Field recording – a passion for listening
Jez Riley-French is an artist whose work explores a wide range of sonic nuances and experiences, incorporating a variety of approaches to capturing sound. His recent work has included commissions in the UK (Tate Modern), USA, Italy, Iceland, Japan and Spain.
In his own words, he is involved with ‘intuitive composition, field recording, improvisation and photography, exploring his enjoyment of and interest in detail, simplicity and his emotive response to places and situations’.
We caught up with Jez to ask him a few questions.
When did you realise you had a passion for field recording?
I was given a cassette recorder as a present from my mother when I was 12, and at some point shortly after that I managed (unintentionally) to record the sound of our back garden. Instead of re-recording over the cassette, I listened back to it and perceived the sound as equal to the music I was becoming interested in at the time.
At that young age, and in the midst of the musical chaos that was new wave, this was my way to accept sound as a creative element. Prior to this, I had been a choirboy when I was younger, and the choirmaster used to get us to listen to the church space before practice. At the time it seemed boring; but I realise it was important, as was the quiet, peaceful home my mother created for me. There, I could hear the sounds of floors and roofs creaking, the washing line attached to the outside wall… Everyday sounds became ‘soundtrack’ to me: to be listened to and not simply heard.
I wasn’t aware of ‘field recording’ as such when I was younger, and indeed I didn’t try to engage with the wider practice of it at all until I was well into my thirties. I wasn’t really interested in being told by others what field recording was or how to do it. I was simply doing it for the pleasure and to feed my interest in sound as a plastic material.
To be totally honest, as I’ve said elsewhere I think over-emphasis on the technology is problematic.
What are some of the items in your field-recording ‘kit-bag’?
To be totally honest, as I’ve said elsewhere I think over-emphasis on the technology is problematic. Field recording is fairly democratic now – what with lower cost options for getting started – but one of the barriers that is still there is the rather male obsession with technology being the answer. It might be in terms of location recording to some extent, but when it comes to the other creative uses of field recording and extended listening then the technology is a mere tool that means very little compared to who’s using it.
That said, given the context of this article, I know readers will want to know what I use. Basically, when I have my full kit with me it includes ‘standard’ equipment such as a Sound Devices 7-series recorder, DPA 4060s, a Sanken CUW-180, Rycote Cyclone and Sennheiser headphones. However the equipment I use most includes contact microphones, hydrophones, coils (all JrF of course!), geophones and ultrasonic detectors.
Photo: Jez Riley-French
Do you have any particular favourite piece (or pieces) of sound recording kit that you are particularly attached to?
Not really – I’m more interested in them as tools than as possessions, if you see what I mean. I guess I have more of a personal connection with the mics I build, simply because they’ve allowed me to go ‘elsewhere’ in my work, and indeed in my life in general.
‘I have more of a personal connection with the mics I build, simply because they’ve allowed me to go ‘elsewhere’ in my work, and indeed in my life in general.’
Part of my practice, as an artist, has involved durational listening to specific places, often for several hours or repeatedly over weeks, months or years.
In terms of your extended recording techniques, what has been the most technically/or physically challenging project or recording you have experienced?
Physically is an interesting question: I’ve had a year or so of health issues that have meant I’ve been unable to wander around as much as I usually do, and this has been frustrating; but it has also allowed me to re-focus my attention on what I’m really interested in. It’s also given me the chance to reassess how being so active in the ‘field recording’ community (by chance) shapes how people think of me as a person – and I need to address that!
In a wider sense, I would say that the most challenging part of my work (it’s about process rather than a specific project) is the constant need to balance one’s experience with the practice with remaining open to intuitive responses to places, spaces and situations. Part of my practice, as an artist, has involved durational listening to specific places, often for several hours or repeatedly over weeks, months or years. I find that a challenge at times, simply because it can be so enjoyable that when it isn’t, for whatever reason, it can be like walking up a mountain wearing every piece of clothing one owns.
Photo: John Grzinich
How did you overcome this challenge?
Well, given my answer to the previous question I would have to answer that it is overcome by continuation of the practice… and then it becomes a challenge again. It’s constant. I think if field recording was only a series of challenges that could be overcome by technological skill alone, I would have become bored with it a long time ago.
I’m perhaps not what one might call a conventional recordist, in that I tend to work intuitively and I’m not as interested in spending lots of time setting up microphones.
‘Wind noise’ vs. ‘the sound of the wind’. How tricky is it to balance the management of the former with the capture of the latter?
It can be difficult, especially if one’s work is about capturing a moment or a situation rather than attempting to get a ‘perfect’ recording (which is often folly in my opinion as then the emphasis isn’t on listening in the same way).
I’m perhaps not what one might call a conventional recordist, in that I tend to work intuitively and I’m not as interested in spending lots of time setting up microphones. In that sense I prefer to use equipment that I can trust and that functions without constant resetting. Wind noise doesn’t bother me as much as it has done in the past. I’d prefer to come away from an experience with a recording that documents it but has a bit of wind noise than not bother to record because there’s no way to stop the wind noise.
Capturing the sound of the wind is really difficult, and depends on what it’s coming into contact with; so for me I only try to record that if its part of a situation that I’m enjoying listening to.
‘I do feel proud when I get thanks from people who have used my mics, especially from people who’ve used them to find their own voice, their own way into creative work.’
What are some of your proudest accomplishments/favourite projects?
Hmmm… this is a really tricky question for me. I do feel proud (if that’s the right word) when I get thanks from people who have used my mics, especially from people who’ve used them to find their own voice, their own way into creative work.
On a personal level, I would have to say that the recordings I’ve done when I’ve been with my daughter have a particular importance, of course. In terms of my public work – as I think most creative people would say – the favourite project is the one you are working on currently, or indeed about to start work on.
What you think you know is the tip of the iceberg, and accept that that is part of the adventure, the exploration.
What advice would you give to somebody new to field recording who is hoping to take it up?
Do not listen to anyone who tells you that there are rules (hang on, is that a rule also?)
Don’t forget that anyone can buy the ‘best’ equipment, but it means nothing without good ears, a passion for listening and all the other aspects of who you are that will feed into your work.
Naming no names: don’t buy a first recorder based on the one you see mentioned most. At the entry level, that tends to be the one that has spent the most on advertising or given away the most free units to journalists.
If you can, think a lot about what sound is and how we, as a species, impose our expectations onto it.
Enjoy it, and when you stop enjoying it and it becomes only a technical process, stop. The world is full of recordings by people who care more about what mics they have than what they’re pointing them at.
Use field recording for more than what you think it is currently. Always know that what you think you know is the tip of the iceberg, and accept that that is part of the adventure, the exploration.