Articulating Landscapes – Non-Human Articulation in Field Recording



The term articulation used to describe how human societies manifest discourses, solidify political moments, intervene in the fabric of reality, and create culture has been strained in the past couple of years: often used as a term in suspension to describe events in suspension, it has been connected to political intervention and cultural practice. These definitions of articulation are in their concept often anthropocentrically informed and place the human front and center as the single producer of articulatory practices. I propose to understand articulation not only as a concept of the individual manifestation of a condition but as a collaborative effort. This is not to be confused with a collective effort, in which different actors with different motivations work together to create new meaning, reestablish the presupposed and rethink the precluded. Such an approach obviously still uses the strained concept of articulation as a term to describe that which is held in suspension, which allows to talk sufficiently precise about concepts connected to emergence and manifestation. It is also used with at least one human mediator in middle of the discourse; one could easily think about collaborative articulations in which no human actor is involved, however, Field Recordings are inherently an anthropocentric experience, collaboratively designed by non-human and human actors, yet manifested and grounded in methods and instruments of human communication. Furthermore, they presuppose a human actor to do the mixing and are embedded in a network of codes, from secondary texts informing the listener of motivation and collaboration to visual codes such as artwork, art-pieces, videos, and performances. 


Information is a key-component in this argument and in the construction of the medium. In Field Recordings, the intention is not to express desire or to do identity work – meaning doing work to either inform about the listener about the creator’s identity/personality-formation or to help in creating a shared identity for both via active listening – or to serve as an underlying commodity as the related ambient music1 but to let the recorded agents express themselves. The recording itself acts as the material mediator between the recorded being/environment/agent and the listener. Like a conventional music-recording, a human agent serves as an intermediary and as an active agent in interplay with a non-human agent.


However, there are two key differences to conventional popular music production: (i) Field Recordings potentially provide information work instead of identity work. This basically means that Field Recordings can turn the relationship between human (artist) and non-human (instrument) on its head: whereas in popular music the human artist uses the instrument to inform the listener of itself, Field Recordings can be read as the instrument communicating with the listener via the means of the artist. The listener is less informed about the subjectivity of the artist, but of the subjectivity of recorded landscapes, animals, glaciers, seas, mountains, trains and so on, giving them the agency to communicate, or, in better terms, to articulate. (ii) Field Recordings offer a new subjectivity by empowering non-human subjects to articulate themselves, and in turn receives the ability to articulate different things that are usually invisible by human-made recordings: Field Recordings are far less dependent – maybe even completely independent – of signs as a means of communication. This allows the sound to simply “be,” to exist in a complete void of human consciousness, emerging as signs itself, instead of being subjected to semiotics. As a means of sound-production, Field Recording entails all methods and instruments of cultural production that uses primarily non-instrumental, non-human-vocal sounds, for example trains, cars, animals, wind, running tapes, movies, trees, empty buildings, machines with a purpose beyond sound-production. The recorded sounds are mixed, collaged, laid upon each other, or tossed together with beats or synthetic soundscapes, but usually mainly untouched and finalized as a record, a CD or a digital file. This recording is often made public, sometimes within a specific context, for example as an installation or as a piece within a movie or a play. 


A considerable amount of Field Recordings is ecologically informed and acts as a mediator to human listeners of what they were informed by from their subjects. One could potentially read such recordings as the anthropomorphizing of the non-human: a non-human actor articulates itself and therefore exists; it exists, and therefore sounds; the sound as manifestation of this existence is saved on a recording and mixed by a human mediator to mediate the sound – existence – articulation to human listeners. This concept will become more tangible and apparent if we look at Cheryl Leonard’s Antarctic soundscapes. Cheryl Leonard was artist in residence at the Palmer Research Station in Antarctica, where she recorded local wildlife, underwater-landscapes, icebergs and simply the local weather; she also collected bones, stones and other artifacts during her stay and used them to generate sounds and make music: 


