“Narrating Environments” A Discussion between Lukasz Polowczyk and KMRU


Joseph Kamaru, aka KMRU, is a sound artist and experimental ambient musician, raised in Nairobi, Kenya, and currently based in Berlin where he is a Master’s student in Sound Studies and Sonic Arts at the Universität der Künste. His works deal with discourses of field recording, improvisation, noise, ambient, machine learning, radio art and expansive hypnotic drones. He has earned international acclaim from his performances in far-flung locales as well as his ambient recordings, including the 2020 album Peel released on Editions Mego. Lukasz Polowczyk is a Berlin-based sound artist, poet, and educator. He is the voice of Aint About Me (a project with producer/composer Jan Wagner) and the man behind ‘Noise in the Key of Life’. His artistic practice is based around the protocols of translating the poetic intentionality of an idea across a variety of expressions and media. In his world, a poem can be expressed as a sound-art piece, a spoken word composition backed by an experimental jazz ensemble, a site-specific audio-visual installation, a book, or a series of grainy, abstract photos. Recently the two artists had the opportunity for a brief chat, pondering the ethics of field recording, the importance of listening, and subliminal nature of familiar sounds.

Lukasz Polowczyk : First of all, I’m really happy that we can have this conversation. I’ve been really thirsting to talk to someone who has a similar practice to mine. I would like to start by asking you how field recording has changed you? Because for me, my ability to experience the continuity of time was the big gift. When I’m out and about recording, I eventually find myself in a similar state to what I experience when I’m meditating – I’m hyper-alert and present. I think this has to do with the fact that as a species we’ve been hardwired to respond to loud sounds, because they could signal potential danger. Once those headphones are on and you press record, that switch goes off naturally. Tell me about your experience.

KMRU: My field recording practice has constantly been changing how I perceive the world around me. Not only the sounds, but also the socio-relationship that I have with specific places, with time and even in regards to community. As I found myself recording in different places, my presence in a space became more significant to my practice. This reflected back on my relationship with these places. It made my decisions more intentional – I’m always asking questions about why I need to record something.

Lukasz Polowczyk : That’s interesting, the whole notion of a body in space and how our presence, compounded with the act of recording, impacts the reality we are capturing. I’ve encountered similar discussions amongst documentary filmmakers, they also wrestle with this slippery border between the idea of subjective and objective reality. I guess, the same goes for quantum physicists, right?

Another thing that fascinates me is how the practice of deep listening modulates perception, in that sound is somehow reframed and becomes musical or has the potential to eventually become music. I can’t turn this thing off, this way of listening. Even when I’m just going about my daily business, without my equipment, I’m still soaking up the sounds around me. If not for my mindfulness practice, I think I would go mad! Is it like that for you as well?

KMRU: For me it’s more about getting to know what the sound is about and either allowing it to be or becoming a part of it. Sometimes these sounds can be really annoying, and you only realise this once they’re silent. I try not to get overwhelmed by these annoying sounds, but rather engage with them.

Lukasz Polowczyk : Right! If you don’t let them in, and assimilate them in some way, they will wear you out. I think that for people who don’t have this type of practice, sounds that are invasive and alien by design, can feel like an assault on the body/mind. Which explains why sound has been weaponised and used during interrogations and such.

In terms of what I would loosely dub the “ethics of recording “– is there anything that you consider off-limits? Situations where you feel that it’s not appropriate to press record? If so, what is the criteria you go by?

KMRU: I think a great deal about these things in regards to my practice. The more I record in different places, the more I realise that sometimes I don’t actually need to be recording. In the beginning, I always had my recorder with me. It was exciting to collect all these sounds, this was back in Nairobi. Later on, I started making field recording trips, whereby I’d visit a place beforehand to attune myself to the environment. To get a feel for the sounds that I could record there and, potentially, to have a conversation with someone who lives there. This practice changed my approach. I become more aware of the encultured ways of apprehending and narrating environments, which is something that you can’t really escape. Hence, my positionality in regards to the spaces and places that I work in became more critical, and this reflected back on the decisions I make before pressing the record button. We are always recording with our brains and ears, anyway. All we need to do is just listen.

Lukasz Polowczyk : When I was recording the material for Noise in the Key of Life, I wasn’t doing it with the purpose of creating anything. I was just listening to my life. Hence, the recordings weren’t done with any purpose in mind. A lot happened in this this stretch of time: my son was born, my grandmother and godfather passed away. Recordings of all of these events became a part of this record. But, since this record is out and I have this formulated practice, anything that I would record now could potentially become a part of something that might be distributed to a greater public. With this, the innocence of recording was somehow lost for me. Hence, I don’t think that I could find it in me to record things of a similar magnitude now.

Would you say that your work is motivated by a need to discover sounds that are unique in some way? Because, that’s definitely a thing for me. I tune out immediately when I hear something that sounds too familiar to my ears, unless, of course, it’s either reframed in a new way or the emotional payload it carries is hella powerful. The same goes for my approach to processing sound. There, too, I want to hear something that I’ve never heard before. Sometimes, it’s almost like I’m after soundscapes which force me to be active in trying to understand or assimilate them – in that I have to work to discover the beauty within them. What are you after?

KMRU: I think this is a natural part of the creative process. It’s mostly intuitive and I appreciate these moments when I get lost in the composition and then something happens and it sparks the whole project. You know how something could sound, but then there are always these additional parameters that could change the entire sound or feel of a piece. I definitely try avoid the familiar, but I also appreciate the familiarity of field recordings when they are used alongside music. How they linger in the track and create a subliminal layer for the listener.

Lukasz Polowczyk : I feel you! And this added layer is an actual moment that you lived! And now you get to transport other people there. There is definitely something magical about this.

You can find KMRU here, Lukasz Polowczyk here, and Noise In The Key of Life here.


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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.