Part of the magic of field recordings is how something can be originally performed with a specific intention and then re-contextualized as something completely different. Take this famous field recording of workers at the University of Ghana post office by James Koetting. Originally recorded in 1975, it is best described by Koetting: “These men are working, not putting on a musical show.” It may not be intended as a “musical show,” yet it is hard not to be impressed by this recording which has now even popped up on NPR’s Hearing Voices.
“Cancelled Stamps” is not really a performance and the “musicians” don’t acknowledge it as making music. It is simply a work song in a tradition too old to trace back to its origin. These four Ghanaian postal workers are doing the daily task cancelling certain documents, they’re doing their jobs, and making a song out of it surely makes that less dull. Traditionally, work songs are used throughout history and cultures to help keep everyone working in an efficient rhythm. Taken out of the context of its setting, “Cancelled Stamps” becomes a stunning piece of music. The easy, laid back melody, provided by a worker’s whistling, perfectly floats over the complex poly-rhythm of the thudding stamps while another worker’s scissors click against the established beat. People chat somewhere in the background.
In some ways this transformation into music from mundane origins brings the works of people such as Matmos to mind. On 2001’s A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel took recordings (in this case less mundane, more grisly) of various surgeries and made pop music out of them. Whether it is the warped nose-breaking techno of Matmos’ “California Rhinoplasty” or the thumping beats of “Cancelled Stamps,” the act of recording frames raw sound into a sharper focus; it makes it something far greater than its parts.