I got everything I wanted from my trip to New Zealand. The more abstract side of the wish list included temporary outsider status, sweeping contextual shift and the feeling of displacement for which I thirst. The less abstract included hours upon hours of field recordings, made with my trusty Zoom H4n. (Beyond a few postcards, I desired no higher a climb up the ladder of souvenir tangibility.)
Spurning a compulsion to cut all this material into a coherent whole the moment I returned home — and, quite frankly, not feeling like taking on that kind of work so soon after re-entry — I decided I'd first need some distance from the journey itself. I wanted to approach the recordings as, if not pure sound, then at least as something purer than sonic detritus of the last few weeks. Not knowing how long I'd take to cross this threshold or what it would feel like when I did, I simply waited about six weeks.
I figured I'd arrange for chronology and cut for aesthetics and interestingness, which still left me much freedom in the details — almost too much. Would I line the recordings right up against one another? Would I keep them discrete? Would I attempt to blend them seamlessly into a single sonic mass? Would the transitions affect realism, or would I cut from location to location without trying to construct plausible movement?
Any ideas I had about making the piece sound like a totally faithful, if compressed, journey from Los Angeles to Auckland to Wellington to Invercargill and back quickly went out the window, as (a) I had neglected to record in every location, (b) I soon determined that the listener wouldn't be able to identify what all the sounds were and (c) I myself couldn't identify what all the sounds were. The six-week distance at work!
This, of course, matters not; as enthusiasts of the genre know, field recordings are no more mere aural documents of people, places and things than cinema is a mere audiovisual document of human relationships. When Lee Patterson burns peanuts, does his audience care that they're getting the most realistic, recognizable representation of the sound of burning peanuts? Nah. They care that Patterson has recorded sound that's interesting; neat as his choice of source can be, it's merely incidental.
But given sound as my media of choice for this project, I resigned myself to living with its complications. Being a fervent adherent of the "do whatever you can and then iterate" method of making stuff — also known as "suck, then rock" — my other resignation was to winding up with maerial that, given my inexperience with mobile, handheld recording in unpredictable outdoor environs, probably wouldn't sound especially good. I'm into field recordings, but it's not like I know anything about them — I just unsystematically stuck the mics in the way of whichever air compressions seemed richest.
Finally donning the headphones to assess the damage, I found that — shock, awe — my recordings sounded pretty decent! I mean, I'm not about to give Lawrence English a run for his money, but I definitely produced enough to work with. Some, especially what I recorded in the Auckland Art Gallery, sounded almost, to my ears, almost like "real" field recordings. Alas, I had slightly too little city (especially Wellington) stuff and slightly too much animal-and-forest stuff, perhaps, but what can one do — New Zealand's an animal-and-forest kind of place.
I can already tell that my greatest enemy in this larger endeavor will be Old Man Wind. I had a hunch this would become a problem even as I recorded, putting into effect my emergency "stand between the gust and the mic" deflection method. Despite my valiance, the wind's dreaded staticy booming still tainted several of my clips, but I feel I must have learned some important editing skill in my desperate attempts to seamlessly excise the distortion. Or maybe I just need better shielding than the sock that came with the H4n.
And jeez, I can't even really articulate to you how I handled the issue of, having selected the precise in- and out points all the clips, how best to transition them into and out of one another. The process bordered on voodoo, but I can't say the result is alien. When I finished a "rough draft" with everything lined up and rudimentarily transitioned, I made like I was writing an essay: I went back, re-listened and re-listened and tweaked everything that didn't feel right until it did. In this process, and only in this process, did I learn the qualities of more "correct"-sounding transitions: bringing the second clip up to full folume before fading out the first, that sort of thing. (Naturally, this rule and others go out the window in certain special artistic sub-cases, of which there are dispiritingly many.)
But here it is, New Zealand Stories, mixed down and 192k MP3-ified for your listening pleasure. (Right-click the link and do all that "Save as..." business to save it on your hard drive.) Some notable memories it triggers in my mind include:
- 7:25 The Auckland Domain a biggish park in the very city you'd expect, and one of the several near-silent environments from which I somehow expected much recording material. I was surprised at its near-desertedness — save the presence of that giant protractor — but then I realized it was like 10am on a Monday. Quick, blame jet lag.
- 10:35 Yes, there is Māori-language media, which I insisted on watching. (There's also lots of Germany-centric TV, for some reason, maybe to cater to the hojillions of tourists from there.)
- 11:45 I didn't quite capture enough city sounds, but here are some I did. Recorded in some Auckland alleyway not far from Queen street where the East Asian restaurants flowed freely.
- 12:55 As soon as I head the Auckland Art Gallery's floor, I knew I had to have it. (The second-grade tour group was a bonus.)
- 20:16 The tone of Auckland's crossing signals emerged as an equal priority.
- 21:00 Located in what Kiwis believe to be the worst city in the land, Hamilton Gardens was quite possible the aesthetically nicest surprise of the trip. Most of that was visual aesthetics, of course, but nothing stops me from recording.
- 22:00 There were surprisingly few non-English speakers around — here are a couple.
- 23:00 I don't even know what song this is, but it's intruded on my life for at least a decade now. (In New Zealand specifically, my life was intruded-on by Cascada's "Evacuate the Dancefloor", which is big in Wellington clubs.)
- 27:08 A local dad unsuccessfully tries to point his kids toward a kiwi bird, which, like the rest of its species, spends 100 percent of its time digging for food.
- 31:35 Though most of New Zealand's children seem eminently non-precocious, I felt as if these two were, in some manner, precocious.
- 32:16 These are "kakas," birds that sidle up and bite your shirt. (They bite mine, in any case.)
- 37:00 This machine, which I can't even begin to describe, produced what was likely my favorite man-made sound to capture.
- 41:09 This is Fuel, quite possibly the finest 60s organ-jazz coffee bar in the entire Wellington airport. (They brought out my tea in a pink service, which I chose to take deeply personally.)
- 46:23 My only recording yet made while kayaking, or, if you prefer, while desperately struggling to keep my recorder from falling in the water.
- 47:43 As pure sound sources, I loves me some malfunctioning radios. (Especially if they're in the Dundedin Public Art Gallery, a neat place where I spent much time.)