Tag: field recording

Sound, Architecture, and Necromancy

From the time I took up the saxophone as a teenager, I have been fascinated by exploring sound in unusual architectural spaces. When I finish playing a note in the Church of San Bartholomeo in southern Italy, notes are sustained by the sanctuary’s pristine reverb, which exaggerates the intensity of selected harmonics and creates the illusion that the size of the saxophone has grown to fill the space. The room performs as we listen to the decaying resonances.

Matera Panorama

Matera Panorama. IMAGE: Neil Leonard

I find architectural spaces by accident, through recommendations from friends, and by searching for sites with peculiar histories. One of the most enticing discoveries happened when I traveled to the city of Matera, in southern Italy, to vacation after working on a sound installation for the 55th Venice Biennial. Matera has been populated since Paleolithic times and, over the ages, homes, churches, and now spas have been carved into the calcareous rock hillside, known as the Sassi di Matera. This cave village was used by Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini as the setting for ancient Jerusalem in his masterpiece The Gospel According to St. Matthew. The primeval looking nocturnal skyline of the Sassi flashes on the screen in Metallica’s music video Spit Out the Bone.

Arriving in Matera to enjoy a couple of days as a tourist, I was introduced to caves with ancient frescoes, and a contemporary art space comprising a network of cave galleries. For me, vacation had to wait as impromptu recording in the caves began. The recording site that I was drawn to experiment in was an ancient church, carved in the side of the Sassi, with interconnected rooms were the saxophone could resonate in multiple chambers simultaneously. I used these recordings to start a collaborative piece with Amnon Wolman, Security Vehicles Only, published by XI Records. Productive as the Sassi recordings were, I left Matera wondering what it would have been like if I’d had a week to explore the caves, place mics in multiple chambers, and compose music to highlight the resonances of these spaces.

By contrast, I have walked away from recording in architectural settings, feeling over-prepared and underwhelmed by the building’s resonances. A pilgrimage to the Necromanteion of Ephyra, in Greece, was one such experience. Accompanied by Greek professor and audio engineer Nassos Vynios, I traveled to the Necromanteion hoping to record an acoustical marvel. The original temple, established in 1400 B.C., was a structure used by a Chythonic cult which sought to communicate with their ancestors using what we vaguely understood to be a completely unique acoustical phenomena. In modern times, visitors report hearing disembodied voices on site. Without much more to go on, we obtained the permissions to record at Necromanteion and eventually drove four hours from Athens to Ephyra.


Nekromanteio. IMAGE: Neil Leonard

We arrived armed with my saxophone, a 360-degree Ambisonic microphone, and battery-powered Bluetooth speaker to play sine wave sweeps in the space so that we could record their impulse response, or “ring.” Later we would turn these impulse responses into computer-generated reverb simulation. Upon arrival, Spiros Raptis, the custodian filled in more details.

The site is perched on a hill with a panoramic view of wetlands where the three rivers canonically associated with Hades converge, the Acheron (“River of woe”), Pyriphlegethon (“Flaming with fire”), and Cocytus (“River of wailing”). In ancient times, the hill was an island that appeared to rise above the surrounding mist. Originally, the site was dedicated to Gaia (Earth)—a Chthonic, or subterranean, Goddess that required nocturnal ritual sacrifice. Visitors wishing to speak to the dead spent days on a preparatory diet of pork, rye bread, and oysters and consumed narcotic compounds prior to entering the subterranean chamber, later called the Temple of Hades and Persephone. Worshipers came from far and wide, and a complex comprising a cluster of hostels, shopping bazaars, and brothels eventual grew to accommodate them.

In 1958, the Necromanteion was rediscovered by archaeologist Sotirios Dakaris during his search to find a site described in Homer’s Odyssey and Herodotus’s Histories. Dakaris proposed that the subterranean chamber was the setting for Odysseus’s visits to consult the blind seer, Tiresias, who advised him on how to return to his home in Ithaca. It is also speculated that Homer himself visited the Necromanteion.


