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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: field-recording

Listening to le Carré

Key moments of sonic telling in Our Kind of Traitor

Surveillance is both a phylum and an order of sound. It is both a context within which sound occurs, and a subset of the way sound functions. We listen intently, and we overhear; we overhear on purpose, and by chance. Our ears are focused by what we want to hear, and by what, as the pristine familiar phrase so succinctly summarizes, catches our ear.

There is very little overt, carefully detailed attention to sound in Our Kind of Traitor, the 2010 thriller by master spy novelist John le Carré — despite the fact that throughout the book, secrets are documented on little tape recorders, and phones are tapped, and everyone with the slightest bit of skin in the game is paying fierce attention at all moments, deciphering words and the tonality in which they are couched. With the exception of a few key moments, that action goes unexamined. However, when le Carré does choose to apply his scalpel of a pen to discerning the act of listening with the same consideration he applies to manners, posture, class, the intersection of international and personal politics, and all things sartorial, he of course excels. Here are five such instances from Our Kind of Traitor:

1. In the Wind:

He could hear the three winds battling round Dima’s glistening bald head. He could see the treetops above him shaking. He could hear the crashes of leaves and a gurgle of water, and he knew it was the same tropical rain that had drenched him in the forests of Colombia. Had Dima made his recording in a single session or in several? Did he have to brace himself with shots of vodka between sessions in order to overcome his vory inhibitions?

The “he” here is a second-tier spy — nth tier in the circles of hellish bureaucracy that define the modern intelligence service, but second in the small crew that make up the book’s team. The spy’s name is Luke. Here he is listening to a tape recording by a would-be defector, a Russian money launderer by name of Dima. We witness Luke’s craft and shortcomings, his perceptive skills and his self-pity, working hand in hand as he listens to, and projects his own experience onto, a recording Dima has made. The recording is Dima’s entreaty to the British spy service. In a way that a written document might not, the sound both provides additional detail about Dima’s situation and transports Luke, momentarily, into his own troubled past. (“Vory” is the term for a Russian crime syndicate of fierce loyalty.)

2. For Ears Only:

“Has Hector been listening to us?”

“I expect so.”

“Watching us?”

“Sometimes it’s better just to listen. Like a radio play.”

The Hector mentioned here is the book’s spymaster. The interlocutors in the bit of dialog are an inquisitive source and the mid-level spy Luke, who is under Hector’s command. Luke reinforces the unique power of sound when taken on its own, devoid of other sensorial data. He also posits a connection between the story being told by le Carré and the concept of the characters experiencing their own lives as if in a scripted drama, touching on matters of fate, and of Luke’s emerging notion of having less control over his own than he would like. (Elsewhere in the book we learn that Luke fails to enjoy the Harry Potter books — an anhedonia that reinforces his separation from his young son. There’s enough fantasy, we’re told, already in his life. There’s something especially British about John le Carré describing a British spy’s inability to appreciate Harry Potter.)

3. For Whom the Bell Tolls:

Perry pressed the bell and at first they heard nothing. The stillness struck Gail as unnatural so she pressed it herself. Perhaps it didn’t work. She gave one long ring then several short ones to hurry everyone up. And it worked after all, because impatient young feet were approaching, bolts were being shot and a lock was turned, and one of Dima’s flaxen-haired sons appeared.

The person who does the listening in this moment is also the one with the least agency of the assembled protagonists. Gail is the girlfriend to Perry. Perry is the book’s initial hero, except in the moments when it lets Luke, Hector, and Gail be the heroes of their own threads of the narrative. Perry and Gail are caught up in Dima’s negotiations with British intelligence. Here, they have gone to collect the family of Dima. Gail’s legal experience often comes into play when she pitches her voice one way or listens to someone else’s. Here her listening skills are brought to bear on her not uninformed paranoia.

4. Go to the Tape:

Then quite suddenly — it was in the evening of the same day — the weather changed, and Hector’s voice rose a notch. Luke’s illicit recorded played the moment back to him.

