Phonography beyond the phonograph


Xoán-Xil López

[A spanish version of this text was published in MASE]

“Basically I tend to think that the world itself sounds great”
Andrei Tarkovski1

Among the practices associated with sound art, phonography has gained considerable importance in recent years, as evidenced by the proliferation of artists and projects that make capturing the sounds of the environment the core of their work. Moving in a wide spectrum ranging from the dialogue with soundscape studies, social activism and pedagogy of listening, this phenomenon has been reinforced by the proliferation of blogs, netlabels, podcasts, texts, etc., which have generated a certain sense of community. But what do we mean by phonography?

If we speak literally, we would be talking about the act of drawing or writing sound, precisely because that is what phonography was at first.

Phonography emerged as a method of displaying a physical phenomenon, a transduction of acoustic waves through the human ear, in order to study, classify and understand, something which during the nineteenth century meant, almost inevitably, obtaining a graphical representation that obsessed, among others, researchers such as Thomas Young, Ernst Chladni, Charles Wheatstone and Rudolph König2. In this context, driven by interest in the representation of speech sounds, printer Leo Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville patented in 1857 his phonoautograph with which he had previously carried out scientific studies on “fixation graphique de la voix”, to which a few years later Graham Bell would return, following the family tradition and sensitized to the hearing problems suffered by his mother and his wife. In order to develop a teaching method that would help deaf people to improve speech and partially overcome their limitations, Bell and otolaryngologist Clarence Blake in 1874 recreated Scott’s device, replacing part of the mechanism with organic matter, namely the side of a human skull with its corresponding ear.

But despite having achieved the codification of audible oscillations, none of them were able to reverse the process, and although history is fickle and today Scott inadvertently has the privilege of offering the first playable sound signals after a group of researchers in 2008 reproduced sound excerpts from some of his phonautograms3, it is Thomas Alva Edison in 1878 who presents a system capable of performing this dual role.

Edison’s phonograph, just as the paleophone designed shortly before by Frenchman Charles Cros, was no longer limited to “drawing” sound but also recorded the oscillations of the membrane using a stylus on a cylinder covered with a thin sheet of tin. The movements of the “needle” generated grooves which then allowed sound to be reproduced as previously traced.

With a quick review we can see how in the last two centuries, the term “phonography” has been used to refer to a system of stenographic transcript created by Sir Isaac Pitman4 whose aim was the representation of phonemes, to the before-mentioned process of visualizing audible waves, to the set of techniques used in sound capture with the arrival of the phonograph or, in recent years, to a repertoire consisting of those works in which “the capture of sound is privileged over its production” reflecting “an attempt to discover rather than invent5” and in which the creative act has much to do with the idea of “catching6” the sounds in an environment.

This repertoire, which I will focus from now on, also usually appears within the categories of “field recordings” or “soundscape recordings”, which establishes some nuances.

The first term emphasizes the fact that the records have been made ​​outside of a study, in situ, traditionally being considered as an auxiliary technique in different areas (film, radio, anthropology, bioacoustics, etc), while the latter responds a tradition marked by the very concept of soundscape, coined in the field of communication studies at Simon Fraser University in Canada in the early 1970s and which currently retains a strong ecological and environmental component, although its use has been popularized and extended to generically refer to an acoustic environment that acquires meaning only in relation to one or more listeners (Truax7, Rodaway8).

Assuming that most phonographic work is done with portable devices at specific locations and that, in general terms, the purpose of the recordings which we are collecting, may be considered Soundscape, why maintain the label phonography, which is clearly outdated?

We may find meaning in the need to use a term that represents the emancipation of the act of recording beyond its documentary aspect, its auxiliary character, thus diluting any external justification to the sound and emphasizing the experience of what is heard without, necessarily, responding to any other purpose. Although the sounds tend to keep part of their semantic value, since the source is often evident, their sonorous quality is at the forefront, prevailing over their informational value. It is for this reason that, although it may be a permeable term and sometimes inaccurate, it seems appropriate to catalogue within the field of sound art those works which are especially “preoccupied with the abstract and formal dimensions of captured environmental sound9“.

Therefore to speak of phonography is to speak of a representation — of representing rather than registering — as were the original drawings by Scott and Bell-Blake, although now the appearance is not graphical; all that is left of those lines is their use as a metaphor of the act of “fixing” a mass of vibrations, a “scar” that reminds us of a significant event.

