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Captured Space

Philip Samartzis

One day in 1948 while riding a crowded subway I came up with the idea of mixing random noise with composed music. More precisely, it was then that I became aware that composing is giving meaning to that stream of sounds that penetrate the world we live in… The music I composed at that time certainly had nothing to do with people. We were all in our own little worlds, isolated from one another. But I found it increasingly intolerable to work as a composer in such isolation. I craved some kind of relationship to those around me… I recorded various sounds and frequencies on tape. Surrounded by these random sounds I found they triggered emotional responses in me, which, in turn, I preserved as sound on tape. I conceived of my approach as something akin to action rather than expression… In 1948 the French composer Pierre Schaeffer first composed musique concrète, based on the same ideas as mine. This was a happy coincidence for me. Music was changing, slightly perhaps, but nevertheless changing. (Takemitsu, 1995: 79-82)


Field recording has a rich and diverse history that stems from pure documentation of place to reconstructed social and environmental conditions and interactions. The act of recording a natural or built environment raises many questions as to the significance of the sound event and how as listeners we should perceive sound removed from its context. As listeners we are often guided by the composers intent and their relationship to the categories that field recording is organized around. Categories such as acoustic ecology, bioacoustics, soundscape, and phonography provide a philosophical underpinning to the aims and ambitions of the recordist, yet field recordings can appear in much broader contexts including sound art, improvisation, electroacoustic composition and various strains of folk and rock.  The question that emerges from the integration of field recording across various musical practices is what remains of the original field recording and how do we interpret it within the given context?

Field recording as an act of documentation can provide a highly particular insight into a location through the prism of the microphone. Like a zoom lens of a camera the microphone enables the field recordist to hone in on very specific features of an environment whilst canceling out other sounds deemed to be irrelevant to the task at hand. On one level field recording can provide a very specific experience that can extend our knowledge and appreciation of a location, yet on another level the choices made by the field recordist clearly determines the experience. How then do we interpret a natural event when choices around microphone selection and placement, filters and compression, combined with environmental conditions and hazards affect the integrity and transparency of the original sound event? How much of our experience of an environmental recording is natural and how much of it is the imprint of the auteur?

Field recording can be a spontaneous action if the recordist adapts to the conditions of a location quickly. This can yield surprising results in which fleeting and ephemeral sounds appear and vanish in front of the microphone. Prior knowledge of a location, however, often helps in capturing these impromptu moments as each location is determined by a recurring set of sonic and spatial dynamics that modulate throughout the day or season. In order to document these events the recordist must consider many questions related to microphone selection, the proximity between microphone and sound event, the type of acoustics that inform the site, what other sounds occur in the location, the best time of day to record the sound, how the sound changes over the course of the day, etc. Observing these dynamics over a period of time enables the recordist to be more rigorous with their recording methodology in order to reveal the nuances comprising a location that are often hidden amongst an omnidirectional din.

Whilst these techniques result in an outcome that provides the listener with a sense of place, as the discussion of my own work confirms and the work of theorists such as Rick Altman (1985 and 1986) have elaborated, the concept of “faithful documentation” or rendition occludes the more complex relationship between techniques of sound recording and aesthetic and, relatedly, social and political concerns. As listening itself involves a highly subjective psychoacoustic process, it is arguable that any audible event can be accurately rendered, yet the relationship between technique, technology, and aesthetics provides a much more sophisticated way to engage with the environment than ideas around "faithful documentation" would suggest.

This essay considers ways in which field recording can be used to proffer new ways of experiencing natural and constructed environments by examining two sound installations composed by the author. Arguably the music most pertinent to our times is one that affords a highly individual auditory experience comprising mutable forms of interaction, engagement and aesthetic appreciation. Field recording articulated within installation form, as in these examples, is one area that actively encourages a dynamic relationship between sound, perception and space. The essay draws on the case studies to explore issues related to intent to demonstrate different applications of field recording, from unprocessed acoustic representation to multi-layered composition. The case studies outline ways in which field recording can be employed to put forward a very specific philosophical view to service a broad political and social agenda. Within these works field recording is used to suggest alternative readings divorced from pure associative listening to demonstrate the power sound has to transport listeners into highly contentious areas of public debate.

