Listening to records: reverse-engineering a cultural phenomenon
From time to time, people ask me what I do. I have all sorts of answers, depending on the context of the question(er). Recently it has occurred to me that one answer I never give is that ‘I listen’.
And yet listening is fundamental to what I do, in a creative sense. Almost everything I do that doesn’t involve writing, involves listening. And quite consciously I have spent all my adult life developing ‘an ear’, in the same way gourmands or wine critics develop a palate. My improvisational practice is as much about listening as playing. Maybe not listening to other players who I’m supposedly ‘playing with’, but certainly listening to myself, in order to follow the unfolding logic of the sound that I myself am working with. And every day, as I go about my business, I stop to listen to sounds in the environment, or to test objects or spaces for their acoustic properties.
But by far the most complex and cultivated listening that I do is when I listen to recorded sound.
To really listen to a recorded sound with full understanding requires a lot of background knowledge to unpack the layers of technological mediation that inform the sound we hear. If I stand next to a pot of water and hear more water fall into it: that is a minimally-mediated listening experience. It is totally transparent to the ear, what you hear is congruent to what you see, there’s no doubt or uncertainty. But if I listen to a recording of someone playing an electric guitar, the sound that I hear is determined to differing degrees by the equipment used by the guitarist, the way the sound was recorded, by the way it has been reproduced and by the way in which the reproduction has been disseminated acoustically to my ear (in other words, what I am immediately listening to).
When I was 18 years old I heard the first album by the Clash. I knew very little about music technology, but I knew I liked the sound of those over-driven guitars. As a musical illiterate, it was easy to concentrate on the words, because I understood them and they had a social context, but despite what I now regard as this mis-directed focus, I still knew then (on an instinctive level) that there was a quality of the sound that I really liked. And after that I started to seek out new sounds actively. I bought records purely because I thought they might give me new listening experiences. But at that point I still didn’t know what I didn’t know. It took many years of going to gigs, learning how equipment worked, and then making my own recordings, having them reproduced and then listening back to those records; before I understood all the parameters of recorded sound, and I really felt that I was an educated listener who could begin to understand and appreciate recordings on a deep level.
The process is really one of ‘reverse engineering’ recorded sound, to be able to analyse the different layers of mediation, and the influences they all brought to bear on a given recording. This understanding became more pronounced when I became a sound archivist, responsible for collections of historical recordings, some made using technology that no longer exists. A particular epiphany happened when I attended a talk at the British Library in 2001 where a forensic sound engineer explained that acoustic recordings (made before the widespread adoption of the microphone in recording about 1922), were made in conditions of such industrial secrecy that we no longer really understood how it was done. Studio technology at that point was in the exclusive possession of a very few people, who guarded their knowledge so jealously from their competitors that they did not commit it to writing, and made a point of concealing their equipment from inspection and especially photography. As a result, once the knowledge was made worthless by the advent of electrical recording, ‘we’ simply lost it. It has become as unknown as the purpose of Stonehenge. The man whose talk I attended at the British Library was analyzing all the extant acoustic recordings made at specific studios to establish their sonic signatures, the shape of their audible fingerprints. He then conducted experiments with various presumptive acoustic technologies in order to attempt to verify his theories about how it was originally accomplished, by (hopefully) duplicating the technical parameters (or fingerprints) evident in those historic recordings. My mind, as Lou Reed so memorably put it, split open.
As a result of these experiences I have become, it’s fair to say, a bit of a bore. I listen to particular recordings not just because of the songs or the performances, but because of the grain of their sound. While I have resisted becoming a ‘hi fi nut’, I am profoundly uninterested in listening to recordings on tiny computer speakers, or worse, mobile phones. I moan about people who do (that is, almost everyone). I have weird favourites, like Howling Wolf’s How many more years, Pablo Casals’ Bach Cello Concertos, Big Star’s Kangaroo, or Bob Dylan’s Ain’t no more cane on the Bravos – which are fascinating to me because of their sonic qualities, quite independently of their musicological qualities. I am always trying to understand how the different layers of technical mediation, and the passage of time, impact on my understanding and appreciation of recordings. The process is a bit like time travel, but also like being ‘beamed up’ in Star Trek, it’s about bridging time and space in a really quite complicated way.
So I have eventually come to realize that a very big part of my creative life is all about listening. And of all the kinds of listening I do, listening to records is actually the most complex. I’m now starting to think that it’s actually the primacy of listening as an activity which explains how I’m not a musician on any level. This is a conviction by which I have always been very strongly possessed, but about the specific origin of which I was for years unclear. It’s not just because I can mount an intellectual argument that what I do isn’t music (though I do believe that is largely true), but rather it’s because playing isn’t the point of my creative practice, and I now see that listening is.
Bruce Russell is an improvising sound artist, who since 1987 has been a member of the Dead C. This genre-dissolving New Zealand trio mixes rock, electro-acoustics and noise. He has also been active as a solo artist, and directed two independent labels, Xpressway and Corpus Hermeticum. He has written essays and criticism for The Wire, Bulltongue Review, artists’ catalogues, and other publications. In 2010 published Left-handed blows: writing on sound 1993-2009 (Auckland: Clouds), and in 2012 edited Erewhon calling: experimental sound in New Zealand (Auckland: Audio Foundation/cmr). He has a doctorate in sound from the RMIT School of Art. In his spare-time he manages the School of Art and Design at Ara Institute of Canterbury.