The original subterranean chamber was renovated around 400 B.C. and is now a 50 x 13-foot stone room, flanked by 15 arches carved from porous stone. A recent theory suggests that the renovated chamber might actually have functioned as a cistern or as underground storage for a farmhouse in the Hellenistic period. Panagiotis Karabatsos and Vasilis Zafranas from the Acoustics Laboratory of the Department of Architecture of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki don’t agree. They studied the space for twelve years and concluded that the Necromanteion was constructed to create an intense psychoacoustic phenomenon, analogous to the anechoic chambers found in modern acoustical laboratories such as Nokia Bell Labs or MIT Lincoln Laboratories in the United States.

Before entry, Spiros warned us that it is difficult to spend more than a few minutes in the chamber without feeling like one is losing their mind. On that note, we unpacked our gear and descended two stories of scaffolding to the chamber. Within minutes, both Nassos and I felt increasingly disoriented. The utter silence, darkness, and sense of being underground induced a mix of nausea, claustrophobia, and maybe even vertigo. I did not hear the reported voices talking to me, but Nassos and I were both eager to escape back to the sunlight, fresh air, and ambient noise above ground as fast as we could.

Post-nausea and doubtful how this experiment would play out, we went back down into the underground chamber. I picked up my saxophone and played, thinking of the pilgrims who visited the site over the years and—to my surprise—I found I could play for thirty minutes without pause. Neither Nassos, Spiros, or myself experience any of the symptoms we suffered at first. Next, we recorded computer-generated sine glissandi, from 20 to 22k hertz. The sine sweeps produced dramatic panning effects as the Necromanteion played ventriloquist, mysteriously displacing the source of the sound.

In much the same way I surveyed Matanzas in the previous blog post, Nassos and I surveyed ancient Greek architectural sites looking for unique acoustical phenomena. We made a pilgrimage to the Tomb of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae and leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War. In his 42-foot high, cone-shaped tomb, with curved walls resembling half a football, we experienced incredible slap-back delays. We visited the Temple of Apollo in Delphi and saw the Hymn to Apollo, one of the oldest musical scores in Western civilization. We explored the Epidarus Theater, the canonical masterwork of ancient acoustical design often depicted in textbooks on acoustics.

For both of us, the Necromanteion, with its awe-inspiring folkloric history and strange acoustics, was perhaps the most impactful site we experienced. We caught a glimpse of the illusion, created out of terrifying silence, to invoke the world of the dead. It was a space where reverberations and other sonic traces of the world of the living disappear and a world void of light and sound extended infinitely.

Other notable experiments with sound and architecture include recording in the Wright Brother’s Wind Tunnel operated by the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Casa da Música, in Portugal, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. In each case, my approach was shaped by both the sound of the space, researching the history of the site, and listening to the local’s perception of the importance of the architecture and social usage of the space.

Graphic Score for 1000 mobile devices in Casa da Música, Portugal. Each square represents a block of 33 mobile devices playing samples of Leonard recorded in the acoustical studies chamber at The Institute for Systems and Computer Engineering, Technology and Science (INESC TEC), Porto, Portugal.

Listening to Social Life in the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”

Inside the Tecumseh Theater
Inside the Tecumseh Theater

Inside the Tecumseh Theater, Shawnee, Ohio. Photo by Jonathan Johnson.

Throughout this series of posts, I am presenting portraits of people and places of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds region in Appalachian Ohio. Each post focuses on sounds and how paying attention to them can give insight into issues such as labor, protest, recovery, and social life. Recording and carefully listening to these sounds can also suggest ways of bridging between place and creative sound works.

Moonshine Festival, New Straitsville

I walk among a crowd of people at the Moonshine Festival in New Straitsville, Ohio. It is Memorial Day weekend, signaling the beginning of summer. The festival celebrates the town’s notoriety as a place where much illegal moonshine was (and perhaps still is) made and sold. It is an industry that arose here in part as a response to the underground fires that ended coal mining in the late 19th century. I walk up and down Main Street recording the sounds and voices that pass by. There is a Johnny Cash recording playing in the background, and I listen to people selling and buying t-shirts and funnel cakes and onion petals.

I hear: electricity buzzing, chains clinking, clapping, laughter, motors, coughing, yelling, a baby crying, a car radio, wood hitting concrete, hissing air, dog growls, sighs, birds, trucks revving, banging, pounding, a dog sniffing, and sneezing.