For twenty-five centuries, Western knowledge has tried to look upon the world. It has failed to understand that the world is not for the beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible. (Attali, 1985: 3)

Black Habit

Black Habit (2008) is a collaborative sound installation with Berlin light artist and musician Michael Vorfeld focusing on the industrial process required to generate the energy to power a light bulb. The installation comprises a 4.1-surround sound composition and a series of ten photo-graphics of incandescent lamps representing 100 years of light bulb production. Black Habit was included in the group exhibition Heat – Art and Climate Change presented at RMIT Gallery, Melbourne, which incorporated a range of climate related concerns within the context of sustainability.

Black Habit encompasses a breadth of field recordings from the brown coal mines and power stations of the Latrobe Valley in South East Gippsland in the state of Victoria. The recordings chart carbon fuel production beginning with the coal dredgers working the open-cut mines to the infrastructure that transports and processes the coal that drive the turbines that generate power. The sound design begins with the powerful sounds of a Krupp dredger gouging coal from the Loy Yang open-cut coal mine. It then charts the movement of coal by transport conveyors to the raw coalbunker and then onto the pulverizing fuel mills that supply the boiler furnace. Other sounds include a turbo generation plant incorporating four steam turbine generator units, boilers, cooling water systems and towers, electrical substations, transformers and high tension power lines. The field recordings are supplemented by improvised performances by Vorfeld using various light bulbs and actuating electric devices (relays, switches, dimmers, flashers and others). The changes in the light intensity, and the rhythms of the flickering and pulsing lights are directly transformed into a microcosmic world of aural activity to extend the sound design from purely broadband industrial noise to performed gestures of smaller more focused sound events. Although the initial concept was to chart the production of energy from raw resource to end use, the sequence of events did not lend themselves to a very interesting compositional outcome as many of the early industrial processes tended to have a similar sense of amplitude, mass and density. In order to create variation and difference, the sequence was reorganized to include more improvisational material as a contrasting element to bridge specific industrial processes.

The field recordings and improvised performances were recorded in stereo and reworked for 4.1-surround sound playback. The surround mix was achieved by capturing specific events from various perspectives that were later realigned in post-production. Often times this involved the documentation of a machine like a turbine from two perspectives using close and distant microphone set-ups and then reconstructing the spatial experience in post-production by placing one recording in the front and the other in the rear of the surround field to create a sense of depth and immersion. Sometimes the mid/side (MS) stereo recording technique was used to increase the spatial possibilities in post-production. The MS recording technique provides more control over the width of the stereo spread than other miking techniques, and adjustments can be made at any time after the recording is finished. (Heller, 2009) In Black Habit a MS encoded event is divided between front and rear by delegating the mono mid recording to the front and the wider stereo side recording to the rear. The separation of mid and side to front and rear enables the manipulation of depth and width in post-production by adjusting volume and pan relationships. The benefit of dividing a MS recording in this way is that it permits more flexibility in how direct and ambient sound functions within the temporal trajectory of the composition to foster fluid rather than static spatial relationships. A methodology such as this demonstrates the potential of the studio as a site of spatial improvisation and re-configuration comparable to one achieved by a sound recordist maneuvering their microphones to capture the dynamics of site. 


© Michael Vorfeld [Click thumbnails for larger version]

All photos comprising Black Habit were made by the use of a 4 x 5 inch large format camera with orthographic film material. This high-resolution process captures the minute detail of the filament, the lead-in wires and all the fine elements that can be found inside the glass bulb. Showing the sockets and the connected filaments give the incandescent lamps a floral outlook and provides a visual link between the coal from the earth and the filament glowing through the electrical current. The blow-ups of these photos were transformed to large-scale prints through photocopies on transparent paper.

The conceptual premise of Black Habit is relatively straightforward and is derived from an interest in industrial processes that inform our daily lives that are often overlooked or ignored. Although carbon fuel production is an unpopular and highly contentious form of energy production, the complexity of the industrial process is what lies at the thematic core of this project. In many ways Black Habit is part of a lineage that resonates all the way back to the Futurists celebration of industry and technological progress. The echoes of Luigi Russolo’s “The Art of Noises” is never too far from the noise assault generated by the infrastructure that services an enormous number of Victorian households that rely on carbon fuel for their energy needs. The irony of this Faustian pact is that the Latrobe Valley has enough brown coal deposits to service the needs of Victoria for several centuries to come. Arguably the dependence on carbon fuel production will be hard to overcome despite the well-publicized and debated environmental impacts. Field recording enables us to experience the intensity of heavy industry and the ramifications it has on the landscape by revealing the unheard spaces and actions that resonate beyond our daily aural experiences.

