In the Time of Bells With Steven Feld

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Steven Feld recording a large bell in Kyoto, Japan, on New Years Eve, 2005.

Best known for his recordings of the Bosavi people in Papua New Guinea, Steven Feld is a world renowned writer and sound artist. For the past three decades, his work has been a confluence of many disciplines, ranging from linguistics and music aesthetics to acoustic ecology and human rights. He was awarded a MacArthur Foundation award in 1991 and was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994. Feld is currently a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Music at the University of New Mexico.

His most recent project is the ambitious 5-CD series The Time of Bells(VoxLox), through which he hopes to expand our understanding and awareness of how bells shape the world we live in. My interview with Feld was conducted by email in January and February 2005, as he was preparing for another trip to Ghana.

What prompted you to begin the Time of Bells series?
After 25 years of recording birds and music in the New Guinea rainforests, I started listening to bells in Greece, Italy, France, Finland, Norway, Japan, and Ghana, realizing that, like rainforest birds, they shape how people experience and think about space and time. Animal bells, church bells, town bells, festival and ceremony bells, musical bells—all of them play remarkable roles in the soundscapes of different cultures through history.

I also discovered that most documentary recordings about bells segregate and focus on church bells and don't really present the bells as part of entire sound environments that include things like crickets, cars, and cows. So I decided to embark on a world-wide project that investigates the sonic legacy of all kinds of bells, from the perspective of acoustic ecology. So far, three Time of Bells CDs have been released from 2004 to 2005. I am planning at least two more, and then I will repackage them as a box set, with an additional DVD and picture book.

Although I'm sure every situation is different, what is the trickiest thing about recording bells?
The trickiest thing is to record and experience bells as full environmental instruments. I often have to combine multiple perspectives and recording techniques—stationary and moving, high and low, close and distant, with and without back reflections—in order to really show how bells create space and time. Each and every kind of bell requires different techniques, particularly since they interact with other simultaneous and complex sound sources, such as musical instruments, birds, animals, cars, rain and snow, etc.

I was surprised that disc 3 was situated in one place—Accra Ghana—rather than covering a region. How did you decide on this place and these particular ensembles?
I read in books that "the bell is the keeper of time" in traditional ensembles in Ghana, so I came to take a listen. But I was quickly swept up into the much more under-the-radar uses of bells, in contemporary jazz-inspired music like what you hear with Accra Trane Station, and the completely unique (and never before recorded) music of the bells and car horns. The material was so diverse and vibrant that I decided to put the effort into a CD just about Accra.

This is also the first disc in the series which includes a collaborator: Nii Noi Nortey of the Accra Trane Station is listed a co-producer. What role did he play in the project?
Nii Noi coordinated all the contacts with the local musicians, did the translation work and got all the details right for the annotations, found a local engineer to help me, and did the coordination work on the photography too.

Accra Trane Station produced a tribute CD to the "African legacy of John Coltrane." Can you tell us a bit about the dynamics of Coltrane's African legacy?
Nii Noi Nortey is a deep student of Coltrane and plays music on both western saxophone and on African wind/reed instruments that he modifies with sax mouthpieces. He works with a percussionist named Nii Otto Annan, who is deeply inspired by the multilayered approach of Elvin Jones and plays a drum kit that consists of eight African floor drums (three atumpani, two kpanlogo, a brekete, and two djembe), jazz hi-hat and ride cymbals, and a rack of six bells, as well as a side-station balafon. Together they create music that responds to what they hear in Coltrane. The Accra Trane Station CD was created as a 40th anniversary tribute to A Love Supreme.

Can you give me a hint about the countries and cultures covered on the final two discs in the Time of Bells series?
Disc 4 is complete and will be released in Fall 2006. It includes a piece about shepherd singing and animal bells in the mountains of Sardinia, a piece about a carillon in central Copenhagen, a piece about the Sunday bells of Venice, and a piece about the ringing of a 70-ton bell on New Year's eve in Kyoto.

In addition, it has two pieces that were commissioned by the International Community Foundation, as studies of sounds of peace bells. One is the World Peace bell in Newport, Kentucky, a 66-ton swinging bell set to the sounds of oud music by Iraqi exile Rahim AlHaj. The last one is the sound of the bell at Hiroshima, ringing last August in the exact place and precisely 60 years to the moment the atomic bomb dropped on that city. So Italy, Denmark, Japan, USA, and Iraq are the countries represented.

