Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And where there’s a campfire, there are ghost stories to be heard. So in the spirit of Halloween, the final MP3 for this week’s Downstream is a five-minute tape of a late night fire. It’s ambient by the most traditional definition of that word: a document of environmental sound. And it’s fairly spooky, even if unintentionally so. The location of the file (here) is the Phonography Archive (here), a haven for audio files uploaded by members of a phonography online discussion group.
Phonography is the art of field recordings, and the Phonography Archive is a repository of the taped work of the discussion group’s members. (The group is open to the public and can be found on its Yahoo page, here.) On the main page of the Phonography Archive site as of today are recordings of a Malaysian rain forest and of Chinese New Year celebrations in Amsterdam, of a metro entrance in Lisbon and of downtown Oklahoma City on a cold winter day. Most entries are annotated briefly, and the pieces are not to be mistaken as mere audio snapshots. There’s a compositional philosophy at work in much of phonography. The Viennese artist Bernhard Gal writes of one of his audio postings, a recording of a Taiwanese market: “by moving through the surrounding soundscape, i performed ‘my personal acoustical interpretation’ of the location, creating what might be looked at as a subjective sonic fingerprint of a typical taipei night market.” The description sounds very much like that of a fine photographer who composes within the confines of the camera lens. Phonographers are not categorically opposed to editing. Writes Gal, “the only modification i made is a short loop in the end of the piece which i found necessary in order to create a fade out/an adequate ending.”
As for this sublime five-minute MP3 of quiet fire, it was recorded by S. Arden Hill, who goes by the moniker Duul_Drv (homepage here). Hill’s track annotation records both the fire’s pastoral setting (“This recording was made at West Hawk Lake, Manitoba, Canada on a camping expedition. We got a fire going about 1 am and recorded this sample in between marshmellows”) and the phonographer’s ham-radio-like attention to technical detail (“Recorded with Sony MZ-N707 and ECM-DS70P stereo Mic”). For all the annotation, of course, a field recording is as much a touchstone for the imagination as is a traditionally composed piece of music. So download today’s Downstream track (again, here), and others in the Archive, and listen for the ghosts in the phonographer’s recording machine.