The indefatigable Lawrence English, composer, sound artist, and Room40 label boss, has long been using his art to warn us about the damage that will be wrought by unexamined human habits and societal structures. In notes to accompany his 2017 collaborative album Cruel Optimism, he noted that “This record is one of protest against the immediate threat of abhorrent possible futures.” With Field Recordings from The Zone, he unequivocally states that one of these futures has arrived, without playing a note.
Field Recordings from The Zone consists of five field recordings made in Queensland in 2020, after the bushfires and during the COVID-19 lockdown. The mood they conjure is best described as ‘Anthropocene Dread’. Natural sounds are menaced, interrupted, and bullied by the unstoppable sounds of the encroachment of industrialisation and development. These are not the sounds made by humans, rather the sounds made by our anonymous and efficient killing machines.
On first listen, it’s hard to believe that these field recordings are exactly what they purport to be – soundscapes that have not been augmented, layered, or processed. After multiple listens, you realise it’s all possible, and that it is English’s perceptive ear and technical skill as a location recordist and mastering engineer that have created these stunning results. The technical skill is in microphone selection and what is possibly the world’s most effective wind shield. The perception is in his ability to contemplate a soundscape, hear the meaning in it, and realise what it can communicate to the rest of us. While the environments these recordings were captured in may have been pleasant to experience, the act of listening to them removed from their context is menacing.
Over the first four recordings, all hovering around five-and-a-half to seven minutes duration, the high frequency chirps of insects, mid-range squawks of birds, ethereal drips of water, and soothing white noise of wind are constantly undermined by the deep sub-bass rumble of distant aircraft, trains, freeways, and construction. The natural world is always at the forefront, but you can hear the bulldozers coming. Third track ‘The Only Way Out Is In’ is a masterclass in recording wind, as howls oscillating around multiple fundamental frequencies produce a result not too far from an Aztec Death Whistle.
I found the fourth track, ‘I Thought I Heard You Call’ the most confronting, opening and closing with the abrupt and shocking sound of tectonic plates of metal colliding in an impossibly reverberant yet claustrophobic space. Closing track ‘The Picnic’ is the longest of the album at 14 minutes. Captured under a flightpath before the virus closed the skies, it’s as close to drone as a field recording gets, as overlapping waves of commercial jet wash move glacially under Australian native bird calls. Distant jackhammers float in and out of perception, letting you know that the bush will soon be giving way to concrete and asphalt.
Field recording as an act of environmental activism and protest dates back to composer R. Murray Schafer and the Acoustic Ecology movement in the 1960s. There’s a circular logo emblazoned on Lawrence English’s Bandcamp page stating that ‘Politics Is Noise Is Politics Is Noise Is…’ as he continues the tradition of using location recordings to politicise our aural environment, drawing attention to the calamitous changes being forced upon it.
Notes from the album’s release tell us that the title Field Recordings from The Zone is inspired by the speculative fiction of Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who were activate through the mid-20th century. Their work described an idealised, egalitarian human society based on cooperation, culture, fulfilment, and progress. English, through the writing and work surrounding his recorded output, has continually called for our society to aspire to similar ideals. The act of stopping, listening, and understanding is a practice essential to the work of bringing about positive, global change. The COVID-19 shutdown of both industry and culture, which we are still enduring, has forced us to do this en- masse, and as English states, “Sometimes, we need to stop (everything) if we are going to start to realise new ways of being in this world. Field Recordings from The Zone is a contemplation of this proposition.”