A brief history of Framework and phonography.org
Patrick McGinley, Marcelo Radulovich & Dale Lloyd
Earshot #4, April 2004
Framework: Phonography and Radio – Patrick McGinley
First, let me explain the name. Framework is a phonography/field recording based radio show which began in June of 2002, soon after London’s Resonance FM began broadcasting. It was originally a collaborative project with Australian sound artist Joel Stern, who was, at the time, living in the UK. Like any project, the hardest step in its initiation was finding a name that satisfied everyone involved both aesthetically and theoretically, and, having attempted to name many things in my short life, this is a task that fills me with frustration. Luckily, I have lost and forgotten all the possibilities on the list made during our brainstorming, which spares me the embarrassment of revealing them here, and you the embarrassment of having to read them. As it happens, we soon came to a name that fit perfectly. Framework, in this context, has a double meaning. along with it’s structural dictionary meaning, it is a reference to an analogy that draws an attractive parallel between photography (light writing) and the art of field recording, or phonography (sound writing). Put simply, photography can be described as the framing of a found image, via the camera lens, and so can phonography be described as the framing of a found aural ‘image’, via the microphone. These frames, and the works and structures created from them, are the focus of the broadcast. In effect, the word takes on a meaning, again taking a cue from its older, light-based sibling, akin to ‘camerawork’; framework is a direct reference to the individual styles and preferences of the multitude of artists who have focused their attention on the sonic cacophony that is our environment.
I have always considered Framework not as ‘radio art,’ but simply as a resource. The format is very standard; I essentially decided that what I wanted was to produce the radio show that I would have loved to have had at my disposal when my interest in these sounds began (or now, even), to aid in my discovery of new sounds and artists. I consider myself at the service of the artists I feature. For each broadcast I produce a fairly in-depth playlist – with release information, websites and contacts for artists played, and descriptions of the works – which goes out to a private mailing list of over 400 people, as well as being distributed throughout a multitude of internet bulletin boards and discussion lists. This, of course, means that Framework is no light undertaking. The hours required for the production of these playlists, along with the auditioning of submissions and the creation of the shows themselves, mean that Framework is definitely a labour of love.
Framework was always intended to be participatory. The playlists are made up almost entirely of submitted material, most directly from artists, and some from labels and promoters. I try to play some material by every artist that submits without passing judgment; my self-given role is to present the current activity and development within phonography, regardless of personal preference (obviously you’ll have to take that oh-so-selfless assertion with a grain of salt – of course my personal taste has a great influence on the material I play, and the type of artists that are impressed by the show’s playlists and likely to submit material are therefore likely to be the artists that I am personally interested in, but it is true that I try to give exposure to anyone who had taken the time to submit material, and I try to vary style, within certain parameters, beyond my tastes). Listeners are also encouraged to submit recordings, whether they are compositions or raw recordings, and whether or not they have ever recorded anything before. Hopefully the show has inspired at least one listener to pick up a recorder and send in a slice of their personal auditory environment. This idea was taken further with the conception of the introduction series. Each edition of the show begins with an introduction recorded by a different artist or listener. The guidelines for these intros are simple: choose a location and begin recording. After a minimum of one minute, speak the following text:
Finish the recording after a minimum of 3 additional minutes. The diversity of the introductions that have been submitted has been impressive, even more so for the range of accents and locations encouraged by Resonance FM’s internet broadcasting, and the range of the playlists.
But why field recording? A concentration and recognition of field recording based work has occurred over the past several years that means that the amount of work being produced is staggering, and artists that share this focus are now finding one another and building a community. The internet has facilitated the development of this somewhat virtual community – in any one geographical location there are few individuals who share this interest, potentially leaving artists isolated and without peers, but with the potential to make worldwide contacts a widespread but richly populated group is emerging. My participation in this community began through internet discussion lists, when a group of field recordists who met through the lowercase-sound list (whose name was inspired by Steve Roden’s now infamous description of his own work) started a new list and website called phonography.org. The website, like Framework, acts as a resource at the artists’ service, providing information on artists and releases, technical information on gear and working in the field, and writings and reviews. The discussion list is a forum for theoretical debates and practical advice alike, and the group has now produced 7 compilation CDs (5 CDs of raw field recording, and 2 of field-recording based composition) and a number of performances produced by the (half-jokingly named) phonographer’s union. To give further insight into the history and development of this community, I have invited the founders of the phonography.org mailing list and website and the phonography.org compilations series, Marcelo Radulovich and Dale Lloyd, respectively, to write brief histories of these two developments, which make up the second and third parts of this article.
