Setting Sounds – Wayward Music and Imagined Space in the Age of Recording

Before recording, music was ordered sound in space and place. There was no isolation. It was there alive before you in a certain place, at a certain time, most likely with other souls in your presence with whom you shared the experience of watching or participating in music being played.

Melodic form and harmonic structure evolved with an explicit awareness of where the music was going to be performed, and for what occasion. The heights of churches grew around the human voice raised in diatonic polyphony. The drovers verse measured miles across grassland. At home a mother sings a lullaby to her sleeping child and her mind drifts back to her own nursery, her own sleep.

Before the late 19thcentury you would find it very hard to pick apart music from setting; its place, time and space. Without the exposure to performance there is nothing to hold or contain. There is only your memory – and like closing ones eyes to recall a perfume, you cannot draw music forward in its own isolation. The perfume is related to an object or a body and its attendant mood. The music comes clothed in the memory of the event; the service, the singing mother, the gathering around drinking tables and fires.

The tail end of the 20thcentury became notable for introducing a generally available virtual aspect to our lives, and with it the portability of media, setting and memory. Social contact, cultural engagement and commercial interaction is now commonly undertaken beyond time zones and outside of tangible physical space, and largely at the passing whims of our momentary convenience.

The 19thcentury was, however, much more revolutionary in its providing two fundamental pillars for this later development. In 1826 Joseph Nicephore Niepce pointed a camera obscura out of the window of his family home in Le Gras and captured, over an exposure lasting several hours onto the surface of a bitumen coated plate, the world’s first photograph.

34 years later, on the 9thApril, 1860, another Frenchman, Edouard-Lean Scott de Martinville conceived and produced his phonautograph. With the device, he successfully recorded a voice singing Au Clair de la Lune onto a lamp black coated cylinder. Most interesting about this was that M. Scott didn’t consider it a priority or a consideration to develop his system to allow for playback of the singer’s voice at a later time. A visual record, a transcription of the vocal sounds, was all that he required from the exercise. It was much later, in 2008, when a team based in the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkley, California digitally recovered the signal.

These two innovations allowed us, respectively,  to freeze and capture a moment in time, and freeze and capture a period of time. A few years later when Edison provided the means for playback of an audio recording the frozen period of time could be unfrozen and played back out of its own time, far from the place of its execution.

With recording came the portability of sound. We created the potential for making music nomadic, homeless, a passenger, or familiar to carry with us into our own spaces, our own contexts and settings, in order to satisfy transitory emotional or intellectual need.

New art forms tend to emerge with much attendant resistance, dissonance and philosophical and cultural consequence. However, perhaps it can also be the case that the effects can be very subtle, and reveal themselves only over time.  Certainly, in the early years, the process of recording closely resembled that of performance – with an ensemble of players arranged around a recording device and captured en masse in a single take. (As an aside that was still a method effectively in use in the 1960s, forming the heart of Spector’s Wall Of Sound technique)


One century of recording technology, however, has seen us move further and further into virtual performance, virtual sound, virtual music. Consider that the word virtual derives from virtuous and could be read as an indicator of the best possible, rather than just a suggestion of simulation. Space and place, to which music had previously been richly interwoven, became a separate concern, simultaneously ruthlessly suppressed and eradicated from studio sound whilst emerging as a cluster of subjects of study, research, poetics and theorising in its own right – leading, somehow, to new musicalgenres; soundscape, field recording, a million common garden varieties of ambient. Each one purporting to a greater or lesser degree of fidelity to environments real and imagined. Space, in its relation to music has evolved into a virtualised representation of itself.

The attention to detail with recorded music similarly has, it seems, become increasingly fetishised. Microphone technology, acoustic modelling, acoustic isolation, along with plug ins to reduce room sound, tape hiss or, conversely, add tape hiss and room noise, or impulse response, are all commonplace considerations. Instruments are often captured in isolation and arranged by a producer – the player of the studio as instrument – when the musicians – if there were any involved in the first place – have all gone home.

Given the amount of high spec high cost high maintenance technology, research and investigation that attends the science of accurately capturing sound waves and, similarly, the most optimised solutions for playback of those recordings, it is curious to observe just how satisfied people have been, in general, with incredibly poor playback solutions; wax cylinders, albumin 78s, a Dansette with 45s stacked on the spindle, laptop speakers, a coarsely compressed MP3 pushed rudely out through rubber ear-buds. Even at the extremes of contemporary audiophilia who invest financially and emotionally in sounds and systems wish to dissolve, sated and spent, in the warm flaws of analogue playback, valve buzz and vinyl crackle. The music, it seems, must come with something. If not space, then the artefacts of its medium become a kind of prosthetic equivalent.

In theatre there is the construct of the 4th wall. It forms a conceptual divide between the performance being enacted on the stage and the audience. An awareness of the 4thwall enables the playwright to alter allegiances, re-direct attention, instruct empathy and build more complex layers into the performers interaction. For instance, when, in a pantomime, a Dame steps out of the scene to speak directly to the children in the audience the 4th wall shifts. The wall now divides the dame and the children from the other characters on stage.

In cinema, the audio content is divided between the diegetic  – content that is heard by the characters in the narrative (singing in the shower, a radio playing, characters attending a concert), and non-diegetic – content not heard by the characters (soundtrack score, microscopic sound FX, atmos and ambience). Exciting things begin to happen when directors seek to challenge the border between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. There can be no finer example of the destabilising cognitive dissonance the breakdown entails than Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. The cult masterpiece, as a cinematic spectacle is as audacious as it is un-nerving, somehow seeming to balance the ludicrous – a horror musical with Dracula in a kilt and Britt Ekland’s Maid of the Isles accent – with the arcane and demonic.

