Field Trips

by Mola

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released April 30, 2018

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Track Name: Piccadilly
I had this idea to do a vlog channel about field recording, but it wasn't really for me: I found myself feeling very self-conscious with a camera, and I wasn't confident talking to the camera either. Plus, I don't think I have the charisma for impromptu commentary, so the idea for the project has evolved into what you're listening to now.

I've been recording sounds for a few years now. Originally I used my recordings in music, but over time I stopped feeling a need to appropriate them into that musical context. This activity has since become a passion of mine, but it's a passion that few of my peers are able to appreciate or understand. It's this disconnect that motivated me to produce this show, in which I hope to better explain what it is I actually do, though ultimately it's just a way for me to have a regular creative outlet.

This is the sound of afternoon tea at the Ritz. I would usually wear clothes that I've customised in order to hide recording equipment on my person but that wasn't going to meet the Ritz's dress code, so instead my equipment is contained within my messenger bag under the table. I was worried I might have to check my bag in or that it would be searched so I had also bought along a small handy recorder which was in my pocket, but the security at the Ritz is surprisingly lax.

In the two hours or so that I spent wandering Piccadilly I spotted three different buskers with accordions, each with a dog curled up in front of them. This accordionist was only playing a short loop of music, so I suppose she doesn't expect people to stop and listen for an extended period.

In case you didn't hear that, a passerby just commented that I was "too cheap to buy the CD".

The results of my trip along Piccadilly turned out to be almost entirely musical. That's not usually my focus, and it wasn't my intention when I set out - it's just that everywhere I went there was music. I walked into this church with a market outside hoping to get access to the bell tower, but it turned out there was a free performance by a saxophone quartet that day. I was not allowed in until the piece they were playing had finished, so this was recorded kind of in the lobby behind some glass doors - It still sounds quite nice. I like this transition as I leave.

I feel compelled to point out there's a lot more handling noise and clothes rustling in this recording than I would usually allow.It's because I was still in my suit which I had to wear for my afternoon tea at the Ritz and therefore the microphones are still strapped to my bag which is a lot noisier than the customised clothing I mentioned earlier. Future episodes hopefully won't have this problem, though perhaps it's only me who cares.

I'm now sat at Piccadilly Circus, just trying to get some nice urban ambience. But, after only a few minutes, more music: this time a busker with an electric guitar. Hopefully you can see what I mean when I say this first episode seemed destined to be musically focused.

Busking is pretty hit-or-miss for me, personally. I enjoy passing the occasional instrumentalist, but too often it's just someone singing a top 40 pop song with an acoustic guitar. It reminds me of Roger Scruton's idea of the "tyranny of pop music"; music is wonderful, but do we need it so goddamn always?

Ain't No Sunshine has always irritated me especially. I find the "I Know" verse particularly obnoxious, even though I'm really into minimalist music. I must say I much prefer this instrumental version, so perhaps the distinction is that I don't care for minimalist lyrics. But hey, despite my ranting I'm not a music critic, I just like to record sounds - so I should probably shut up get back to that.

I like how that horn was in tune with the solo .

On the other side of the fountain, there was a homeless guy singing through a traffic cone. I'm seeing this more and more nowadays; styles of begging seem to follow trends. You can hear that he is trying to sing along to Ain't No Sunshine but he's not doing that great a job. He's not in time or really in tune, and I absolutely love it. I can say with all sincerity that this is far and away my favourite rendition of Ain't No Sunshine that I've heard. It's rare you find an example of real folk music in the streets of central London.

I couldn't leave Piccadilly without recording what I would consider a soundmark of the street: Above Fortnum and Mason there is a clock that chimes regularly. On the hour it plays Westminster Quarters but one of the bells seems to be a little broken - it doesn't resonate as loudly or as clearly as the other bells - a subtle variation that I quite enjoyed. Two figurines emerge -presumably of the eponymous "Fortnum" and "Mason" - but don't really do anything: they just turn to each other and another tune plays. Aside from relentless motor traffic - this seems to be the one sonic constant of Piccadilly. So, on that, I'll let Mr. Fortnum and Mr. Mason play us out.
Track Name: Horniman Museum and Billingsgate Fish Market
This is probably my favourite spot in my hometown; anytime one of my soundie friends visits me I bring them here. If you're ever in the mood for some free improvisation just hang out at the Sound Garden at the Horniman museum in Forest Hill and wait for the inevitable school trip to show up - you won't have to wait long.

This is the kind of situation where discrete recording is necessary. I was sat here before this mob of 30 or so kids showed up and my microphones were invisible so I didn't draw any attention. When I have a microphone out on display, children tend to become curious and start asking questions and acting up by shouting "hello" over and over again, which isn't really what I'm hoping to record. Plus, people tend to get anxious with strangers acting oddly around children.

The sound garden consists of five instruments positioned in a rough semicircle: Starting from the very left of me you have paddle pipes, then xylophones, pipe drums, chimes, and to the very right there's an unsual structure consisting of metal bars arranged in spiral patterns that you brush with a stick - I don't know what this would be called. The chimes are by far the most popular instrument as well as the most resonant, so they always end up dominating the performance. I find that it's only when the chimes subside a little that the xylophone becomes apparent, and the spiral structure often goes ignored but is distinct in its muted yet noisier timbre when it is sounded.

