Challenges of collecting and composing with spoken word and field recordings – Cathy Lane

Cathy is a composer who works with spoken word and field recordings to create installations and multichannel concert pieces. She is interested in memory and history related to places, communities and themes, and how she, as an artist, positions herself as a filter of those stories:

In the first part of her creative research process for making a new work she engages online and archival research, not necessarily sonic, through which she immerses herself in a particular context. This material is the basis for collecting recordings, which she will then work with creatively. When going through the collected material in a limited time, she finds it challenging to find all the material that she would like to use for her compositional purposes, both in her personal archive, and also when researching through sonic archives:

She would like to have dedicated software tools to compare acoustic and aesthetic qualities of environmental recordings and speech. To this end she has developed software called Deja vú ( working with programmer Oliver Bown) which finds matches between different sonic materials according to a variety of rhythmic qualities and frequency profile. She would like to develop more refined software which could also help find matches more accurately in large files of spoken word material ( maybe based on speech to text software). Cathy has created two major installations (both working with Nye Parry)  that exemplify her approach to memory and composition: The Memory Machine, an interactive installation which used random juxtapositions of speech that audiences left as reminiscences triggered by objects on display at the British Museum; and Beam, an installation that used data from the coming and goings around the port of Kochi in South India as parameters to trigger sounds associated with maritime life and the spice trade in the area:

The recordings were collected in a project with art students from Bangalore  and categorized according to overall themes. She reflects on the challenge of balancing documentary material and aesthetics, and she thinks that the process of recording and labelling needs more time to develop shared sonic sensibilities when working in a collaborative manner. Regarding the framework she thinks that the focus for her is on the relational playback, as it is where aesthetics can be developed and achieved by listening and developing sensibilities to the material, which is the only thing that a computer cannot learn.

Do you identify with Cathy’s needs? What are your own experiences, issues and needs when working with spoken word, field recordings and archives?

Use the ‘reply’ button on the top to leave a comment. Many thanks!



4 thoughts on “Challenges of collecting and composing with spoken word and field recordings – Cathy Lane

  1. Isobel Anderson

    Cathy’s description of archival oral history material is something I can relate to. Opening the archive draw to find sparsely labelled cassette tapes has been rather daunting, and even a deterrent, to me making work with these recordings. But I think it’s interesting that now this project is making new audio recordings of oral interviews with us, sound artists, about working with archives and these materials. On this page, we listen not only to the experiences of sound artists working with oral/field recordings, but also the aesthetics of this project’s new recordings and our own voices.


  2. cathylane

    Hi Isobel – sorry not to have met you in Belfast but great to meet you here. Are there any tools you use to help you listen to archive stuff or tools that you imagine could help you?


    1. 200clovers

      Working with archives as well as your own collection of recordings is some undertaking, Cathy, and I imagine you swamped, literally, by what must sometimes by a mountain of material! I like the idea of identifying a kind of sonic filter with which to search through this material – the software that you propose. Developing software is not my thing, but the idea of finding markers that can be identified by software is intriguing. The focus on categorising and listing resonates with some of my approaches and puts me in mind of the late great Georges Perec’s fabulous approach to classification in Species of Spaces, here’s a quote that seems to fit the bill… “My problem with classifications is that they don’t last; hardly have I finished putting things into an order before that order is obsolete. Like everyone else, I presume, I am sometimes seized by a mania for arranging things. The sheer number of the things needing to be arranged and the near-impossibility of distributing them according to any truly satisfactory criteria mean that I never finally manage it, that the arrangements I end up with are temporary and vague, and hardly any more effective than the original anarchy.” Think/Classify in Species of Spaces.
      All the best Cath



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