A phonographic work is a prolonged and sustained “echo” of a situation. The product resulting from a complex exercise of mediation determined by countless circumstances including a whole range of technological and human determinants under which it is performed. This is why I sometimes like to think that the “subject” of this work is more the “event” than the “soundscape”, since what we record is a momentary fragment, a portion of time in which something happens and of which the act of recording itself forms part. A result that does not simply happen, but which is the fruit of the production of a work which has been given shape. Regardless of the degree of transparency that one wishes to grant it, the result is always the result of an intervention and we must not forget that, audible or not, there is always an author.

Assuming the above is true, it could be said that a phonographic work, as sound art, is a creation resulting from the interaction of the recordist with the recorded environment.

However, as in any artistic practice, there exists an ample range of work which in this case goes from pre-production to post-production, from take to development, establishing several moments in which one can interact: previously — before pressing Rec; during the recording; and afterwards — after pressing Stop; or at all three moments, resulting in a process that expands into the “soundscape composition10” which aims to “capture the other part — emotional, intangible and subjective — that is linked to the recordings11“.

This reminds us again that we are talking about expression made possible through the development of sound recording systems initially reserved only to preserve voice and music, namely, language. Culturally encoded things, able to convey ideas and a social meaning. All other sounds were noise that, in general, was to be minimized and banished from the concert hall or recording studio, and it was not until recent decades, taking into account the marginality in which we are moving, that phonography has gained increasing prominence in the context of contemporary sound creation. Thus, although the existence of these sound-recording systems make it possible, its emancipation as an artistic practice cannot be based exclusively on technical determinism.

As Michel Chion says “it often happens that machines wait years, once designed, to find employment, and conversely a significant artistic or economic demand stimulates the emergence of new techniques that no one had previously ever considered12“. That is, the existence of the recorder and microphone enables phonography but does not legitimize it.

Take for example the description of this experiment by Brian Eno:

“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 three- and-a-half-minute section, the length of a single – and I tried to learn it? […] I started listening to this thing, over and over. Whenever I was sitting 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 listenings, 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’13“.

This repetition allows a quasi-cathartic act by which the “noise”, traditionally defined as disorganized sounds, acquire new meaning. Chaos takes shape, everything has a place and relationships are established that give the recording an organic sense. The very attitude of who is listening redefines what is heard and at the same time, although we can still recognize the car, the dog or the pigeons, in each repetition the meaning of the work is reinforced.

This is helped by the fact that the microphone picks up a sound spectrum that we can hardly access when listening in-situ, thus the recording of that environment allows us to reduce the multisensory experience down to one of its parts. The amount of acoustic stimuli we simultaneously hear is conditioned largely by how we handle our attention. The microphone thus becomes “an instrument for listening […] allowing the recordist to discover and address the subtle emanations of every little sound14“, even hidden ones that are only accessible by using hydrophones, contact microphones, heterodyne systems or VLF receivers, to name a few unconventional instruments that have recently gained prominence among the tools used by phonographers15.

The microphone, unlike our ears, does not discriminate beyond its technical specifications, capturing a wide variety of textures, events, rhythms and nuances that we do not usually notice in a first impression. Recording allows us to dwell on the transient, offering an experience capable of changing our listening drastically: “Since I’ve done that, I can listen to lots of things in quite a different way”, Eno concludes. That is, it is not really the sounds that are rearranged but our listening which is reconfigured.

As opposed to the analytical approach of Murray Schafer, who from the environmentalist ideology of the World Soundscape Project proposes recording as a tool to “frame” sounds and capture “an acoustic environment, making it into something repeatable that can be studied16“, an analyzable and inert entity that acoustically identifies a location, Eno proposes a “phonurgical17” and dynamic listening in which the context is merely anecdotal. While Schafer viewed with suspicion the “schizophonic” capability of technology that allows “separating sound from source”, taking it out of its natural habitat, and giving it “an amplified and independent existence18” that resulted in the impoverishment of the quality of the global soundscape19, for phonography the evocative power of this dislocation accentuates the expressiveness of recordings to the point of provoking “a strange and puzzling emotion I’m not sure I can explain20“.

There is no doubt that being able to subvert the ephemeral nature of certain sounds in itself implies a significant change in our perception. But not everything can be reduced to a practical question. Eno carries out his experiment because he can, because it is technically possible, but this explanation alone is not very convincing. What we really need to ask ourselves is, what drives him to place the microphone in that park and listen to the recording compulsively?

The need then arises to understand technology in its broadest sense including “the creation of material artifacts, created objects, their uses, and to some extent their social and intellectual contexts21“. Beyond the device as a tool, technology can also be understood as a series of ideas and discourses that can create “forms of learning and modification of individuals, perhaps not only in the obvious sense of acquiring certain skills but also in the sense of the acquisition of certain attitudes22“.

