Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Field Recording and the Sounding of Spaces

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Field Recording and the Sounding of Spaces

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper concerns the spatial functions of field recordings, defined as audio recordings of the myriad soundings of the world. I suggest that field recordings are doing geographical work outside the usual academic repertoire of texts, numbers, maps, and images, and develop this idea through four arguments. First, I amplify the diversity of ways in which field recordings are used, distinguishing between four styles with different spatialities. Second, I argue that field recordings are both representational and performative, their playback doubling or hybridising space in the present through sound performed by an ensemble of audio machines. Third, following Elizabeth Grosz, I suggest that this performative reiteration of worldly vibration can be affectively potent. Field recordings thus demonstrate that representation and affect need not be opposed. Finally, I argue that field recordings can be understood as contributing to the production of space. Drawing on Lefebvre, I make a political-economic analysis of field recording, drawing attention to underlying processes of labour. The paper includes audio clips to demonstrate some of these arguments.

Keywords: sound, audio, vibration, art, performance, affect, environment, media


This paper is about field recording, defined as the production, circulation, and playback of audio recordings of the myriad soundings of the world: the sounds of animals, birds, cities, machines, forests, rivers, glaciers, public spaces, electricity, social institutions, architecture, weather--anything and everything that vibrates. Field recordings are made by sound artists and sound designers, researchers, musicians, and hobbyists.

"Field recordings are composed with, performed in concert venues, installed in galleries, released as CDs, worked into an audio-visual matrix with film and other media and made available in sound maps and other online forms of distribution" (Lane and Carlyle, 2013, page 11).

Field recordings also play an integral role in natural history documentaries, in film and television production as wild tracks and room tone recordings/* 1' and in soundtracks for meditation and relaxation. Field recording can therefore be heard as a form of nonacademic geography. Its place in mainstream media is too marginal to count as popular geography, but, like travel writing, documentary film making, landscape painting, and photography, field recording is a set of cultural practices through which a wide variety of people are engaging with spaces, places, and environments.

Field recordings are commonly understood as ethnographic representations of places (Drever, 2002; Rennie, 2014). It is often claimed that they generate a deeper awareness and knowledge of the world, and sometimes that they offer a means by which to renew human connections with more-than-human life that have been eroded by modernism. This paper explores some alternative lines of thinking, making four interrelated arguments about the geographies of field recording.

First, I suggest that field recordings are used in such diverse ways that it makes sense to distinguish between different styles of field recording. To this end, I sketch out a rough typology of four styles with differing spatial effects. These styles overlap considerably, and their differences arise in the ways field recordings are used as much as in the recordings themselves. Subsequent arguments apply more to some of these styles than to others.

Second, I argue that in addition to their representational functions, field recordings are also performative, something happening here and now as well as a document of another time and place. The playback of field recordings involves "the performance of representation as an activity" (Bennett, 2013, page 505). Such performances reconfigure present space, with acoustic traces from the recorded space-time folding into the playback space-time, effecting a doubling or thickening of space. …

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