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tag: field-recording

The Room Tone of Post-Katrina New Orleans

And other reflections, a decade on

I left New Orleans 12 years ago last month, two full years before Hurricane Katrina hit. As we reflect on Katrina 10 years after, I’ve been revisiting some of what I wrote about New Orleans over the years. Sadly, I have not had the opportunity to go back to the place since, though it’s often on my mind, always a reference point — and I still bear the 504 area code on my mobile phone number. I refer to that as my “information-age tattoo.”

A few months after Katrina, I wrote “NOLA-tronic,” about the presence of electronic music, directly and indirectly, during my time there. This is back when Trent Reznor was still a resident. His studio, a former mortuary, was around the corner from the house I rented. I’d regularly walk around the neighborhood, only to find the Edge or Zack de la Rocha hunting for a croissant, or inspiration, or both. It was also shortly after the former White Zombie bass player Sean Yseult had moved to town, when Quintron was well into his rise, and lots of local jazz musicians, from trumpeter Nicholas Payton to Dirty Dozen Brass Band trombonist Big Sam had jazz fusion on their mind. I can say that it can be very informative to live somewhere where your primary interest is in the cultural background rather than the foreground. San Francisco is a great place to live if your mind is focused on electronically mediated sound and culture, but I wouldn’t trade my four New Orleans years (1999-2003) for anything.

On the fifth anniversary of Katrina, I woke up to the concept of “acoustemology,” in large part thanks to an explanatory essay by Matt Sakakeeny, an assistant professor in the music department at Tulane University. The originator of the term, Steven Feld, defines it as ““a sonic way of knowing place.”

David Simon’s landmark television series The Wire started airing on HBO a little more than a year before I left New Orleans, and I started watching it from the premiere of the first episode. Having visited Baltimore, I had already sensed a kinship between the two cities, and it felt like deja vu when he debuted Treme in 2010. After it first aired, I thought about the role of sound and music in his ode to New Orleans.

A lot of this has been on my mind thanks in particular to a recommended listen from Gene Kannenberg, Jr., a friend and comics scholar based in Evanston, Illinois. NPR on August 25 posted a piece by John Burnett (“At a Shelter of Last Resort, Decency Prevailed Over Depravity”) about the on-the-ground reporting in the aftermath of Katrina, and a minute into the story the producer reflects on the tumultuous ambient room tone of a makeshift “refugee camp” in New Orleans. I’d written recently about room tone here on, and Kannenberg pointed me to the NPR piece because it reversed the role of room tone. Room tone is something used in audio recording to fill gaps and provide a base-level sonic snapshot of a room: it is, quite practically, employed as background. In the case of this NPR piece, however, the room tone is itself, however momentarily, the subject of the story.

Burnett audio originally posted at

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Aphex Twin’s Selected Fridge Recordings

A new track makes for the 11th proper ambient piece amid his nearly 250 user18081971 uploads.

Aphex Twin uploaded a fresh batch of new old tracks to his user18081971 SoundCloud account this past week or so, about 20 in all. The activity followed a three-month break. As of this writing, there are 249 items in the account. The flurry coincided with the commercial release of Orphaned Deejay Selek 2006-08, under his AFX moniker. He has become quite adept at using free archival music as a means to increase attention to the work he actually puts up for sale. As “experimental” as his commercial music can be, many of the free tracks are more straightforward in their experimentation. That is to say, they are not merely “experimental,” but also “experiments”: they appear to be test runs of equipment and very rough initial sketches of ideas. Many among the recent batch are modular synthesizer experiments, enough of them that he took the time to collate them in a playlist that currently has 11 parts over the course of half an hour. One highlight is the droning mechanics of “Lecce – Voltage Controlled Acoustic Resonators,” which indeed sounds like the industrial noise of a very large machine. The source of the material is, characteristic for ever-ambiguous Aphex Twin, unclear. The track includes a three-word liner note: “custom helmholtz resonators,” and down below in the comments he has a back and forth with someone who suggests it was an actual refrigerator he recorded back in 2011 while he was touring Italy:


And here’s a video of that Italy performance, at a far more frenetic pace than the archival audio:

The track is certainly deeply ambient, whether that ambient is the figurative effort of him in the studio, or the practical matter of everyday background noise framed in a four and a half minute field recording. In either case, I’ve added it to my Selected Ambient Works 3 (beta) playlist, which now numbers 11 pieces and a playing time of nearly an hour.