I hear many fragments of conversations from the people I pass by, too. They unfold something like this:

I said no! –– Good blowin’, honey! –– Ah, you know what I didn’t bring?
My grandfather… –– Onion petals, oh yeah! –– That’s crazy.
Wasn’t nothin’ we didn’t do when we was kids, wasn’t nothin’.
Video games are half off! –– Some of them boards out there…
He took it, put another one up there… –– Hodgey! –– You can walk with Sarah.
For our safety and your safety… –– This one’s 5 bucks! –– I told her…
They go fast? –– Yeah, a little fast. –– I’m not doing that!
Shit, I’m down there… –– Just waitin’ to hear the fire trucks.
Yeah, we’re doing good, getting ready to head out of here.
Now, I got two things… –– They’re probably all the way down at the end.
What do you wanna play?

A parade begins, mostly made up of local fire trucks, a few muscle cars, and a host of festival queens from around the state. The announcer’s singsong baritone voice provides a running commentary as he introduces each queen: “And here’s our very own Moonshine Queen… That is one serious dress you’ve got on right now…” The festival and parade highlight some of the ways the region remembers and defines itself. For example, the queens get their names from local industries, histories, and attractions such as the “Railroad Festival,” “Old Settlers Reunion,” “Ohio Hills Folk Festival,” “Coal Festival,” and “Indian Mound Festival.”

New Straitsville Moonshine Festival

I continue to listen and walk toward a parking lot where there are a number of temporary carnival rides. As I move away from the parade, its sounds do not disappear all together. Instead, they merge and overlap into the noise of machinery, chains moving, and mostly empty cages whirling overhead. A man yells to me, “Hey, hey, hey! You ready to play? I’ll let you win today!” There are only a few children on the rides, and the attendants look bored as they latch and unlatch their riders. A child yells above the din of machinery, “I wanna go on the rocket! I wanna go on the rocket!” as another says, “Hey, can you buy me a wristband?”

Tecumseh Theater, Shawnee

Now, I am in the middle of the Tecumseh Theater, a large opera house in Shawnee, Ohio. It is late morning in late December, and sunlight pours in on bare walls stripped down to the wood laths. There are old signs, a few chairs, and a piano on each of the building’s three floors. The theater is partially restored; residents of Shawnee have worked for decades to protect and hold the building up.

I stand in the theater and listen. I strain to hear the past and present of this place together, what Don Ihde refers to as using an “aural imagination.” I walk up on the empty stage. Remarkably, the faded, tapestry-like curtain under the proscenium arch is mostly intact. Looking out into the empty theater, I think of the dances, bands, small-town operas, and movies that all took place here. High school graduations happened here, too, and a 1925 program from the Little Cities Archive tells of the music played at the ceremony, a mix of ceremonial music and chamber pieces. The floor creaks beneath my feet, and I hear basketball games that also took place here in the same year. Crowds cheering, feet squeaking, the ball pounding––the scene is much more raucous than the more formal graduation.

Inside the Tecumseh Theater

Inside the Tecumseh Theater, Shawnee, Ohio. Photo by Jonathan Johnson.

Several dozen folded up theater seats surround an old upright piano. I wade through them and pluck the piano’s strings, since most of the keys are not working. The sound of the strings’ attack and decay fills the room, and I imagine the “Preliminary Triangular Music Contest” that took place here in 1925. Two high school orchestras compete against one another––Shawnee vs. Junction City––and in my mind I hear each tuning up. A jumble of violins, saxophones, piano, coronets, trombones, and drums clash in an Ivesian cacophony. I listen for laughter, gossiping, feet shuffling, and polite clapping. After each orchestra plays through their selections, judges tally scores, and cheers and stomping are heard from the balcony as Shawnee wins, 5-3.

Associations and Traces

These examples of social life in the Little Cities offer two places and many different events across time, loosely held together through listening. Bruno Latour argues that the “social” is “a trail of associations between heterogeneous elements.” And, speaking about Appalachia in particular, Kathleen Stewart states that it is “…a place that is at once diffused and intensely localized, incorporated into a national imaginary and left out, intensely tactile and ephemeral as the ghostly traces of forgotten things.” These “associations” and “ghostly traces” aren’t clearly defined or stationary. Instead they form a jumble of connections always in a state of movement and transformation, akin to sound. A sonic understanding of the Little Cities brings together the sounds of the communities that live there today, and the remnants of the communities that once were there.

