Today, the idea of storing sound recordings on the internet seems positively old-fashioned. The development of pooter technology and the success of youtube and similar sites means that we expect to see as well as hear musical performances, news clips, and even speeches and poetry readings when we going looking for them online. Unless you're an ageing hippy wanting to access that collection of Grateful Dead concert recordings, the vast audio storehouse at the internetarchive.org site must seem a little anachronistic. And, let's be honest, even in the days before youtube and its ilk we probably would have struggled to find a use for crackly recordings of Bill Clinton's golf tips.
None of this should be news, of course: it's around fifty years since the new-fangled medium of TV trounced radio to become the number one vehicle for entertainment and news in Western countries. The eye is the most powerful of our senses, and sound with pictures will always be more accessible and popular than sound alone. Why, then, have I spent half an hour a day for the last month furiously downloading sound-only recordings from internetarchive.org? Maybe I'm just perverse, but I think that sound-only recordings have something unique and mysterious about them. Because we can't see the visual corollary of what we're hearing, we have to become collaborators, conjuring images out of our imaginations.
I'm particularly interested by the hundreds of field recordings which have been posted to the internetarchive site. After a click of the mouse and a quick download one can listen to the sound of rain on a tin roof in Ulan Bator, or a taxi honking its horn in New York, or small talk in a bar in Sydney. What motivates the people who make and circulate these recordings? Are they on some dogged and quixotic mission to document the world around them? Is there some unexplained significance to the seemingly random content of most of what they post?
Over the past year or so, Grant Finlay has submitted scores of field recordings made around New Zealand to the internetarchive.org site. Finlay's subject matter varies from the waves on lonely beaches to torrential West Coast rain to the sounds of suburban Auckland. Finlay's techniques are almost childlike in their simplicity: he will leave a tape rolling in his drive before taking his morning run, then listen back to it when he returns, or carry a dichtaphone with him while he walks some forest trail. If there is artifice in his recordings, it comes from the frame he gives them - that is, from the locations in time and space where he chooses to start and stop the tape rolling.
If Finlay's recordings have a precursor, it might be the school of 'long shot' film-making pioneered in Britain and then New Zealand by Darcy Lange. Lange was a socialist with a long history of involvement in the union movement, and he made extremely simple films that recorded snatches of the lives of workers and their communities. Lange made one of his best-known films by leaving a camera in a forest clearing and letting it record, in a single soundless black and white shot that lasted something like ten minutes, the chainsawing of a native pine. In this simple way Lange managed both to celebrate the work of a logging team in the New Zealand backblocks and to mutely protest the destruction of a small piece of his adopted country's natural heritage.
Because they exist only in sound, Finlay's recordings are more challenging than 'long shot' films. By depriving us of all visual information, Finlay makes locations like suburban Auckland or a deserted beach seem both achingly familiar and strange and distant. Listening to his recordings is like playing blind man's bluff: we reach out for something we know is there, but cannot quite locate.
Unlike Lange's films, Finlay's recordings lack an obvious agenda. Perhaps they ask us simply to listen to what is around with more care than usual. By listening more carefully, we may discover new aspects in what seemed familiar. My favourite Finlay recording was made on Waharau Ridge Track in the Hunua Ranges south of Auckland.
I've walked Waharau Ridge Track many times, but it has never sounded quite like Finlay's recording. I remember the voices of other hikers, the occasional chiming of a tui in the branches above me, and the burbling of Waharau Stream, as it flowed down through stands of regenerated native bush into the bright blue waters of the Firth of Thames. Finlay's recording, though, is largely given over to the voices of insects, and cicadas in particular. Finlay reminds us that, at this time of the year at least, it is the shrill, harsh, yet subtly varied sound of cicadas, and not a burbling stream or picturesque native bird, which provides the undersong of the New Zealand bush.
Listening to Finlay's recording of the Waharau Ridge Track, I was reminded of a WS Merwin poem 'To the Insects', which begins with the lines:
we have ignored you
millions upon millions of times
with chemicals with fire with indifference
Merwin sees insects as a reminder of a pre-human natural order and, depressed by our inability to exercise responsible guardianship over the environment, he imagines insects continuing to exist after we have disappeared from the earth:
leaving you the dawn
in its antiquity