What are you listening to? Matt Poacher on Chris Watson, Richard Skelton and the art of field recording

“To listen to music is a rare and rewarding pleasure, one that transforms the everyday just by pressing the play button. What are you listening to?” Richard King

In the second of a new series of blog posts, Matt Poacher explores the art of field recording and its ability to invite the listener into a world they wouldn’t otherwise hear.

There have always been a few mysteries for me around the idea of the field recording, that genre of music that in its way spans the divide between art and information, the natural and the technological, the real and the sculpted. The first could be said to do with the ‘how’ of it: how are the sounds captured, how much manipulation takes place, how can we be sure that what we’re hearing is a direct facsimile of something that exists ‘out there’ – out there in the real world and whether it really matters? The second would be the why of it: both in terms of the artistic impulse and as an audience what (on earth) we want with these sounds, what do they bring us, in terms of pleasure, in terms of information?

One of the acknowledged masters of the art of the ‘how’ is Chris Watson – Cabaret Voltaire founding member, long time sound-recording associate of David Attenborough and creator of 11 ‘solo’ albums and countless collaborative releases of breathtakingly captured sounds from the natural world. Over countless years of field work, involving processes learned via technological hardships, allied to a preternatural ear for simply ‘listening’ and processing sounds, Watson has perfected his art to the point where the ‘how’ has almost ceased to matter: as listeners we ‘trust’ his ear, and his ability to convey and transmute what he hears into recorded sound.

Yet Watson is the first to admit that his set up – now involving as many as 10 microphones arrayed across a sound field – is as much a construct as any other: once these sounds are processed and combined in a studio situation (one thinks of Watson as a Teo Macero working with ants and trains rather than Miles and Gil), what we hear isn’t a direct replication of a particular situation, but a construct, a work of art. We are ‘manipulate’ into other states, as much as we are with any other artform.

This is perhaps more explicit with someone like Richard Skelton, a musician who seems to straddle the twin worlds of modern minimal classical music and landscape art by ‘incorporating’ the natural world into his releases. Skelton also, in some senses, explicitly answers the question of ‘why’ of field recording, as his work obeys a devotional call to nature. Many of Skelton’s releases have been dedicated to the memory of his deceased wife, and for him the ‘field’ acts as a place of ritual and exorcism, as a mode of cleansing and re-awakening. His method is to both record outside – be that the Yorkshire Moors or the wilds of Ireland or Cumbria – but also to use found objects – either as bows for his stringed instruments or as sacral offerings, included in the packaging of each release.

As with Watson, what we hear on Skelton’s trembling and tremulous recordings, via the alchemical transformation of post-production, may not be a direct copy of the natural world, but the this transformation is the precise point: in this covenant between artist and world, and the processes that join their hearing and ours, we are welcomed into a private relationship, a communion slightly askance, with a world we otherwise wouldn’t get to hear. If nothing else, these artists force us to re-think and re-listen with new ears; they mark the web of our noticing and we should be thankful for their insistent whispers.

Read other posts in the What are you listening to? series


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