REVIEW: Anne Guthrie - Codiaeum Variegatum (Students of Decay)
Slightly confounded by the album art, title & songs ostensibly named after the qualities of a leafy looking shrub known as the variegated croton plant, this album full of slowly-bowed strings, french horn and field recordings feels less botanical and more cinematic and nautical- the songs resembling six short, grainy 16mm films of an inlet as a rainstorm comes and goes.
Not unlike Richard Skelton’s site-specific works or something emerging out of the mix on Framework: Afield, Guthrie’s skill and “highly technical knowledge of natural reverb, field recording, and extended microphone techniques” (as per the one-sheet) is evident. A superficial listen reveals inoffensive and sparse meanderings over rain, strings and birdsong—-but the more you focus, the surround-sound presence of the location recordings and the orderly sense of composition keeps you drawn in: everything has been placed where it should be.
In an interview she spoke of thinking programatically, “with a classically defined foreground (instrument) and accompaniment (field recording)”, along with the process of making the album: outside sounds were sourced from long walks in upstate New York with a parabolic mic, the best sounds -chickens in the background, bugs hitting the mic- being accidental Going back into the album, knowing these details provides subsequent listening sessions with some extra poetic colour. I’m going to listen even harder next time, in order to find “the rhythmic sound of someone swimming in a pond half a mile away” hidden somewhere in the album.
+++LP/Digital available: Midheaven
Bon Odori at Gokoku Shrine. August 6, 2012.
Recorded on a humid August night at what I learned later to be a “Defend Japan” shrine in Nara. The snaky guitar lines give it an uncanny African feel, love the clipping on the PA system.
Recorded using iRig app on my phone. Pic by me as well.
The Last Quiet Places: The Sounds of Nature’s Silence Are Essential to Our Own Contemplative Lives
by Krista Tippett, host
This week and next week, we’re bringing people to the air who feel like discoveries. Their chosen vocations surprise and enrich the world in graceful ways. Sarah Kay, next week’s guest, is a young spoken word poet and teacher. Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist, an explorer and collector of natural sound. At heart, they are both about listening as an essential, if somewhat lost, art. In very different spheres, they are leading a renaissance.
Gordon Hempton tells of a turning point when he was in his mid-20s, just a little older than Sarah Kay is now. He took a break alongside the highway on a cross-country drive, and lay down to listen to an approaching thunderstorm. He felt like he had never really listened to life before, and pledged to give himself over to it. Our producer Chris, who mixes the sound of these shows, has created an immersive experience, guided by Gordon Hempton’s ears, which will also make me a more passionate listener to “ordinary” sounds ever after.
Gordon Hempton went on to become one of the world’s first acoustic ecologists. He has gathered sounds from the Kalahari Desert, the edge of Hawaiian volcanoes, inside Sitka spruce driftwood logs of the same wood as violins. His work appears in movies, soundtracks, and video games. Along the way, he’s also invented another, related vocation — that of “silence activism.”
Sitka spruce driftwood washes ashore at Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park (photo by Bryan Matthew + Jessica Lee/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Silence, as Gordon Hempton experiences and seeks to preserve it, is not a vacuum defined by emptiness. It’s not an absence of sound, but an absence of noise. True quiet has presence, he says, and is a “think tank of the soul.” It is quiet that is quieting.
This is one of those insights that is in the realm of re-learning as much as novelty. We live in a picture-drenched culture. Gordon Hempton suspects this is, in part, because the noise level of the 21st century is so high that we would be overwhelmed if we really focused and took it in. He helps us remember that most of the world’s creatures move through life by way of sound more than sight. The history of humanity is no different. Hearing was always a primary source of never-ending information and of staying safe, of survival. Our eyes close and stop working for us at night, but our ears work for us all the time.
Gordon Hempton also shares a fascinating piece of truth that human ears are most attuned at their peak sensitivity not to other human sounds — but to birdsong. In our not-so-distant past, the sound of birds signaled a habitat that would be compatible for human flourishing. We’ve intuitively nurtured quiet in spiritually and aesthetically nourishing spaces in our common life, like places of worship, libraries, theaters, and music halls. Gordon Hempton also tells of research that links the noise level of environments and our capacity to be actively caring toward other people.
Amazon rain forest (photo by Oscar Federico Bodini/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
As I was preparing to interview Gordon Hempton, I came across an essay by Pico Iyer called “The Joy of Quiet.” Iyer, a globe-trotting journalist and a non-religious person, shared how he periodically goes on retreat at a monastery. He described the other unlikely modern people he encounters there — like an MTV executive who comes to the monastery regularly with his young children, and has been transformed by the delight they can take together in a quieting, technology-free place. “The child of tomorrow,” Pico Iyer reflected, “may actually be ahead of us, in terms of sensing not what’s new, but what’s essential.”
Gordon Hempton, I think, has been ahead of a lot of us on this particular frontier. He helps us understand ourselves better as listening, contemplative creatures — not for what’s new, but what’s essential, and why.
Environments is a series of LPs, cassettes, 8-Track cartridges and CDs created by producer and sound recordist Irving Solomon Teibel (1938-2010) for Syntonic Research Inc. between 1970 and 1979. The series consists of recordings of natural sounds such as a seashore with crashing waves or a thunderstorm with falling rain, without musical accompaniment. The series ignited a worldwide interest in field recordings which resulted in literally thousands of imitations being released throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s both with, and without, music (i.e.: Moods, Solitudes, Echoes of Nature, Nature Recordings, Magic Moods, etc.).
The Environments albums were considered definitive enough to have excerpts included on the Voyager Gold Record. The Environments series also presented some of the longest album-sides ever released.
Download the compilation online for free here: Sound Localities Compilation 2011
Click through for the full lowdown on this 7-city project.
Longer-form work in progress, rough mix:
Walking through my new hometown, late summer: cicadas, daily life in Nara-machi, lantern festival.
This looks promising: FiRe - Field Recorder for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad