Slack-Jawed in Recording: A Conversation with fieldrecordists a. rawlings and Christine Leclerc

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Interview: Angela Rawlings records water, poetry
by Christine Leclerc

Poet, editor and interdisciplinary artist Angela Rawlings is the author of Wide slumber for lepidopterists. Her work has been published/performed in Canada, Belgium, Iceland, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States.

Over lunch with friends from the Vancouver women writers group, Rhizomatics, I learned that Rawlings had an extensive collection of water recordings. I was lucky to catch her with a few moments to spare as she completed the cheekily-titled Sound Poetry and Visual Poetry project at the Queensland Poetry Residence in Australia.

At the time of this 2012 interview, Rawlings had been in Australia harvesting sound samples for weeks. Going through her samples, the poet sends two poems recorded in on Magnetic Island’s  Arcadia Bay shoreline.

Rawlings also has a large library of water recordings from Iceland, where she resides. These recordings are of waterfalls, geothermal activity and the Atlantic Ocean. “Ljósaljóð: Hver” (which translates as Light Poem: Who / Hot Spring) was recorded in the past couple of years. It “features a boiling spring occluded from sight by a mound of rocks,” says Rawlings. “Ljósaljóð: Hver” was recorded on a hike to an area full of hot springs and bubbling mud cauldrons. 

CL: Sound recordings are a larger part of your work than I realized. How do you use recordings in your work? And is their use limited to research or the creation process?

AR: My recording experiments began a few years ago while travelling in Iceland. I began with the unclear notion that these would factor into future creative work, though the experience found me mostly learning how to listen, how to record, how to sense my way toward what was of interest to record, and how to theorize or contextualize the practice I’d taken up.

The Australia recordings are primarily intended as a focal component of my Gibber project. I have compiled over thirty field audio recordings from Queensland (with the intention of adding Iceland recordings to the project once I have a chance to evaluate their quality and appropriateness). These field recordings are offered as raw, clean files; the only editing they’ve undergone is to select start/end points within a longer recording in order to remove my vocal markers and button clicking. Additionally, I’ve mixed excerpts from raw files together to create soundscapes in dialogue (or perhaps fictional soundscapes). I also worked with excerpted recordings in a 20-minute performance that debuted at the Queensland Poetry Festival in August 2012; the performance incorporated voice, heavily edited recordings, and visual projection.

The recordings are definitely part of a research process (related to the creative, but not exclusively so) that gives me practical experience in the field of acoustic ecology. I was particularly interested in recording around Queensland, as last winter I wrote a paper comparing Environmental Protection Noise Policies in Queensland and British Columbia. Both places are the most biodiverse regions in their respective countries, and both economies are reliant on sound-intensive rural industry (mining, forestry, fishing, etc.). Queensland’s Environmental Protection Noise Policy is quite solid, whereas British Columbia’s is non-existent (though there are numerous yet unconnected noise policies governed by different B.C. Ministries).

CL: What kinds of discoveries does sound facilitate? Or, where does sound take you?

AR: I’ve had the great benefit to participate in what I’d call workshops in walking. Toronto composer Darren Copeland lead a great soundwalk at an acoustic ecology retreat near Haliburton, Ontario in 2007, and Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh lead mindful walks at Village des Pruniers in southern France in 2009. Both experiences encouraged a corporeally and environmentally aware practice of slow, attentive walking. Since then, I’ve enjoyed going on soundwalks in rural places (with little to no human sounds present). When I’ve hooked up my recording equipment, my ability to focus attention primarily on sound has created personal experiences where I feel unattached to time and where I tend to catch myself in slack-jawed, wide-eyed wonder (literally!!).

One of the first big things I noticed in paying attention to soundscapes is just how prevalent, constant, loud, and dominant human-created sounds can be. If we apply Bernie Krause’s neologisms of geophony, biophony, and anthrophony, the anthrophony frequently overpowers the other two -phonies and subsequently interrupts and impacts biophonic communication. It’s incredible (distressing, humbling, agitating, activating) to witness.

To answer your question of where sound takes me, it’s much closer to an immediate and innate understanding of our human impacts on the ecosystems in which we exist, interconnect, and inter-depend. Sound is accessible now, and constantly reminds: my em/urgency. Now.

CL: When or how did recordings become part of your work?

AR: I had my first recording and editing experiences (focused solely on voice) while developing Wide slumber for lepidopterists performances after the book was published in 2006. When I realized that “sound poetry” was a term being used to identify some of the work I do, I felt itchy for a few reasons—one being that I hadn’t yet studied sound in a way that extended beyond the intuitive gesture perhaps at play in my earlier works (like Wide slumber). From that urge to learn more, my research in sound focused on acoustic ecology and vocal improvisation. Working with Maja Jantar in Belgium on Órói (2010) gave me a chance to learn from her experience as a composer, and to co-develop a multidisciplinary work that included recorded and live vocals. I’ve been experimenting with this combination since then.

Gibber is the first larger solo experiment of mine that combines these multiple approaches. It was a gigantic learning process, hourly throwing me into moral quandaries about working with audio material harvested from rural soundscapes. How to combine text, voice, and/or field recordings in a way that is conceptually and ethically coherent, responsive, responsible (and not solely for the exercise of trying it)?

CL: What gear do you use? And do you edit your clips afterwards?