There's more to listen to than just the instruments, though: The players themselves make full use of the performance space by running around just as erratically as the sounds they are making. The parental guardians chat between themselves and occasionally interfere with the playing, adding a kind of meta narrative. Finally, incidental sounds - well, I suppose all of this is incidental, but other sounds such as birdsong, airplanes, or any other activity in the area contribute to the symphony. I can't think of a piece of music that accomplished what is achieved here with such complete naivety; the soundscape is simultaneously frenetic as well as blissful - a sort of spastic serenity.
Unfortunately, the school children are sort of a one-hit-wonder. Their clamour is almost inescapable as you wonder through the grounds and exhibits of the Horniman Museum, a place which is otherwise quiet and sonically unremarkable. The one place of respite I found - that was also interesting to listen to - was the relatively new butterfly house, which I had yet to visit before now. I didn't really know what to expect - I mean, butterflies are pretty much silent after all - but it turns out that they play rainforest wildlife recordings, presumably to provide a sense of atmosphere. However, every couple of minutes or so the noise of the heaters interject. I swear, these heaters sound exactly like the coffee grinder at my work, which gave me a strange feeling - like when someones ringtone is the same as your alarm clock and suddenly you doubt your entire reality.

Another oversight is that the rainforest sounds are played out from only one wall of the exhibit, so the atmosphere you are immersed in is a little surreal - like standing at the very edge of a densely populated rainforest and only peering in... and also you're in a coffee shop, I guess.
I didn't feel I had enough quality material for this episode (I'm aiming for these to be around 15 minutes long) so the following morning I got up at 5 o'clock to get the first trains that I could to Billingsgate fish market - there's no connection there, it was just next on my list of places I wanted to go. I wasn't able to get there in time for the main wholesale trading but it was still a busy, noisy environment.

This was a very straight-forward recording session; I was only in there for 10 minutes. The fish market is surprisingly small; it turns out it only takes up half of the building that it's in, whereas the other half is storage and offices. It also helped that it was an enclosed space so I didn't have to combat the elements, and I was already wearing my microphones when I got there which allowed me to quickly tour the whole market discretely.

I mentioned last time that there was more handling noise than I would have preferred. Well, in this recording I walked at a similar pace and I don't think there's any audible rustling. Fellow recordists who are listening might think this is obvious, but I'm hoping to demonstrate just how important microphone placement is to people who are new to this kind of stuff.

When I talk about field recording, most people assume that I mean wildlife sounds like the ones playing in the butterfly house. It's true that a lot of recordists focus on that kind of subject, but I don't find purely natural sounds all that exciting. Bernie Krause came up with an acoustic ecological trinity consisting of the biophony (which is the sounds of wildlife), anthropophony (the sounds of people and society), and geophony (the sounds of the Earth's natural processes, like wind and rain). The best field recordings usually contain a little of all three, but if I had to pick one I would say I find people the most interesting. I most enjoy recordings of physical activity, especially if there's an element of tradition involved.

At the very end of this recording I was fortunate enough to catch an example of 'Billingsgate Discourse': The workers at Billingsgate are infamous for their use of crass language and -according to the Londonist website - an 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defined Billingsgate language as: "Foul language or abuse, Billingsgate is the market where fish women assemble to purchase fish; and where, in their dealings and disputes, they are somewhat apt to leave decency and good manners a little on the left hand."

I'm pretty sure that's the first time I've ever recorded the word cunt.
Track Name: River Thames
Rivers are really common as a subject in field recording - it's practically cliche. Sure, some recording artists dedicate entire projects to documenting rivers, such as Annea Lockwood's sound map series or Virgilio Oliveira's exhaustive recording of the Rio Douro. But even if a river isn't your focus, they just have a way of popping up. For example, my first album consists of 55 recordings of an old road in Japan, and 25 of those recordings - almost half - feature the sound of water in some way, a lot of those sounds being rivers.

I think there's a number of reasons for this: The first reason should be pretty obvious, they're just quite aesthetically pleasing to listen to - they're relaxing. The second reason is more technical; grainier sounds help to cover up the inevitable hissing noise that comes from the recording equipment itself, meaning a steady background noise ironically makes the recording sound clearer. The third reason relates to what I mentioned in the last episode regarding Bernie Krause's idea of the biophony, anthropophony, and geophony; there are some sporadic or intermittent examples of that third category like earthquakes, thunder, or volcanoes, but the only quotidian everyday instances of the geophony are wind and water. You can't actually record the wind - only its affects on the environment - and it's actually a massive pain in the ass to recordists for reasons I'll go into later. This leaves only water - whether it's a river or the ocean or rain, any part of the water cycle, really - as the only readily available geophonic subject. Lastly, I'd point out that civilisation is historically determined by access to water, and wildlife depends on water sources too. Basically, sound comes from movement which suggests life which needs water, so you can expect a field recordist to be at least near some water most of the time.

This particular recording was made near a pier for London's river bus service; I decided to go there to get closer to the boats. I stood at the edge of the platform - not anywhere that passengers were expected to be - and listened motionlessly for a while before the first boat pulled up.
Even though that brief exchange interrupted my recording, the fact that I was mistaken for some moron who doesn't know where to wait reaffirms that my go-to setup is completely inconspicuous.

I've been enjoying making this podcast, but I'm still getting to grips with it. I don't have any kind of background in creative writing, I'm not used to recording vocals (a task made much more difficult by the noisy neighbourhood I live in), and even the act of merely speaking clearly turned out to be more of an art than I ever anticipated. I haven't begun seriously promoting this project yet, but I've shared it with a few people online and received some questions, a couple of which I thought I'd address:

Someone, of course, asked me why I do this. Well, I think field recording for me is an obvious conclusion to other interests of mine: I enjoy hiking and wandering through places aimlessly, as I find it beneficial to be alone with my thoughts. I consider it a form of meditation I suppose; that concentrated attentive listening reminds me of what Zennists describe as a "single-pointedness" of the mind. I also grew up - as many do - with an intense passion for music, but my taste in music has slowly warped over the years. Now I just enjoy the act of listening, and I don't find the distinction of "music" or "not music" to be particularly relevant. That's my satori, I suppose. So, yeah, rambling + zen + weird music taste = field recording.