As I listen, family roots also become a non-linear thread connecting past and present. I think of my grandfather, who was almost certainly participating at all of the events that took place at the Tecumseh Theater in 1925. Archival documents show that he was performing in the orchestra, graduating from Shawnee high school, and playing basketball as the team captain. Yet I am suspicious of the nostalgia associated with connecting family to place. Author and activist bell hooks warns against this, but she also finds a way to locate “a space of genuineness, of integrity” between past, present, family, and place. She states, “Using the past as raw material compelling me to think critically about my native place, about ecology and issues of sustainability, I return again and again to memories of family.” This sense of wariness and return acknowledges our own subjectivity, yet also offers a way to navigate between uncritical nostalgia and impersonal stereotype. I carry these personal traces and fragments and bring them together in a collage of sound, text, image, and interaction—an archive of ideas and contexts that do not stay put but are continually changing, emerging, and dissipating.

Faithfully Re-presenting the Outside World

“It was then I first realised the difference between a painting and out of doors. I realised that a painting is always a flat surface and out of doors never is, and that out of doors is made up of air and a painting has no air, the air is replaced by a flat surface, and anything in a painting that imitates air is illustration and not art.”

—Gertrude Stein, Paris France

One seemingly unresolved issue in the realm of field recordings is the tension between authenticity and abstraction. One can view an artist’s work with “the field” as existing somewhere between these two different, though not mutually exclusive, concerns. On the one hand, some artists strongly adhere to maintaining the perceptible accuracy/authenticity of their location, whereas others simply take elements from it as necessary, unconcerned with the legibility of the source.
Recording in a field
Let’s imagine a composer who is enamored with the sound of the Swiss Alps and decides to make a field recording there. This composer wants to portray the most accurate, pristine document of the aural landscape as possible. Such a composer is motivated by authenticity, likely hoping to make the listener feel like he/she is actually there, or perhaps hoping to entice the listener to travel to the location. Generally this privilege of locational authenticity is assumed to be the driving force behind field recording work.

On the other end of the spectrum, we can imagine a composer who is interested in using something from the aural landscape, perhaps the canned music played by an ice cream truck as it travels through his/her neighborhood, simply as one amongst many other sounds. In this mode of working, one does not particularly care whether or not the recording’s location (or source) is intelligible. This locationally independent, or more abstract, mode of working is assumed to belong to the realm of electronic music, and furthermore assumed to be different than field recording.
Brandon LaBelle outlines the concern regarding authenticity in field recording work, specifically regarding the R. Murray Schafer founded World Soundscape Project, as follows:

The intention behind the WSP was based on capturing environmental sound in all its breadth and diversity across the globe, preserving important “soundmarks” and gaining insight into people’s understanding and awareness of acoustic environments…To cast a net of microphones across the globe sets our ears on finding the truth of sound, so as to arrive finally at the original soundscape.

Every time I read this quote, though, I have this nagging series of questions in the back of my head: how can one realistically expect to arrive at “the original soundscape”? Isn’t the motivation to record some soundscape fundamentally based on one’s personal interpretation and, therefore, an abstraction to begin with? Could one ever say that my experience of the sound of the Swiss Alps is the same as anyone else’s?

Herein lies the issue with this supposed opposition between authenticity and abstraction: as individual listeners, we each have a different experience of the outside world. There is no perceivable “ursound” (to use LaBelle’s terminology), no fundamental source of the aural landscape in the same sense that there is no perceivably definitive color “blue.” Similarly, the tools (or technology) that one uses to capture parts (or all) of the soundscape have the ability to shape (or abstract) the document of the field further.

Michael Pisaro’s writing on standing issues in field recording work hints at some of the inherent problems in attempting to document the totality of the acoustic environment:

A recording is a reduction. The immersive sensual experience of an environment will in the end be represented purely in terms of sound. It is possible that a sound recording device will in some cases hear more than we do, but it will obviously never capture everything that is sounding. It will be limited in time and in the perceptible borders of the soundscape.

