Migration between Nature and Listening – Jez riley French

The Land Lines website is delighted to showcase a variety of exciting audio work with you over the month of November! As part of the Tracks, Traces and Trails: Nature Revealed project, we have a brilliant range of soundscapes and audio recordings from both new and established sound artists, which explore new ways of listening to and connecting with our environment and the nonhuman life that we share it with.

The act of listening, and field recording (in its widest sense), has the potential to question, reveal, expand our understanding and experience of locales and situations.  Yet, all too often we restrict and constrain it by the borders between human and non human. By our seemingly automatic ability to impose ourselves onto them and to listen  in ways that force them to conform to our expectations, enacting ideas about ‘nature’,  connection and technology that largely ensure our ability to feel comfortable, skilled  and in control; acts of colonisation and perceived dominance.  

Nature of course is a human construct, still based largely around 17th / 18th century ruling class ideas of the idyll or the exotic. It is only our worldview that is built around  perceptual control in order to give us the apparent luxury of passivity. For all other species their environments are battle grounds, fighting for territory, scraps of nutrition, survival. As art and science coalesce and conversations widen around the arts and the environment, creativity, and climate impact, we – as artists – need to go beyond the comfortable, beyond the mainstream thinking around the non-human. Importantly, we need to put aside the divide between human and non-human; them and us. We are nature: one species amongst many. For me, this means that when I listen to a building resonating, I am listening to nature just as much as I am when I listen to aquatic insects in a stream, or ants eating fallen fruit.  


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I came to field recording not through an interest in conventional nature studies, and  specifically not within a pacified version of it, but through the act of listening within  largely urban or liminal environments. I wasn’t drawn automatically to certain natural sounds over others; to those of birds singing and trees swaying in the breeze. Instead, I  wanted to listen to all the other layers of sound, beneath and within all places and objects, and to all sounds without easy judgement or definition. From the capillaries of trees…  

…to the ultrasonics of insects in amongst their roots…  

… to the forces that shape the earth itself.  

(Headphones needed)  


Fumeroles, Iceland (Photo by Author)

If we consider the act of field recording itself, whilst it might be an obvious process to learn the technology and obtain ‘good’ or ‘clean’ recordings, there comes an important point (or at least I believe there should) where one understands that listening, and creating work that communicates to one’s audience, is not a process dependent on rigid or conventional approaches to technology. Letting go of such ideas around skill, and our reliance of preconceived conventions is essential. ‘Good’ is only valid as one personal decision amongst many, arrived at not through rules or the transfer of studio recording values to other situations, but through the personal connection to place, material, and process. A technically ‘clean’ recording won’t automatically result in an immersive listening experience for an audience, or indeed for oneself after the fact. Nor will concentrating primarily on the technology when in situ help you respond or, better still, abandon yourself to the locale. 

Invent Nature, Sweden (Photo by Author)

An example of this could be the issue of traffic noise, roads, planes, and trains – the audible smears of human across environments – and how many listeners / artists / recordists automatically think about how such sounds “get in the way”, or should be edited out of recordings. The thing is those sounds are part of the reality of that environment, as much as those we arrive wanting to hear. They are species sound. If we remove them, we aren’t presenting a trace of a reality but a sanitised, pacified, controlled ‘other’, and a  denial of our impact. Presenting such places without the human can highlight what is  being lost, but it is the automatic filtering of wanted and unwanted sound that often  sidetracks the act of listening itself. That can, and I would argue has already, allowed us to spiral back to a rather cliched idea of the majesty of nature. Of course, when it comes to art-based practice, this is what artists have always done: they render their subject with their own hand, control it, and shape it. However, often when we talk about the  technological process of making or editing ‘clean’ recordings, we aren’t talking about  the creative process arrived at over time and engagement with listening and recording. Instead, we are talking about an imposed set of rules and ideas that actually often take us further away from that intuitive balance between presence, interpretation and representation. Whether we are interested in technological processes or ambivalent to them is not a defining factor in transmitting a connection to place, or understanding environmental change.  

City Species, Oslo (Photo by Author)

A recording by my daughter, the artist Pheobe riley Law, highlights how we must remain open to chance, to not being in control. Pheobe was recording a fence during one of the murmuration field trips we curate, and whilst untangling the cables of her contact microphones they fell to the ground. As she still had them connected and her headphones on she was able to hear that they had come to rest on blades of grass where two castor bean ticks were actively communicating. Not only was this an insight into another species-world, but after sending to to the British Library we found that it is the first ever recording of this species.

Given that we are talking about something that is democratic and available to all – listening and, increasingly, recording technologies for use in the field – we have to be careful to note that there are differences between the use of such processes in art  practices and in more general settings. For the artist, this can be a tricky balance but,  importantly, it is one that often isn’t given enough time and consideration. As artists we  have a duty not merely to ‘paint by numbers’ but to push and pull at the techniques, the  concepts and the material: to dig deeper, and not take the easy option.  

For me, one essential aspect to my connection to listening, and recording, is duration. I  firmly believe one has to allow time for environments and situations to impose  themselves on us, rather than the other way round. To let go, to forget all the ideas we  arrive with. To be intuitive and for that to be, at least, a relationship to the momentary  reality.  