Someone else said they were struggling to place my accent. I was raised in England but my whole family is American and, since my parents were the ones who taught me how to talk, my voice and even sometimes my language is a weird hybrid of the two. People hear in voices what they're less used to, so to an English person I sound American, but if I go to America they all say I sound British. I imagine this duality in my upbringing contributed to my interest in field recording due to my always being a cultural outsider, but let's not get into that now.

I love the sound of the water pushing against those - uh, I don't know what they're called - hold on... Okay, they're call fenders apparently (those rubber things that hang off the sides of boats and docks); I love that squeaky sound that the fenders make as they're pushed by the water and rub against the sides of the pier. It sound's like dying cats but in a fun, playful way somehow.

I continued on down the Thames, and decided to go onto the nearby HMS Belfast. On the deck were two student volunteers chipping off the old paint from the gun turrets. I chatted to them for a bit before asking permission to record them, this changed their behaviour: One of them started really going at it - presumably trying to make more noise for me to record - while the other quietened down significantly. The guy who got louder was also the one who did pretty much all of the chatting too, so I think this contrast really is representative of two disparate personalities.

I come across this kind of difference when improvising with people. I remember one point in a video I made with a frequent collaborator and dear friend of mine Andrew Tuersley: A noisy train started to pass by us while we were banging away on a metal pipe. I shut up a little bit by simply hammering out a slow rhythm, hoping to emphasise the trains musical contribution, whereas Andy started banging louder and more erratically in a way that complimented the train's sonic character. It's the same thing really, whether you're listening or being listened to - the presence of a listener changes our relationship with our surroundings, thus changing how we act. This is why I tend to use my discrete setup, but in the case of recording these two volunteers I would have looked dodgy just standing and watching them work, anyway.

Besides these two, I didn't really find anything of interest on the ship. It's not like it's still a working, active vessel - it's very much just a museum. Like the butterfly house in the last episode, they play recordings to set an atmosphere and to try to recreate what the different rooms sounded like when they were still in use, and there were also several screens showing informative videos. But ultimately I feel like I'd have to dedicate an entire episode to cover this place, and even then I don't think it's all that interesting.

This particular stretch along the Thames is a massive tourist attraction, the entirety of it. You've got the icon of London that is Tower Bridge which also has exhibits, and that's next to this old part of town with cobblestone roads and everything like that, you've got City Hall, then - of course - the HMS Belfast.

I sat on the edge of the green between City Hall and Tower Bridge to capture some of the ambience; there's always loads of people passing by, speaking in all sorts of different languages and accents (especially on a beautiful day like today). Actually, my custom recording jacket is starting to get a bit too much for days like this; I guess I'm going to have to do the same thing again but with a short sleeve shirt for the summer months.

After a while I got up to walk across Tower Bridge.
A recordist called Ian Roars made a recording of this bridge, and it's one of the best recordings I've ever heard. Specifically, he recorded its internal mechanisms as the bridge was opening to let a ship pass. The results are so unbelievably musical - it's tonal and it's rhythmic and it follows an obvious song-like structure. Sure enough, a composer called Iain Chambers actually transcribed the recording into musical notation, which was then performed in the very space that the original recording was made in. Seriously, check it out - if you don't understand me when I talk about the inherent musicality of all sound, this recording of Tower Bridge may be what convinces you. I've put a link in the description below.

I planned for this episode to conclude with the entirety of my stroll across Tower Bridge, but on listening back I've decided against it. The results weren't particularly interesting - in fact, perhaps the only thing of interest is how uninteresting it is. It just sounds like I'm walking down a street; you wouldn't guess that there was tons of water powerfully coarsing beneath me. Also, the wind really started to pick up while I was half way across. Wind is the bane of field recordists; it makes this awful bassy buffeting noise that I can't stand. Technically, we do hear this wind noise in real life when it blows against our ears, but our brain knows to ignore that sound when it also feels the wind on our body. When you listen to a recording, your body doesn't also feel the wind so that sound isn't filtered out by your brain as the unnecessary noise that it is. Microphones don't discriminate. And anyway, this episode was getting a bit too long... so I'm just going to fade out here.
Track Name: Trafalgar Square and HQS Wellington
Either side of me - equidistant from where I stand - are two water fountains. Kind of makes this sound like a cassette recording, but it's not. In the distance there's a political demonstration - more on that later - and to the right of them a busker plays a hang drum. All around there is a murmer of passers-by and road traffic. The only thing to interrupt this noisy texture of a soundscape is the intermittent whistle from a security guard telling people to not climb on the lion statues or swim in the fountains. In case you still can't tell, this is Trafalgar Square.
A youtuber I like called CGP Grey described visiting this place for the first time in a while in his podcast with Brady Haran, and his observations are spot-on; I absolutely agree with everything he says and couldn't put it better myself, so I'm just going to paraphrase him here:

"Trafalgar Square now has little signs everywhere that are all about telling you what you can't do. If you ever see olden days footage of Trafalgar Square there are probably three things that you're going to identify as the fun things in Trafalgar: Number one, enormous flocks of pigeons everywhere. Now, years ago they got rid of the pigeons. The other two things were people playing in the fountains and people climbing on the lions. But now in Trafalgar Square there are signs everywhere telling you "you're not allowed in the fountains, and you're not allowed on the lions" and there's a security guy who was telling people to get off the lions at Trafalgar Square. This place is now kind of awful because all of the things that were interesting you're not supposed to do anymore. It's actually just this barren area of concrete that has no real interest."

