Anne Guthrie, an acoustician, composer, and sound artist, will be releasing her forthcoming Codiaeum variegatum record with Students of Decay this February. Composed with the outside world in mind, the six-song LP melds elements of the natural and the hyper unreal to unsettle and shake the listener—there are flowing springs and birds chirping, while vocal samples and sharp tones pierce the soft bubble that its base exists in. Occasional tracks feature muffled warbling and frightening carousing, but the tonal soundscape of the record is a generous one, a painless way to untangle your mind and feel at ease.
The full record is streaming below just for this week, and from then can be preordered through Students of Decay in advance of its February 18 release date. I spoke with Guthrie regarding her process, her choices, and her favorite places to find sound, which can be read after the album stream.
How do you integrate organic/natural sounds with instrumentation?
When I develop the concept for a piece, I tend to think of it programmatically, with classically defined foreground (instrument) and accompaniment (field recording). It speaks to my literary background in a way that I see the music as a tableau evoking a specific environment. Of course, once I start working on the piece, I often discover that elements in the foreground belong in the background, and vice versa. I enjoy obscuring things that have clear sonic identities. I also use several layers of processing to transform natural sounds into melodic sounds, and extended techniques to make instruments sound more like environmental noise.
When do you know which natural sounds would be of use and which should be thrown away?
After I make a field recording, the first thing I do is go through the full track and cut it down into smaller, usable pieces. Field recordings are almost never usable in their entirety; there is always a cough, or wind in the mic, or someone asking me what I am doing. While I appreciate the purity of an “unedited” field recording, I am not tied to the authenticity of the experience, and I am happy to discard a large amount of material for a few minutes of interesting sounds that have some pseudo-melodic element I can then compose into a track.
What is the process like in finding these sounds?
I think a lot of the best sounds are accidental. For example, a great deal of the recordings on the first side of this record were made while visiting Charles Lindsay and Catherine Chalmers in upstate New York. I set out on multiple hour-long treks with Charlie’s parabolic microphone and a portable recorder, with the intention of recording birds, insects, frogs and the like. While those elements are definitely present in the final work, I had no idea that some of the best sounds would come from insects hitting the parabolic shield, the squawking of the neighbors chickens, and the rhythmic sound of someone swimming in a pond half a mile away.
Where/how do you seek them out?
Although I do on occasion return later to sonically interesting interiors or environments with the specific intention of recording, I usually have a recording device whenever I go someplace new in case the opportunity for recording presents itself. Almost every situation can present an interesting sonic world if you are open to focused listening. My album, standing, sitting, on Engraved Glass has a track recorded in the toilet of an Amtrak, where some beautiful resonances occurred through the opening in the toilet to the tracks below.
Blending your formal knowledge with the unpredictability of field recording, how do you keep your work pure? Do you ever try to manipulate the outside world to give you the audio result that you want?
Purity is not a word I would use to describe the way I approach field recording. I consider recordings as blocks of raw material from which to carve my music. When I studied composition in college, orchestration was the most valuable course. Around that time, I also read an essay by Morton Feldman where he talked about his compositional process, and how he often started by laying out the orchestration, which instrument combinations he wanted to occur at which time, like structural framework for the piece before he even had the pitches or rhythms in place. I like to work with recordings in the same way, first laying out the framework and combinations of scenes, at which point the actual content is somewhat left to chance and often creates poignant synchronicities I could never have deliberately created.
I have in the past tried to create specific scenarios for recording, or picked a location in order to capture a specific sonic event, and often been disappointed. I once spent the day at Sheepshead Bay trying to record creaking boats without success, only to capture two excellent minutes of unrelated audio near the Coney Island subway station on the way back. I often seek out spaces that I think will be acoustically interesting, and find that they are, in fact, quite mediocre. When working on a track for my recent record with Richard Kamerman (Sinter, ErstAEU), I went into the lobby of a private building on Centre Street that looked from the outside to be a cavernous and reverberant space. Once inside, I realized it was actually quite dry and unremarkable. However, as I was recording, I captured a woman briefly singing down the hallway and that became a major element in the track.
Sometimes I find or am led to interesting spaces that have amazing acoustics but no native soundscape. For example, the 7 train overpass in Queens has an amazing multi-stage echo due to the double concavity of the ceiling. However, without some sound created directly under the overpass, the echo will not be heard. In that case, I brought my horn and played and sang in order to excite the sound.
I do manipulate my material significantly after the fact. In the second half of the record, a lot of the ambient sounds come from inside the Torqued Ellipses by Richard Serra, which were on display at the Gagosian Gallery. The resonances of the ellipses were enhanced by convolution, and the recordings were also physically played back through a transducer into multiple resonant objects to manipulate the timbre.
How many mics were used in the making of this album?
The star of the show is definitely the parabolic microphone (lent by Charles Lindsay). The enhanced directionality paired with the distinct resonance created by the shield provided me with some exceptional sounds. This mic was used for all the recordings made upstate. The horn was recorded with a clip-on instrument mic, fed through pedals and an amplifier and then recorded through the internal microphones of a portable wav recorder. The same wav recorder was used to record both the original Gagosian recordings and their transducer-modified playback. The cello and bass were recorded with standard cardioid condenser mics.
What themes or feelings do you think that this record speaks to? It has an eerie, ethereal feel to me, one that is hard to capture. Did you expect that this would be the result?
Apparently, a lot of my music is frightening to people! I have been often surprised by the fact that people hear so much darkness in my work, as I generally do not try to create that mood. I am often striving to unlock the resonances and “melodic” elements in non-melodic sounds, or to abstract the source of the sound, and in doing so I suppose it takes on a surreal quality. Psychoacoustics is a fascinating thing. The auditory cues people use to determine the source of a sound are complex and fragile. Studies show that the size of an object can be determined by the sound of it dropping on the ground—but what if you slow that sound down just a bit or send it through an LFO filter? Does that mean it’s no longer recognizable? Does it sound like the same object, only bigger? There is something unsettling to a lot of people about a sound that they can almost recognize, but that is taken out of context and modified.
Additionally, due to the number of layers of processing that most of my sounds go through, they take on a muffled, distant quality that adds to this feeling. I generally like sounds and stories clouded or morphed by memory, a song that runs through your head but when you try to sing it out loud, you can’t quite reproduce it or a dream that gradually fades the more you try to grasp the narrative. So I guess that often emerges in my work.
When do you decide where to bring in traditional instrumentation? The choices of more low-end instruments like contrabass and violoncello are particularly effective. Can you speak to how those instruments inspire or change your music as you play them?
When I create music, the French horn often plays a central role, because I was first trained on that instrument and I am more fluent in its language than anything else. I first came to experimental music through my horn playing. I also wanted to use cello on this because my roommate at the time, Dan Bindschedler, was often practicing in his room at night and I loved the distant, improvisatory sounds of warmups and the repetitive but somewhat wandering nature of stopping and starting certain sections of a piece over and over. I asked him to play something along those lines, and worked the recordings into the overall compositions. I felt then that the horn and cello overlapped too much in the low/mid frequency range and needed something lower to balance the sound, so I composed a brief score for double bass, which was recorded by Joseph Digerness. Although I have written parts for other instruments in traditional compositions, this is the first time I have used them in my electronic work, and I really enjoyed the way it influenced the direction of the music, and I plan to explore this more in future work.
Anne Guthrie's Codiaeum variegatum releases on February 18 through Students of Decay.