The bird on the street…

February 23, 2012

I have wanted to try my hand at field recording for some time now, and in recent days I finally made the time to do so. I conducted my first recordings while in New York City for a conference two weekends ago, walking down the streets at night and in the subway. The street noise was fascinating, for in a twenty-minute span I encountered five languages (English, German, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese), what felt like ten times as many car horns, the cooing of pigeons, and the usual din of the city’s perpetual construction projects. Yet I also encountered a few surprises. One of these was a rhythmic scraping, which after a few moments I noticed was coming from a white plastic mail bin being kicked by a disgruntled postal worker (in the flesh!) down 5th Avenue.

Upon returning from the city and readjusting to the sounds of Ithaca, I found myself comparing the two environments. I took comfort in the relatively natural quality of my present surroundings and looked forward to training my microphone toward the trees. Or so I thought, for when I actually began recording with the intent of capturing a bird song or two for the sound piece I was working on, it became impossible to do so without being within earshot of traffic. Whether from cars passing along roads or carried through the trees from Cornell’s campus (which hums with it), the sound of it seemed never far away. Feeling somewhat anxious, I decided to address this issue in my sound piece, in which the cacophony of the city encroaches upon the forest.

I think of John Cage, who once said he was as happy taking in the sounds outside his New York apartment window as he was sitting in a concert hall. Yet when the sound the friction of rubber on asphalt seeks me out amid a copse of chickadees (and one insistent cardinal), I find it difficult at first to accept what lies in the background. But then something happens. The language of vehicles becomes a drone, a blanket of white noise that blends into the folds of my brain and buoys the songs on which I am focused. And as I manipulate my recordings I am able to emphasize or subvert that drone at will, until they morph into a virtual orchestra of cicadas, distant and sketched until they are one.

I’m starting to believe there is a bit of nature in every machine. -Tyran

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