“Phonography,” “field recording,” and “soundscape composition” are all terms used to describe the practice of recording the sounds of more-than-human ecologies. These overlapping sonic arts have been incorporated into films such as Elephant (2003), which includes excerpts from Hildegard Westerkamp’s “Beneath the Forest Floor” and “Türen der Wahrnehmung”; We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), which uses sections of Jana Winderen’s “Aquaculture”; Encounters at the End of the World (2007), which includes hydrophone recordings by Douglas Quinn; and Leviathan (2012), in which Ernst Karel creates an evocative sound design emphasizing the audio from the filmmakers’ GoPro cameras.
While these examples draw on phonographers with substantial history and visibility in the field, the availability of inexpensive specialty microphones on the internet, accompanied by demonstrations of their potential on sites such as YouTube and SoundCloud, makes the incorporation of techniques from phonography into moving image practices more accessible. The example clip above suggests some implications of the ready availability of these formerly esoteric recording techniques.
In the clip above, contact mics—sold online by sound artist Jez Riley French—are used to engage a group of ants. Contact mics transduce sound into electromagnetic pulses not by responding to changes in air pressure, as most familiar microphones do, but by responding to vibrations transmitted through a piezo element inside the black-coated discs seen in the video. In this instance, the contact mics are not attached to a resonant, vibrating object, so the sounds recorded are vibrations of the microphone itself, articulated by the ants’ actions on the microphones. This example highlights the material entanglements of subject, microphone, and recording, producing an evocative result, more fully understood by attending to the mechanics of the recording process.
Will the easy availability of contact microphones and hydrophones make their use in film sound more common? If so, does this open up new ways of thinking about the process of engaging sounds in the field, by highlighting the range of methods available to the contemporary media maker? Could these do-it-yourself, materially-focused practices suggest a productive inquiry into specific material entanglements of audio-visual production?