Dutch music writer Rene Van Peer talks about the necessity of listening inclusively in primitive times, as a matter of survival, and how that kind of global attention is returning in modern times through the medium of technology and nature sound recordings. (Go to interview)
Shrouds of Air By Rene Van Peer, from a talk delivered at Sound Symposium, Newfoundland, 2004
If there is anything soundscape recordists would be apprehensive of, it is sound that could blur the clarity and distinctiveness of what they want to capture. Wind must rank high among the phenomena about which recordists must have mixed feelings. It is unpredictable in its occurrence—in the timing, the persistence and the quality of its manifestation. It is almost ubiquitous; and it is elusive—even more so than other environmental sounds, which usually have a clear, identifiable source. Wind is not so much a source, but rather a cause. It causes objects to move, to hit and rub against one another—which creates the sounds one hears. It can also create turbulence, which becomes audible as fluttering, whistling and howling. Any object will do, from a crack in a wall, a tube, or a microphone.
Because most of the sounds created by wind have a broadband range, they tend to obfuscate sounds from other sources. Also, because all sounds are waves traveling through the air, strong winds can disperse them, thereby garbling what might otherwise be a transparent sonic image of a landscape. On the other hand, because it is objects in the landscape (such as trees, shrubs, grass, and fences) that become sound sources, it makes them come alive, and puts them on the map. But then again, if you don't know what exactly you're listening to, you can make totally false assumptions about the position and dimensions of these objects.
One can view these characteristics as disadvantageous, but there are people who have turned around and given them special attention in their work. I want to present a number of these pieces here, to give you an idea of the variety in approaches and results, and of the delicacy of what you may call Wind Music.
The sheer power whipped up by colliding weather systems caused the havoc in the track that I started with. Chris Watson, who recorded it, has this to say about it: "Wind, wherever the sound recordist operates, is an obvious nuisance. Just as it is with turbulent seas and fast-running water, it is relatively simple to make a recording that captures the generalized bashing and crashing of the elements, but this results in white noise that describes nothing of the detailed ebb and flow as witnessed. The remarkable thing here, in Glen Cannich, was that I could walk through the foci of these wind sounds within a few paces, as if being part of some great instrument... I wanted the recording to reflect the bent-double posture and sheer physicality I was experiencing."
Wind can of course be far more gentle and steady. It doesn't necessarily brush the delicacy and detail of bird song aside. It can act as a majestic backdrop, as in this recording by Jonathon Storm, where you hear the song against a massive wall of trees up a slope.
The even spread of deep rustling is created by countless leaves in the distance. Here, in contrast, is a recording that captures the spirit of late autumn, when most trees are bare, and leaves that are still clinging to the branches have a very distinctive brittleness.
Someone who took the idea of wind very seriously, was Sound Tracker Gordon Hempton. In a series of CDs devoted to various continents, the North American album was devoted to winds as he found them, traveling from west to east. Here are some samples of that record, to give an idea of the diversity in sound texture deriving from the predominant feature in different landscapes—sagebrush, short grass, long grass, juniper and tall hardwood trees.
Broadband noise plays a central role in the work of the Spanish composer Francisco López. Mostly he works from environmental recordings that he processes and arranges in layers over each other. What he plays on is the suggestiveness of the resulting sound structures, in which movement occurs that might be real, but also imaginary. In some albums he has used unprocessed recordings. One consists of extracts recorded in a wildlife reserve in Costa Rica; another was recorded inside buildings in New York. The next excerpt was recorded more recently. No processing was done, and yet it is consistent with his other work: in its depth, layers of sound, suggestiveness and a subtle musicality.
Wind does not only elicit sound from grass, branches or leaves, but also from manmade elements in a landscape. Sound recordist Geoff Sample hit upon an aluminum gate in the Sutherland moors, close to Loch Laxford, in the north of Scotland. The heady gusts of a spring gale whistled around the metal structure, and made the gate rattle and clang. The result is a rather preternatural sounding composite that may give the impression of having been put together deliberately. That is not the case, says Sample.
Of course the discovery that wind can make objects emit sound is not a recent one. In Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands, people used to erect bamboo poles on the easternmost beaches of the island when someone had died. Holes and slits were cut out in the canes, which were played by the wind. The spirit of the deceased was supposed to be guided to the island of the dead by the elusive voices.
The Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki discovered the sound making power of wind when he went to sand dunes for a photo shoot. He had taken his Analapos instrument with him: two cans connected with a long spring coil (like a children's telephone). He writes: "I discovered that Analapos played a weird melody when the wind blew across it. These sounds depended on the direction of the wind and on the angle at which the instrument was suspended. I was also surprised to observe that rain and sand particles acted on the coil-springs to stop the sounds." He later came back to make a recording.
From here it is a small step to a straightforward recording of a windy environment, where the chance occurrence of events determines the sounding result, like in the following sample. Here, Scott Smallwood roamed around a pile of scrap and refuse left at an abandoned airfield in the Utah desert. There is a hint in this piece that he compiled it from several different takes.
The composer Alan Lamb did something similar. He made recordings of telegraph wires in the Australian outback, which he combined and processed into complete pieces. Remember, that all the sounds were generated by the wind.
The French composer Eric La Casa takes one step further. He collates wind and wind-based recordings from various sources and environments (both natural and urban) into tape compositions—and adds a church organ for good measure. He plays with the drama provided by the sheer power of the elements, and with the depth and the suggestive vagueness and ambiguity of the generated sounds.