The inspirations for field recording are as numerous as the artists making them. Some are documentary, some are ecological, some are abstract. For my own part, the inspiration came directly from an attention given to everyday but extraordinary sounds, sounds from our environment that we have trained ourselves to filter out and ignore, that we choose to see as interference and disturbance. These sounds provide such an amazing palette for potential musical composition that it was clear to me that this would be my focus. And my focus is entirely musical; for me it is the aesthetic qualities of the sounds – recorded in but perceptionally removed from their original context – that is so fascinating. Context plays a very important role here. being able to hear a recording without a conscious and intellectual understanding of it’s true physical space and the activity/purpose which creates it allows us to perceive it’s sonic qualities without preconception, and thereby to truly hear sounds that constantly surround us for the first time; this is strengthened by the fact that these sounds, thusly decontextualized, usually sound entirely alien and unlike anything heard before. As a composer, having these sounds at my disposal is jawdroppingly exciting, and the opportunity, with Framework, to take this one step further in sharing them with a worldwide listening public is equally thrilling.
Open your ears and listen!
phonography.org: The Community – Marcelo Radulovich
In 1999 while exploring various sounds through field recording, it became apparent that, to call what I was doing field recording was not accurate. The words seemed much too sterile, lacking in intent, and devoid of artistic content which was, after all, the sole point of capturing those sounds: to make art. To create sonic snapshots, so to speak. Feeling a gap, or conflict with terminology, continuing this line of thinking, and exchanging emails regarding this with a colleague in which we wrote of field recording in relation to photography led me/us to the word: phonography. The more it rolled around in my head, the more it seemed to fit…a phonography of a place, an animal, a carwash.
Feeling strong about this word association, and for the sake of experimentation, I ventured into Yahoo, set up an account, and started the phonography list in August of 2000. I invited a few friends to join, then I sent an email to the lowercase list announcing it, knowing there were a few artists there whose posts mostly related to field recording and thinking they’d be into expanding the concept as phonography. A few joined, Dale Lloyd, Chris DeLaurenti, Jeff Carey, Yannick Dauby and others…things began happening. Our initial discussions related mostly to straight-up recordings, meaning, unprocessed/unaltered. Apart from minor edits and basic EQing we were going for the IT. This was the focus. There was an enthusiasm which was infectious and productive. Jeff Carey volunteered space in Radiantslab and created a repository for phonographies. Dale Lloyd volunteered to compile our recordings to create what would be the first of many genre-defining compilations. I created phonography.org to host and offer our sound…philosophy, for lack of a better word, as well as creating a network.
Gradually, the word phonography in relation to field recording is spreading. In spite of the fact that this is a very old word and means various things to various people, our/this definition has gained acceptance, and enticed more people to join the list and pursue this artform under a new banner. Without a plan, and simply because, a community has taken shape. A community intent on listening, capturing, presenting and preserving. Intent on highlighting sonic instances by recording moments in time. Intent on elevating, educating, sharing and creating a place we can turn to for advice, ideas, collaborations and inspiration. Everything baked and brewed with, for the most part, a lot of love…mostly through email, faceless strangers, trusting, acting as ambassadors of sound.
phonography.org: The Compilations – Dale Lloyd
Within a matter of a few months after the phonography internet discussion group had been created in 2000, conversations about initiating a compilation disc had already began to surface. The original intent was to primarily create a vehicle for group members, to share their field recording work (and/or approach of doing the same) with each other. And with the advent of the phonography.org website occurring sometime before the first compilation was produced, we decided to title the compilations after it. And although the original intention which was set up during the first compilation remains intact, most of the subsequent compilations have also included recordings from respected ‘guests’ who are not yet members of the group. This, I’ve done if there’s space on the compilations after considering the submissions from the group members first.
After the first phonography.org field recording compilation was issued, I wanted to start including a wider variety of captures that could be considered ‘phonography’. I’ve personally viewed the term phonography in its present connection to field recording as being more of an umbrella term covering a wide assortment of sonic captures using various types of microphones or other ‘receiving’ or sensor devices, rather than equating it to just one type of field capture. For example, aside from field recordings made with regular types of microphones, the compilations have also featured recordings of: a particle accelerator (via a crystal radio receiver), various piezo disc recordings, a anomalous shortwave recording, ground static in a microphone cable caused by nearby volcanic activity, electromagnetic fields from railway lines, etc. So, this would explain why such unusual recordings appear alongside those of, say, insects or urban cityscapes on our compilations devoted to “field recording”. But apart from that, there should be no processing done to the recordings themselves. The main kinds of editing I’ve allowed have been some EQ, fades, and minor artifact editing.
