Alex Braidwood is a sound artist and Assistant Professor in Graphic Design at Iowa State University. His research into sound and interaction has taken him around the Earth for many projects, performances, and installations, all of which have been collected on his Listening Instruments website.
He recently travelled to Alpine National Park in Australia where he was artist-in-residence at the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture. While he was there, he collected a series of field recordings which he put to tape for release on Maximum Ames earlier this year.
On Saturday, September 17, he will install a listening experience at the Octagon Center for the Arts at noon as part of the Maximum Ames Music Festival.
What distinguishes audio as an art form? In a world dominated by the visual image, you’ve chosen something much more intimate and truthful. Why does sound keep you searching?
A great deal of the adventure of working with recording sound is the search. Sound is fleeting and can feel very illusive, no matter how much I plan and try to anticipate the results of recording I’m regularly surprised with what comes out. Sound and listening is one of the primary ways in which we as hearing beings engage with the world. We receive a great deal of feedback and information through our ears. Our hearing functions in 360° and is on all the time, even when we are sleeping. This has been very beneficial to us throughout our evolution.
A huge part of why I find sound to be engaging as an art form is because it has the power to surround you, to locate you more deeply where you are or to transport you to a new place entirely. It’s almost like a form of telepathy. An invisible connection between my expression and the listeners’ reception. I’m always discovering new things as I go out to record or record while I’m out for a different primary reason. There’s always something different to hear and this search simultaneously keeps me moving in pursuit of new experiences while also helping me to slow down and focus on the experience in the moment.
In his essay, “History of Experimental Music in the United States”, composer John Cage states that “noises are as useful to new music as so-called musical tones, for the simple reason that they are sounds.” It’s a notion that puts the attention back on the sound itself, rather than one’s ability to replicate it through established musical performance techniques. In that regard, do you consider your sound experiments and field recordings as part of this “new music” that Cage discusses?
I struggle with labels. I identify as a sound artist and interactive graphic designer who makes installations, performances, and electroacoustic compositions while also branding organizations, designing packaging, promotional materials, and interactive spaces in pursuit of staying active and relevant in a variety of contexts so that I can bring my students a rich and meaningful experience as an art and design educator. So labels are often fluid for me.
As I began working more and more with sound, John Cage’s works and writings became incredibly important to how I understood not only ideas about processes for making complex, system-based works but also how those works could be framed and perceived by audiences. I do feel like the work I’m making could be positioned within Cage’s “new music” framework. I’m intrigued by the sounds of things in the world. I’m interested in what I am able to collect and what those things sound like once recorded. I often also manipulate those recordings to try and discover new forms that were within them all along.
I’ve played musical instruments throughout my own personal history and it’s been a rewarding experience. Over the years, I’ve gravitated towards this desire to collect my own source material and work up things from there. The struggle with the label is that of music. It’s a word with a malleable definition and I usually try to avoid having to defend whether what I do is or is not music. The label has no real baring on what I’m making and my hope is that the recipient of the sound can have a meaningful experience whether it fits into those categories or not. Cage’s definition definitely helps with this struggle when the need arises for stronger organization.
In an era of music technology where field recordings and samples play a larger part than ever before in popular music, do you draw any inspiration from modern music in designing your sound experiments?
Absolutely. I listen to a great deal of electroacoustic experimental music in a variety of forms and draw great inspiration from this work. I get excited when I hear popular tracks that include samples, field recordings and different approaches to sound generation in the studio using things other than traditional instruments. It’s interesting to hear how these things can be woven together with traditional musical sounds, bent and warped out of context and then represented in a way that builds on the narrative content of the track.
I am also really drawn to examples of contemporary music that is exploring time along with the content. Both digital media and the cassette tape afford long, uninterrupted listening experiences. A cassette tape also provides a physical object, able to be designed as a visual extension of the audio content.
It seems that most people who are interested in sound go into film or music careers, so why sound and art? How has recorded audio guided your genesis and growth as an artist?
My background is as an interaction designer. I grew up playing instruments and exploring sounds with some early DIY recording equipment but I studied graphic design right as designers were really starting to carve out a presence in on-screen environments. As an interaction and motion designer I spent a lot of time creating and working with interface sounds and effects for the client-based projects I was part of. This interest in sound and it’s relationship to people continued into my studies as a graduate student after I left the industry and that’s when I began looking for new ways to engage audiences using sound to discuss issues related to design, nature and communities.
So much of listening is determining WHAT or WHO you are hearing. Your work with sound seems to push this thought process to include WHY, HOW, and WHERE you are hearing as well. How does this expansion of the listening experience inform your work?
A great deal of my work aims to help people appreciate where they are and what is around them. We spend a lot of time cut off from our sonic environment for a variety of reasons and with the help of a variety of materials and technologies. Designers, engineers, architects, planners, and many other disciplines spend time putting many different things out into the world. We live in a visually dominated culture but our soundscape has a massive, largely under-considered, impact on our experiences, health, and wellbeing. By ascribing meaning to the sounds that are often ignored, a stronger relationship to those spaces can emerge.
