sideways to places: chrissie caulfield on wanda group and field recording

April 24, 2015 at 9:52 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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WANDA GROUP – HER MOUTH WAS OPEN AND THEN HE OPENED HIS (download, UMBRO GROUP)

WANDA GROUP - HER MOUTH WAS OPEN AND THEN HE OPENED HISWANDA GROUP - HER MOUTH WAS OPEN AND THEN HE OPENED HIS - 1WANDA GROUP - HER MOUTH WAS OPEN AND THEN HE OPENED HIS - 2WANDA GROUP - HER MOUTH WAS OPEN AND THEN HE OPENED HIS - 3WANDA GROUP - HER MOUTH WAS OPEN AND THEN HE OPENED HIS - 12

I do love a good field recording. I’ve heard people say that smells take you back to places better than photographs, but I don’t subscribe to that. It’s sounds that do it for me. I can still hear in my mind’s ear the noises of my first bike and, most poignantly and possibly revealingly, the sound of my baby sister saying

Do your radio go?

into a cheap microphone when I first recorded her on a portable cassette/radio in days when my own age can’t have been in double figures for very long.

And sounds can not only take you back to places in your past but sideways to places you’ve never been before. The thing that really sealed this for me was when a friend played some binaural recordings of him just walking through New York, a place I have never visited. It was captivating. Familiar and very foreign at the same time, there are noises you recognise but sound vaguely different to what you’re used to or in different contexts than you might expect. Of course those sort of recordings don’t actually take you to New York, they illustrate a place you’ve never been in light pastels and enable you to create the missing parts for yourself. Reading a book has a similar effect – we all have our own interpretations of the action and characters and none, or perhaps all of them, are ‘right’.

These sorts of recording also make you listen to the world around you more closely. Who but the field-recordist listens intently to the sound of the traffic as they head into work of a morning? We all know these sounds of our daily life but taken out of the context of the actual activity itself they can become special, enlightening or surprising. Putting on a CD of a field recording takes it out of its context and into your living room, it asks to be listened to and experienced.

HER MOUTH WAS OPEN AND THEN HE OPENED HIS by WANDA GROUP is a two-part set of field recordings done in Vietnam and Cambodia and locally in the artiste’s home town of Rainham. On first listen my thought was that the opening is as perfect as you’re likely to get in a composed piece of music: absolute silence, followed by someone running towards you while a prop aircraft flies over. And then as you listen on you realise that this is a composed piece of music. While the source material is the field recordings, they have been expertly mixed into a narrative whole … and I do love a sound narrative.

I really like that this is not the sort of field recording piece where the recordist has simply pointed a microphone at something and then published the outcome. As expert field-recordist Jez Riley-French says, there is little art in that, we should ask more of field recording and recordists. And more is definitely what we get in this release. So here we have the juxtaposition of someone in a bath with traffic noises close by, cuts in and out of a train journey and chatter in mysterious (to me, anyway) languages. There are natural drones from trains, household machinery and insects intersected with electric cracking so close I went to check my own wiring; there are cupboards opening and closing and children playing. There are also snatches of actual music, though these are always kept in the background so as not to intrude, they are just part of the overall landscape. As if to echo my “Do your radio go?” memory referred to above, there is also some chatter about the recording process itself in the middle of ‘DECOR 2′:

It’s all being picked up from there
Can you hear me chewing?
Yeah
Wow!

Very meta!

I would be lying if I said this recording transported me to Vietnam or Cambodia, or even Rainham. Of course it didn’t. What it did give me was an extended sonic experience that is different from either going to those places, reading about them in a catalogue, or listening to their music. The way the recordings are arranged and mixed present a narrative journey, mainly by train in ‘GA 6’, to various places in the area, and visiting various people, some of whom also seem to be tourists.

There’s a sensitivity to the extraordinariness of ordinary sounds here that you get in all good field recorded pieces. Where there is an especially good door creak, metallic clang or rain on a tin roof, the mix is pulled back to let you properly hear the nuances of the sound with little distraction, maybe just a small amount of ambient sound to keep the sense of place. The mix never gets truly busy, you can always hear the individual sounds even when one is more obviously in focus, there’s a good sense of foreground and background nearly all of the time.

As I’m the sort of person that gets bored easily I’m not too fond of extended drones [Editor’s note: you’re fired!] and these are nicely avoided here. Even at the end of ‘GA 6’ where there is some mechanical whirring going on for nearly five minutes, there’s a little clanking of human activity going on too, though you’re left with the drone by itself for the last two minutes of the piece – just the right amount of time to hear its subtleties unspoiled without tiring of it.

I don’t know if it is deliberate or not, but at the end of side 2 ‘DECOR 2’ cuts abruptly at 21 minutes. That’s not the end of the downloaded file though – there is a further three and a half minutes of sound that is very, very quiet. I had to turn the volume up to full to be able to discern it which is a shame as, in an echo of ‘GA 6’, it ends with three minutes of a buzzing drone overlaid with footsteps and makes a rather nice closing section.

When I first idly scanned through these pieces on the Bandcamp page I thought they were just another long-form field recording which would be quite nice because of being made in a land foreign to me. Further listening revealed the compositional ideas present in them that makes them so much more engaging, and … well ‘art’ I suppose.

–ooOoo—

UMBRO GROUP

[Editor’s note: this album is free to download but donations are invited and will be sent to charities in Vietnam and Cambodia.  £200 has already been raised and anything further you can spare will be much appreciated.  There is talk of taking this piece off Bandcamp soon so we would recommend not sleeping on it.  Your future self will thank your current self for a solid decision.]

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