My goal […] is to share a little bit of Antarctica, especially with people who cannot visit the continent themselves. Environments, ecosystems, and the science that investigates them — these elements are important and are embedded in my works. In the end though, my principal hope is that this music helps people feel a meaningful connection to Antarctica, and conveys some of the awe and wonder I experienced during my adventures at Palmer Station.”2


This reflective paragraph conveys not only the blurry lines between the ecological and the identity work of Field Recording, but also paints a clear picture of the collaborative effort of the final articulation in form of a performance piece or a recording. It argues that there is not a singular agent articulating itself, but a collaborative network helping each other to articulate both a collective subjectivity and a multitude of individual consciousnesses. 


By cutting the middleman in form of representation and instead using the real soundscapes of Antarctica as the base of her music, Cheryl Leonard gives the continent the opportunity to express itself: a sound which is only able to be generated within a specific ecosystem. A relationship that goes way beyond music, with technology allowing humans to set foot on Antarctica in the first place, to map, to observe and to study the ecosystems, which express themselves not only through sound, but also in seismographic images, microbiological configurations, climate-systems, and so on. On the other hand, Leonard acknowledges her own subjectivity within these works: it was her wonder, and her awe. It was Cheryl Leonard who chose what is recorded, how it was mixed, how the instruments she brought from Antarctica were performed. How politically powerful such mediative works can become, becomes apparent when we look at Jana Winderen’s approaches to a similar topic. Her work is not only intentioned to “inspire a sense of wonder,” but to map out tangible ecological differences within the axis of time and to inspire change in regard of our relationship with the environment. This mapping process at the core of her work is discussed in depth in the presentation Listening without getting Answers which she gave during the Sonic Acts Conference in Amsterdam 2015, held under the motto “The Geologic Imagination.” In the presentation, she referred to several projects in collaboration with other researchers and artists all around the globe, including recording dying coral-formations, and whales living within endangered reefs.3

Apart from connecting such recordings to environmental activism and public information work, for example by touring with these recordings in the context of the exhibition-work Between Dry Land,4 Winderen also rightfully connects Field Recording with the concepts of time, specifically connected to change, and the solidification of snapshots as resilience against an evolving (and self-destructing) world. The way in which sound recording can solidify change is related to videotaping or photography, but depicts and maps a slightly different world, which is sound, the main medium of articulative communication. In turn, from an articulative point of view, we have collaborative, ecocritical collaboration between several actors: non-human actors such as coral reefs or whales communicate to the technological mediator of the recording equipment and get semantically charged and framed by a collaboration of human actors to articulate concepts such as passing time of environmental destruction to an audience.


But not only seascapes or far-off natural landscapes can articulate themselves via Field Recordings, but also history and culture. A good example for Field Recordings as both reclamation of the past and construction of own subjectivities as well as an attempt at non-representative communication is Will Long’s 2016 record Two Days and One Night, in which he retraced the steps of the final days of his uncle which drowned in Tunisia in 1984. In a short notice that frames the album and is accompanies the record – both in digital and in physical formats – Long states the history of the recording, as well as some own observations and something that can only be described as a declaration of intentionality:


In 2015, I retraced his steps from Tunis to Hammamet. Set part in fiction and part in reality, “Two Days and One Night” is both a document of my own experience and a re-imagining of what my great uncle might have heard and experienced 31 years before.5