Of course there is no simple answer, and we do not know the personal motivations of the British musician, but I am sure that both in this case and in the case of those of us who in recent years have been dedicated to phonography, it has had much to do not only with the development of increasingly affordable portable recorders, improved reproductive systems or access to audio editing programs, to name some “material” aspects, but it has also been a process of legitimization developed over the last 100 years from areas as diverse, and sometimes contradictory, as radio art, experimental music, musique concrète, electronic music, the culture of sampling, sound design, conceptual art, bioacoustics, Vancouver, cinema, industrial music, etc. All of this has contributed directly or indirectly to our reconciliation with these “noises”, all of it is part of the technological process that has “produced” our listening, transforming it into a different listening; conscious, acousmatic, deep, expanded… And phonography is still involved in this whole arrangement as a way to express acoustically something as complex and fleeting as reality. It is a way of interpreting it, a way to relate to it and display it in multiple ways in a wide heterogeneous field of work where creations coexist that seek to establish a reflection on the environment and the changes to which it is subjected, continuing the line of argument of Canadian sound environmentalism mentioned above23, along with others that pursue certain “objectuality24” based on providing an experience based on what is heard rather than contextual factors.

However, the way in which we experience these works is determined as much by what we hear as by the modes of representation used, these being understood as the strategies chosen to shape and display the works. Their content is not only defined by what is recorded but also by the process of development and diffusion (recording styles, sound processing, editing, distribution, presentation, etc.) that gives them an individual sense.

The use of binaural techniques that emphasize an intimate and subjective listening or the proximity of the microphone to experiment with levels. Recordings made in motion as a result of sound walks or manipulating objects, impregnated, in most cases, with a clear performative, quasi-choreographic character25 that speaks of a body in space. Editing, the abrupt sound cut as opposed to fading, the fade-in and fade-out as a source of continuity. Using EQ to correct frequencies and reveal details or as a powerful compositional tool that dramatically transforms the original audio. Projects offering a wealth of contextual information (coordinates, date, time, altitude, temperature, comments, etc.) which, through sounds, attempt to transport us to a particular place, as opposed to those in which all the data are ignored26 and presented “out of any frame of reference, allowing the texture of the audible to transmit its own energy27“. Presentation in “album” format traditionally associated with music publishing, collections of sounds often scattered without order on a map as audible topography in apparent pursuit of a metaphorical link to the “here”, or reconstruction of soundscapes by way of installation in art centres, museums, galleries and public spaces. These are just some examples of how phonography has developed its own expressive language, defined not only by what we record but also by how we do it and by the implicit values that the​​ form conveys.

This statement can also be seen in the representation of the place occupied by the recordist, either disappearing behind the fixed microphone, protected by the idea of ​​non-intervention, or appearing as an audible element, moving from the “I was there” rhetoric transmitted occasionally through images or references, to the “I sounded there” revealed by the emergence of voices, footsteps or touches. It is no coincidence that many of the works done in exotic natural settings, which because of their sound balance could be classified as hi-fi28, in Schafer’s terminology, often turn to technical standards of high fidelity, not only as a response to the wide dynamic range of these soundscapes but also as a reflection of an idealism that seeks to capture with neutrality a pristine and dehumanized nature using recordings in absence, in which the equipment is abandoned and later collected, as if “the representation of space” was “incompatible with the representation of the body29“.

But while phonography has shown in recent years a growing interest in the sounds of nearby environments in order to rediscover nearby exoticism, the urban and its margins30, following a similar shift that could be observed in other areas of art and knowledge seeking to capture the dynamics and social changes of modernity. In many of these studies the presence of the recordist is an active part of the recorded space, is a body that sounds. The sounds of cables, bumps, sharp turns, even saturated shouts, are part of an aesthetic, at times lo-fi, that would be unacceptable in other contexts. Here the error and noise gain a sense of opposition to accepted standards which “evokes a sense of subversion31“, becoming the seed of critical phonography that does not “try to record political soundscapes” but “to record politically […] Thinking with microphones, I begin to think of myself in another way32“.

All these “gestures” help to give each work a narrative sense actively involved in how our subjectivity is articulated as listeners. In a broad sense you could say that beyond merely capturing a soundscape, phonography aims to share the experience of the recordist, i.e., it has more to do with the listening than with the sound. It cannot be reduced to a simple technical process of capture and representation; it is a form of knowledge in which the recordings are the “audible trace of my presence as someone who listens”33.