As for other criteria for track selection, I try to keep the compilations interesting and as diverse as possible and yet also try to maintain a good flow from beginning to end, so if I receive too many recordings of similar subject matter, like for example, birds, people talking, or water, I either try to use the most unique and/or artful capture of the bunch or avoid using them altogether. I always suggest that people send more than one recording for this very reason. Other than that, I look at the approach and subject matter of the recordings more than whether or not they used the best gear money can buy. And I don’t mind artifacts or wind noise as long as they don’t distract too much attention away from the subject matter. Sometimes, it is the subject matter! When I look at approach, I take certain factors into consideration like spontaneous or happenstance captures, captures with good “narrative” movement from one situation to another within a single recording, interesting vantage points or angles, and/or other situations where the recordist used their imagination in how they went about capturing the moment or subject, but I also like documentation or document type of recordings as well, depending on the subject matter.
Apart from the main ‘straight-up’ field recording series, back in October of 2002, we issued two collections of “compositions using field recordings,” due to many of the group members being sound artists who incorporate phonographies in their work. This series has only been open to group members, since there are more than enough sound artists to fill several discs of strong material! And the series was intended to be an occasional diversion from the main series, so I’m not sure when we’ll do another one of those.
My interest in phonography, like with many people, stems from an early fascination with sound and music. Mine began with classical music as a child and then branched out into the more experimental reaches of sound composition. It was natural for me to start recording my surroundings when I first got access to a portable cassette recorder. There was a peculiar enthrallment in recording the sounds of something as mundane as a car trip or sitting in the parking lot of a shopping mall and then playing it back at home later that night, listening to sounds removed from their actual time and place. And I would also notice sounds that I hadn’t noticed while recording the environments. It was a gradual epiphany and without having read anything about or by John Cage, I was developing a sensibility that “all sound is music,” or at least, I thought it could be appreciated like music.
And this would lead to one of the reasons why I think phonography is an important art form. Partially because, outside of aesthetic enjoyment, it can initiate and help enable people to slow down and silence their (often busy) minds and learn to appreciate the mundane magic that is our everyday world (sonic and otherwise) which many take for granted. And along with this, perhaps some of the concerns of the Acoustic Ecology movement (like human noise pollution) would also be something one would be more inclined to investigate and understand as well, if they haven’t already. However, having mentioned this, I believe there’s a time and place for various noises, and we who are phonographers can appreciate a good portion of it during those times. In other words, we appreciate more than nature sounds. Of course, one listen to any of the compilations will illustrate this.
Although some people shun the notion of comparing phonography with photography, I embrace it. For one thing, it has helped in explaining what it is and why people do it, to those who have never heard of “field recording”; and what better way to inform (or teach) people about something, than with a good handy comparison? It’s funny to think that field recording is older than rock & roll and yet many people still have never heard of it… As for the use of the term phonography in reference to field recording, the first time I recall seeing it used as such was by David Dunn in his book/CD entitled, “Why Do Birds and Children Sing?”. I personally consider this to be an essential release, especially for people who are getting acquainted with field recording. In his introduction, Dunn writes, “There are many parallels in the collecting of sounds to other ways of documenting and ‘binding time’ in order to study, intensify, experience, or cherish the past. The similarity of recorded sound to photography has been articulated, but ‘phonography’ has yet to be taken seriously as a discipline beyond its commercial and scientific applications. Its status as an artistic genre is still quite tentative despite the efforts of an ever-widening cadre of enthusiasts.”
And so, being one of those “ever-widening cadre of enthusiasts”, in 2001 I created a recording label called and/OAR devoted to field recording and various kinds of sound work which somehow uses field recording as part of its make-up. So far with this label, I’ve been fortunate enough to issue high quality works by artists from around the world, some of which are phonography group members, and even though I still consider the phonography.org compilations to be a separate project apart from the label itself, they definitely have seemed to have gotten integrated into the label’s make-up over the years…
As for future plans, I may post a call for submissions for the next straight-up compilation(s) on the phonography discussion forum sometime at the beginning of 2004. It’s been a great series and within the past 3 years, we’ve released a total of seven compilations of interesting work. For a while, I’ve had a (albeit lofty) goal of getting the compilations into libraries around the world. And if so, for the sake of better durability, we would have to be able to afford to get the compilations pressed onto CDs instead of the CDR format that they’ve been issued on from the beginning. They would serve as good learning tools for teachers. I’ve already had some orders from some teachers and school library circulation departments. And I’m glad to see more programs in schools that include field recording. All I can say is phorward and onward!