(Headphones needed)  

full hour:  

(Headphones needed)  

What do I mean by duration? Well, I certainly remember that when I started located listening and recording in my teens, ten minutes would have seemed long. We are, after all, a species that has culturally shortened our attention span so that impact replaces complexity. During workshops, especially with those new to field recording or located listening, it is often hard for people to stand or sit totally still and quiet for more than 2 or 3 minutes at first, but once we give ourselves permission, and the time, most of us find ourselves drawn in to the immense sounding world around us. It is, in my opinion, a massive mistake to then separate sounds into pre-determined categories of value. Why engage with listening only to then build in pre-determined filters again?

Duration means hours immersed in listening to a single place, object or situation.  Sometimes it also means durational listening over the course of years and, in the current  context, the perception of what is or might be changing in ways that seem to be  accelerated. Or, rather, thinking about the idea of change and whether during  lockdown, for example, we have used that word correctly. We think we hear change  because we are hearing something in a different way; with less traffic perhaps or  because we take the time to listen. Some species might indeed have shifted their  behaviours slightly in response to changes in human activity but, in their time scales,  these are microscopic events. Put another way every species is constantly shifting and  changing in ways our species stopped noticing millennia ago. The differences we  discuss now are really our attempt to feel connected to the natural world, but of course  from within human structures and definitions of time, change and nature itself. Listening  to other species now, in the time of covid, shouldn’t only be about how it can help us to  cope but a hard reminder that it is our obsession with ‘them and us’ thinking and the  ease of such definitions that means we are unlikely to rebalance our relationship with the  planet unless we also rebalance our objectification of it.  

This leads back, in a kind of quantum-listening loop, to why I am so fascinated with  sounds outside of our normal hearing range or focus – sounds that we can’t hear with our  naked ears. It’s complicated however, because in order to hear them one has to use  technology.  

(On a personal note, I oppose audio cultures that colonise technology; the gendered aspects and the obsession with kit over material). 

So, if I listen to the sound of cod grunting in a bay in Iceland… 

or a glacier dissolving on the opposite coast…

Glacial Lake, Iceland (Photo by Author)

…I recognise that I am listening through the technology, but also that I have to find a careful balance between it being useful and becoming too focused on it. In short, I have to remain intuitive, and not act like an engineer following an instruction manual. 

I can say that almost all of the listening experiences and the recordings I have made – the ones that have been significant in how my work has shifted, or have caused my thinking and research to deepen – have been either accidental, by chance, or because I have done things with technology that are contrary to ‘the rules’ (so to speak). On the other hand, there is perhaps even greater need now to use sound to map patterns across environments. Personally, it is important for me to approach such things with caution and with more questions around how we, as a species, always revert to our own set of patterns around the acquisition and definition of knowledge. Having said that, there is important work now that uses sound to dig deeper into the myriad interactions between species. This offers new possibilities for science and for artists – if we step away from our seemingly automatic obsession with borders.

Urban Plants (Photo by Author)

Perhaps a recent programme on BBC Radio 4 serves as an example of how problematic human structures around power and position can waste opportunities, even when it appears that they are being used for good, for the benefit of other species. In brief, this programme highlighted how one man was connected to an album of whale song, despite the fact that most of the recordings it contained were not made by him but by a female researcher (to whom he was married at the time) and by another male academic. The programme wasted the opportunity to let the audience know that whilst the album did become significant in terms of the public understanding of whales, and indeed to the environmental movement in general, it did so on the back of a long, strong tradition of women ichthyologists. Women have always led the way in the study of aquatic environments, and there is only one purpose served by not acknowledging that – and it’s not a positive one.

Listen. Such a simple word, such a seemingly simple act. Yet how often we fail. How often we listen not to what is there but to what we like to believe is there. It’s almost much, much more than we can even comprehend.  

About the Author

Jez riley French (Photo by Pheobe riley Law)

Focusing extensively on sound as both material and subject, JrF’s work over the past four  decades has involved installation, intuitive composition, scores, film and photography.  

Alongside performances and exhibitions, Jez lectures and run workshops in various  countries on field recording / located sound as an art form and has also developed a range of specialist microphones widely used by recordists, sound artists, musicians, sound designers and cultural organisations. He also works as a curator of live events, of a record label, of sound installations and an arts zine ‘verdure engraved’.  

In recent years he has been working extensively on long form recordings of surfaces,  spaces and situations and developing the concept of photographic scores and ‘scores for listening’.  

Aspects of his work have been exhibited or performed in events and installations  alongside that of Yoko Ono, Pauline Oliveros, Jana Winderen, Chris Watson, Alvin Lucier,  Annea Lockwood, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Éliane Radigue, Hildegard Westerkamp, Stars of  the Lid, Jeremy Deller, Sarah Lucas, Signe Liden etc, at galleries including The Whitworth  Gallery (Manchester), Tate Modern and Tate Britain, MOT – Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (Japan), Artisphere (USA). During 2017 he was commissioned by the UK’s City of Culture, Hull 2017, to deliver or be involved in several key projects including Height of the  Reeds and North Atlantic Flux.  

Currently Jez is working on several major projects including one focused on the design and  detail of spaces between buildings in Japan and further works exploring structures  resonated by compositions and their locales. He is also working with his daughter, the  artist Pheobe riley Law, on a series of performative collaborations.  

Key works are pieces capturing the sound of the dolomites dissolving, ants consuming  fallen fruit, buildings vibrating, teleferica’s interacting with locales, the infrasound of  domestic spaces around the world, glaciers melting in Iceland and the tonal resonances of natural and human objects in the landscape.  


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