Recording abstracts the environment. Microphones are designed to accept certain frequencies, reject others, as well as accept/reject sounds from certain angles of incidence. Moreover, the impulse to make a recording in a particular place, at a particular time, using a particular set of equipment, abstracts/limits the amount of the field to be recorded.

I am uninterested in starting a kind of “punk or not punk” debate here because, frankly, it is a waste of time (“[name of recording] is a REAL field recording because of [insert rationale regarding perceptible authenticity here]”). What is interesting, however,, is that there are many works that simultaneously present a clear picture of the location and employ extreme abstractions via compositional or conceptual moves. Michael Pisaro’s Transparent City and Toshiya Tsunoda’s O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring) seem to typify this friction, and a more detailed analysis of these works will unearth what is unique about attempting to balance both extremes.

Michael Pisaro’s Transparent City

The complete Transparent City project spans four CDs (two double-discs) on the German-based experimental music record label Editions Wandelweiser. Volumes 1 and 2 feature recordings made throughout Los Angeles between December 2004 and August 2006, while Volumes 3 and 4 span October 2006 to February 2007. The liner notes explain:

Each recording is an unedited ten-minute take from a single location. Sine tones and mixing completed in Michael Pisaro’s home studio in Santa Clarita, California. Each ten-minute piece is followed by two minutes of silence.

In short, all four volumes of Transparent City feature three elements: recordings of urban environments in Los Angeles, sine tones, and silence.

Michael Pisaro

Michael Pisaro

The environment presented across these four discs is relatively similar sounding, filled with general city ambience and car sounds. However, Transparent City also features recurring instances of a compositional move that is simply magical: a particular sound will naturally appear/disappear out of the stereo field to reveal a soft, tuned sine tone as accompaniment. In one track, a high tone subtly fades in only to be joined by the sound of a passing car. The car and tone blend seamlessly for just a moment before the car disappears from the landscape. Sometimes the sine tone remains, sometimes it disappears with its environmental collaborator. At another point, a tone becomes a dyad when another one appears, offering a kind of chordal drone under chirping birds and air. When chords are present, the listener realizes that all coincidences of sounds in the environment can be heard as chords, that melodies are unearthed with a subtle shift of perspective across numerous sources.
Pisaro’s unedited field recordings authentically present the aural location but become something entirely other when combined with tuned sine tones. One could think of Transparent City as a kind of training regimen for reinterpreting the soundscape of Los Angeles. In a way, it is a digital proof of concept of Cage’s 4’33”: Pisaro adds simple, musical accompaniment to urban Los Angeles to assert the musical appreciation of the aural landscape. One is also reminded of Joseph Fourier’s theory that any complex sound can be divided into a collection of sine tones. Transparent City proves the utility of this theory, giving the listener countless examples of sine tones disappearing within environmental sounds.

The other significant move in Transparent City is the recurring two minutes of silence following each track. Transparent City retrains the listener’s interpretation of an aural landscape, and then confronts the listener with his current landscape, enticing him to imagine Pisaro’s sine tones flowing in and out of his surroundings. This recurring silence becomes more fascinating as one progresses through all four discs. The final appearance of one’s own landscape at the end of the collection, through ears that have been reoriented to atomize their surroundings, is shocking.

This idea that the aural landscape is endlessly divisible, and endlessly musical, is not a new one, but the sheer viscerality of its presentation, and augmentation, in Pisaro’s hands is truly unique. This extreme re-framing of the field would not happen without the abstracted sine tones or the raw, unedited recordings of Los Angeles working in tandem. Taken together, then, Transparent City is a work which depends on both aural authenticity as well as conceptual or compositional abstraction.

Toshiya Tsunoda’s O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring)

Toshiya Tsunoda’s work represents a truly unique mixture of extreme procedural discipline and vivid recordings of the outside world. His work runs the gamut from recordings made via a microphone inside a bent pipe to the sound of a subject’s biological functions (recorded via stethoscopes) while he sits outside listening to his surroundings. O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring), recently released on his own imprint, edition.t, is another fascinating example of pushing a procedural operation to an extreme on field recorded source material.

