Notes on Sightseer

Sightseer was released in 2014 on Organised Music from Thessaloniki. I’ve had cause to revisit the creation of the record these last few months – particularly the second and fifth tracks – as they directly relate to a commission I’m working on for the Arnolfini (‘Triangular Trade’, set to premier on Friday 18th March 2016). Sightseer is still occasionally finding receptive ears, and I’d urge you to read no further if you haven’t already heard the album. It is what it is, and the following may be of no help whatsoever. For those who remain, the original release notes are copied in below, followed by my track-by-track partial exposition.

Seth, January 2016

DIGITAL REISSUE OUT NOW: Sightseer is now available for download from Organised Music from Thessaloniki.

Sightseer – No recording, recording, field recording and no-input field recording – 3 inch CDr release from Organised Music from Thessaloniki

“Terrorists travel with only one thing in mind, just like the tourist, and the specifics of places escape them both.”
Andrei Codrescu, The Tourist, 1990

Bell: “You can’t take my photograph.”
Charlton: “Oh, I’m sorry, you believe it will take your spirit away.”
Bell: “No, you’ve got the lens cap on.”
Crocodile Dundee, 1986

No-input field recording & stereophony, impressions & obliviations, appropriations & trespasses, bleed & starve.

1. Travellers’ Checks (sic)
2. Cape Coast Seashell Bowed on Minster-on-Sea Shore
3. Window Shopping
4. Weekend Soul Retrieval Workshop
5. Santa Barbara Christian Field Recording Association
6. Fake Tan
7. Self-Catering / Package Tour
8. Hotel for November
9. If You Only Listen to One FLAC This Year…


3 inch CDr edition, 100 copies – purchase direct from Organised Music from Thessaloniki

Review on Freq
Review on Vital Weekly
Review on We Need No Swords
Review on Vinylmine
Review on Fluid Radio
Review on Just Outside

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Travellers’ Checks (sic)

Sightseer’s first track was originally supposed to be one second long, but Kostis and I came up against the minimum track duration specified by the medium’s Red Book standard. I decided to leave three seconds of digital silence to address this format limitation. Track duration is a key element of Sightseer. My choices were informed by two distance collaborations, one aborted, one all but aborted, with partners who were inflexible about duration – as though they were themselves creating according to some kind of perceived standard regarding how long a release ought to be, perhaps because they felt that a running time of over fifty minutes was some kind of statement of merit in and of itself. Away from these specific collaborations, I often wonder whether the default approach of many field recordists – to present their work unedited and untreated, frequently over long durations – represents an abdication of choice rather than the option that most suits the material.

Sightseer owes some of its conceptual material and the accompanying Codrescu and Crocodile Dundee quotes to the aborted collaboration that I refer to above – a rescue effort on my part to try to redeem the project, about which I felt that we were all tourists in each others’ methodologies. I’ll keep my own counsel regarding the second collaboration.

Cape Coast Seashell Bowed on Minster-on-Sea Shore

The front cover of Sightseer was chosen for its resemblance to a Mediterranean holiday villa. It’s actually Cape Coast Castle, a slave trade fort situated approximately two-and-a-half hours drive from my father-in-law’s house in Pokuase, Ghana. At the time of recording my family had two main bases; one in Pokuase, one in Minster-on-Sea on the Isle of Sheppey. The recording was made on a freezing January morning, the climate far from equatorial.

The seashell in question was sold to me by Michael, an excellent salesman who waited three hours while I toured the castle in order to hand it to me, a personalised message carefully written across it in blue permanent marker pen. My wife and father-in-law were gentle and even-handed when they told me off for enabling his behaviour. I’m happy to laugh at myself on that score – the classic white middle class male, ashamed at my barely examined privilege, afflicted with ancestral guilt, stumblebumming my way around a world I don’t understand.

Window Shopping

5am, Cabot Circus Shopping Centre, Bristol. Displays gorging on electricity, shutters down, no commitment to purchase. The North and East sides of Cabot Circus resemble a fortress; on the South and West sides it fades into Broadmead; you don’t realise that you’re approaching a cliff face when you’re moving West to East on the inside. Pedestrians can walk through unimpeded out-of-hours despite signs and security reminding you that it’s very private property. When Cabot Circus is quiet you can hear the arcing glass panels of the roof acting as a kind of whispering gallery. Its gaudy Christmas decorations used to resemble Deku Babas, making it feel like the Capitalist Temple from a dystopian version of The Legend of Zelda.

Window Shopping is the second track that I’ve made in Cabot Circus at 5am. The first was an instantiation of Sarah Hughes’ Architectural Model Making that was released on the Another Timbre website in 2014.

Weekend Soul Retrieval Workshop

I spent some time in my early twenties trying to find any kind of pre-existing framework that might serve to contextualise some unusual experiences I’d been having. These Adventures in Multiple Description led, at one point, as they often do, to experimenting with techniques appropriated from shamans by anthropologist-gone-native-gone-corporate-retreat-salesman-and-motivational-speaker Michael Harner. Through two subsequent certifications in Neuro-Linguistic Programming I became acutely aware of the the vampiricism of appropriative practices. I sometimes detect a sense of this in the Cageian listening techniques that approach all sound as music.