Grey also laments the abundance of what he describes as "cheap, low-effort buskers", and comments that he saw three simultaneous floating Yodas. Maybe they're a fixture as I also witnessed no less than three while I was there. I also tend to see several chalk artists whenever I visit, and at least one company is handing out free samples. The biggest attention-grabber however is always whatever political demonstration is occuring that day, Trafalgar Square's raison d'etre.
These people are Biafrans, Biafra being an unrecognised state in Nigeria. They were here to celebrate 'Biafra's Heroes Day' which honours those who lost their lives in the civil war from 1967 to 1970, and to further promote seccession and independence from Nigeria who, according to their literature, continue to murder Biafrans in an act of genocide. The Biafrans believe the British government should take some responsibility due to their involvment in arming and training the Nigerian military. As can be expected from a rally, there were a lot of speeches made throughout the day, but I'd rather this show avoid the explicitly political so I recorded some songs they sang (which I also think are a lot more interesting to listen to).

What I enjoy about this recording is the stark contrast in timbral aesthetics: This heavily amplified, even distorted voice gives me a claustrophobic feeling, but the responding chorus has a fidelity and a spaciousness to it. There's also something about how the minor key of the hang drum pairs with the singing and shouting - I don't know, maybe it's just me but there's a dreadful feeling of uneasiness here, even though the songs they're singing are quite jubilant. Anyway, I usually try to not go too long without commentary for this project, but due to the musical nature of this recording I feel like I can afford to shut up for a while without risk of boring you. Also, these people want to be heard, I feel like I should oblige them.

I've had those melodies stuck in my head for days now; it's annoying that I can't sing most of it.

So this next part's going to be a bit different: This is a recording made with something called a contact microphone. I'll go into what those are in a minute, but first I'll tell you what you're listening to. Even with hundreds of people around, Trafalgar Square as a physical place is very quiet. My contact mics were only picking up the occasional dull thuds, so I wandered down the Thames - I know, I recorded along the river last episode and even called it cliche, but I needed an environment with some movement to it. This is going to be hard to explain - okay, so this is at a boat called the HQS Wellington. There's a ramp down from the embankment to a floating platform, which then has stairs up to the Wellington. The stairs are sturdily attached to the boat, but they only rest on the platform on some wheels, which allows the two areas on either side of the staircase to move independently of one another. The staircase rolls around the platform a significant amount, going left and right and forward and backword by several meters. The effects of that movement is the erratic and dynamic sound you can hear now.
The reason this recording might sound... different is because contact microphones record sound from vibrations through solid surfaces as opposed to through the air. They're really cheap and easy to make if you know how to strip wires and solder, I'll post a link to a guide in the description. I've actually bought a professionally made one for this, even though homemade ones are just as good in regards to sound quality. Maybe I'm just shit, but I've found the ones I've made myself to be too fragile and it's not long before I have to resolder a connection or something; I wanted something that would last longer and could take a bit more of a beating. Plus, this one from Cold Gold Audio has crocodile clips attached which makes connecting the microphones to certain surfaces a lot quicker - you don't necessarily have to mess around with blutac or tape or whatever. It also has gold glitter on the backs of the transducers which looks very nice, if that's of any significance.
This was actually the first time I've used a contact microphone in years. They fell out of favour with me because I don't like how you don't know what results you'll get until you start recording. I like to find a sound that is interesting to listen to and then start recording, not the other way around. Most importantly though, I can't help but hear a contact mic recording as a contact mic recording. You might not agree with this analogy, but it's a bit like a black and white photo: It doesn't matter the subject, I see it as a black and white photo of that thing - the medium diminishes the content. That said, I do enjoy the results (this particular recording reminds me a lot of the free improvisation and onkyo music I listen to), it's just not my style as a recordist I suppose. However, I would recommend them to anyone getting into field recording as they're a super cheap addition to a growing arsenal, and they literally change your perspective in regards to how you listen to the world around you. Plus, you don't have to deal with challenges like wind or unwanted background noise, which is handy for beginners.

Right, I don't have anything else to say, so time for the obligatory fadeout. 'Til next time.

Okay, so quick announcement: I've started uploading this podcast to Youtube (link in the description) and have also submitted it to iTunes but am currently awaiting approval (I'll be sure to tell you more about that when it's up). If either of those avenues are most convenient for you to stay up to date then have at it, or if there's some other service that is preferable to you then let me know and I'll check it out.
Track Name: Southwark Cathedral
I think it's fair to say that this podcast started very accessibly with the first episode being entirely musical with a lot of different recordings. But as the project has continued I've been getting a little more 'hadcore' with each episode. The sounds you've heard have been less musical overall and I've been using fewer recordings in each episode, too. Well, this episode may be a bit of a test for my listeners because this episode is centered around just a single 17 minute recording... of bells.

To make matters worse for you it's also a low-fidelity recording. I've incidentally found myself in possession of a piece of old kit that I've been eager to try out: So, I had recently started chatting online to a fellow recordist called Neil who was keen to meet with other like-minded people in London. Upon my reaching out, he told me that his housemate was just the day before saying that the two of us should meet. Turns out this guy lives with an old friend of mine from my hometown. Small world.