Sound requires time to occur. Even in recording, there’s no such thing as a freeze frame in sound like there is film. Experiencing these sounds takes time. And everyone is very busy. Considering questions about why and how and, very importantly, where provide connections to these places that can be easily missed. And sound has the power to tell a more complete story of a place. The example that I use is when visiting the Grand Canyon. You can take an amazing photograph that ignores the dozens of people and tour busses that are behind you and just out of frame. A sound recording in that same location would not be able to do so. When we think about place, when we think about information, when we consider the experience, sound is an integral part of memory, documentation, representation and expression.
Much of the decision making process of field recording is determining the sound possibilities of a location and then turning on the microphone and hoping for the best. In your recent project for the Des Moines Art Center, Listen Right Here: DSM, you placed microphones in various places around the city which recorded sound throughout the month of May. How did your expectations of the sounds you’d receive differ from the final recordings?
Whenever I set up field recording equipment, I always have hopes of what the recording might collect. I also have come to terms over the years with the fact that I am going to be both surprised and disappointed along the way. It’s just part of the challenge in going after this kind of material.
With the Listening Machines installed around the city of Des Moines, I intentionally set them up at 5 very different spaces. The entire endeavor was one of curiosity. I was interested to hear what these spaces sound like at all different times of day, in different weather conditions, different days of the week and surrounding different types of events and non-events. I’ve made loads of recordings in different cities around the world but generally those are the results of me researching, wandering and deciding when I’m going to start and stop the recording. These were completely different. They ran autonomously on a schedule as long as they had power from the solar charged battery. So my expectations for what would be collected was pretty open.
That being said, there were a couple things that really stood out. The recorders captured some very interesting conversations (and an argument) at 2 different locations. They also captured some great examples of people actively engaging with the city through skateboarding and music. In the end, the sounds collected were a broad and diverse representation of people, activities, nature, and infrastructure. The intention of the installation at the Des Moines Art Center (running dynamically and ever-changing through October 9th) is to bring this sense of action, activity and slowed-down listening into the gallery context through the composition of a re-spatialized sonic narrative.
Describe one of the soundscapes you’ve encountered in which you did not record it, but wished you had. Are you usually equipped wherever you go to record sound?
A good friend of mine once said “The best sound recorder is the one you have with you.” I almost always have one with me. Usually, that is at least a small handheld digital recorder, sometimes with lightweight lavalier mics attached. If not that, then I have my mobile device with an app that allows for recording and very basic editing. There haven’t been very many times I didn’t get a recording because of equipment.
The primary reason I’ve not gotten something I’ve heard is simply because the sound happened when the recording device wasn’t running, going back to the fleeting nature of sound. That’s the thing with sound, once you’ve missed it, it’s gone. Sometimes it’s also worth just listening to, especially if trying to get the recording might be a disruption. I remember camping one time and hearing a wonderful owl call in the night. There were trains in the distance (I love both nature and train sounds) and the ways in which the train and the owl were interacting sounded amazing. I was already in my tent and I felt that the owl was close enough that if I went out to set up the recording equipment, I’d scare it away. So instead I just listened. I had the experience with the sound and not being able to record it didn’t diminish that. I set up the mics the next night in the hopes that I might capture the owl but no luck.
How would you encourage young people interested in field recording and sound to hone their craft and develop a better understanding of the sense of hearing?
The first thing to do is to spend time listening. To do this you have to hold still and slow down, which is very hard to do today. There’s an exercise that I do at the beginning of most of my workshops and classes where we spend a long time listening to the space around us and then we document what we heard. Once you start actively engaging with your soundscape through listening, you’re well on your way.
For those interested in field recording, it’s important to just go out and do it. Get whatever recording equipment you can afford, even if it’s a free app for your phone, and go out to start collecting things. You learn so much just by turning on a sound recorder and hearing what it picks up since even the most basic of recorders will definitely hear differently than the unaided ear and most often will hear better. Do this in cities. Do this while hiking. Do this while camping.
Using sound and recording as a way to engage with the built environment and natural places is how I got started. It began with being curious and collecting sounds when I traveled to new places. Whatever your connection is or whatever sounds you find the most interesting, go after them and don’t forget to listen to other things along the way. The sonic environment is a rich a dynamic place. There’s a lot of information and experiences to be had. There’s also a lot to protect. If we spend time protecting the soundscape, we might also save a lot of other things along the way.
About the sound installation for the Maximum Ames Festival:
“The installation is going to be a multi channel soundscape constructed entirely from sounds recorded around the state of Iowa in both natural and built environments. Visitors to the installation will be invited to slow down and experience these sounds composed while also having the opportunity to listen through various pairs of modified headphones. These headphones have been designed to manipulate how sounds are heard in the space, creating a private performance for the participant as a new form of listening experience.”