In various ways Black Habit reminds us of our dependency on light bulbs, and the dim, yet gradually developing awareness of the unintended environmental consequences of this commonplace technology. Since the recognition of the damaging effects coal-based power and inefficient lighting has on climate change has become more widespread, traditional incandescent bulbs are gradually being replaced by compact fluorescent light bulbs. Though CFL bulbs contain mercury and need to be disposed of carefully, they will cause less environmental damage. Like the effects of strip lights, the light of CFL’s is cold and less reassuring that that provided by incandescent lighting. In the short term this is cold comfort in replacing the warm glow upon which we have become so dependent, it is, in short, a difficult habit to break, but nonetheless a significant step taken towards breaking even more difficult forms of dependency. There is no proselytizing impulse in Samartzis and Vorfeld’s work since it simply offers an experience in sound and light that connects light bulbs to their source of energy, yet in the current climate it is a salutary enough reminder of the simple requirement to turn off unnecessary lights. (Williams, 2008: 6)

Outside and inside form a dialectic of division, the obvious geometry of which blinds us as soon as we bring it into play in metaphorical domains. It has the sharpness of the dialectics of yes and no, which decides everything. Unless one is careful, it is made into a basis of images that govern all thoughts of positive and negative. (Bachelard, 1994: 211)

Insect Woman

Insect Woman (2009) is a collaborative sound installation with Japanese vocalist Haco presented at Wentworth Gaol in outback New South Wales as part of Murray Darling Palimpsest #7 – The Wentworth Gaol Project. The installation comprises an 8-channel surround sound composition distributed through the male cells featuring field recordings made in and around the gaol as well as recordings made further a field in The Mallee region. Haco provided vocalizations of breathing, sighing, and murmuring to extend the palette of environmental sound comprising the composition.

© Kristian Haggblom [Click image for larger version]

The initial question when first presented with the opportunity to work with the site was what type of aural experience is meaningful in an environment predicated upon subjugation, retribution and violence? Should the sound design be respectful to the history of the site and simply transport audiences back to a bygone era to highlight the primal set of rules that governed Wentworth’s gaolers and inmates? Or could the sound design be composed and choreographed to include other qualities related to environment, architecture, acoustics and spatial design to reveal another layer of complexity that is as specific to the gaol as its social and economic function? Insect Woman attempts to do both by remaining respectful of the site’s original function and history whilst trying to reveal a perspective that is as challenging as it is beguiling.

Production on Insect Woman first began by a site visit to Wentworth Gaol located some 600 kilometers North West of Melbourne. Wentworth Gaol was designed by colonial architect James Barnett and built in 1879-1881 and is significant in Australian penal history as it is the first gaol entirely designed here. It was built to replace over-crowded lock-ups and was utilised until its closure in 1927. After spending some time inspecting the buildings, towers and yards – all of which are in remarkably good condition - I set about recording each and every sound comprising the gaol. These included a myriad of doors, locks and hinges – many of which are still functional – as well as worn out wooden floorboards, a bell, and various restraining devices. Although the site generated a lot of useful raw material, I was struck by the harshness of the general environment surrounding the gaol as well as the stillness of the site itself. Wentworth Gaol is located in an extremely arid part of Australia so the landscape around the gaol is quite desolate yet within it there is amazing beauty and serenity. The outback environment encouraged me to think more laterally about the sound design. Instead of producing something akin to an ethnographic study using the sound of the site, I started to think about what it would be like to sit in the gaol imagining a beautiful yet hostile world beyond the walls.

I embarked upon a series of field recordings within the vicinity of the gaol that included the Murray and Darling Rivers as well as the Willandra Lakes World Heritage area. The focus of the recordings was the natural habitat that populates this region of Australia a long with environmental phenomena such as water, wind, sand, trees, shrubs and grasses. A second series of recordings were made further a field in The Mallee focusing on three significant national parks, Hattah-Kulkyne, Wyperfeld, and Murray-Sunset, all of which provided variations of the animal life and natural phenomena captured closer to the gaol. These field recordings provided the raw material for the final composition – one designed to provide a perspective of the outside world from the point of a view of a prisoner whose senses have been acutely heightened by the numbing routines and depravations of gaol life. Once the field recordings had been assembled into a rough arrangement and punctuated by the gaol sounds themselves it became apparent that the composition required a human presence in order to pit the freedom suggested by the field recordings against the confined and constricted life experienced in the gaol. Therefore I asked Haco to provide me with some raw vocal material for incorporation into the final installation. Haco provided various takes and layers of breathing, murmuring, and sighing which enabled me to give the composition a human dimension that imbued it with a more intimate and personal experience of imprisonment from the perspective of someone who no longer listens to the world in the way that others do. Here listening is a key to salvation.

