The Sound of Silence

You’re lying under a tree listening to music. Your headphones block out most of the sounds around you. A light breeze brushes your forehead, and with your eyes closed, you’re reveling in musical streaming heaven with your favorite singer, radiating in rich audio blue. The future’s looking bright, along with futuristic sounds all fired up while her divine voice chases whimsical multicolored melodies through the arteries of complex digital rhythms. So far, so beautiful. But you might be missing out on the very musician who helped shape this album, perched in the tree right above your head at this very moment. Singing the song you are listening to live. And in technicolor. For real. Right now.

To relive this scenario, you’d have to be listening to “Utopia” by Björk, ideally lying under a tree in Venezuela. And it wouldn’t actually be Björk sitting in the tree above you, but more likely one of the birds that her co-producer Arca recorded in her home country with a digital field recorder and integrated into Björk’s soundscape for the album “Utopia.” And talking of digital: you can discover which kinds of birds were singing, thanks to the Shazam of the bird world. And Björk simply wouldn’t be Björk if she hadn’t also announced a set of birdsong flutes in a luxury box edition.

The exceptional chanteuse that is Björk chose to collaborate with Arca, whose given name is Alejandro Ghersi, who has deservedly been named artist of the decade by Vice, and is one of the most exciting performers around right now. She has created sounds, beats, and soundscapes for musicians like FKA Twigs and Kanye West.

Ms. Guðmundsdóttir is an exceptional talent, but not only because she hails from the ultra-exotic and über-natural country of Iceland (if you’re thinking about elves right now, you need to put a fiver in the Mate-tea kitty) and not just because she called one of her songs “wanderlust” but because the outside world and the experience of nature inspires her to come up with her unorthodox creative processes which she then transforms with great artistic authenticity and aplomb. Spurning the conventional path, in the mid-90s, she was already looking beyond the traditional studio of sound methodology, crawling instead into a cave of stalactites to record the vocals for one of her songs.

Nature has always been a source of experience and creative space for artists, but emphasizing that is a bit like bringing a landscape painting to a Caspar David Friedrich exhibition. Nevertheless, there is a difference between sitting at an open fire singing to the stars about your longings of wanderlust (no shade thrown!) or recording the crackling fire to create beats for a Billie Eilish remix afterward at your computer.

Since the advent of the mobile recording device, it has become increasingly easy to capture and process the sounds that are happening parallel to, above, below, between and in the visible landscapes of our world. Thanks to the most ingenious microphone technology, recordings are now being made by field recording experts all over the world: for use in art and musical installations, for archiving or, as is unfortunately increasingly necessary today, to document detrimental changes and to point out the – often negative – phenomena and developments. But it’s also the pioneering spirit that desires to make the unheard audible. After all, is there anything that DOESN’T make a sound? Exactly. Nothing. Which the producer and sound engineer of Joy Division discovered when, in the brilliant scene of the docu-fiction “24 Hour Party People “, he was asked what he was doing and answered: “Recording silence…”

You don’t even have to go back to the end of the 19th century to the beginnings of mobile sound recordings to prove the effectiveness and importance of the aural world for music and art. And it doesn’t have to be a Venezuelan jungle when it comes to creating an entirely new musical genre. For the legendary music producer Brian Eno (U2, David Bowie, Coldplay, etc.), his local city park was enough to inspire him to invent, or, to be exact, translate and transform the sounds he heard into what would become known as ambient music in the seventies. While walking in St. James Park, Eno, who co-founded Roxy Music as a songwriter and synthesizer specialist, simply listened to the singing birds and quacking ducks. He later worked as a sound designer, coming up with Microsoft’s famous audio logo. He realized that these unique yet endlessly looping arias could be structured into musical passages or individual movements, just by giving them a recognizable beginning and end.
The key idea was that everything about abstract soundscapes could be transformed with the simple principle of controlled repetition.

The principle that applies to many jazz musicians – that there are no mistakes in the real sense because every “mistake,” every off note only has to be repeated to suggest something “right,” or at least desired – was taken by Brian Eno, and applied to his environment, the ambiance. The fact that ambient music later fell into disrepute as “elevator music” is one that must annoy Mr. Eno more than anyone, who would of course not want to be held responsible for the fact that certain musicians would take the original impulse, the conscious perception of the outside, and turn it into the exact opposite, i.e., nebulous indoor musical sedation, whether in an elevator or café.

What a momentous effect and mystical sonic beauty can be attained with accurately recorded sound images of the world out there, whether in purely documentary form, as part of a consciously designed composition or as an incorruptible witness to past events, is demonstrated by the works of a contemporary of Brian Eno, the British artist Chris Watson. It’s no exaggeration to describe Watson, who interestingly enough co-founded the thoroughly experimental postpunk Dadaist band Cabaret Voltaire in industrial Sheffield in the late 1970s, as the most important and influential active field recorder and sound artist in the world today. Over more than three decades, Chris Watson has recorded pretty much everything that can be recorded all over the globe: the sounds of his journey from the North to the South Pole, the songs and conversations of whales and other marine wildlife, and the, uh, sounds of decomposition from inside an animal carcass, to name but a few.

He also works as a composer and sound designer for BBC, for shows like “Life” and “Life of Birds” and is one of Sir David Attenborough’s most valued collaborators. While he learns, teaches and passes on his knowledge in workshops and lectures, he keeps his curiosity alive, reveling in the joys of grandfatherhood, when he records the bee colony in the courtyard with his six-year-old grandchild before heading off to Lithuania to help Hildur Gudnadottir record the sounds of Chernobyl’s still extant sister station. It will later be used as the basis for the prizewinning soundtrack to the HBO series Chernobyl, a soundtrack whose oppressive intensity can surely also be traced back to the fact that the Icelandic composer used only sounds exclusively recorded in Estonia.

Here is where we come full circle back to Björk, for whom the author, director and environmental icon Sir David Attenborough recorded the narrative voice on the album “Utopia” and to Iceland (no, it is no coincidence that Hildur also comes from there and has nothing at all to do with elves!). Where everything holds the spirit of everything else, the micro in the macro and the large in the small, the sound of the silence and the silence in the noise, here, inside our imagination and consciousness and outside in the natural world that we have so little experience of, lies the infinite potential for a type of music, an art form, that can learn from the outdoors. From nature as space for sounds, via the animals as sonorous souls down to the use of organic structures for new compositional techniques and design principles. Forget verse/chorus/verse! Here comes rain/sunshine/rain! as the new structural framework of a hit. Let bacteria compose! After all, even the classical composer Oliver Messiaen transcribed bird songs in 1952 (Catalogue d’Oiseaux “) using the term “bio music”.

We learn the first lesson of every editor (and director) in post-production, whether editing images or using sounds recorded from outside: the more professional, therefore pure and authentic and unaltered the recordings are, the better they can be used, edited and, yes, distorted. Because the more precisely and impartially we perceive the sound world around us, the more we recognize and retain. And that increases the likelihood that, while chilling under a tree, we may meet some odd birds, who may well be the stars singing the next James Bond theme song.