From musique concrète to Kendrick Lamar, read up on the ways in which field recording technology has transformed our musical landscape.
To make use of “found sound” in music is to see the world as a giving, creative force, characterising music as an organic and inevitable part of our lives. As the first to possess the ability to document the noise of our world in a solid, unchanging form, the electronic generation have discovered and evolved the technique of incorporating earthly sounds into music. This guide tracks the progress of the found sound movement from its inception in the 1940s right through to its current uses in some of the most exciting projects around today.
The prominent Italian Futurist artist Luigi Russolo was among the first to suggest that new music could be born out of attempts to turn sounds that already existed in the world into music, as opposed to the formation of tunes from sounds created by instruments.
Russolo championed what he called “noise music”. Arguing that the industrial revolution had enhanced man’s ability to appreciate a vaster variety of sounds, the painter and composer was known for his “noise concerts”, in which he use his “noise orchestras” to re-create “noise sound”. These clunky, clattering re-imaginings of sounds heard in the outside world inspired anger and even literal violence in Russolo’s audiences, so it’s probably just as well that not many recordings of these concerts exist today.
Luigi Russolo and the Futurista Sound System
Building on the initial ideas of Russolo (but in a less aggravating way), the concept of concrete music – music mined from our surroundings, built up from sounds rather than building sounds – is one that Pierre Schaeffer, the French composer and musicologist, began to develop in the early 1940s. Essentially, “musique concrète” was electroacoustic music derived not only from sounds made by instruments and voices, but also sounds recorded from the environment.
As one of the first to exploit the potential of recording technology in the creation of music, Schaeffer recognised the wealth of sounds that exist all around us, and how these sounds could be manipulated. He once said of his conception of the term “musique concrète” that he intended “to point out an opposition with the way musical work usually goes. Instead of notating musical ideas on paper with the symbols of solfege and entrusting their realization to well-known instruments, the question was to collect concrete sounds, wherever they came from, and to abstract the musical values they were potentially containing.”
The clip below, taken from the 1979 BBC documentary The New Sound of Music, illustrates how this principle was put into practice, with the combination of alarm clocks, tin cans, lamp shades and even “something as mundane as a metronome” used to create a noisy, wobbly symphony. This was the musique concrète of Schaeffer’s era put into action: taking concrete, real, separate objects and turning them into abstracted sounds that could be re-constructed into music.
Peter Zinovieff, the British inventor of Russian descent who is credited with creating the first ever transportable synthesiser, also claims to have invented the world’s first sampler. He told Red Bull last year, “Yes, I invented the first one ever. That was because the computer, by modern standards tiny, was much less powerful in those days and had less power than a USB dongle, so mine had 4k of memory that could sample about a second. Still, one could manipulate it with that, so it was a sampler.”
Despite only being able to hold about a second of sound in its memory, this sampler was the first machine of its kind to make possible the vision of musique concrète. Unlike Russolo, Schaeffer’s approach to sound was that it should be deployed without any attachment to its source, generating a unique psychological and emotional response. Zinovieff’s sampler, and those that came after it, made this concept a reality, by tugging sounds out of their natural environment and distorting, looping and skipping them until they morphed into music.
Brian Eno, in the sleeve notes of his 1978 classic ‘Ambient 1: Music for Airports’, claimed that ambient music was “designed to induce calm and space to think.” The rise of ambient music in the 1970s was all about creating physical space through music; like furniture, the music of this genre and era was considered to be something that should sit necessarily but unobtrusively in a room, being ignored as much as it is listened to. Designed to be played on a continuous loop, ambient music began to break down the boundary between music and physical space, coming to define the listener’s immediate environment by characterising it in sound, building itself up as a constant, concrete factor, as solid as the walls.
Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music For Airports (whole album)
Back in 2009, Dummy sat in on Mount Kimbie as they made a field recording in a cathedral. Describing the variation and extent of their field recording process (the band had previously recorded skateboarders, impromptu and singing and stone throwing, some of which made it on to ‘Crooks and Lovers’), Kai told Dummy, “You always want to try and be relevant to an actual place – not specifically one place but just trying to keep it rooted in reality – it’s very easy with electronic music and the processes involved to be distanced from reality and emotion and experience, you can end up making stuff that’s very …cold.”
Mount Kimbie – Crooks and Lovers
Kwes and Lukid are also in the habit of bringing warmth to their music, or at least their musical atmospheres, with field recordings. Lukid’s Soundcloud page throws up a recording of a bus journey among other gems, while Kwes’ recent EP raided his surroundings for juddery, clanking clips of the outside world to melt into his production.
Another way musicians have attempted to bring the walls of their everyday sonic environment to bear on their actual musical output is through a medium that has become one of the most controversial and divisive in popular music: the rap skit.
You might sigh with affectionate laughter when you hear Outkast’s lovesick, husky-voiced “Where are my panties”, or you might be someone who thinks that Kanye’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was completely debased by Chris Rock’s foul-mouthed cameo. In either case, this convention is a way of bringing the artist’s everyday, overheard, spontaneous noises into the fabric of their art. Even the Blame Game rant is framed as an accidentally-heard phone recording, presented to the listener as something organic and un-premeditated, maintaining the illusion that this is found, rather than written, sound.
Outkast – Where Are My Panties?
Kendrick Lamar’s already-acclaimed recent debut ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ presents a perfect example of the immersive use of such skits – the very first sound on the record is that of a prayer being recorded – and, by using snatched clips of Kendrick’s actual relatives and friends just being themselves, follows in the recent footsteps of Drake’s usage of voicemail in ‘Take Care’ and the inclusion of Frank Ocean’s ma in ‘channel ORANGE.’ The use of these faux-realistic field recordings embeds the album in a personal story, which marks a new age of heart-on-sleeve hip hop and a particularly endearing, empathetic way of framing music. In Kendrick’s own words, speaking to Complex magazine, “I wanted to tap into that space where I was at in my teenage years. Everybody knows Kendrick Lamar, but he had to come from a certain place, a certain time, and certain experiences.” By sneaking the sounds of his environment into his record, Kendrick cemented it in the place it came from, making it completely inextricable from its context – and so, one of the most completely evocative, completely human rap releases in recent memory.
Kendrick Lamar – Sherane AKA Master Splinter’s Daughter
Music as documentary
The practice of lacing music with unpredictable, naturally-arising sounds, or at least sounds that are made to seem so, brings a kind of documentary sensibility to the art form – it allows music to not only impressionistically imitate the world, but record and represent it truthfully. There’s a line, then, that found sound treads, and it lies between music and documentary; its use implies a truer depiction of the artist’s surroundings, but then in the same stroke, it downplays music’s own ability to move away from these surroundings, to stand apart as a world of its own.
If you’re Pierre Schaeffer, or Kendrick Lamar, you might see it as your duty as a musician to mine the world around you for the materials from which to build your sound; it’s a way of cementing your influence into your output, marrying the two as closely as possible. For some, though, that could be seen as erring a little too closely to documentary, neglecting music’s other-worldly ability to create fictions, completely transforming and transcending the everyday life of its listener.
Italian electro composer Daniele Sciolla, whose EP ‘Sinthesi’ you can stream below, finds her sounds and inspiration from all around, whether that means mixing her instruments to perfection in the studio or venturing out to a nearby beach with an old microphone to capture a real, “dirty and saturated” ambient sound. “I try to have no prejudice against any sound and take advantage of all of it,” Danielle tells me, which seems an apt way for a found sound artist to approach their work – a fresh, wide-eyed ability to see the value in all sounds both offered up to us and created by us, and a willingness to listen to all of them with the same level of attention. That’s the real benefit offered to artists by the technology that allows them to record and sample their surroundings; the ability to curate sound as well as creating it.