Toshiya Tsunoda

Toshiya Tsunoda

Recorded on the Miura Peninsula (in Kanagawa, Japan) during the springtime, Tsunoda’s work here spreads across two CDs with a simple, recurring compositional device: randomly he loops a tiny fragment of sound for various durations. The first time this happens, it sounds almost like a CD skipping: lush jungle sounds are suddenly interrupted by a few seconds of a harsh, repeating, rhythmic glitch. Though a seemingly simple gesture, Tsunoda plays freely with the length of the loop, as well as how long it repeats and the time between instances of looping.

Throughout both discs, loops start and end without warning, and the lack of consistency across each instance of looping is jarring: a bird singing is suddenly interrupted by some tiny fragment of the background clicking rhythmically for several seconds. Sometimes the loop is long enough to sound like it actually belongs to the environment preceding it, sometimes it is so short it sounds like a drill. The effect is like freezing a tiny atom of time, or like viewing cellular behavior under a microscope.
From Tsunoda’s liner notes:

I decided to present the recorded materials as a composition with the least amount of modification, mainly by replacing one unit with another. This is one of my trials to present a “subject” as a piece of work—which can be called field recordings—that contains the accidentalness. We cannot manipulate the accidentalness. The only way for us to relate to the events is to closely observe what is happening there.

I love this quote because it typifies the give and take between intentionality and chance in field recording work. The only way that we can observe “accidentalness” or chance (or perhaps nature?) is to put the natural world under an extreme microscope. When doing so, we see that our normal fidelity when observing the world glosses over a tremendous amount of activity. Similarly, Tsunoda hints at the play between intentionally choosing a particular location, with a particular set of sounds, to record, but hoping to be truly surprised by what can be found there.

The title of each track allows the listener to zoom in even further on the sounds. Here Tsunoda is even more concerned with authenticity of source than is typical for an artist working in this domain. Tsunoda gives the listener a location (the Miura Peninsula), and then a subset of that location (“the sounds of ashes bursting in the fire built by fisherman”), and then repeatedly pushes the listener deeper and deeper into the sound. At a certain resolution, one is confronted with the grain of the environment (hence the title “Grains of Spring”), the endlessly divisible atoms that make up the outside world. Tsunoda loops the sound to allow one’s ears to adjust to the fidelity of the alien sound world therein, only to suddenly snap back to the normal fidelity of the aural landscape.

Similar to the Pisaro, Tsunoda’s work fundamentally changes our perception of the outside world. If the soundscape is as unstable, depending on our perspective, as it is presented throughout O Kokos Tis Anixis, at what point can we say that we have actually heard it? Does this atomization, this fragmentation, get us closer to understanding the fundamental nature of sound, or does it simply prove that a wealth of activity is occurring on endlessly deeper levels? The disorienting nature of listening to this seemingly random interchange between high alteration of a location, which is otherwise presented to us “as is,” is simply incredible.

Both of these works typify a fascinating interaction between conceptual constraints, or abstractions, and accurate portrayals of an environment. It is clear that a similar effect would not have been possible by simply recording the urban sound of Los Angeles or the natural sounds in the Miura Peninsula. Similarly, though, a sample-based electronic music piece would not have tied these sounds to their origin. It is truly the combination of both, seemingly opposed, motivations that yields a listening experience rarely encountered. They prove that a field recording does not have to merely document some outside landscape, and that one can still document the outside world faithfully while pushing further via extreme compositional procedures. The friction between holding authenticity and abstraction at the same level yields a truly productive experience. We will never hear the world the same after work like this.

Works Cited
Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, Brandon LaBelle. 2007.
“Ten framing considerations of the field,” Michael Pisaro. 2010.
Transparent Cities (Volumes 1-4), Michael Pisaro. Editions Wandelweiser.
O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring), Toshiya Tsunoda. edition.t.

Sounds Heard: Marcus Fischer—On Shore


The above liner notes could read as a poem for Portland, Oregon-based musician and multimedia artist Marcus Fischer’s On Shore, a single 29-minute track that was originally released as a Japanese tour CD. But it’s really more like a shopping list of sound sources that can be heard throughout the course of the track. While at first glance, wind and waves might conjure images of a Windham Hill recording or something otherwise new age-y, I can assure you that this music is nothing of the sort. What it is, rather, is original and striking ambient music, well worth the half-hour soak for the ears.

