The Art of Polish Field Recordings
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Field Recordings, Photo: Martyna Wyrzykowska, mwyrzykowska.com, field_recording_fot_martyna_wyrzykowska_3.jpg
What is field recording? Why is it so important for both scholarship and music? Culture.pl presents a short introduction to the world of field recording – starring Thomas Edison, Lew Rywin (responsible for the Polish version of Watergate), scientists from the Polish Academy of Sciences (its Institute of Art, to be precise), Izabela Dłużyk and the refugee camp in Calais.
Field recordings are merely recordings done in the field, far from the comforts of a recording studio. It all began in 1878, when the phonograph was invented. This was a true breakthrough in our perception of sound. It ceased to be something elusive, as it could now be recorded and listened to later – although for many decades, the technology remained far from perfect.
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Initially, it was a handy tool for scholarship, especially in the fields of philology and ethnography. Sadly, many early recordings didn’t stand the test of time: if played now, they yield only the dull noise of a broken recorder. Some of them, however, are still playable, and these have been digitised thanks to the efforts of many libraries. The Library of Congress, for instance, has made available 38 recordings from the 19th century. They mostly capture Native American rituals and songs.
Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók were field recordists focussing on Hungarian, Romanian and Gypsy melodies. But it was Alan Lomax (1915-2012) who was one of the most important field recordists in history. His oeuvre includes thousands of hours of recordings made across the United States and elsewhere in the world. It’s thanks to him that we can enjoy many American classics, like the now-canonical performances of Leadbelly or Muddy Waters.
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As recording technology gradually improved, recordings became a reliable media for knowledge transmission. More and more appealing aesthetically, they caught the interest of creators of electronic music, which was blossoming at the time. Some included the recordings they found into their music just as they were, while others modified them so that they fit into their artistic vision.
When writing about field recording in Poland, it’s essential to mention Eugeniusz Rudnik, one of the pioneers of electronic music in Poland and a long-time engineer of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. He used radio tapes that he had found in the radio archive section (or in bins filled with waste) to remix radio coverage, sounds produced for radio shows, speeches given by political leaders or vox pops.
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Rudnik made recordings himself as well, especially in his home in Nadkole, a village in Mazovia. His work may be classified as audio essay, experimental non-fiction on tape.
Usually, when field recording is mentioned, tapes are involved. And this doesn’t by any means indicate cassettes, the revival of which is constantly being announced by music journalists – or rather lifestyle ones (the former should be informed that in many sectors, cassettes are very much used to this day). What we mean, of course, is eavesdropping, usually conducted in offices, restaurants, or wherever it is that important people meet.
In 2007, Michał Lewandowski, a Gdańsk-based journalist working for Naszemiasto.pl, wrote that field recording is one of nation’s favourite hobbies. As he put it: ‘There’s a huge boom for tapes and voice recorders [...] it seems that everybody is recording’.
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It started with the Rywingate – then, suddenly, virtually everyone was recording. Lewandowski runs a long list: state services, politicians, business people, even students trying to compromise their lecturers. One of the then-ministers wanted to buy out a particular voice recorder from his ministry, as it had helped to upend the political scene. He wanted to have it framed.
Such use of the recorder was actually in compliance with Thomas Alvy Edison’s wish to use the phonograph to create ‘a family album’. It would include fragments of speeches, important events, a set of particular catchphrases and so on. Edison probably didn’t expect, however, that the recordings that would change the course of history would be made in hiding.
If only Kolberg had a phonograph...
Unfortunately, it is largely impossible to listen to recordings made under Poland’s Second Republic. Nearly all of them were destroyed during WWII. After the war, scientists made efforts to recreate the lost archives by recording singers and musicians born at the times of Oskar Kolberg, the founding father of ethnography in Poland.
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Although Kolberg listed songs their grandparents, and perhaps parents, sung, it seems pretty likely that the younger generations kept the repertoire nearly intact. So today, we are able to compare Kolberg’s notes with actual recordings. Jacek Jackowski from the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences comments:
Although the recordings are not a one-to-one recreation of the one-century-older transcripts – which is absolutely normal given the usual variability of folk repertoires – they show exactly what Kolberg can’t have expressed in his notes: the particularities of style, manners, ornaments, real sounds, pitch, dynamics, pace, metric modulation, rhythmic ease, etc. Only when listening to some recordings, with their changes in rhythm and intonation, do you realise how difficult it must have been to recreate it with a pencil. For in writing, the melodies do seem simple. Were they so before they were written down?
You might think that listening to the phonographic collection of the Polish Academy of Sciences is mostly recommended to ethno-musicologists. I say the experience can be equally satisfying for amateurs too. Perhaps they won’t enjoy it in full detail, or perhaps it’ll be their very first encounter with folk music, its style and ornaments – but we’re talking about listening to a recording made in post-war Poland. Mind you that these recordings are not part of the Polish Film Chronicle, realised under a vigilant gaze of censors, but documentary work capturing the sounds of history.