Neil also happened to be selling his then current recorder, an outdated piece of tech called the Fostex FR-2LE which came out over 10 years ago. It doesn't work with SD cards like recorders do now but instead uses a solid-state flash drive, so it's still digital but its from a time when affordable technology was rapidly advancing and new products were quickly made obsolete. What I like about this recorder is its aesthetics: The buttons and dials feel more mechanical and tactile, and it looks like it should house a cassette tape - the industrial design is very much influenced by the then only recent walkman age. I plan on testing how good it is with my usual microphones but first I wanted to hear how it sounded by itself, so this recording was made using the Fostex's on-board microphones. They're not very good, and visually they appear as just two little holes - one on either side - very much the same style that you would find on your mobile phone and I imagine a similar quality. There's also no kind of wind protection available for these mics. But, eh, I don't really care, maybe it's a cliche thing to say but I like retro tech for the personality it has.

The low fidelity of this recording is actually kind of appropriate on a personal level: This was recorded on Father's Day, and my father's geeky passion is perhaps just as unusual as my passion for sound - he writes a blog about how failure is good and how we should embrace it. If that intrigues you, you can find his blog at brucelynnblog.wordpress.com. At the time of writing this script, his latest post was coincidentally about this podcast, so I suppose I'm returning the favour. Happy father's day, Dad.

Neil was real fun to meet up with; we immediately hit it off and quickly became friends over a couple drinks. It's nice to hang out with like-minded people; field recording is quite a niche interest so I don't get to talk about it in depth much. I suppose this podcast was meant to be an outlet for that conversation that I long for, but being face-to-face with someone and having a couple pints is always going to be much more enjoyable and perhaps a little less narcissistic. It reminded me of what I miss about university: I studied sound art at the London College of Communication, where I was surrounded by people who had similar interests and passions and ideas as myself. I remember a thought I had on the last night that we all went out celebrating after our last ever crit: We had seen each other practically every day for the last three years, and we were still talking about sound and music right to the very end - that conversation never got boring, we never ran out of things to say. I plan to meet up with Neil more, but also if you - dear listener - live in London as well then get in touch maybe we could have a pint together too. Neil has only recently begun experimenting with field recording, but you can hear his work with modular synthesisers at homodular.bandcamp.com. I'll put a link in the description.
Speaking of links in descriptions: This podcast is now available on itunes! Just search in the podcast section for Field Trips Mola and it should show up. However, as far as I'm aware itunes does not facilitate written descriptions which is kind of annoying. I like to link to various websites related to what I talk about which won't be seen by listeners using itunes. This is why I've started saying them out loud. For example: *clear throat*

"If you would like to hear a sans-commentary version of this or any other episode, you can find it at mola-recordings.bandcamp.com where there is an album called Field Trips. The recordings are free to download, but you can also choose to leave a donation to help support the show if you would like."
So I'm sorry everyone listening on soundcloud but that is something that will be said in every episode from now on because I think a lot of people are missing it.

From itunes to youtube: I mentioned last episode that I'm going to put this show up on youtube in order to transcribe it with subtitles - yeah, fuck that. After doing the first four episodes I've realised it's just not worth it; it's a lot of time and effort to add subtitles (even with youtube's voice recognition technology) and hardly anyone is listening to this on that platform, anyway. I'm just going to have to try harder to speak clearly and distinctly, and I will also be more liberal with my use of ducking and filters so that I am as intelligible as possible. I still would recommend listening to this show on anything but your laptops shitty built-in speakers.

Anyway, let's get to these bells. This is the actual change ringing part - the main event, as it were - which happens twice in half an hour at Southwark Cathedral. You would have heard at the beginning a simple repetition of the first 3 notes of the major scale, just hammered over and over again. That's actually my favourite part I think; the way they toll those same three bells with such rapid regularity causes a drone to emerge. It's a really thick, warm drone that's plenty loud, but you still have to shift your aural focus to hear it over the clangs. Once you do though, you find it much more captivating than the more prominent arpeggio that causes it (or I did at least). I would encourage you to rewind and listen to that part again if you missed it.

Bells are used culturally all over the world, but the fundamental attitudes towards their purpose can vary. Change ringing is a dinstinctly English example of Christian sound culture, and I find it kind of self-defeating: Here in the West we worked so hard to tune our bells mathematically to resonate according to our idea of musical tonality, which then meant we could use several of them to make a kind of music with, and then we even developed this entirely unique compositional practice dedicated to making the ringing of bells interesting and varied, and yet after only a short time this practice - contrary to its name - becomes entirely monotonous. I mean it really just keeps going to the point of tedium. Compare that to the evening bell tolled at buddhist temples in Japan: the bell at Mii-Dera, for example - which I've had the privilege to record - is so rich in overtones it's practically a minor third. The bell is at ground level rather than raised up high above you, so you can hear other sounds that are part of the mechanics of ringing it. Sure, this means you can't hear it from as far away, but when standing nearby its resonance is so deep it becomes a very physical sensation. It's also short in duration - only a couple minutes - which lets it stand as an event rather than becoming background noise. This kind of relates to what I mentioned earlier regarding the 'embrace of failure': Western religious sound culture strove for the ideal and the transcendental - what's supposed to be "divine music from the heavens" remains tedious and ignorable, whereas in the East they accepted imperfections and treated the whole idea with an air of humility, somehow resulting in a more compelling listening experience. Now that's Zen.

After this part there's some intermittent tolling before the change ringing continues; I don't really understand what's happening there, perhaps someone with knowledge of bell ringing could let me know - I'll get to that later though. I managed to record almost the entire half-hour of these bells completely uninterrupted, but then in the last 5 minutes - as the change ringing stops and it becomes just a continuous tolling of a single bell, marking the hour and shouting out "Time for church! Service is about to start, get your ass over here - some guy comes comes up to me on a bicycle, sits down on the very same bench as me (rather than any of the others in the garden which are all empty), pulls his phone out and starts to have a very loud conversation that I can hear both sides of. This means that part of the recording is completely unuseable for ethical reasons. I was kind of pissed off at my luck - I find that last bit of the bell ringing quite emotive and powerful and I wanted you to hear it. A part of me was tempted to return in a weeks time to try again, but I imagine a whole half hour of lo-fi church bells would be pushing what few listeners I have a bit too far. Plus I would run out of things to say; I'm already struggling.