As a soundtrack, however, further intriguing twists come into play. In 1997, before the cult status of The Wicker Man had been widely established, Trunk Records,  an eccentric English back-of-a-van label specialising in releasing nostalgic, fruity recordings scraped from 1970s TV and porn, and trading under the slogan “Nostalgia, Sex, Music” released a mono vinyl soundtrack for the film that had been drawn up, so the label asserted, from tapes and cues in the Pinewood Studio archive. To the casual listener it sounds like recordings grabbed from the final print of the initial release version of the film. Far from a standard soundtrack release, this featured dialogue, FX, and background noise.  Sound levels drop in mid song to accommodate an isolated line of dialogue, the sound of a frog, Edward Woodward grunting and moaning in turmoil as a naked Willow hammers at his bedroom wall. Other tracks comprise only wind, insect noise, the sound of a school desk lid being raised, the twang of a breaking string.

Later versions of the soundtrack featured studio master recordings of the songs, presented cleanly, with no background noise, dialogue or incidentals. But the low quality, seemingly cobbled together Trunk release remains the most effective and affecting of soundtracks. In a sense, it inverts the focus of diegetic and non diegetic sounds of the film and perhaps it is that mix of music and setting, context and noise – and the consequent confounding of the listeners position in relation to the content, and the contents relation to its setting – that gives this recording its power.

In 2010, Munich’s E.C.M. label released a recording of the debut performance of Arvo part’s 4thSymphony. Listening to the recording, one is immediately aware of the amount of ambient noise that has been captured around the performance. BBC’s Charlotte Gardner wrote “The Fourth [symphony] is … an unrelentingly sombre listen. It’s beautiful too though, and some of the charged atmosphere of its concert premiere, when this recording was taken, has transferred to disc.” A somewhat different point of view is found among customer reviews: “I found the recording to be very poor. Listening to this piece on my IPod Touch , the background noises were very distracting. Throughout the symphony there was a constant noise that sounded like paper rustling which took away the enjoyment of the music for me. Such quiet music needs the best sound recording and this hasn’t happened with this disc.”

Is this just a difference in taste, or, does it suggest a variance in sensitivity towards the connection between sound and setting – with the digital listener wishing more to see the contrived isolation of pure, dry music from the pale reality of the real-time performance? Or, does the setting of the original recording dare to interfere with and undermine the setting of the listener?

The Italian sound artist Pietro Riparbelli has, for some years been engaged in a project named Cathedrals. The project entails him sitting in cathedrals across the world and pressing the record button on a portable recorder. His collection of recordings, alongside those of other cathedral contributors such as Yannick Franck, David_Šmitmajer and Massimo Carozzi has been made freely available as a public archive on Bandcamp ( with a digital compilation appearing also on Touch.

Many of the recording details are banal; footsteps, coughing, spoken prayers from the pulpit, rustling clothes and food wrappers, passing traffic, closing doors, an occasional Gregorian chant, or Mass. But skipping from one location recording to another, and then another, one’s ear does become attuned to the variability  in the scale and atmosphere of individual spaces.

One particular recording in the series, by David Šmitmajer, of St Vitus Cathedral in Prague commands particular attention because it features a full scale formal performance. The piece – an excerpt from Mozart’s Requiem – rather than form the sole, central focus of the recording takes an accompanying role in a greater composition. Life is all around and inside the performance, walking steps, whispered conversations, backsides sliding along pews, sneezes and throat clearings, a crying child being hushed by its mother. Like the theatrical 4thwall, like the divide between diegetic and non-diegetic sound in cinema, there emerges an awareness  of both music and its setting, fixed in time and space.

Where the cathedral recordings tend to fail is when extremely nearfield noises such as a breath, or the turning of a page on a hymnbook alert the listener more to the proximity of a recording device than that which it is recording. Awareness of the medium is, generally, likely to cause a breech in the immersive trance, or emotional projection of any work whether it be music, soundscape, book, game or theatre. That said, one of the most arresting moments in the series occurs during a recording of the interior of  the Abbey of St. Germain des Pres, in Paris, during which Riparbelli is verbally attacked and physically assaulted by an American woman who accuses him of trying to assassinate her.

We have become accustomed to projecting ourselves into contrived mediations – the virtual reality of social media, narrative fiction on the page, stage or screen – in order to attain an immersive experience, a sense of empathy, a willing suspension of disbelief. And in doing so we often subconsciously navigate constructs such as the 4thwall and diegesis – the divides over which we project our selves  and frame – or have framed – our relationship to the setting of the work.

For a century music and its setting have in many contexts become divorced. Space, the cuckolded partner, unable to move on and adapt has become a static object of curiosity, poked, probed, examined, fetishized, theorised and emblematised by new age theorising seeking to politicise the soundscape. Music, meanwhile, has been increasingly abstracted, composed and mixed in fragments, tracked in isolation and arranged in a process far departed from performance. The recording technology available produces dry, pure, pristine signal to which we then append room feel, analogue warmth, grit to suit our taste, and our assumption of the setting required of the music. We take the music with us and adapt the setting to our mood, setting the projection divide somewhere between our skin and the outside world. Culturally, we perform our role as the centre of our own personal universe. We are all celebrities, and the music we listen to serves to support the centrality of our impression and expectation of our moment at hand.

It is perhaps time to attend this situation and see what creative possibilities there may be – unsettling, uncanny, unified – for taking these constructs of the 4thwall and diegesis and using them as precedents for bringing sound and setting into reconciliation counselling.