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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Synthetic Environments

Recordings of contemplative imaginary spaces.

The natural rhythms of the world around us often serve the composer of electronic music. Instead of turning to the beats and structure of the man-made world, they draw inspiration from the rhythms and sound patterns found in nature. The composer can create a piece based on such rhythms. In this creation, they make synthetic environments.

My friend Richard Carlin once worked for Folkways records. He wrote a book about this idiosyncratic record company called Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways (2008) and turned me on to the first recording heard in this episode. It was an excerpt from Rainy Season, created back in 1952. It was from the album Sounds of a Tropical Rain Forest in America released on Folkways Records. There is a terrific story behind why this recording is not merely a field recording but rather a sound collage as unique as any experimental tape composition.

In 1951, Moses Asch, the head of Folkways Records, was asked by the American Museum of Natural History to create a sound collage for an upcoming exhibit of artifacts from eight tribes of indigenous peoples from the Amazon rainforest. Being a resident of Brooklyn, and having no budget to travel to the Amazon, Asch used the newly available technology of the magnetic tape recorder to capture natural sounds locally and mixed them together to simulate the jungle experience. The work was not at all haphazard. They consulted with the director of the Bronx Zoo to ascertain what kinds of animals would be found in the Amazon. They recorded some of these animals at the zoo and also had access to a limited number of creature recordings made in the Amazon by a Cornell university team. Then there were the environmental sounds that were needed to knit it all together. Asch reportedly recorded the sound of his bath shower to simulate the rainstorm heard on this recording. So it was that this mashup of sounds was completed and the exhibit opened. An article appeared in the New York Times about the exhibit, stating: "The crickets were recorded on an 18-hour field trip in Connecticut. Mr. Asch was careful to get day and night sounds. He had been warned that crickets stridulation picks up after sundown. Mr. Asch thought no one would ever guess he had anything but a Peruvian jungle cricket on the record, but he was wrong. First time the thing was played, a museum visitor told a man beside him, 'That’s a Yankee cricket they’ve got there.' Turned out he’d made a life study of crickets everywhere and could spot an accent. Mr. Asch was days getting over the shock, but the Yankee cricket’s still in the recording.”

The tracks in this episode were, in order:

  1. Rainy Season (1952) from Sounds of a Tropical Rain Forest (Folkways).

  2. Im Westen Nicht Neues A Side ( from 2013). By Ian Anüll / Luigi Archetti / Lux Lindner (Ultimate Records, Switzerland). We heard two tracks, both excerpts. The first consisted of edited field recordings of crickets, the second of electronic chirps.

  3. The Sea by Brad Miller was from 1975. From the album Nature’s Mystic Moods: The Sounds of the Storm and the Sea. It, too, was an excerpt and consisted of edited field recordings.

  4. Fish Wrap (1989) by Bernie Krause was from 1989. This was released on a charity EP Jungle Shoes and consisted of edited field recordings of animals and their environment.

  5. World Rhythms by Annea Lockwood was from 1975 and can be found on the album New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media. It consisted of edited field recordings and gong.

  6. Tintinnabulation (contemplative sound) by Syntonic Research from 1970. From the album Environments 2. The gong-like sounds heard here were computer synthesized. One was instructed to play it at all three phonographic speeds, 45, 33, to 78 rpms. I played the track at 45 RPM.

  7. Sonic Landscapes No. 3 (the 1977 revision version) by Barry Truax. From the album Sonic Landscapes: Electronic and Computer Music. This was an excerpt. The music was described as “A spatial environment for four computer synthesized soundtracks.”

  8. Back Porch by Christina Vantzou is from 2020 and produced in Belgium. This track is from the album Multi Natural and consists of ambient and electronic music with instrumentalists.

The Archive Mix included two additional tracks played at the same time, to see what happens.

  • Appalachian Grove I by Laurie Spiegel from 1974. This is also from the album New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media. It consists of Computer synthesized sound.

  • Jungle Shoes (original edit) by Bernie Krause is from 1989. This is another track from the EP Jungle Shoes and consists of edited field recordings of animals and their environment.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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