Here's the part I was talking about earlier. The change ringing has stopped and it's quarter to eleven. So, two bells: what does that mean? That to me does not signify quarter to anything, and it definitely doesn't represent the hour. Here it goes again. So is that meant to be three? No, it's four. Five. Six. What do the six bells signify there? Oh, a different bell now. Four. So two, then four, then a different four. Then back to the change ringing. What does that mean? Get it together, Catholics!
Track Name: A Monument, Some Docks, and a Hill
So this is my very first attempt at recording with my new/old Fostex recorder and my usual microphones. Though it sounded fine at the time, I found out upon editing that I had over-recorded, resulting in the audio clipping in several places. You might have noticed a child whooping in the background that is distorted. My usual recorder is very quiet; I've never set the record level at lower than maximum and I always have the volume of my headphones at full; and yet it's never been uncomfortable for me, nor has the audio ever "peaked". Not only are the Fostex's preamplifiers more powerful, but the recording and monitoring mechanisms are also a little more complicated: There's an overall record level dial as well as two "trim" controls (one for either channel, left and right respectively). Plus, the volume for your headphones goes way higher than I'm used to, so I basically have three variables that can all be set too high or too low but that either way can be compensated for by the other controls without your knowing. What I'm trying to say is that it's going to take me a while to adjust to this new machine, so my apologies if the sound quality is subpar.

There's a particular way of breathing whilst wearing microphones that I've developed. I don't want to breathe through my nose because of the whistling sound it creates (I have allergies half the year and a cold the other half), but breathing deeply through my mouth is also too loud. I deliberately try to take short, shallow breaths with my mouth partly open so that I can move through a space in a relative quiet, but climbing over three hundred steps to reach the top of the Monument to the Great Fire of London while breathing this way was exhausting, and I couldn't quite make it all the way without gasping for air.

As you heard at the beginning, the steps are particularly narrow and the balcony at the top is similarly cramped. I get self conscious while recording if I'm standing still in peoples' way, and the close proximity to others meant it was too easy to record their conversations in detail, which is similarly uncomfortable for me. This last part was recorded in the one spot where I could sit down out of the way of others for a bit - a large nook halfway up the steps (sort of like the passing places you find on country roads but for a spiral staircase). I didn't hang around at the Monument for long though. After making my way back down I opted to wander along the Thames again over to the St. Katharine Docks.

The marina is very quiet: The water is still - unaffected by the tides - and very few of the boats docked there have riggings for the wind to blow through (I've always loved that sound). There's a hubbub of general urban ambience - passers-by, music playing from restaurants, and the obligatory air traffic overhead - but nothing remarkable or distinctly "marina-y". I managed to catch someone coming in through the entrance - the bridge has to raise in order to let the boats through - but I didn't quite have the right microphone out for the job. I was caught off guard and didn't have much time to react so - already wearing my DPAs - I just quickly hit record. I wish I had used my Rode NT4 though - a more directional microphone - so that I might zero in on the sounds of the bridge a bit more, so I decided to hang around; surely it wouldn't be very long before another boat came or went... I was there for three hours. I don't get it, I saw dozens of people hanging out on their boat, and I saw maybe a dozen people cleaning their boat, but in three hours not a single one of these boats actually went anywhere. It seems rich people are content to simply sit around in the marina - something I managed to do unwittingly without having to spend thousands of pounds. What a waste.

That was Sarah, a little old lady I met at Dawson's Hill, the hill leading up to the architecturally famous estate Dawson's Heights which I visited for the first time recently. It's a beautiful pair of buildings but pretty much silent, so I thought I'd wander around the adjacent park. I was initially attracted to Sarah because she had this goofy little dog with her. It wasn't a pug - I forgot to ask what breed it was, actually - but it made these little snorting noises just constantly. She told me that she'd been to the vet about it and there's nothing wrong with him - he's just a weird dog. But also, she had a cat with her that you might have heard in the background that acts like a dog. The dog is called Bob, the cat is called Lilly, and Lilly and Bob would play together like two puppies. Or another dog would come along and Lilly would go say hello to it. It was very strange; it reminded me of the film Babe. Sarah comes to sit on a particular bench which was dedicated to a man called Charlie Hoskyns-Abrahall, a person she was close to.

I'm not particularly happy with any of the recordings in this episode, really. Like I've said, Monument was too claustrophobic, I missed my apparent one and only chance at St. Katharine Dock, and - as much as I enjoyed sitting and chatting with Sarah - my interviewing skills are much to be desired; oral history isn't really my usual style. And she's right: This place never does get too loud, which I suppose is nice, but means it isn't particularly interesting for me to record.
A bit of a weird episode this one - kind of all over the place. Sorry about that. Regardless, if you would like to hear a sans-commentary version of this or any other episode of Field Trips you can find them at mola-recordings.bandcamp.com/album/field-trips. These "instrumental" versions (for lack of a better word) are available to download for free, but you can also choose to leave an optional donation if you'd like to help support the show. With that, all I have left to say is thank you for listening.
Track Name: Westminster
Sometimes it's kind of difficult for me to decide where to situate myself when recording. Here in Leicester Square there were two different construction works going on which I wanted to be evenly spaced within the stereo field, but if you've ever been to Leicester Square you'll know that there's a large fountain in the middle which - no matter where I positioned my microphones - was unavoidably going to be a central part of the recording (both figuratively and literally). Despite being in a pedestrianised area relatively early in the morning (for a Saturday at least), the many starlings and pigeons struggle to be heard over the white noise of the fountain, the loud banging from the workers, and the incessant drone of urbanity.