Fischer is a versatile artist, active in music as well as in photography and other mediums (including the building of treehouses!). The hard copy version of On Shore, packaged in a letterpressed chipboard sleeve, is regrettably sold out (apparently there were only two rounds of 30 copies made), but the audio may be purchased via Bandcamp.

On Shore brings together aspects of the electronic music world that are not so easy to combine well, and manages to do so in a cliché-free environment. Field recordings and hand-crafted sounds are mixed with electric guitar improvisation and DIY electronic constructions, creating a long-form evolving texture that maintains interest throughout and yet never pushes too hard towards the next phase of activity. It’s the kind of sound world that allows space for the listener to explore and find different listening angles upon repeated plays.

The track begins with the sound of waves juxtaposed with close-miced burbling water, into which a languid melody slithers at about 2:45. Plucked guitar tones pop into the forefront, creating structural beams for the interplay of textural material that spreads across the spaces between strikes. At 14:15 the harmonic content starts to thicken out, and a faster pulse enters. By 18:13 you notice that the bottom has dropped away, leaving behind bare guitar strumming, joined by soft yet slightly menacing sounding low tones that gradually pull the water and wind gusts into the soundscape. The mixing of this track is extremely well done, in that the various complex sound sources never mush together—like really good instrumental orchestration, each layer can be clearly heard.

On Shore has many of the qualities I find myself searching for in electronic music; it is organically constructed in a way that makes sense, it’s unpretentious, it contains just the right amounts of grit and sparkle, and it is not afraid of patience, nor of silence.

Nat Evans: Outward Bound

Over the past two years in cities throughout the U.S., groups of people have been gathering, digital music players in hand and headphones in place, to watch the sun rise or set. It must be an odd sight for anyone stumbling across these scenes—25 to 50 people all “plugged in,” intently facing in the direction of the sun. They are all listening to the same music (downloaded beforehand) by composer Nat Evans; Sunrise or Blue Hour depending on the time of day. Inspired by both the daily and the seasonal changes of light he has observed during his mediation practice, Evans has created a slowly evolving electroacoustic soundscape of field recordings and orchestral instruments intended to follow the path of the sun during these transitional times of day.

When questioned about bringing people together in order to listen to something through headphones, he is quick to point out that the experiences of gathering beforehand, listening as a group to the same musical content during the observance of a natural event (he even gives everyone a cue to start so that the recordings will be more or less in sync), and the interactions of participants afterwards taken all at once result in a group-oriented occurrence. As he says, it’s easy to declare that earbuds are separating us all, but the truth is that people gather in public places without talking to one another all the time—at a yoga class, at a coffee shop, or at a library, for example. He sees this project as re-purposing earbuds to create a communal experience.

Taking inspiration from elements of his practice of Zen Buddhism and from the natural landscape of the Pacific Northwest, Evans’s music generally contains slow tempo markings and revels in timbral transformation. As a result, the small details found in each note and in every passing sonic moment are highlighted. It’s a continual challenge to convince musicians to perform his music slowly enough, and he finds himself saying, “I realize that I have painted myself into this corner. But still, play it slower!” Often found carrying a portable digital recorder, he is always collecting sounds, largely from nature, that he fluently mixes and matches with acoustic instruments and voice. His prolific rate of composing, and his openness to collaboration combined with a proclivity to take music outside of the standard concert hall setting have resulted in both site-specific and time-specific works, installations, music for dance and video art, as well as the occasional concert work. If it has to happen indoors, his field recordings bring the outside in for the audience.

Evans feels that living in Seattle suits him well as a composer; although the distance to concerts on the West Coast is very long, he says, the distance to nature is very short, and he is grateful to be able to spend so much time outdoors. He feels free to do as he likes musically, without the pressures found in the music scenes of more densely populated areas. At the same time, he has at his disposal the percolating Seattle music world to draw from and be part of.

Evans hopes that his music creates organic, intimate, and—very importantly—interesting listening experiences which are closely related to everyday life for audiences. His goal is to spur listeners from all walks of life to look outside of themselves to discover a deeper appreciation of life’s small moments. When the people participating in his time-specific sunrise and sunset events remove their headphones and head home, his intention is that they experience the rest of the day with a greater sense of richness and depth.