Crys Cole & Oren Ambarchi Hotel Record

[Black Truffle; 2017]

Styles: field recording, ambient
Others: Graham Lambkin & Jason Lescalleet, Chris Watson, Keith Rowe

“No, it is more simply as a listener that I want to sign my listening: I would like to point out, to identify, and to share such-and-such sonorous event that no one besides me, I am certain of it, has ever heard as I have.”
— Peter Szendy, Listen: A History of Our Ears

In the last two decades, the term “field recording” has been disassociated from Lomaxian ethnomusicology due to an increased attention to environmental sound — field recordings now take phenomena as diverse as Antarctic wind storms, the African Savannah, and crumpled paper as their subjects. This transformation led the British experimental music magazine The Wire to publish an apologia of sorts in 2013 for their 1998 primer on field recording. “The recordings featured in the [previous] article, however, had little to do with environmental sound,” Will Montgomery explained. “They captured non-Western musicians recorded ‘in the field’ and were released by labels with an ethnographic bent… So much has happened under the ‘field recording’ heading in the intervening period that it seems inconceivable that the tag could be used in this way now.”

The relative abruptness of this shift has left field recording largely under-theorized, but Peter Szendy has provided a theoretical toehold by authorizing the listener as a locus of interpretation. “Can one make a listening listened to?” he asks. “Can I translate my listening, unique as it is? That seems so improbable, and yet so desirable, so necessary too.” The field recordist Lawrence English used this query as a catalyst to formulate what he calls “relational listening.” Relational listening recognizes that (1) listening is a subjective experience, and (2) in order to communicate this experience, one must rely on an objective interface in the form of a microphone. A field recording is successful to the degree that the horizons of these two “ears” (organic/mechanical) overlap. The difficulty lies in making the interface listen instead of simply hear, in making it focus on specific aspects of the sonic environment and discard the rest, as we do automatically.

The all-too-common failure to recognize the subjectivity of the listener and to make the interface respond accordingly has caused much grumbling among critics. Salomé Voegelin attributes this failure to “the assumed self-evidence of those recordists who understand themselves naturally absent in the presence of recording technology.” The result is that “Some field recording is thus incredibly boring and irrelevant for all but the recordist.” Derek Walmsley concurs that “in many field recordings, you feel as if the recordist, along with their experiences and memories, has been left out of the picture.” A sure way to avoid this naive attempt at self-erasure is by recording with another person. You cannot pretend absence in the presence of another. If field recording is a form of voyeurism, surely the more interesting subject for the voyeur is the interaction between two people.

Szendy opens his book with an anecdote: he and his uncle were listening to a recording of Bartók at night, in Budapest, mingling their whispers with the sound of crickets outside. They invited his young cousin into the room, who was terrified by what, to her, must have seemed an unfathomable ritual. It was only at this point “that, addressed to another, our listening truly became ours: a sign of complicity, a work of collaboration.” Shared listenings, when directed outward, become collaborative narratives that can be interpreted from a position outside of the experience of those involved.

Crys Cole and Oren Ambarchi took this idea of shared listenings and collaborative narratives to an extreme with 2014’s Sonja Henies vei 31, for which they recorded their private interactions for public consumption. This “committed exploration of pure physical gesture,” as the press release described it, was limited to 150 copies due to its “very intimate nature.” The listener constantly negotiates the public/private divide as Cole and Ambarchi’s sexual relationship audibly unfolds and becomes implicated in their narrative by the very act of listening — and of choosing to continue listening.

For Hotel Record, the couple continues the narrative by taking other aspects of their relationship as subject matter. Through the album’s four tracks, they are variously presented as a musical duo, as bored competitors in a game of UNO, as romantic epistolary partners, and as travel companions. “Call Myself” is a long meditation for electric organ and guitar, featuring an overlay of Cole’s inarticulate mumbling — suggestive of meaning but ultimately incomprehensible. “Francis Debacle (Uno)” consists of a recording of a game of UNO processed so as to render it disorienting. Rain falls as slowed-down voices drawl across the audio field and shuffled cards splatter across the table. In “Burrata,” Cole reads romantic letters through a vocoder over a bed of 80s synths. “Pad Phet Gob,” the album’s standout track, is made up of recordings from Thailand. Rather than attempting a kaleidoscopic representation of the Thai soundscape, Cole and Ambarchi select simple repeated sounds and let them play out for minutes at a time until the track fades out with an electronic hum accompanied, once again, by Cole’s unintelligible murmuring.

If it’s true that successful field recording albums require a narrative, and that narratives arise ineluctably from interactions between people, then the narrative that Cole and Ambarchi are creating by addressing their listening to us illustrates this principle in action. With Sonja Henies vei 31, the duo courted the self-consciousness of sharing one’s listening via a dramatic confrontation of the private with the public. With Hotel Record, the subject is less explicit but no less personal: after all, what we are invited to listen to are facets of two people’s relationship, of the story that they are telling with one another. Despite the abstruse source material, this is an intimate album, and we are privileged to listen in.

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