I passed through this square on my way home after I was done recording; it was a lot busier and more interesting to listen to later in the day: The fountain had started spurting jets of water in rhythmic patterns for children to play in, there were a lot more people around doing interesting things like breakdancing and tai chi, and the nearby Swiss glockenspiel installation was going off. I was tempted to get my kit out once more, but I was too tired and would have had to wait another 2 hours if I wanted to catch the glockenspiels again. But this anecdote only proves the point I made in the last episode about the Treachery of Images; sure, I had made a recording of Leicester Square but it's not an accuracte depiction by any means. Our world is constantly in flux, rendering "faithful representaion" a fool's errand.

I went from one public square to another - Leicester to Parliament. I did happen to pass through Trafalgar Square in between the two, but I've already recorded there so I didn't really think it was worth bothering with again (which I know kind of goes against what I was just saying but I also have to consider my audience; eight episodes in is too early to start recycling material). If you want to hear what Trafalgar Square sounds like check out Episode 4 of this podcast.

Parliament Square is just as noisy, but you can hear the openness to it. You're surrounded by motor traffic, but it's slow moving and heard from a tolerable distance. Acoustically, too, the area is a lot less reverberant, with only louder distant sounds having any kind of echo. The passers-by are also spread out, adding to the feeling of spaciousness even though there were way more of them than at Leicester Square. Well, eventually anyway; I must have come at just the right time as I got to witness a gradual transition from desolation to prosperity over a period of maybe half an hour. Tourists seem to get up at roughly the same time, regardless of variances in jetlag.

It's a shame that Big Ben isn't being tolled nowadays. A lot of people describe it as London's most iconic sound, so it's annoying that I couldn't cover it on this show. That said, I've heard arguments against the idea; For example, Peter Cusack - who I studied under - once pointed out that a recording made in Parliament Square of Big Ben chiming is often unrecognisable. He explains it in one presentation at Duke University by proposing that:

"Many people know that sound through listening to radio or TV, not because they've heard it. That applies to most Londoners and most British people as well, because the noise of London is now so loud you need to be within 500m of it to actually hear it... But, in fact, the real sound of... Big Ben is rather unfamiliar, even to Londoners."

Basically, we all know the melody (I recorded a version of it in the very first episode of this podcast, in fact) but we're used to hearing it with such clarity that the real life sound of it - amidst all the other environmental noises - doesn't meet our expectations (the reason we're used to hearing it so clearly, by the way, is because they have microphones positioned inside the bell tower. Yes, the start of BBC News is usually a live feed, and not prerecorded).

On to the main event of this episode now: The changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace goes on for quite a while - maybe an hour or so. I didn't record the whole thing, only the first two parades, keeping my microphone still to emphasise the passing nature of the performances; it's rare that music has a directionality.

I had my more conspicuous Rode NT4 out, and I wasn't trying to hide it or anything for a few reasons, even though there were hundreds of people around. First, I figured that everyone would understand what I was doing and what I was there to record; noone seemed bothered by it, at least. Secondly, people would be watching the ceremony - facing away from me - so I wouldn't be noticed much anyway (although I did get a couple stares). And thirdly, I guess I had this perverse, cynical hope that maybe one of the many police officers would spot me and come over to make sure I'm not doing something dodgy. It's happened to me before and it could have made for some interesting material, but alas; I think they were too busy making sure people didn't run out into the road and stayed where they were meant to. The crowds are very tightly controlled during the changing of the guards, with good reason.

You can now hear a second consequential procession, one that I wasn't expecting: That of tourists pushing through the crowd trying to keep up with the parade and not miss anything. This American family stayed next to me for the remainder of my recording, and you can hear their conversation in quite some detail, something that I might feel uncomfortable with were I using my discrete microphones. But in this case I had my microphone out before they arrived: They saw it, they knew what I was doing, and I can only assume they didn't care that I was recording them. Maybe they didn't realise just how audible they were to me given that my microphone was pointed away from them, but either way I feel that sufficient warning had been provided.

I hope you enjoyed the 'Buddies' episode with my friend Neil; I certainly enjoyed making it. If you live in the greater London area and like to go out recording sounds every once in a while I love meeting the people who share this passion of mine so please don't hesitate to get in touch. I don't care how skilled you are or how seriously you take it, it's just nice to spend time with like-minded people and chat about sounds and shit. Plus, I get some material for this show where I don't have to write and record a script - the part I enjoy the least.

Perhaps my conversations with Neil has made me more sensitive to modulation in music: The music is going from left to right, but it also becomes clearer and then more muffled again, which I think is quite interesting to listen to. It's hard to explain how a quality so seemingly trivial is interesting to me - something I struggle with every episode of this show - but listening back to this recording I was reminded of something John Cage once explained in an interview, a sentiment I relate to immensely. He said:

"When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings or about his ideas, of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic here on sixth avenue for instance, I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking, I have the feeling that a sound is acting, and I love the activity of sound. What it does, is it gets louder and quieter, and it gets higher and lower. And it gets longer and shorter. I’m completely satisfied with that, I don’t need sound to talk to me."

As the marching band passes, behind them are the other soldiers (non-musical ones I suppose, or perhaps they're the actual guards who are participating in the change?) and you can hear their "leader"(?) barking the drill commands. He's not just shouting, he's shouting in a particular way; he's almost screeching, and whenever I've heard those commands they've been similarly delivered - in a way that is not only grating but also counterintuitively quiet. Seems to be an aesthetic decision rooted in tradition rather than a practical consideration.

