The following, for a moment, should be heard without being read about or, for that matter, into:
What it isn’t is some long lost Chain Reaction 12″, though it could easily be, with its rumbling bass line, and the churning suppressed squalor.
What it is is a steam pipe, as captured by a microphone by Michael Raphael of Rabbit Ears Audio and posted on his blog, sepulchra.com. The post follows up a similar one from around this time last year, when Raphael wrote about apartment living in New York City (“My apartment features several steam pipes that seem to enjoy vocalizing”: sepulchra.com). It isn’t a coincidence that the posts are almost exactly a year apart, because the steam pipes turn on as winter approaches, and as the landlord decrees.
He writes of the more recent recording, with a nod to the audio-gearhounds who no doubt make up a significant percent of his readership, “Our steam pipes are full of character — they gurgle, hiss, clank, and make a host of other noises that I can’t begin to describe with adjectives. Last year, I recorded my steam pipe with a Schoeps MS pair on a boom, but this year I staked out my subject with a DPA 4060 taped to the wall next to the valve.”
Such thought experiments, such perception-reality switcheroos, are easily come by, and to some extent that is the point. The comparison, between field recording and abstract electronic music, isn’t intended to minimize or glorify either, just to draw attention to how the ear provides context simply by hearing. In the absence of context, our imagination provides context. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but imagination loves one, so much so that we fill the vacuum with quotidian reality long before venturing down more fantastical imaginative paths. When we listen to everyday sound — really listen to, as opposed to overhear (that last word being one that, it’s worth noting, contains its own inherent mistake) — we pay attention, and since the main sounds on which we consciously focus are voices and music, it is music that the everyday sounds come to resemble.
The association of everyday sounds with music is something Raphael is quite cognizant of. In another recent post, he describes the following recording, which while more self-evident than the above field recording is still worth hearing first out of context:
What it is is a ratchet, not the one you get at a hardware store, but the musical gadget employed by those MacGyvers of the orchestral world: the percussion section. Raphael visited his old music teacher, reflected on the work of Edgard Varese, and presented this sound, performed by his teacher, a sound that is neither fully instrument nor everyday noise. (Writes Raphael, “I just love the character of the instrument. It is not just some cheap piece of wood grinding away, but it has a real depth and dark quality to it.”) It’s a device whose modest nature puts it at the fulcrum of the two. In some ways, it can be seen as serving as a totem for the gap between music and field recording.