Steve Feld takes a bell lesson from Nii Otoo Annan, a featured bell player on The Time of Bells 3.(VoxLox 2005).

Describe your current recording setup?
Time of Bells 3 is a 4-channel recording using the Edirol R4. For the front Left and Right channels, I recorded in A-B stereo with a pair of vintage AKG 451EB/CK1 microphones through an AERCO preamp. For the rear Left and Right, I used a DSM surround mic and its own preamp on a custom dummy head, all made by Leonard Lombardo. I edit and mix the multiple tracks in Digidesign Pro Tools on the Mac using Massenburg EQ.

For the last couple of years I did my 2-channel ambient field recordings—like you hear on Times of Bells 1 and Times of Bells 2—with three different DSM systems worn on my head or on the dummy head. I have just received Lombardo's 4-channel head-worn or dummy-head 5.1-compatible DSM system with custom preamp. I recorded the 70-ton ritual bell on the R4 with it for the first time this New Year's Eve in Kyoto, Japan.

Although for my current ambient field work I have switched to the DSM 4-channel surround system, for music I will continue to use a hybrid system: recording A-B stereo up front with classic cardioids like the AKGs, and DSM for rear-channel surround.

All of the New Guinea CDs that I made between 1975 and 1992—Voices of the Rainforest, Bosavi, Rainforest Soundwalks—were done on a stereo Nagra 4S, with the AKGs and AERCO preamp, and from 1990 with the Bryston Dolby SR frame. After 1992, I recorded in New Guinea on Sony D10 Pro II or M1 DAT recorders.

Are you backing up your DAT and Nagra recordings? What do you see as the best way to preserve your recordings in the long term?
I back up all of my analog and DAT recordings to hard drive and make gold-leaf CD copies as per archival standards.

I'm always curious how phonographers locate their subjects. How did you know where to find the various types of bells in, say, Finland, Greece, and Norway? How do you begin your search?
It's a mix. Readings, recordings, pictures, tips that come to me by email, but mostly conversations with colleagues in the fields of anthropology, music, radio, and sound art all around the world.

What was the most difficult bell to record?
The biggest ones are always the most difficult because they overload the preamps very easily. Finding the right position, distance, and recording level is always very, very tricky.

How do you protect your gear from the elements? The change from rainforest recording to Mediterranean and sub-arctic recording must be hard on your gear, as well as require different kinds of protection.
In the rainforest I relied on plastic bags, Tupperware, and massive amounts of silica gel with color indicators that I cooked, religiously, every week in order to protect the tapes, recorder, and mics from the intense moisture. Otherwise, it is just common sense stuff. Always travel with bubble wrap and lots of Ziplock bags!

Do you have a backup plan if something in your system doesn't work?
I always have an extra mic and a backup recorder, particularly if I am in a really remote location.

When you're going through your recordings and editing them down into releasable chunks, what's your process? How are you thinking compositionally?
I listen over and over in a number of environments, and select the most interesting pool of sounds. Then I begin to layer them into the Pro Tools multitrack environment.

I try to work with real-time elements—long stretches and beds of ambient and surround sound recorded from different perspectives—and experiment with how to layer and mix-in different "hot" or key sounds. The idea is to always pay attention to shifts between auditory figure and ground: to think about how to hold time and space constant, but also how to expand and contract it.

Sometimes the process is more narrative, but sometimes it is non-narrative. Sometimes it is more like editing a film soundtrack, with strong awareness of the visual/physical placement of sound sources. At other times it is like a radio drama, or like a John Cage cut-up, or more connected to certain lineages of musique concrète and electro-acoustic composition. There is always a tension between the art of the composition and what it comes from and relates to in the way of research about a sound environment or acoustic ecological niche.

I'm curious to hear how much of the recordings wind up on the cutting room floor. What's the ratio of recorded sound to released sound?
This varies quite a bit. Sometimes what you hear is almost 100 percent of what I recorded. Other times I only end up using 15 to 20 percent of what I record (here I'm thinking of the more multi-tracked and layered pieces recorded over hours or days).

