In his 1995 book Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds David Toop devotes extended passages to examining Brian Eno’s thoughts and works. The following Eno anecdote has been firmly lodged in the back of my brain for more than a decade.
“There’s an experiment I did. Since I did it, I started to think it was quite a good exercise that I would recommend to other people. I had taken a DAT recorder to Hyde Park and near Bayswater Road I recorded a period of whatever sound was there: cars going by, dogs, people. I thought nothing much of it and I was sitting at home listening to it on my player. I suddenly had this idea. What about if I take a section of this—a 3½ minute section, the length of a single—and I tried to learn it? So that’s what I did. I put it in SoundTools and I made a fade-up, let it run for 3½ minutes and faded it out. I started listening to this thing over and over. Whenever I was there working, I would have this thing on. I printed it on a DAT twenty times or something, so it just kept running over and over. I tried to learn it, exactly as one would a piece of music: ‘Oh yeah, that car, accelerates the engine, the revs in the engine go up and then that dog barks, and then you hear that pigeon off to the side there.’ This was an extremely interesting exercise to do, first of all because I found that you can learn it. Something that is as completely arbitrary and disconnected as that, with sufficient listens, becomes highly connected. You can really imagine that this thing was constructed somehow: ‘Right, then he puts this bit there and that pattern’s just at the exact same moment as this happening. Brilliant!’ Since I’ve done that, I can listen to lots of things in quite a different way. It’s like putting oneself in the role of an art perceiver, just deciding, now I am playing that role.”
I love the way Eno thinks. These thoughts have crept from the back to the front of my mind many times over the years. But I never performed this experiment myself. At least, not until last Saturday.
Walking the dog through a small patch of bush near my house, I stopped in a quiet spot, pulled out my iPhone, and recorded 2:40 of environmental noise. I decided that no matter what came out the other end, I would spend the rest of the afternoon listening those sounds on a loop.
… and so I did.
… and it was kind of amazing.
Mundane environmental sounds turned into an accidental performance. The everyday took on a special significance. Around 40 seconds in a plane passed overhead. I remember thinking, “Oh, wow… Wow! This is going to be amazing.” I still get a kick out of that section of the recording, especially as the engine quietens and a lone cicada starts getting louder and louder. The aeroplane fades but the insect remains. It’s subtle, beautiful and perfect… and then there’s a siren. A siren!
I’ve listened to this thing over and over. It sits in the background like sonic wallpaper and I tune it in and out. Eno was right. You can indeed learn a piece of environmental sound and appreciate its nuances and surprises. But I suspect it helps if the recording is rooted in direct personal experience. Somehow it feels important that I went out into the world, caught this thing and brought it back. Carving off an arbitrary assortment of aural events, realising that those moments were special and you almost didn’t notice even though you were right in the thick of it.