Soul Retrieval, as framed by Harnerite Sandra Ingerman, is a technique in which the shaman journeys to the spirit realm in order to retrieve one of their client’s souls, or a fragmented part of their soul, in order to return and restore it. There are parallels with the psychotherapeutic practices of Fritz Perls and Virgina Satir, from whom the Parts Integration techniques in NLP were modelled and adapted. In anthropological accounts of shamans, the anecdotes that inspired Harner and Ingerman are fraught with danger for the magician, often involving scary stories of sorcerous derring-do from shamans who bargain, dissemble and threaten spirits on their way to locating and releasing the client’s soul, alongside stated risks to life, heath or mental health throughout the journey to the Otherworld. It’s not something you teach to people on their gap year, and I’ll leave it to you to draw any potential connections to field recording workshops. Weekend Soul Retrieval Workshop, like most of the tracks on Sightseer, was made using a simple cross-fade between the inner and outer worlds of my recording device.

Santa Barbara Christian Field Recording Association

I invented the SBCFRA at my dad’s sixtieth birthday party on Hendry’s Beach in Santa Barbara. I was explaining my recording practices to dad’s Charismatic Christian friends, three of whom were former session musicians with over a hundred years’ worth of recording experience between them. Within ten minutes of the conversation concluding I waded into the sea with my recorder, coming back with the raw materials that made this track. Everything here is in waves; the external sound captured via the built-in mics; the peculiar internal feedback patterns in the recorder’s noise floor; the pattern of edits; and the added saw tooth waves. If the cliché is to complement field recording with sine waves then you have to complement no-input field recording with saw tooth or square waves.

The hapless phonographers who make up the Santa Barbara Christian Field Recording Association are currently feuding in a denominational split between those who seek to record the Glory of God in His Creation versus those who are intent on capturing His Shekinah Glory as He fills the Tabernacle. While I spent a while toying with the idea of releasing a compilation album documenting the work of the collective, in the end I decided that Talibam! are a cautionary tale.

Fake Tan & Self-Catering / Package Tour

No-input field recording often seems almost completely arbitrary. On occasion you can detect traces of the world outside the recorder, probably as a result of poorly conceived preamps, but it’s certainly far from reliable. Just when I’d settled on battery drain as the source of some of the phenomena, the recorder replicated similar results when plugged into the mains. Some of the results sound like feedback processes, some I can’t explain at all. Fake Tan is the sound of the empty channels of the recorder doing exactly the same thing in three completely different environmental contexts – different climates, different sounds, different battery states, different settings. The entire sounding universe crushed into a black box of indifference. Self-Catering / Package Tour uses cross-fading to highlight the phasing effect that sometimes occurs when you can hear the outside world in the empty channels. At the time of writing, having created and listened to hundreds of hours of insensible wav files, many of which are indistinguishable, I’m ambivalent about the relationship between the worlds inside and outside the recorder. That single block of sound can stand for all places for all I care.

No-input field recordings are made in the field but not of the field, the sound of the empty channels of the recording device. Subject to framing, the results can say as much about a location as any number of artfully placed microphones. And regarding terminology, an output plugged into an input is still an input.

Hotel for November

The British are fond of their overseas holidays when the weather turns cold. Hotel for November was recorded in the long grass outside [TEXT REDACTED], a location closely associated with the phonetic alphabet and a quintessential example of Robert Smithson’s notion of the non-site. The track title is also the model name of the device that I use for almost everything I do, whether it’s no-input field recording, field recording, resonating feedback through objects, documenting concerts and improvisation, building studio compositions or for performances of purely electronic feedback. The Zoom H4n, perhaps more than any other recorder, is associated with the boom in amateur field recording, despised by professionals, cheap as chips and shoddily built, accompanying thousands of tourists on thousands of journeys, a device with a lot to answer for.

If You Only Listen to One FLAC This Year…

This is an out-take from the recording sessions for Twelve Tapes (to be released in 2016 on Every Contact Leaves a Trace). It was recorded in the Millenium Square car park in Bristol. Twelve Tapes explores the beat phenomena that occur when recordings of identical sine waves played into underground, enclosed or multi-storey car parks are put to tape and then overlaid. The original version of the composition failed because we were too free with our instructions to the participants who created the recordings. You couldn’t hear the intended effect because we hadn’t done enough to restrict the scope. When asked why we were scrapping everyone’s original contributions and starting again, either me or Dan Bennett (I forget which of us. Probably him) responded that if we were to retain the failed draft we may as well retitle the piece “Twelve FLACs.” So we’re ending where we began, with lessons learned from failed collaborations.

Lastly – ‘Sightseer’. Alongside the tourism and scrying connotations, it’s also the wrong representational system.

Cape Coast Seashell

Sightseer - Seth Cooke