Interview with Joanna Bailie

All of Joanna Bailie’s recent music uses field recordings as a starting point, drawing on the sonic environment of Brussels, the city she has lived in since 2001, as well as other locations. Recent pieces, such as Symphony-Street-Souvenir (2009/2010) and the Artificial Environments series (2011- ), use mostly urban soundscapes, presented either in their raw form or with varying degrees of processing. From these recordings, she extracts material which is played simultaneously by instruments or voices in an adapted form, highlighting and interpreting aspects of the source material. This is an area which has begun to interest me recently too, due in part to Joanna’s work and the Voices and Piano series (1998-) by Peter Ablinger, some of which she has programmed in concerts given by Plus Minus ensemble, the group she runs with Matthew Shlomowitz. In this interview, I hope we’ll explore some of the issues around working with field recordings in an instrumental context, and with found materials in general.

This interview began on 5 April 2012.

You have been using field recordings as source material in a number of recent pieces, so I wanted to begin by asking you how you became interested in this area, and in making recordings yourself?

I guess there were two things that led me to start making recordings. Firstly, I’d been using electronics in some of the pieces I was making around 2007 and was running out of sound sources to manipulate —  music recordings (often of my own work, heavily manipulated), and computer generated sound such as noise and sine tones. A friend told me about a portable recording device he’d bought, and so I bought one too with very little idea of what I’d do with it. In the end of course I became somewhat addicted to making recordings (it is certainly a bit of a high when you know you’ve captured something great) and I’ve surprised myself in using them so extensively and in such a relatively raw form. The other less direct, but aesthetically pertinent factor was a gradual conversion to a kind of Cageian/Duchampian belief in the power of ‘framing’, the act of transforming real-life non-art into art through placing it in an artistic context or by just seeing or hearing it in a different way. Once a framing experience happens for the first time it opens the door to many more framing experiences. I had to wait till I was 34 to get one and now I have them on a daily basis (!). Actually, here comes a very nice anecdote of what I believe the first experience was and you’re involved in this too. I was at the SPOR Festival in Aarhus Denmark in 2008, lying on a beanbag and listening to an #[unassigned] being played by a group of musicians. I was looking through a huge plate glass window through which I could see the top of the art museum next door. A family were walking around on the roof looking at the panorama, the children were playing and I believe a crisp packet was blowing in the wind. At some point there was a click in my head and I began to observe this family as if I was watching a film to which the #[unassigned] was the soundtrack. I didn’t even mean it to happen but I enjoyed the transformative experience immensely.

When you are making recordings, what are you listening for? Do you tend to work in a premeditated way, perhaps going out with the intention of recording, or do you have the recorder with you in case you notice something? We’ll get on to the pieces later, but the question is really about your intended use: is the recording process driven by a perceived need in a potential piece, or does the piece come more from what you find in the recordings?

I would say that it’s a mixture of both. Sometimes I go on recording expeditions, especially when I’m somewhere new. I’ll even do a little research if necessary, emailing a cathedral to find out at what times and for how long they ring their bells for instance. On occasion I’ve had to be quite persistent to get a good recording of something — it took over ten failed attempts before I got a good take of the carillon  in Symphony-Street-Souvenir. It often happens that you go out intending to record something and end up recording something else. Once I went to London Zoo to capture animal noises and left with a recording of a merry-go-round full of children. That merry-go-round has found its way into two pieces already — I liked the corny sounding classical music it was playing and the potential it had to be used in a very sentimental way — I wanted to take my work to the brink of sentimentality but just stop short of it. On the other hand I have plenty of nice recordings that were made just by sticking microphones out of my window. The marching band from Analogue was recorded from the flat I was staying at in Copenhagen and I once made a very fortuitous recording of the dawn chorus only because I arrived home at 5 in the morning after a heavy night out (I still don’t remember how I managed to operate the recording device…). I think you can already see a pattern in what I like recording — music or near-music in public spaces (contextualized somehow) and anything with pitch content such as car horns, airplanes or people speaking. I’m also listening for appealing dramaturgy in what I’m recording or at least something that can be turned into a musical form of some kind. Most of the recordings I make usually contain more than one type of sound and this is certainly related to formal considerations and also to the idea that we are witnessing a segment of time in a particular place and all the things that go on there.  Each recording suggests a way of composing or musical strategy and I like this. I enjoy the idea that there might be an infinite amount of formal potential just in the accidental dramaturgy of what happens in life and that this accidental dramaturgy is waiting to be turned into a piece.

So after you’ve made a series of recordings, what do you look for as material that might suggest a piece? Within the infinite potential of a particular recorded environment, what do you try to draw out as music?