So like I said, I didn't record the entire ceremony - by this point I'd had enough: I was boiling hot, and thirsty, and really hungry so I decided to leave and there was only one way out. Imagine hundreds of people trying to use a single pedestrian crossing - a normal sized one mind, nothing special that might accomodate the restless hordes - with two police officers actually enforcing when you can and can not cross. I just thought it was so funny how they had to keep barking the same orders over and over again to tourists who don't understand or just flat out ignore them. It was chaos. The longer I watched the funnier I found it, and then eventually the music started back up again which made the whole situation all the more comedic to me.

Aside from the humour, I also enjoyed listening to the rhythm of this spot: A series of beeps precedes a rush of busyness which then crossfades into a relative quietude with a duet from the two officers, and then suddenly it will all start again. It's also interesting to listen to the voices of the police, especially the male officer: You can clearly hear the exhasperation in his voice and - sure, the crowds are nowhere near as loud as the marching band - but he yells in a way that is both clearer and more intelligible than the shrieks heard before. He really knows how to carry his voice in a way that seems quite easy and comfortable for him. He'd make a great performer.
Track Name: The Tower of London and Albert Island
I see these guys around London Bridge more and more nowadays: That old "which cup is the ball under" game where most of the people participating are secretly part of the scam. I'm in two minds about these people: I mean, obviously I find they're behaviour abhorrent, but I gotta say I do appreciate how they provide a bit of variety to the urban soundscape.

I saw these guys on my way to the Tower of London. I had passed the tower back in episode 6 on my way from the Monument to St. Katharine's docks; It looked a little too busy for my liking that day, but I did make a note to return. Here's the sound of the tower's iconic ravens; they don't sing often or for very long so this was as good a take as I could get in the short time I was there. And I was only there for a short time - here's why...

I had just missed the changing of the guards - which happens every couple of hours, apparently - but there are two guards in the central square at all times to protect the Crown Jewels. They're mostly silent, but they do occasionally loudly march back and forth or they stomp their foot while changing which hand they hold their rifle with, all of which echoes off the surrounding architecture. However, not long after I began to record was I accosted by some sort of security.

I was basically told that I wouldn't be welcome in the Tower if I continued to record, so I had to leave, and I didn't even get my twenty-something quid back. The guy clearly hadn't really thought this all through, though: Not only did my equipment go unquestioned when my bag was searched at the entrance, but we were also surrounded by tourists who were filming - inevitably recording sound as they do so - who he didn't seem to care about. When I pointed this out it only agitated him further and he made it clear he didn't care to justify his specific targeting of me.

This is not my recording. Last episode I made some pitiful attempt at fundraising to help pay for a soundcloud pro account, and a recordist called John Tenney generously donated and got in touch with me over Facebook. This is from his album - available for free download from Green Field Recordings, a netlabel worth exploring if you haven't already - called American Places. This track in particular is of San Francisco's "St. Stupid's Day" festivities.

I love this recording: There's so much going on but everythings is still clearly heard. I also love the sense of humour about it; I find myself chuckling throughout as I listen. The whole album is worth listening to though, and I encourage you to check it out. There's a link in the description along with a link to John's Vimeo account where he hosts his video art portfolio. John, thank you again for your support.
This next part isn't even a field recording! Another listener who donated and sent very encouraging words is one Connor Crowell (Crowell? I'm not sure), who releases a variety of musics under the pseudonym Echodjek (I hope that's how it's pronounced, too). This is "Beneath the Waves", the closer to his album Petrichor (also available for free download from his Bandcamp).

The album is that classic style of guitar-loop based ambient music, but he is by no means tied down to that genre. He likes to switch it up and try new things with his music, and has an album of folk-influenced bedroom-DIY kind of stuff, too. Again links are in the description, and again, thank you Connor for your support.

If you would like to contribute to the continued production of this podcast - as John and Connor have - then you can donate as much or as little as you'd like at my bandcamp where the sans-commentary versions of each episode are available to download.

Back to my recordings now - to kind of an interesting place. Sort of a non-place, actually: Albert Island is a small unpopulated island off the East end of London City Airport's runway. There's not much there: There's some industrial sites, some fancy boat restaurant, and a dirtbike track, and that's pretty much the entirety of the place.

I was hoping to record airplanes taking off and landing from as close as I could get, and learned about this location from a plane-spotting forum. Now, I'm not a plane-spotter (nor do I have any intention of starting) but I totally get it. These machines are impressive and watching one actually take off in front of you and hearing the sounds they make is all quite exhilerating. Right now you can hear one - maybe it's 100m from me - taxiing before it's scheduled departure. This amazing sonic sequence happens soon when it begins its take-off - the sound of the engine is so powerful that it just kind of reverberates throughout the landscape, making it sound like it's coming from all around you rather than from any particular point. That sound fades out as the jet speeds down the runway away from you and you witness its quiet ascent up towards the heavens, but after a few moments in the air another low, noisy drone occurs, and I don't know what's causing this.

Just as an aside, I found it ironic that a sign where I sat declared the site a "no drone area".

With a microphone you can hear the planes coming in to land a mile off, but it gets louder and louder and your anticipation keeps building up, trying to guess the moment when it's gonna pass over you. Then when it does it made me physically jump the first time, and I never really got used to it: I recorded a few takes and every time I got at least a slight jolt. It's because just all of a sudden this enormous thing is right above you, and it goes just as quickly as it comes. It must tap into some real primal instinct of danger, just to be suddenly enveloped by this goliath presence.

The plane brings a volley of wind with it; I couldn't find any way around that - still a cool sound.

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