On track 2 of The Time of Bells 1, I can clearly hear you walking and breathing, which is usually something avoided by field recordists. Did you have a problem overcoming that boundary or taboo?
No. I wanted that soundwalk to literally map my bodily orientation to the sound: arriving at the church parking lot and hearing that very austere and unique church bell; recording it full on; walking past to hear how it resounds against the church building; then walking through the big, heavy wooden church door and hearing its decay; and then sitting down and hearing, almost instantly, how the organ (one of the oldest pump organ's in Finland) has an almost identical attack-sustain-decay envelope.

The recording technique—an audio version of the way one films in the cinema verité style, with the walking camera and focus on transition and juxtaposition—was a way to locate the bell vis-à-vis the organ. My own walking, breathing, sitting, and pulse are part of the experiential picture. Having that in there is a way to bring the listener right into the immediacy of my bodily experience of the sound.

That particular track is a lovely recording, complete with hymns performed by the churchgoers. There must be an interesting story behind this sequence.
Nauvo, in southwest Finland, was once colonized by Sweden. So the church service is first in Swedish then Finnish. What you hear is from the Swedish service. I just liked the way people were singing all around me.

Here, the dummy head is being used to record Accra Trane Station.

It is a small church with a real feeling of community. At the end of the piece, people go to the adjacent cemetery and sing hymns. The hymns start on the tonic of the bell. Like the reverb/decay connection between bell and organ, this was a connection between bell and voice. And there are also some nice bell-and-bird and bell-and-car interactions. So the idea was to present all these ways that the bell is central to the soundscape of a community church.

Where are you now? Are you working on a particular project?
I am in Accra, Ghana again for four months. Tomorrow we launch the Time of Bells 3 CD here, with performances by the musicians, at the home of the Ghana director for the World Bank, who is a saxophonist and music enthusiast and supporter. I am continuing to work here with the car-horn band on an entire CD about their music. And I'm finishing up the Coltrane tribute Accra Trane Station CD.

You've recorded in some very remote places. Do you ever feel, after listening to your tapes, that you want to return to a particular spot and try again, perhaps to do things differently?
Yes, and I did that, in Papua New Guinea. Voices in the Forest was a half-hour radio soundscape I created in 1983 for NPR. But I didn't really get to record that soundscape properly until I made the hour-long Voices of the Rainforest CD in 1991.

What did you do differently?
Based on the feedback from the earlier recordings, I used different miking techniques to record the layers of height and depth in the forest. Back in the studio, I approached editing and mixing differently because of the way the tracks were recorded. It allowed me to expand the half-hour radio piece into a 1-hour composition. As a result, Voices of the Rainforest was the first commercial CD to successfully mix local music and environmental sounds equally and survive in the "world music" marketplace.

The Time of Bells 3: Musical Bells of Accra, Ghana (VoxLox 2005).

Aside from that, Voices of the Rainforest, which was backed by Mickey Hart and published in his Rykodisc "The World" series, had the advantage of better field equipment due to his network of support: it's the first remote field use of the Dolby Bryston SR with a customized stereo Nagra recorder and spectacular custom AERCO preamps, all of which meant that the noise-floor went to zero.

Recording in such exotic places has a certain amount of adventurous glamour, but in reality, it's not for the faint of heart. What are the skills and personality traits that a person needs in order to be able to successfully survive in extreme conditions while recording?
Well, I'm an anthropologist and musician, and combined that means that first and foremost I travel as a listener. The main thing that I have learned in my years of this work is that people are impressed and will work with you if you are willing to shut up and listen.

People who come from wealthy countries and who understand the power of technology have a tendency to be arrogant and imagine that they know the answers—know what to do and how to do it. I find that it is necessary to really peel that all back, to get into the way things are locally, to let oneself be open to learning through listening, open to hearing, and imagining in new ways.

Has there ever been a time while you're recording when you thought Why am I doing this? or What the heck am I doing here?
No. I often think the other way: Why haven't I done more of this, more often, in more places? Once hooked on sound as a way of knowing the world, a way of being in the world, and once hooked on an appreciation of how much sound has mattered, and still matters in human history, the real question is (without having a clone of myself), How can I do this as much as possible before I drop?

The Time of Bells CDs, and other Steven Feld releases, are available from Earth Ear.