  1. TARKOVSKI, Andrei: Esculpir en el tiempo. Madrid: Rialp, 2002, p. 188.
  2. STERNE, Jonathan: The audible past. Cultural origins of sound reproduction. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2003.
  3. FIRSTSOUNDS.ORG: “Édouard Léon Scott de Martinville’s Phonautograms” (Consulta: 23 de agosto de 2014). Disponible en web: <>.
  4. PITMAN, Isaac: Shorthand instructor a complete exposition of Isaac Pitman’s system of phonography. New York: Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1919.
  5. STERLING, Isaac: “What is Phonography?” (Accessed: August 28, 2014). Available online: <>.
  6. One of the most active communities is the group Phonography <> created in 2000, it describes itself as “a group created to discuss sound-hunting, also known as the art of FIELD RECORDING”.
  7. TRUAX, Barry: Handbook for Acoustic Ecology. Vancouver: Simon Fraser University and ARC Publications, 1978.
  8. RODAWAY, Paul: Sensuous Geographies: Body, Sense, and Place. London and New York: Routledge,
  9. STERLING, Isaac. Ibid.
  10. Term used by Barry TRUAX to refer to those works which, within the context of electroacoustic composition, are characterized by highlighting “the presence of recognizable sounds and environmental contexts whose purpose is to invoke associations, memories and awaken the imagination of the listener in relation to soundscape” (Accessed: September 1, 2014). Available online: <>.
  11. Juan Carlos BLANCAS interviewed on La Escucha Atenta (Accessed: September 5, 2014). Available on web: <>.
  12. CHION, Michel: El arte de los sonidos fijados. Centro de Creación Experimental. Publications of the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha. Cuenca 2002, p. 41.
  13. Citado en TOOP, David: Ocean of Sound. Aether talk, Ambient sound and imaginary worlds. London: Serpent´s Tail, 2001, p. 129.
  14. McCARTNEY, Andra: “Soundscape Works, Listening, and the Touch of Sound”. En: DROBNICK, Jim(Ed.): Aural Cultures. p. 179-185. Totonto: YYZBooks, 2004, p. 183.
  15. (in)audible de Pablo SANZ consists of recordings made using “unconventional listening technologies used to capture a variety of acoustic phenomena that are at the limits of perception”.
  16. Introduction by Murray SCHAFER to the publication World Soundscape Project: The Vancouver Soundscape CD1 (1973) / Vancouver Soundscape CD2. Cambridge Street Records. CSR-2CD 9701. 1997.
  17. CHION, Michel, Ibid., p. 36.
  18. SCHAFER, Murray: The Soundscape. Our sonic environment and the tuning of the world. Rochester, Vt: Destinity Books, 1993, p. 90.
  19. SCHAFER, Murray, Ibid. 91.
  20. Manuel CALURANO in a conversation with David G. FERNÁNDEZ and Mikel R. NIETO about La Charca published in URSONATE__ 000000002, 2011, p. 79.
  21. MITCHAM, Carl: Thinking through technology. The path between Engineering and philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 150.
  22. FOUCAULT, Michel: Tecnologías del yo. Barcelona: Paidós, 1991, p. 49.
  23. An example of this type of work is the project Orquesta del Caos project, Sonidos en Causa (Accessed: September 7, 2014). Available online: <>.
  24. DEMERS, Joanna: “Field Recording, Sound Art and Objecthood”. In: Organised Sound, vol. 14, Issue 01. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 39-45.
  25. Environmental Performances by Dallas SIMPSON or compositions such as Chairs For An Abandoned Classroom, included in A Country Falling Apart (atp004) by Edu COMELLES follow this line.
  26. Classic examples are many “untitled” jobs by prolific sound artist Francisco LÓPEZ.
  27. CARLYLE, Angus & LANE, Cathy: In the field. The art of field recording. Devon: Uniformbooks, 2013, p. 11.
  28. SCHAFER, Murray, Ibid., p. 43.
  29. JAMESON, Fredric: Teoría de la posmodernidad. Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 1996, p. 53.
  30. Interstitial Space by Mikel R. Nieto is in this area, investigating “the interstitial spaces existing between the natural world and the urban world. This project reflects the existing reality with sound recordings in the boundaries between the two worlds, trying to highlight the existing topics in the soundscape”. (Accessed: September 12, 2014). Available online: <>.
  31. ATTALI, Jacques: Ruidos. Ensayo sobre la economía política de la música. Valencia: Ruedo Ibérico, 1977, p. 247.
  32. NEDEV, Kamen: “Poner el cuerpo” (Accessed: September 15, 2014). Available online: <>.
  33. Steve Feld interviewed in CARLYLE, Angus & LANE, Ibid., 209.

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