In 1889, an eight-year old boy made a recording of a Common Sharma using his father’s wax cylinder recorder. This boy, Ludwig Koch, would go on to become one of the great natural history broadcasters of the early 20th century.
But what made his recording of the bird so important? Why was this event seminal to field recording?
Koch made the first documented non-human recording. This was also the first time that type of sound, captured somewhere, could be reproduced somewhere else at another time. It was in the grip of the microphone, that the opportunity to exhume sounds from the grave of memory was realised.
Until the later part of the 19th century, sound remained a virtual fugitive. In the moment of perceiving an auditory event that sound was gone, effectively extinct, never to be revived. Thomas Edison championed and popularised the phonograph, a recording and playback device.
In the 20th and 21st centuries analogue and digital devices that could record sound cheaply and easily became more readily available. Sound can now easily be collected for revision in other places and other times.
While he may not have realised in the moment, Koch’s Sharma recording preempted a body of work concerning the sonic recording of place. An art form which has come to be known as field recording.
Field recording traces a convoluted history across the 20th century. It calls on traditions in radiophony, sound design, ethnomusicology and various documentary traditions. It initially started from a point of ethnography, purporting to deliver an objective rendering of time and place. But contemporary understandings of field recording have shifted considerably from this position.
Current practitioners concern themselves with the subjective position of the listener. What started as an interest in representing the exotic has matured into an art practice that concerns itself with the phenomena of listening. Moreover, it provides an insight into how our interactions with the aural world might be performed.
The field of field recording
Like any art form, the expressions and preoccupations of artists engaged in field recording are varied and often incongruous. Works by foundational artists such as the UK’s Chris Watson (who has worked extensively with Sir David Attenborough) and Douglas Quin demonstrate a profundity of listening.
Quin’s recording of Weddell Seals in Antarctica remains one of the most stunning recordings ever published. The seals alien tonal bursts are utterly un-mammalian in character.
By contrast, the work of Spanish artist Francisco Lopez asks the listener to consider a more “acousmatic” way of listening. Acousmatic listening means the sound, removed from its source, is the sole focus of attention.
Other artists, including Japan’s Toshiya Tsunoda and Australian Joyce Hinterding explore atmospheric sounds. Their work is concerned with sound fields that fall outside our hearing range.
These infrasonic, ultrasonic and electro-magnetic whisperings surround us constantly. Though without specialist equipment and techniques through which to explore them, these sounds remain beyond our perceptual reach.
Listening through another ear
If there’s one theme that unites the contemporary understanding of field recording it is listening – and how listening can be successfully transmitted.
In the book Noise Water Meat (1999), Australia-based historian Douglas Kahn speaks of the phonograph’s ability to hear everything. While it’s unlikely Kahn means hearing “everything” literally, he does highlight one important feature of microphones.
Unlike humans, whose listening is the result of a complex set of conditions shaped by physiological and psychological factors, the microphone and the recording device are non-cognitive, detecting sound only through a set of technological variables.
Being non-cognitive, the microphone lacks an ability to focus in on particular sounds of interest and, more importantly, to filter out undesirable sonic materials. Potentially, this means our ears are perhaps better filters than listening receptacles.
It’s here, in the translation of the sound listened for, to the sound recorded, that the artistry of field recording is revealed.
For a field recording to be successful, the artist must be able to create a metaphoric connective tissue between their internal, psychological listening and the external technological listening of the prosthetic ear of the microphone.
This relational listening, between the field recording artist and the prosthetic ear of the microphone, is at the core of a successful transmission of that listener’s listening.
Thus, field recording is an invitation for us as listeners to consider sound through another set of ears. It encourages us to hear, at least in part, as someone else does. It invites us to recognise our capacity for aural choice and to understand that ultimately what we hear is not always what we listen to.
As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
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Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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