not part of a composition or improvisation (as with ‘field recordings volume 21’). I guess I'm quite often drawn towards sounds that are small or aren’t heard in our normal aural range. Detail has always interested me in general anyway - visually, musically & in every day life. Sometimes I look for hidden sounds with contact microphones or by recording spaces & structures in order to draw the attention back to the audible elements that we perhaps filter out.

Do you regard 'natural' sound as a musical element (bearing in mind that the conventional definition of 'music' is rapidly becoming obsolete) or as sound? Is this definition important to you? Does it matter?
For me, I can listen to it all as music. I think I do that because I didn’t go through any formal musical education when I was younger that would have taught me the 'correct' definitions. I’m fully aware of the differences between the definitions of ‘music’ & ‘sound’, but I think how one thinks of these terms isn't always informed by technical description. I thought of it as music because when I was younger it felt more liberating, more positive & more enjoyable to do that & I still feel that way.

There are sometimes certain issues to do with these definitions, but they are mainly centered around the mechanics of funding or public performance. I think ‘music’ had more to benefit from the expansion of sound art than the rest of the art world did & that elements of what is labeled sound art have been investigated by musicians also but without perhaps the emphasis on publically expressed theory. It’s a complicated area & there is blame on all sides for any issues. After all the music world has been dominated by commercial concerns for so long that the term musician or musical artist has been used to describe all kinds of unoriginal and culturally barren trash. Equally the art world sometimes applies conditions and value judgements to these two definitions that aren't always reflective of the reality.

Are these definitions important? Sometimes, in a practical way – they can affect how some might listen to or approach a piece of work & they can affect funding applications or performance opportunities for example. However on a personal level life is too short & to me it’s music because that is how I chose to listen and feel about what I do. I don't like to think that the use of either term will affect the way ones work is experienced, but that is down to the listener I guess, no matter what term is or isn't applied. After all both terms are just human inventions.

Has the act of making field recordings had an effect (positive or negative) on the way you listen to your everyday surroundings and how has it affected the way you listen to other music and sound (if at all)?
I’d say the effect kind of ebbs and flows. Sometimes I find myself listening too much, trying to hear things too much. For me, being aware of the massive richness of natural or man-made sound has added to my everyday experience in a positive way. It’s hard to see a negative side.

Interview conducted by Jez Riley French in March 2008 for the in place blog, republished with kind permission of the author. Jez Riley French is a UK based artist whose work focuses on the exploration of detail via intuitive composition, extended field recording techniques and photography. Visit his website here.

Homepage: Jez Riley French

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