Luke again here, now in seclusion with Perry, Gail, and Dima’s brood. He has been taping audio late in the book, both his own notes about goings-on, and phone calls with his boss, Hector, who is calling in with updates regarding how he is navigating the halls of power in Dima’s interest. Here, for the first time, Luke revisits a tape, to confirm a suspicion he noticed in the conversation he just had only moments prior. The instance ratchets up Luke’s anxiety, and projects the isolation they all are experiencing.

5. Left in the Cold:

And either there was someone inside to close the door on them or Luke did it for himself: an abrupt sigh of hinges, a double clunk of metal as the door was made fast from inside, and the black hole in the plane’s fuselage disappeared.

That fifth and final sonic moment occurs pages before the book ends. It’s a fateful moment. The book has returned to the point of view with which it originated, the novitiate Perry — Perry, who has learned much as the book has unfolded, including how to listen, and what to listen for. And then it’s a full stop. What happens next is simply, to use one of le Carré’s favored terms, a void. It’s a void for the reader to fill in. The answer may be left to how well the reader has been listening.

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Orchestral Movements in the Rural Dark

A field recording by Glenn Sogge

Glenn Sogge calls it a “Night Song.” At 24 minutes in length, it’s closer to a Night Symphony. In addition to that length, the piece’s varying phases suggest orchestral movements in a manner that would do acoustic ecologist and composer R. Murray Schafer proud. What it is is a continuous, nearly half-hour field recording made in Troutdale, Oregon, two days ago, at 11pm on February 3. It is rich with insect noise, dense with layers of oscillating mating calls — or as Sogge calls it, in a brief accompanying note: “Another late winter evening in the country.”

If Sogge’s “Night Song” were in fact a symphony, it would be singled out in the program notes for electronic additions that set it apart from the traditional repertoire. In this case those sounds come in the form of passing cars, at first odd signals barely evident in the mix, but gaining speed and presence over time, and of the gargantuan arrival late in the piece by a jet airplane, the swoop of that massive, singular presence a telling contrast to the sheer mass of insects underfoot.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/glenn-sogge. Sogge notes in his bio: “#Collab and #remix are always welcome. All material is downloadable and covered by a Creative Commons license.” So do have at it.

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Literal and Figurative Peace

A field-recording mix from Zagreb-based Monk by the Sea

The track by the Monk by the Sea is lush and peaceful, in a manner both literal and figurative. The literal aspect is the birdsong, heard overhead, at times flying right across the stereo spectrum. What the unseen bird is flying through isn’t merely the listener’s headspace; it’s that figurative peace, a drifting, cloud-like sonic softness. The music has the sense of something stretched to achieve density and texture. “Song from the Forest” is a testament to the Monk by the Sea’s abilities that the explicitly natural element of the bird meshes so well with the more surreal element of the slowly unfurling, sumptuous ether. The title suggests several readings. The birdsong is itself a song from the forest, while the finished track — a mix of recording and impression, artfully conjoined — is also a song from the forest.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/themonkbythesea. The Monk by the Sea is Ivan Ujevic of Zagreb, Croatia. More at twitter.com/UjevicIvan, youtube.com, and themonkbythesea.bandcamp.com.

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The Disintegration of Swoop and Cross

A preview of an album on the Time Released Sound label

In one week’s time, the Time Released Sound record label will release Disintegration, an album by Swoop and Cross. Swoop and Cross is the name under which the London-based musician Ruben Vale records a mix of classical and ambient, or more to the point a music in which those two finds significant common ground. An advance listen to Disintegration is available on Time Released’s soundcloud.com/time-released-sound page. Throughout, solo piano is echoed in myriad ways. There are duplicated lines that suggest a hall of mirrors, and there are faint glimmers that presuppose the presence of an astral accomplice. That latter, ghostly aura lends the already somber, if at times quickly paced, music a nostalgic atmosphere. About two thirds of the way through the track, the piano temporarily disappears, and the glimmer takes over: a hushed, granular cloud through which a flock of birds is heard passing.

