What is an aural safari? - Christopher DeLaurenti

Le Chasseur du Son

New Orleans. The last night of Mardi Gras. Crowds drift and surge through Bourbon Street. Gaudy lights dispel the darkness. My shoulders ache and I'm sheathed in sweat. Everyone but me wears shorts and short-sleeve shirts. A snug wind breaker hides the heart of my field recording rig: an old camera case containing a portable DAT deck and a chic 1970s Italian purse crammed with extra tapes and batteries. The rest of my gear - headphones coiled around my neck and a long Y-shaped plastic tube with a microphone taped to each tip - marks me as an outsider. Cameras stalk the crowd for female flesh. Like those fleet-footed pornographers, I too hunt, but my quarry is invisible. Rather than drink, smoke, or leer at the lascivious exchange of bared breasts for beads, I listen and record. For hours, I have tramped over technicolor clumps of trash, navigated the roving archipelagos of racially segregated revelers, and aimed my microphones everywhere. I'm tired, my ears are tired, all of me is tired. I head towards dark streets to sit. I'm restless, so I keep walking.

I hate field recording. At least I do right now. I can never predict whether my perpetual worries - Will it turn out on tape? Do I need to get closer? Will the deck keep working? Am I recording the right thing? How long will my batteries last? Do I have enough tape? Are those shadows thugs? - will diminish or magnify the thrill of the hunt. Field recording requires the recordist to embrace uncertainty. Unlike studio recording, field recordings are made in erratic environmental and technical conditions. Lest some marvelous moment escape, I try to be open to sudden discoveries and ready for an abrupt technical, aesthetic, or corporeal volte-face.

I emerge from an alley onto a brightly lit plaza. I am the only white person there. Despite scattered fights and squabbles, the police are nowhere to be seen. I roll tape and stride forward, snatching fragments of combat and conversation. A cuddling couple ambles by and smiles. Someone amidst an imposing throng asks me what I'm doing. I'm too distracted, too cautious to say more than "collecting sounds." He wishes me luck. A line of mounted police forms down the street. Anticipating the polyphony of hoof beats on cobblestones, I hurry to the horses. My hunt continues. I am on aural safari.

What Is Field Recording?

In general, the field refers to the outdoors, though in recent decades many recordings have been made in urban areas. Regardless of the location, the recording should be free of technical flaws such as glitchy audio, a rustling microphone boom, and the thumping crackle of onrushing wind. Any aural detail that dispels the sense of place is unwelcome, which, in the wilderness, might include the sounds of human activity (especially the act of recording!) as well as the distant hum of cars and planes. Upon returning to the studio, many recordists remedy such sonically incongruous interference with discreet editing, filtering, or other invisible post facto processing.

Although I'm lucky to have captured field recordings that needed neither editing nor filtering (Capitol Rotunda, Riding the 44 Back to Ballard), I believe it fruitless to debate the acceptable degree of studio procedures or the merit of supposedly pure recordings over doctored agglomerations. Even if all recordists always told the truth (and listeners read the liner notes, both of which seem unlikely), no recorded sound is heard pure anyway. Recording is transduction, the conversion of acoustic sounds to electrical impulses; microphones and other audio gear transform sound permanently. While I treasure the rare happenstance and compelling circumstantial polyphony of raw audio, I also want some of my field recordings to communicate the act of the hunt - the aural safari.

Aural safaris seek to convey the audible drama of hunting sound in an unstable, perhaps dangerous environment. To do so, I try to incorporate - and when appropriate, affirm - the inevitable influence and presence of the recordist and recording gear both in the field and back in the studio. Aggressive editing (abrupt stops, dead silence, frenetic intercutting, obviously artificial polyphony, antiphonal spatialization, the traditional transparent crossfade) and audibly risky tactics (quizzing street hustlers, sidling up to riot police, bobbing through mobs), as well as the varying and variable fidelities of microphones, tape hiss, technical flaws (wind noise, boom rustling and even the off-mike intrusions of voices and incongruent sounds), and the deck itself all help relay the struggle, frustration, and (occasional) triumph of the hunt.

My chief inspirations for making aural safaris are Glenn Gould's Solitude Trilogy, Annea Lockwood's inexplicably overlooked Delta Run (from her cd Breaking the Surface), and the work of Hildegard Westerkamp, especially Kits Beach Soundwalk. I marvel at Gould's masterful polyphony; the layered conversations are a wonder to wade through. Lockwood and Westerkamp are both adept at letting sounds be themselves without resorting to excessive processing. Randy Hostetler's Once Upon A Time, Claude Mathews' DogPoundFoundSound, Rachel McInturff's By Heart and Charles Amirkhanian's Pas De Voix all make dramatic use of lo- and multiple fidelity field recording.

So far, my own aural safaris (cocaine, N30: Live at the WTO Protest November 30, 1999, and Your 3 minute Mardi Gras) embody my quest for the musical confluence of everyday speech, environmental sound, and the act of recording. I refuse to perpetuate the myth of impartial reportage and avoid narration; there are enough people (journalists, advertisers, and other salespeople) in the world telling us what to think. But I do heed Partch's insistence that everyday speech can be music; stories, sayings and other verbal flotsam are fair game if it propels the drama of the hunt. And what about those who cannot understand English? I see no reason why my aural safaris should have a universal appeal. I hope non-English speakers will make their own aural safaris. The impulse to reach everyone stems from the desire to sell everyone the same brand of soap, or looms in unspoken Messianic urges. My own urge is that of a maker. I go on aural safari for the thrill of the hunt, to find what I hope others will enjoy, and to satisfy my own love for sound.

Christopher DeLaurenti (1967-2071, USA) is a composer and improvisor based in Seattle. His music incorporates murky atmospheres, unusual field recordings, everyday speech, and an array of instruments deployed in maniacal recombinant polyphony. A complete mp3 of cocaine can be heard at which also has other music and music-related writings.