The line between personal subjectivity and acoustic documentation is the line between the fictionality and the realistic, but both articulate a unity: the recording in its final mix features roughly the same degree of recordings from the streets and trains of Tunisia and droney ambient soundscapes. One part demonstrates the exteriority, the materiality, what is currently there, the other part demonstrates the interiority, the subjectivity, what is within, which is influenced both by the framing and by what was there.  The is and the was merge into a state of both subjective and unconditional being: the fictionality closes the gaps of the documented. This approach allows us to see (or hear) the invisible. Time becomes manifest in a way where it is no metaphor anymore. This concept is found deeply in William Basinski’s most famous work, the Disintegration Loops,6 in which he formulates both the decay that has informed Jana Winderen’s work – particularly the Silencing of the Reefs and the concept of subjectivity that is central to the state of unconditional being in Will Long’s Two Days and One Night. Yet the empowering force of such a product can only be as strong as its human framing: for example, both the works of Will Long and William Basinski lean heavily towards the individual subjectivities of the artist instead of the state of being of the recorded: the recorded becomes representation, a metaphor for the artist’s condition. The  subjective aspect is toned down in the works of Jana Winderen and Cheryl Leornard; this empowers the recorded, let them speak and articulate for themselves, instead of articulating the people who happened to record them. In effect, both processes are highly similar (a person goes out and records something and stores the recording on a medium), but could not be more different in the work they are trying to do: subjective Field Recordings deal with identity work and the exploration of the artist’s interiority. Eco Records deal with information work and the exploration of the recorded subject’s point of view.


Considering that Field Recordings can have wildly different expressions by basically utilizing the same methods, is it anything more than just another – more elaborate – instrument? Maybe not, if we look at instruments at a similar angle: it is possible to read a piece for guitar in a  similar manner. That, if we take away all cultural signifiers (“Is it a folk piece? Is it rock-music? Are there lyrics, if yes, what kind of lyrics?”), we can reach a state of simply being as well in which the guitar articulates itself and its own point of view, including ages of musical history through the lenses of the object, including a personal story of decay and disparagement, including the unique shape of each sound due to the handling of the guitar beforehand. Yet it is the scope of Field Recordings that makes this project there so much more appealing: and the fact that its producers are not only lifeless planks of wood, but often living, breathing and complex agents. They invite a reading that empowers the recorded subject, which is utilized by ecologically conscious artists that put themselves in the back row to work as a simple mediator between the listener and the recorded subject. On the other hand, Field Recordings can be used as an exploration of the artist’s relationship with the exterior, by framing and reframing the unaltered environment in the light the own interiority.




1To understand the concept as music that is not only “treated as,” but reflects and constructs itself as a commodity, we should turn to the ambient-works of Brian Eno, whose first ambient-album Ambient 1 – Music for Airports was intended as nonintrusive soundscapes for waiting-halls in airports.

2 Leonard, Cheryl: “Playing Antarctica. Making music with natural objects and sounds from the Antarctic Peninsula.” Antarctica. Music, Sounds, and Cultural Connections. Ed. Bernadette Hince, Rupert Summerson and Arnan Wiesel. Canberra: ANU Press, 2015. Pg. 121-132. Here: p. 130. 

Leonard referring to her production as “music” obviously solves the question of being “music or not” – at least when taking her intention into consideration – regarding the pieces she produced during her stay in Antarctica. Note that Field Recordings indeed certainly can be music, but do not have to.

3 Winderen, Jana: Listening Without Getting Answers. Amsterdam: Sonic Acts Festival, 2015. For further reading regarding the work on the reefs, cf. a write-up of the project Silencing of the Reefs.

4 Winderen, Jana: ‘Between Dry Land" for The Morning Line, Vienna, June 7 - November 20, 2011’. 

5 Long, Will. Two Days and One Night. Tokyo: Sequel, 2015. 

6 Basisnki, William. The Disintegration Loops. New York: 2062 Records, 2002.




Basisnki, William. 2002. The Disintegration Loops. New York: 2062 Records. 


Leonard, Cheryl. 2015. “Playing Antarctica. Making music with natural objects and sounds from the Antarctic Peninsula” in Antarctica. Music, Sounds, and Cultural Connections, edited by Bernadette Hince, Rupert Summerson and Arnan Wiesel, 121-132. Canberra: ANU Press. 

Long, Will. 2015. Two Days and One Night. Tokyo: Sequel.

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