© Kristian Haggblom [Click image for larger version]

The composition was designed for eight-channel playback and therefore was finalized onsite in the lead up to the Palimpsest Festival. Eight loudspeakers were placed on 1.5-meter plinths and roughly positioned equidistant to one another in the corridor of the male section of the gaol, which is around 20 x 3 meters. The intention was to provide an even spread of sound throughout the corridor and the cells which each contained artworks by other participating artists. A final mix was achieved onsite that incorporated the spatial and acoustic qualities of the gaol in order to maximize the clarity and dynamics of the composition whilst also drawing attention to the interesting natural acoustic already present due to the clay bricks, bluestone, iron and tin used in the building’s construction. Although equalization and spatialization was used to improve the articulation of the sound design, the integration of silence within the formal structure of the work provided space for comparison between the constructed and the natural. The interplay of silence and sound allowed ambiguities to emerge that linked the composition to site to further strengthen the bond between diegetic and non-diegetic sound.

While curating this exhibition and watching it come to fruition, the terms Palimpsest (overall event), displacement (this years theme) and re-socialization (the sub-theme for the Wentworth Gaol Project) resonated within my mind. I sought a sound work, or more, soundtrack, to aid consideration of what castration meant amongst an “ideal” society. Each work was to be contemplated singularly and also as a whole contained within the physical spaces of the penal architecture. As Insect Woman swung around Samartzis’ eight speakers it bound the visual experiences into a conceptual whole and aided deeper conscious and unconscious readings through the aural experiences of delayed sounds of the actual space, surrounding sounds of the area and the haunting voice of Haco. (Haggblom, 2009) 


Is field recording something to be experienced or something to be questioned? Of course one can do both but unlike a musical composition, field recording opens itself up to interrogation as the captured sounds and spaces are a window to the recordist’s personal preoccupations, memories, and subjective perceptions. Equally field recording seems to carry with it a responsibility to educate and/or raise awareness both individual and collective about the importance of our often-overlooked auditory environment. How one grapples with these complex issues as an artist and as a listener determines how satisfying an experience one has of their aural environment.

Theorist Minoru Hatanaka (2003: 15) points out that it is impossible to consider sound apart from the space in which it is heard. Thus, just as public art tries to match works to particular sites, sound art also tends to be site-specific. In cases where there is critical resistance to exhibiting in “privileged places” like museums, certain works seek to qualitatively alter public spaces by means of sound. Black Habit and Insect Woman provides a particular experience of two locations remote from each other but with certain spatial characteristics that connect them in interesting ways. The sound recordings are central to how we navigate these localities and what we may find there if we listen very carefully.

Seeing has a kind of frame, though my frame is determined, to some extent, by a pair of glasses. I can range across the visual field, but the external limits are always there. Sound, on the other hand, is all around, and existing in ambiguous locations, articulating time at the same time that it describes space. At this moment I can hear the last faint trail of a large passenger aircraft, and the swelling volume of a smaller plane, distant cries from children enjoying the last days of the outdoor swimming pool as summer fades to autumn, a car parking to the right of my head, and to the left, a gentle swishing from the trees behind my house. In all senses, this is where I live and work, as well as being the substance of my work. Sound art can teach us to read sound in this way, to be attentive, and place it within other stories, not that art should necessarily be in the business of teaching anything at all. Sound art is a way to listen, to move within sound. This is enough. (Toop, 2007: 114)


Altman, Rick (1985) The Technology of the Voice: Part I, IRIS  A Journal of Theory on Image and Sound, vol. 3, no. 1

Altman, Rick (1986) The Technology of the Voice: Part II,” IRIS  A Journal of Theory on Image and Sound, vol. 4, no. 1

Attali, Jacques (1985) Noise - The Political Economy of Music, Minnesota: University of Minnesota

Bachelard, Gaston (1994) The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press

Carlyle, Angus (ed) (2007) Autumn Leaves, London: University of the Arts London

Haggblom, Kristian (2009) email correspondence with author

Hatanaka, Minoru (ed) (2003) Sounding Spaces – 9 Sound Installations, Tokyo: NTT Publishing Co.,Ltd

Heller, Brian, Front and Center, accessed May 8, 2009

Takemitsu, Toru (1995) Confronting Silence, Berkeley: Fallen Leaf Press

Williams, Linda (2008) Heat – Art and Climate Change, Melbourne: RMIT Gallery