Thoughts, reflections, inspirations #1

I have begun some initial research into field recording and have started by looking at the work of Chris Watson, one of the foremost practitioners in the field and so thus a natural starting point. (Why field recording? Because this is the sole capture method I want to use when sourcing audio for the film I am making for the Sound Creation and Perception module.) A lot has been said and written about Chris Watson, a mark of his talent and also sheer staying power. I am sure he is someone who’s work and words I shall be returning to in the course of this project.

The piece I have been looking at recently is Chris Watson’s audio response to Constable’s painting ‘The Cornfield’, 1826, which appears as ‘Sounds of the Gallery’ on the National Gallery Website – to be found here. In this 3 minute piece, Chris Watson asserts his superb knowledge of the English countryside and masterful production through a pastiche of authentic sounds that take the listener on an aural journey into the world of Constable’s painting –  heads of corn swaying in the wind, the water from a spring feeding the pool in the foreground, the calls of bird species native to the habitat and in a nod of the head to unseen marks of early 19th Century civilisation, the sound of distant church bells. The sound pastiche is a journey but one who’s pastoral dynamic truly reflects the subject matter of its source inspiration  – the listener is encouraged to notice detail through the lack of dynamic change and to register authenticity through the spatial positioning and quality of the source sounds. In his artist’s commentary on this piece, Watson talks about how Constable’s knowledge of the landscape he was painting would have been an aural knowledge as much as a visual one and how this would have been with him as he manifested his artistic vision on to the canvas before him. This is an astute observation and imagining how attitudes to (mainly) un-reproducable natural sounds would have been prior to recording technology, ie intangible and essentially ephemeral, helps us to identify with Constable as he created The Cornfield and to a lesser extent Watson as he created his more recent response.

Hearing David Hockney talking on the radio before Christmas, I recall him discussing painting of landscape and talking about the importance of knowledge – understanding an environment you want to portray, not just in a casual manner but in a really involved way by interacting with that environment over an extended period of time. He explained that the best landscape artists captured environments not through portraying what they saw on one occasion but by portraying an amalgam of experiences gained by visiting that place over a series of years. I can identify with this thinking in terms of place videography – it’s not just being able to make a film of  a place – it’s knowing when to shoot/record audio, what you may have missed that is normally there, what you may have captured that is extraordinary etc.

There are many gems of knowledge in David Sonnenschein’s book – ‘Sound Design’ – some of these are particularly pertinent to field recording for film. I read with interest the author’s comments on production techniques to enhance the emotional qualities of environmental sounds – emphasis of salient frequencies, use of rhythm (‘periodicity’) and mastery of reverb to develop sensation of space or lack of it. These comments have led me to think about some of the music production techniques I currently employ to produce electronic music  – some of these will be equally valid for manipulation of  field recordings for film.

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