INTERVIEW: SEAWORTHY + MATT ROSNER: TOKAFI (2010)
Tobias Fischer interviews Seaworthy's Cameron Webb about his new collaboration with Matt Rösner, Two Lakes
, released on 12k.
Do birds and frogs sing differently in the city? An unusual opening to this interview with Seaworthy's Cameron Webb and befriended sound artist Matt Rösner, perhaps. Then again, it is one of the many intriguing topics, frequently revolving around questions ecology and acoustics, discussed by the artists on their Environmental Sounds blog. Some of them have even found their way to the duo's current full-length, Two Lakes. For the album, Webb and Rösner travelled to Lake Meroo and Lake Termeil, two of three adjacent estuaries along Australia's Southern coastline, to explore its fertile bushland and fragile expanses by ear. Contrary to an earlier EP, a short collection of solo works, Two Lakes represents a collaboration in the true sense of the word: After a phase of conceptualising, Webb and Rösner spent three days at the resorts together, setting up camp and then roaming its fields with their recorders. The pristine and richly detailed nature of the material they amassed over their stay would have made a perfect basis for a work of pure field recordings. Entirely naturally, however, a different and far more alluring concept suggested itself. As they'd brought some of their instruments with them, the artists decided to keep the tape running while they were improvising in their few moments of free time. Performed while still in tune with the quietude opening up in front of them, these musical movements, realised with a combination of acoustic guitar, ukulele and electronics, ended up sounding as organic as the natural environment of distant bird calls, the gentle babble of a stream and wind breathing through the trees. One could regard them as a reflection of an inner response to the breathtaking beauty surrounding them, the album representing the creative process in its most pure and undiluted form, with music flowing both from and back into nature as part of an age-old feedback system. It is an invitation to turn inward as much as it is a powerful political statement: Places like these need to be preserved in order for humanity not to forget where it came from. After all, to get back to that opening question, acoustic pollution, too, can influence our quality of life and the way we communicate. Once the din gets too loud, we may no longer be able to hear that inner voice guiding us with absolute certainty towards our true destination.
Why did you select these ecosystems in particular?
Lakes Meroo and Lake Termeil are small and surrounded by bushland within the Meroo National Park. They are created because sand dunes create a barrier to the ocean. Occasionally the lakes are open to full exchange with the ocean and at those times and ecology of the lakes can change dramatically. To us, they symbolized the fragility of the coastal environmental of Australia. The relatively narrow barriers of sand hold back the ocean on one side, yet on the other they have to deal will pollution and other pressures from a growing human population. While the two lakes around which this album was recorded are relatively safe and protected by the national park, other similar systems in coastal Australia are under threat, both from seas-level rise and urbanization.
Both Matt and myself spent much of our youth in close contact with the ocean, albeit on different sides of Australia, myself on the south coast of NSW and Matt in Western Australia. These coastal regions certainly hold a great deal of fond memories and I have no doubt that the connection brought a certain degree of nostalgia to the recordings.
What’s the appeal of recording at solitary spaces compared to performing field recordings in an urban environment, where sounds will at first seem more pronounced and “interesting”?
Firstly, I think there are just as many “interesting” sounds in a quiet setting compared to and busier environment. But as far as Seaworthy’s music is concerned, there is certainly a stronger pull towards the quieter, introspective environments. I think a quieter space allows greater concentration on some of the more subtle elements of recordings, whether they be field recordings or performance pieces. Matt’s previous works have also focused on space, taking a more subtle approach and giving individual sounds room to move within the mix.
The press release mentions that part of the intention was “to build from those sounds unique musical pieces that provide a place for listener contemplation and reflection” Does that mean you weren’t really interested in a precise documentation but rather in emotional factors?
I definitely think it was a case of touching on both of those aspects of the recording and composition process. We didn’t want to produce an album of pure field recordings, or at least of what may be obvious field recordings. I think a certain level of emotion informs the way in which the field recordings were made, both from the perspective of what you choose to record and how the recording is made. To give you an example, if there was a group of wading birds calling from the edge of the lake, you could easily aim to get the clearest, most representative recording of the noises they were making. But sometimes what can really spark my attention is not just the sound of their calls but the sound of their calls filtered through a thick bed of reeds at the edge of the lake or with a microphone half buried beneath leaf litter. Those choices are as much made by the emotion on any given day as the specific technical requirements that may be required to provide an accurate documentation of the sounds.
Or by trying to avoid new-age-clichés.
I suspect we would probably both be richer men if we set out to make “new age” music specifically target the high end day spa market! On a serious note, it was something we were keen to avoid but there were very few instances that I can think of during the construction of the album where this was ever a serious concern. There were times when we pulled back from combining too much instrumentation with the field recordings but that was as much to give fair breathing space to some of the recordings that deserved not to be too cluttered with other sounds in the final mix rather than avoid any specific clichés.