AR: I work primarily with a Zoom H4N Handheld Audio Recorder plugged into Shure noise-cancellation headphones (the latter squeeze my head a little too tightly, so I get fatigued wearing them too long). For raw audio recordings, I prefer to only edit starts and ends, so that the recording has as little post-recording manipulation from me as possible.

CL: Do you have any tips on recording water or other sounds?

AR: A good windscreen is key for recording outside (especially if you’re recording in Iceland—SO MUCH WIND!). I’ve also found my recording experience (and the recordings themselves) have improved as I’ve figured out how to move soundlessly through an environment, which then gives me access to exploring a soundscape from different heights and in different proximities to sound producers. This has been particularly helpful when recording water, as it’s given me a chance to explore the source from different sonic angles, thereby discovering the multitude of voices produced by water sites. Patience is helpful, too (particularly with kookaburra!).


Interview: Christine Leclerc on the border, documenting
After interviewing Angela Rawlings on sound in her work, the poet, editor and interdisciplinary artist proposed a role reversal. What follows is her interview with Christine Leclerc.

AR: When or how did recordings become part of your work?

CL: I began to make conscious use of recordings in 2009, soon after witnessing Alberta’s tar sands for the first time. The work engaged with records of violence. It was ekphrastic. First there was a series of engagements with sentimental depictions of military personnel, then with a video of police attacking students at the University of Pittsburgh during a G20. One way police attacked students was with audio.

I also worked with Tarzan movies for a while.

Spending time in an open-pit mine, breathing and being toxified by the air, having my eardrums percussed by cannons fire used to deter birds from meeting their deaths on toxic tailings ponds, squinting the eerie glow of a nearby upgrader from focus, enduring police harassment and knowing one could be jailed for acting on a desire to end the harm of tar sands development, while the fossil fuel industry was free to profit from the destruction of communities and ecosystems–the reality of the situation was a shock to the system.

And the need to stay engaged with important environmental issues in the face of brutal destruction has driven most of my work since 2009.

Ed Burtynsky’s explorations of scale were helpful to look at.

Collaboration has also been an important way forward for me. It’s like the story of the blind monks who describe the elephant in different ways because they all hold on to different parts. In engaging with issues of large-scale development, I have to appreciate that I cannot possibly know everything. So I embrace the dimension collaboration brings to what can be an overwhelming and alienating set of issues.

Recording sound to engage and explore is newer to me. But I have such an appetite for it. I’m curious about sound and geography, sound and scale, sound culture.

AR: How do you use recordings in your work? And is their use limited to research or the creation process?

CL: With my current project, Oilywood, I use recordings in four ways:

  • To compel the travel needed to carry out the research;
  • To enhance my attention to the environments;
  • To generate a Burrard Inlet sound library for later use in composition; and
  • To play during performance of the work.


AR: What compelled you to work with audio recordings in creation and performance?

CL: What compels me to record and work with sound is a desire to learn more about Burrard Inlet. I want to know what the inlet sounds like. I want to know how firsthand how the beaches differ, how its people and currents interact. I want to understand the psychic impact of tar sands oil tanker traffic. And I want to bring the sounds, stories and observations back to my community. Will I uncover meanings and possibilities for engagement by the water? This question also compels me.


AR: What kinds of discoveries does sound facilitate? Or, where does sound take you?
CL: Collecting sound has, and continues to transform my attention. When you talk about finding yourself slack-jawed in recording, I hear you x 10! For me there’s also a freedom. I’ve tended to be very people-focussed and collecting sound helps opens my awareness to my surroundings more generally. It also foregrounds the physicality of objects in motion and the sound-like qualities of colour and non-aural patterns.


AR: As an activist whose methods are creative, have you discovered any ethical issues in your approach to recording, working with recordings, or ecological/biological references in your creative work?

CL: Yes, but this has more to do with working from other people’s documents. When I first started doing ekphrastic work, it felt wrong to riff on the work of strangers, but then I realized I’d been sampling language all my life, so why should audio-visual works be different, so long as creators are attributed in the way they’ve requested?
Occasionally, I capture sound or video from places I’ve been asked to leave, as at Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline’s office where Ad Hoc Community Theatre performed a short play on the one-year anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.
“Scan” is of a bag being scanned at the airport.


AR: What gear do you use? And do you edit your clips afterwards?
CL: I use a Zoom H2N. Was going to get a TASCAM DR-07mkII because it had most of the same features, was cheaper, and was recommended by a sound engineer who had worked with both recorders. But I’m happy with the recorder I have because it serves my purposes and the encased mics make me comfortable with letting small children experiment with it.

I also use audio-technica ATH-M30 headphones. They’re not the fanciest things on earth, but they do a good job of blocking out the “noise” and amplify what I’m going after for under $100.


AR: Do you have any tips on recording water or other sounds?
CL: Mainly, I recommend becoming very familiar with one’s gear before starting work on a serious project. I’ve accidentally deleted clips because I didn’t know my gear well enough yet and it sucked.

In terms of recording water, for me the main thing is patience. I so admire what you capture in “Ljósaljóð: Hver.” In the urban settings where I often record the water can be still, and yet I need sound from that particular location! So sometimes I have to wait, or build silence into the recording. Other times, it’s a matter of getting creative about the investigation and figuring out where the most interesting impacts are happening: I once cranked myself into a knot to record the underside of a dock. But it was worth it.