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An Omnivorous Ear: The Creative Practice of Field Recording



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Lyonblum, Ely Zachary Small 


“An Omnivorous Ear - The Creative Practice of Field Recording” offers new insights into the history of recording outside of the studio in North America, challenging the various working definitions of field recording in music studies, anthropology, and communications. I examine recording methodologies through the late 19th and 20th centuries as a documentary technique, a tool for composition, and an art object in the United States of America and Canada from the late 19th century to the present day. Within this geographical region, I focus on the invention of acoustic recording, the proliferation of the technology amongst the public, folkloric recording supported by governmental and academic institutions, as well a experimental artistic practices. Throughout the dissertation, I argue that ‘the field’ is a social construction mediated by the recordist and recorder. Chapter 2 focuses on how cultures translate collective and phenomenological experiences into histories through sound media. These include orality, writing, the inscription of sound waves onto media, acoustic recording, and radio as forms of sound media that each embodies distinct forms of social and political knowledge. Chapter 3 details the development of recording machines and their effect on listening practices. Chapter 4 locates practitioners of phonography within the development of portable recording equipment on the one hand and the ‘hi-fi’ cultural movement in North America on the other. Practitioners included folklorists Alan Lomax from the Library of Congress, Moses Asch of Folkways Records, and Harry Smith, creator of the Anthology of American Folk Music; Stefan Kudelski, creator of the NAGRA recorder; and media maker Tony Schwartz, among the first to create the sound documentary by editing field recordings. Chapter 5 explores the relationship between sound, music and the environment within the paradigm of the soundscape as theorized by the World Soundscape Project (WSP). I critique the research and compositional practices developed by WSP members, and the influence it has on ecomusicology and sound art. Chapter 6 outlines sonic ethnography, a methodology that borrows from the best practices of many of the individuals mentioned throughout the dissertation, and employs new compositional techniques to condense and manipulate social, political and historical narratives through sonic works. The dissertation concludes by arguing that field recording, can be used to critique aesthetic and cultural dilemmas of representation.




Cook, Nicholas


sound studies, field recording, ethnomusicology, documentary, sound art, media studies


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge Overseas Trust