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Check out especially Gdyby Kolberg Miał Fonograf (If Kolberg Had a Phonograph), Kashubian melodies from Melodie z Borów, Łąk, Pól i Znad Wód (Melodies from Forests, Grasslands, Meadows, Fields and Waters) or And So the Phonograph Began Collecting Highlander Melodies, featuring recordings made by Juliusz Zborowski in 1914. For more recent recordings, go to Muzyka Odnaleziona, a label run by Małgorzata & Andrzej Bieńkowski.
Remek Hanaj used such recordings when working on his compositions of traditional music. He’s an ethnographer and the co-creator of the House of Dance movement, as well as a member of the Księżyc band and an editor of field recordings (In Crudo recording company). This is how he describes his album Nagrania Terenowe Snów (Field Recordings of Dreams):
This album is a draft of what traditional music is. It’s gone, but it returns, only now it’s wearing carnival masks belonging to an upended world. It’s field recordings of dreams, compressed and rendered into reality.
When listening to Hanaj and how he samples his field recordings, you can hear a distant echo of the methods (and the sense of humour) of Eugeniusz Rudnik. In Halo Panie Marianie!? (Hello Mr Marian!?) Hanaj even uses samples from Rudnik’s small forms, but you wouldn’t call it copying. For these oneiric recordings, filled with nature and folk sounds, take their origin in indie music, somewhere close to industrial music. There are lots of hypnotic loops, which could well go on forever.
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Warm clothes and darkness separate you from your surroundings, the enhanced sound in your headphones sharpens your hearing, making you more responsive to stimuli. It’s cold. When your breathe in such cold air, it’s like hyperventilating. Sight becomes secondary, dominated by hearing. It’s a kind of sensual deprivation, dismembering, plunging into this weird state.
This is how Tomasz Mirt describes his experience of making field recordings during a deer rut (as quoted in Field Recordings by Filip Szałaska).
Recording nature sounds is another important pillar of field recording. The recordings can be both art pieces (city dwellers especially may find it particularly quaint and mesmerising) or scientific documents. Mirt again: ‘I don’t do recordings that you could explain in one sentence. It can be music, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s just a sound, undefined’.
Mirt runs Saamleg, a record company where he has published recordings of nature and man-made soundscapes. They take us as far Vietnam, the Białowieża Forest, Cambodia and Nepal through the black protest staged in Warsaw. Field recording is but one position in Mirt’s rich portfolio, however. A composer and multi-instrumentalist, he also constructs modular synthesisers.
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Izabela Dłużyk is one of the most interesting nature recordists in Poland. An Anglicist and Russianist by education, she’s recorded for the Australia-based Listening Earth record company (check out Echoes from the Ancient Forest or Morning Soundscapes from the Biebrza Marshes), the Poland-based Soliton (Echoes from the Land of Bison, Echoes from the Land of Moose) and for the Slovakian LOM (Soundscapes of Summer and Soundscapes of Spring).
Dłużyk is blind. Her recordings are extremely detail-oriented. She has the ability to present very thick and colourful soundscapes. In the text accompanying her records released by LOM, she comments:
By recording nature, I try to grasp its beauty, its subtle music, a tender voice. I try to grasp its secret: the secret of life, the undefined treasure that we share with all creatures, the secret of transience, sorrow and hope that seasons bring.
Field recordings in the service of reportage
In 2015, Rafał Kołacki, an ethnologist and musician (HATI and Innercity Ensemble) made a trip to the temporary refugee camp in Calais, which the media unanimously called ‘The Jungle’. His recordings feature everything. It makes no sense to run a list here, as it would likely be like the Chinese encyclopaedia from the short story by Borges. Besides, is there anyone who would be able to identify all of the featured sounds, languages and melodies?
Soundscape is a fairly objective way of documenting reality, even though it is effectively easy to manipulate its content, not only in editing rooms. But it allows for various interpretations. This is how soundscape differs from documentary or non-fiction literature, which can be created so as to prove a point or suggest the author’s interpretation.
What exactly is Hijra: Noise from the Jungle (and other works by Kołacki, who has portrayed such places as Istanbul or Addis Ababa)? Is it a kind of sound diary? Perhaps a listing of sound impressions? Or an objective representation of the soundscapes in places he visits?
Soundscapes are incredibly ephemeral. Living in a city, we hear different things all the time, but some of them do recur. We can retrace their patterns just like we come up with mathematical formulas. It’s impossible to do so in a refugee camp.
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Smartphones are fitted with ever-better microphones. It’s already possible to make field recordings with good-quality smartphones. Pro gear prices are also set to fall. This means that the number of people recording, capturing their surroundings, will only grow.
What will be of interest for these new artists? Perhaps the sounds that are already disappearing from Earth – such as the noises of old machines or endangered languages and species?
Originally written in Polish by Filip Lech; translated by MS, Feb 2019