I have a certain arsenal of techniques for the compositional transformation of recordings (an arsenal which is in a continual process of expansion and development). I generally have these techniques or possible variations of them in mind when I’m selecting material. Certain techniques work well on certain types of recordings — playing with transposition for instance is clearly better when there is a fairly stable pitch element involved. Of course I listen for what I would consider to be a ‘good recording’, that is a recording without wind noise, mic sounds or clips and that is ‘hot’, that is a recording where the elements one is interested in have been captured pretty loudly. A good example of the importance of hotness to a recording, is a series of takes I made from the window of my castle room in the middle of the Italian countryside last summer. There was a motorway a kilometre or so away from the castle and the sound of the passing cars was filtered quite heavily by landscape so that the car sounds were simply tones ranging between about B3 and F5. It was kind of a random melody generator and very beautiful, but also unfortunately rather quiet. I have tried and failed to introduce these random melodies into a concert situation — the recordings simply don’t project well and are completely masked by live instruments. Equally as important is what happens during the recording in terms of dramaturgy — too much time passing without very much happening is usually not promising (although I’d love to find a way of turning this into a positive quality!), very regular rhythms don’t interest me much either or environments where none of the sounds are particularly clear. Actually it’s pretty safe to say that you know it’s a good recording at the time of making it and I’m rarely disappointed when I listen to such a recording again. Certain things just happen in a pleasing way in terms of timing and sonic contrast and they can be so pleasing in fact that you experience the framing transformation while recording, the feeling that the events you are recording are not accidental, but have been staged somehow to satisfy your own artistic sensibilities. The recording from Artificial Environment No.3 is possibly my favourite in terms of the mixture of what happens and when it happens and I got very excited while I was making it. I wanted to record the bells of La Chapelle in Brussels ringing for mass. They are particularly relentless and sounded very clear and loud from the place I was staying in at the time. Anyway, on this occasion I stuck the mics out of the window and a series of things happened: the bells rang,  a small child sang, a train hooted and a group of men had a conversation in Arabic.  Some people think I superimposed sounds recorded elsewhere over the bells: I didn’t, it really happened like that.

The kinds of material you choose to highlight in a recording tend to foreground a particular set of concrete sounds for the listener. To what extent do you feel you are manipulating an environment to present a particular reading of it, perhaps as a commentary on the situation, or an interpretation of its dramaturgy? 

Firstly, there are some practical considerations when dealing with field recordings and their transcription for instruments. A lot of the recordings I like, as I’ve already said, contain more than one element and so they are fairly ‘complex’. Since I’ve become interested in doing this kind of work, the commissions I’ve received have been for maximum 10 instruments, but on average around five or six performers. In order to render an entire sonic environment in instruments (like Peter Ablinger has done on occasion) I think you’d need forces of orchestral proportions — if I had a commission for symphony orchestra my approach would probably be slightly different. Highlighting an aspect of a recording is almost a necessity, a kind of slimming down of things to suit the small chamber context in which I usually operate. The thing I choose to bring into the foreground is often the one with the most interesting or at least most apparent pitch content. This ‘pitchy’ place becomes the meeting point for the field recording and the instruments, a kind of surface where I can attach them together (probably because the pitches they share are a very clear and recognisable point of similarity). I’ve been moving away from pure transcription of the recording into the making of something that might be considered a kind of parallel music — with the music for the live instruments containing elements of resemblance, but not trying to be the same as the original. A good example of this is the last movement of my piece for the vocal group Exaudi called Harmonizing. In this section I use three different recordings of planes passing by overhead. There are other sounds (cars, a siren, a low hum from somewhere or another) but it is this very characteristic plane sound that I focus on — a held note and then the slow drop of pitch caused by the Doppler effect. In the end this descending line becomes a sort of abstract focus for the piece, it’s a highly ‘musical shape’ but also one that is apparently found in the sound of real life. The performers sing harmonizations of this descending line in which a couple of the main partials of the plane are present but I also add other notes and take the harmonies in a specific direction, away from that of the pure plane spectrum. I break up the line into steps, forming microtonal scales, alternating patterns and even a harmonic progression that develops in contrary motion to that of the plane.

Of course I am manipulating the recorded environment, what else is there for me to do? I can’t just present a field recording as a piece and leave it at that (this has of course been done, most notably by Luc Ferrari, and it was important that it was done, but it’s not something to be repeated literally!). The manipulations are there to underscore the possible musical potential of the recording and the widening of the palate of available sounds for composers. If I choose just one element to highlight, it’s for the sake of clarity and so that the listener will hopefully pick-up on the latent question ‘have you ever thought about listening to bells/cars/birds/people talking as a kind of music?’ By doing ‘something’ to the recordings I’m also attempting to refine, focus and pass on to the listener the framing experience which I probably had when making the recordings in the first place. If I’m at a kind of zero point for art when listening live to what my microphones are picking up (only just ‘inside’ the realm of art and over the border from which it is separated from all the other stuff), my music is a couple more steps into proper art — still preserving some of the framing elements or at least transforming them in tandem with the transformation of the recording, but letting go of some of the initial rawness of it all, which is perhaps impossible to reproduce outside the recording experience itself.

For more information on Joanna Bailie, please see her website. There is also a video interview at the Sounds of Europe website in which she discusses her work with field recordings.