What was the field recording process like?
Fun, productive, enjoyable and memorable. I get very few opportunities to spend a few days simply recording as much of my field recordings are made when I’m in wetlands doing other work or squeezed in between other work.
Matt is also busy with a full time job, so in a way the field recordings were as much a few days break for us both as a recording session.
We had no concrete plans for the releasing the record when we started out, so there was no pressure to use the three days to complete the entire record and get it released in the public domain.
Was there a lot of discussion about what to record?
There were some rough ideas but nothing specific. We had a list of ideas but apart from talking about it on the drive down the coast, I don’t think that list was ever referred to again once we started. I always find that the process of recording can inspire and inform additional recordings so once we got started there were always things that we wanted to rerecord, or go back to a similar location at a different time of day or when it was windy or calm or any number of other variations on a theme. Sometimes a small incidental sound recorded that you don’t notice until listening back makes you want to go back and try to capture more samples of the same or something similar.
Did you feel that even in their unprocessed form, the field recordings already represented some of the aspects you wanted to convey?
In the majority of cases, the original field recordings were not heavily processed, in fact, almost all field recordings on the album received very little processing, if any. I think there is a sense of loneliness and melancholy in many of the recordings. We’d like to think its not a depressed loneliness or melancholy, but consider it more of a listening space for solitude and reflection.
Why did you come up with the idea of adding music to the field recordings at all?
While I think we could have put together an album of pure field recordings or of processed field recordings, but one of the things we wanted to achieve was a representative sample of both artist’s technique. For Seaworthy, that included a strong element of interaction between the field samples and instrumentation. In the past Matt has also focused on the idea of combining instruments with field recordings, but with perhaps a greater degree of processing than is evident in the Seaworthy sound.
The sound of the field recordings and instruments also give the album a certain narrative. We wanted the record to be a piece that you could sit down and listen to from start to finish, moving through certain scenes or movements.
How important was it that the rough mixes of the tracks were already created on the spot?
From a practical perspective, having both artists in the same place, rather than opposite sides of the country, meant that making sure rough mixes were done together was important. There is always a risk that once you walk away from the initial recording location, your perspective can change. Sometimes this can be a good thing to allow a fresh perspective on recordings, but in this instance, we really wanted to keep the connection to place for as long as possible in the construction of the album. While much is made of online collaboration between artists these days, there is no doubting that real life face to face collaboration can be a much more effective process.
You’ve created a website to support the “ongoing dialogue” between you. What kind of issues are you still debating on the subject?
We are talking about doing another field recording trip next year to another ecosystem under threat. Though no concrete plans have been made yet, we may focus on an inland area or perhaps a mountain range. We are also mindful that there are many localized environments and soundscapes under threat, either through climate change, urban development or other environmental, climatic or human factors. In the meantime we will be making field recordings as individuals during our travels across Australia. These recordings will be available on our environmental sounds blog.
In how much can the website and the album replace the physical sensation of actually venturing to the lakes in person?
If the record motivates listeners to visit coastal ecosystems than that’s a good thing provided they treat these areas with the respect they deserve. Hopefully it focus the listeners attention on the plight of Australia’s coastal ecosystems. Our population is increasing rapidly placing our coasts under threat from population and urbanization, and adding sea level rise to this scenario it doesn’t look too good for the future.
When travelling to these coastal areas, you get the visual aspect of the experience as well. Obviously the CD medium doesn’t capture these visual aspects. That’s why we took lots of photos during the field recordings trips to document small things like morning light through reeds, water flowing against a rock shelf or swarming insects.
Is acoustical ecology still undervalued in comparison to environmental ecology?
I’m not sure that it is undervalued, but I think it is often more difficult for acoustical ecology to have an impact on increasing awareness of particular ecosystems. Humans are very visual animals, so at times a single image can portray the fragility or beauty of the location better than sound. Relaying the complexities and subtleties of the local ecosystem is a very hard task, and perhaps if we concentrated on the visual and also acoustic aspects on a fragile place we might go further in highlighting the importance of ecology.
By Tobias Fischer
It's Humbling When Two Saints Meet
(Steady Cam) 2001
Map In Hand
Live In Melbourne
/ w. Solo Andata & Taylor Deupree (12k) 2008
Near And Faraway
/ w. Fabio Orsi (Low Point) 2009
/ w. Matt Rösner (12k) 2010
Matt Rösner Discography:
/ w. Seaworthy (12k) 2010
Environmental Sounds Blog