More from Time Released Sound at timereleasedsound.com. More from Swoop and Cross at soundcloud.com/swoopandcross.

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Disquiet Junto Project 0314: Cold Start

The Assignment: Record the sound of ice in a glass and make something of it.

Each Thursday in the Disquiet Junto group, a new compositional challenge is set before the group’s members, who then have just over four days to upload a track in response to the assignment. Membership in the Junto is open: just join and participate. (A SoundCloud account is helpful but not required.) There’s no pressure to do every project. It’s weekly so that you know it’s there, every Thursday through Monday, when you have the time.

Tracks will be added to the playlist above for the duration of the project.

Deadline: This project’s deadline is 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are on Monday, January 8, 2018. This project was posted in the morning, California time, on Thursday, January 4, 2018.

These are the instructions that went out to the group’s email list (at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto):

Disquiet Junto Project 0314: Cold Start
The Assignment: Record the sound of ice in a glass and make something of it.

Welcome to a new year. This week’s project is as follows. It’s the same project we’ve begun each year with since the very first Junto project, back in January 2012. The project is, per tradition, just this one sentence:

Please record the sound of an ice cube rattling in a glass, and make something of it.

Background: Longtime participants in, and observers of, the Disquiet Junto series will recognize this single-sentence assignment — “Please record the sound of an ice cube rattling in a glass, and make something of it” — as the very first Disquiet Junto project, the same one that launched the series back on the first Thursday of January 2012. Revisiting it at the start of each year since has provided a fitting way to begin the new year. At the start of the seventh (!) year of the Disquiet Junto, it is a tradition. A weekly project series can come to overemphasize novelty, and it’s helpful to revisit old projects as much as it is to engage with new ones. Also, by its very nature, the Disquiet Junto suggests itself as a fast pace: a four-day production window, a regular if not weekly habit. It can be beneficial to step back and see things from a longer perspective.

Five More Important Steps When Your Track Is Done:

Step 1: If your hosting platform allows for tags, be sure to include the project tag “disquiet0314” (no spaces) in the name of your track. If you’re posting on SoundCloud in particular, this is essential to my locating the tracks and creating a playlist of them.

Step 2: Upload your track. It is helpful but not essential that you use SoundCloud to host your track.

Step 3: Please consider posting your track in the following discussion thread at llllllll.co:

https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0314-cold-start/

Step 4: Annotate your track with a brief explanation of your approach and process.

Step 5: Then listen to and comment on tracks uploaded by your fellow Disquiet Junto participants.

Deadline: This project’s deadline is 11:59pm (that is, just before midnight) wherever you are on Monday, January 8, 2018. This project was posted in the morning, California time, on Thursday, January 4, 2018.

Length: The length is up to you.

Title/Tag: When posting your track, please include “disquiet0314” in the title of the track, and where applicable (on SoundCloud, for example) as a tag.

Upload: When participating in this project, post one finished track with the project tag, and be sure to include a description of your process in planning, composing, and recording it. This description is an essential element of the communicative process inherent in the Disquiet Junto. Photos, video, and lists of equipment are always appreciated.

Download: It is preferable that your track is set as downloadable, and that it allows for attributed remixing (i.e., a Creative Commons license permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution).

Linking: When posting the track online, please be sure to include this information:

More on this 314th weekly Disquiet Junto project (Cold Start: Record the sound of ice in a glass and make something of it) at:

https://disquiet.com/0314/

More on the Disquiet Junto at:

https://disquiet.com/junto/

Subscribe to project announcements here:

http://tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto/

Project discussion takes place on llllllll.co:

https://llllllll.co/t/disquiet-junto-project-0314-cold-start/

There’s also on a Junto Slack. Send your email address to twitter.com/disquiet for Slack inclusion.

Image associated with this project is adapted from a photo by Erik and is used via Flickr thanks to a Creative Commons license:

https://flic.kr/p/j2hTiq

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

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