Media @ McGill

Mitchell Akiyama | The Phonographic Memory: A History of Sound Recording in the Field

Submitted by Justin on


In recent years there has been a groundswell of scholarly work on sound recording, from theoretical discussions of the ontology of recording to studies of how both consumers and producers have historically related to the realities of reproducible sound. Many, if not most, of these works have taken it for granted that sound recording is something that happens in a studio, a space of control and predictability. My dissertation aims to address this bias by charting a history of the practice of recording sound in the field. I argue that the studio and the field are sites whose boundaries have been arbitrarily constructed according to a particular set of rhetorical tropes. On the one side, the studio is assumed to a space of mediation in which all traces of the outside world are banished in the engineer’s pursuit of an ideal. On the other, the field is taken to be the site of unadulterated, spontaneous reality. In disciplines that make use of sound recording, from ethnomusicology to biology to avant-garde sound art, these tropes are fundamental but are largely overlooked. I propose that the distinction between the studio/laboratory and the field is neither categorical nor a priori; rather, it is the product of a series of debates and struggles that have taken place since the beginnings of sound recording in the late nineteenth century. I suggest that an approach that attends to the ways in which location influences the truth claims, legitimacy, or significance of a recording, offers important and new methods of approaching media studies. Such an approach stands to reveal the ways in which we have come to understand certain sonic practices as constructed while others are considered transparent or authentic.

The introduction charts a history of sound recording focusing on the use of phonographic technologies in the field, by ethnographers in particular. I discuss the ways in which sound recording was understood and promoted as a viable means of storing fleeting sonic phenomena. As such, sound recording was often charged with tasks such as the preservation of the aural heritage of dying cultures, for example. I argue that such applications reveal a particular media ontology that haunts field recording. Working through classic and contemporary theories of mediation I suggest that, across many disciplines, field recordings are treated as fragments of the original event and, through contact with this original, are taken to be authentic and truthful.

Chapter one examines the field recording practice of the influential folksong collector Alan Lomax, focusing on his journey to the American South in the 1940s to record black convicts imprisoned on remote work farms. I show that Lomax promoted and leveraged a particular conception of racial authenticity in his portrayal of African-American prisoners, a depiction that was legitimized through his commitment to field recording—to “being there,” to use James Clifford’s phrase. For Lomax field recording was not only the best means of preserving folk heritage, it was also a powerful vehicle for social change since it made its subjects’ voices transportable. However, this transmission was not nearly so benign or unmediated as he claimed. I argue that Lomax’s recordings could never be separated from him or his outsized personality and, furthermore, that there is always the danger of the recordist speaking for her or his subjects.

The second chapter addresses biology, ethology, and the study of communication in non-human animals. I compare two iterations of a similar experiment conducted one hundred years apart. The technique, now known as “playback,” involves making recordings of animals—in this case primates—and playing them back in order to provoke reaction in subjects that are then tested against a set of hypotheses. In this chapter I track the emergence of “the field” as an epistemological concept in the late nineteenth century. The notion of the field is recent and only came into existence in relation to the birth of laboratory science. I show that sound recording has, throughout its history, influenced the ways in which scientists relate to their subjects.

Chapter three discusses the work of the World Soundscape Project, a collective of composers working out of Simon Fraser University in the 1970s. Led by R. Murray Schafer, the WSP was enormously influential in bringing attention to noise pollution, not to mention sound qua sound as a basic unit of study. For the WSP field recording was a preservationist practice, but it also represented a means of disseminating a particular vision of how the world should sound. I specifically address the group’s 1974 radio series Soundscapes of Canada, which aired on the CBC program Ideas, in its historical context alongside other seminal Canadian artworks of the era, including Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North and Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale. These works, while addressing a similar theme—the vast territorial expanse of the Canadian North and its place at the heart of Canadian culture—describe very different experiences of geographic nationalism. I show that the WSP portrayed a narrow and romanticized version of Canadian identity that, to a large degree, was underwritten by the view that field recordings are transparent windows onto reality and are meaningful fragments of particular places.

My fourth chapter turns to the use of field recording in sound art practice. Here I focus on the work of the sound art collective known as Ultra Red, a group whose approach to field recordings in almost total opposition to that of the WSP. If the WSP’s work was concerned with employing field recording in the service of preservation and truth, Ultra Red’s work actively seeks to rupture the relationships between sounds and source. Through such as actions as recording the sounds of Los Angeles sweatshops then playing them back in the city’s posh shopping districts, Ultra Red engenders an approach to field recording that challenges the practice’s more documentary tendencies. I conclude by arguing that tactics like Ultra Red’s work against the media ontology I describe in the introduction by playing with assumptions about location and authenticity that undergird the practice of field recording.