Track originally posted at

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Luong Hue Trinh’s Percussive Ambience

Plus live video from Hanoi, Vietnam


“Musick to Play in the Dark” is a mini-suite of shifting elements, from Vietnamese singing to antic percussion. It is by Luong Hue Trinh, a Vietnamese national who studied in Japan and has traveled widely. Opening with high-tension strings before the singing kicks in, it slowly becomes a majestic, maximalist work, heavy on hypnotically rhythmic percussion. The beat, heard as if from inside an old alarm clock, has a back and forth sway that creates intricate patterning, especially as it is set against distant pounding and sonic effects.

There’s also video of her performing an excerpt of the piece at the Onion Cellar in Hanoi, making it clear she’s working largely on a laptop from prerecorded field recordings and sampled music:

Track originally posted at Trinh is one of the nearly four dozen women represented on the Synthesis Vol. 1 compilation of international women doing work in sound, released in 2014 by the Urban Arts Berlin. She posts occasionally on her Facebook page. Follow the Onion Cellar at and

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Can You Hear the Arctic?

And can you play the arctic? Ask Karen Power and John Godfrey.


For some reason, the track page for this live improvisation by Karen Power and John Godfrey isn’t allowing me to embed it here. So, to hear it, head over to Power’s SoundCloud page, at

Earlier this year, back in January, Power worked with Joyce Majiski on an installation at the Yukon Arts Centre titled Inside the Glacier. Both of the women were part of an Article Circle Residency Program expedition to the Yukon to collect sounds and develop art from them. This recorded performance teamed Power with musician John Godfrey, and together they, through live improvisation, developed a sonic response to the Yukon soundscape that emanated from another room in the gallery where this was all recorded. Their initially tentative plucks and whirs emerge from the winds and watery sounds of the arctic audio documents. At times the sounds are distinct from the sourced audio, but much of the time their playing achieves a naturalistic presence: strange birds in strange weather.

There is a host of images from her arctic trip at, depicting the use of omnidirectional microphones inside a wooden boat, microphones inside the remains of a locomotive, hydrophones inside icebergs, and much more. Power produced this half-hour documentary, Can You Hear the Arctic?, about her acoustic experience in 2013:

Track originally posted at More from Power, who has a PhD in acoustic and electroacoustic composition from SARC (Sonic Arts Research Centre) in Belfast, Ireland, at More on the installation at Photo up top by Tina Kohlmann, from the British Library site at

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Listening from Wittgenstein’s Steps

A Dublin field recording from Susanna Caprara


Susanna Caprara works widely under the moniker La Cosa Preziosa, or “the precious thing.” Originally from Italy but living now in Dublin, Ireland, she posts experimental audio work and field recordings to her SoundCloud account. The latter are generally brief segments of daily life. Part of what distinguishes her field recordings is that they often are not pristine documents of specific sounds, but instead snatches of the broader array of sounds in which those sounds are heard. They are frequently messy (in a good way) and lively, more along the lines of diary entries than encyclopedia entries.

A recording of a bagpipes player, for example, entertaining a crowd in front of a department store has nearly as much crowd noise as it does the sound of that slurry, fuzzy bellows instrument, and it is a cause for her reflections (at her site): “there is a strange excitement in the air, and with all the surrounding shops still closed this man has the full & undivided, freezing-cold audience’s attention.”

Among her most recent uploads is an echoing track made inside the Botanic Gardens in Dublin, abundant with a chatty naturalism, a mix of constructed natural space and bystander conversations. The piece is itself a construction, made from three different spots: “outdoors, by the stream in the rockery, and at the Wittgenstein steps (inside The Palm House greenhouse).” It’s a great example of how field recordings can be as much about memory and experience as they can be about taxonomy and data.

Track originally posted at More from Susanna Caprara’s La Cosa Preziosa at and The photo of the Wittgenstein plaque is from her blog post.

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