Patrick Farmer · Like falling out of trees into collectors’ albums

Patrick Farmer · Like falling out of trees into collectors’ albums

Patrick Farmer is known predominantly as a percussionist and improvisor, but parallel to and in continual dialogue with this performative practice runs his activity as a field recordist. Over the past year conversations with Patrick returned again and again to the problems of re-presenting this work publicly and his frustration with the tried and tested forms. In selecting this small collection, these three barely edited recordings from his extensive archive we have eschewed the temptation of excerpted highlights and offer them instead in their rawest form, as documents not just of aural phenomena but also of Patrick’s wonderment at it.


The title poses a kind of question, or observation, that I imagine often crosses the mind of those who deal in field recordings: to what extent they’re “merely” the recipients of sounds that happen to fall their way. How much of themselves ends up in the recording? Does it matter? Farmer perhaps touches on this in a short essay included here when he writes “that there is everything and nothing to record, to notice, to document”.

As ever, with releases as (apparently) “pure” in their substance as this one, that is, bearing little seeming enhancement on the part of, in this case, Farmer, qualitative judgment is something of a fool’s errand except insofar as to simply state whether or not the sounds moved me, placed me in a different psychological space, or not. Well, these do. Three recordings: a pond’s slowly melting surface – soft water sounds augmented by the occasional airplane; power lines recorded via mic placement on a wire fence – a beautiful, oddly hollow but complex sound in which you can imagine infinite levels of detail just outside the range of your hearing; a wasp paring away layer of a bamboo cane, the subtlest of the trio and, on disc, almost as fascinating as it might have been to be inside that tube, which is to say, very.

An excellent recording, highly recommended for those with any interest at all in this area.

I am lucky enough to be able to call Patrick Farmer a good friend, and so, as always I ask you to take this into consideration whenever I write about his music. His new album of field recordings on the Consumer Waste label though, titled Like falling out of trees into collectors’ albums takes me right back to a time when I didn’t know him personally but first came in touch with his music. I don’t remember exactly where I first came across his work, but my first exposure, some years back now, was certainly through his field recordings, and I remember contacting him, and sending some money for three CDrs of such recordings. When the discs arrived, they came in beautiful, recycled card sleeves with my name carefully typed onto each of them, with little pieces of poetic text slipped inside on faded pieces of paper. Even before hearing the music on the discs, which I enjoyed a great deal, the attention to detail, the personal touch and the connection between these found (sought out?) sounds and the written word impressed me a lot. Wind forward however many years and this new disc arrives on letterpress printed recycled card, without the personal dedication but with an enclosed, beautifully descriptive text. The recordings here are equally captivating. Selected from what is probably many hours of field recordings made in 2009 and 2010, just before a year in the noisy city of Oxford rendered such activities close to impossible, the three unedited recordings here are each very different and yet all involve that secret ingredient required of great field recording- the ability to find subtle, detailed, intricate combinations of sounds at once that perhaps we may not have known were there.

As a closing conundrum to the text enclosed with the disc, Farmer asks:

"What does a CD of three flattened auditory replications of three environments bring?"

Here then lies one of the classic questions attached to field recording. What does the recorded sound become once it has been lifted, via whatever flawed device from its environment and supplanted, via a CD and a stereo system that will have its own impact on that same sound, into a completely new environment again, replete with its own aural content. Farmer suggests that the CDs three tracks serve as comments upon the original environments, filtered through his own preferences and methodology as a recordist. I would go so far again as to say that the sounds are again treated differently once played back, again heard differently, dependent on the playback ability, degree of paid attention and external aural environment of each listener. The wonder of good field recording for me then comes when sounds come through all of these processes and still sound invigorating and exciting. A bubbling river recorded perfectly might still sound great once replayed over my stereo system, but the human input, both in the original decisions made to place a microphone down in the first place, and in the selection and editing process that follows matters so much.

The pieces here then are Stood for thirty minutes, before the picture without moving, a half hour long capture of a slowly melting frozen surface of a pool in deepest Wales, Still this is not, of air and hours, fifteen minutes of overheard power lines heard (somehow) through a nearby wire fence and You through all things I hear, the kindness of chance, which is (incredibly in my opinion) the sound of a wasp stripping out the inside of a bamboo cane so as to build a nest, a scenario farmer came across by chance. The first is a minutely detailed soundscape of rustling, gently hissing cracklings set against a backdrop of occasional passing birdlife and the roar of a passing aircraft. this track for me is a joy to just absorb without distraction. Like taking in a favourite painting in a gallery, as the track’s title suggests, listening to this piece slowly evolve, gradually change, and yet, not actually change that much, highlights how close listening amplifies tiny details, and throws us completely when something as innocuous as a passing airplane crashes into this newly found world. The second piece is very different, droning in form but created using entirely found phenomena, and so therefore again full of small shifts in detail. Here we seem to find rhythms in the warm, honeyed stream of sound, patterns emerge, waveforms seem to be there, but how much is in our heads, the detritus of what we expect to hear when we listen to manmade music projected onto naturally occurring events remains to be seen. The final closing piece is very subtle, a cloudy, murmuring noise floor punctuated every so often by tiny knocks and reverberations through the bamboo cane and the telling little buzzes of our wasp friend. This piece may not have the same spectacularly exciting sonic impact of the other two, but it contains a sense of mystery and intrigue, and the sense of the the find, the discovery of this tiny event in nature’s huge garden of fun is no doubt what drove Farmer in part to include it here, perhaps indeed found through the kindness of chance, but then captured and represented through the creativity of a perceptive, prepared ear.

Just about everything I have written about Patrick’s music this year (and yes I have written a lot about it) has focussed on his improvised or composed music. There has been little sight of his field recording in recent years, but this new release sits alongside his other work as a the output of a remarkably focussed ear, and these field recordings for me, reaffirm his place me up there alongside Lee Patterson and Toshiya Tsunoda at the lead of the field, (pun intended).

Like falling out of trees into collectors’ albums is a full-length release of largely unaltered field recordings taken by percussionist and sound artist Patrick Farmer in 2009 and 2010. The title seems to be a wry comment on the phenomenon of field recordings: Like leaves falling directly from the tree into the botanist’s album, these encountered sounds come straight from the environments in which they occurred to be gathered into the recordist’s collection.

This comes through on the first track, Stood for thirty minutes, before the picture without moving, which presents nearly half an hour of the sound of a frozen pond or brook melting. The predominant sound here is of moving water. This track, like the event it documents, is a slow unfolding; listening is like watching changes in the angle and intensity of sunlight over the course of a day. The outdoor setting is made explicit by the passing through of two airplanes, the echoes of their jet and piston engines painting a sonic portrait of open skies. One can imagine the bite of cold air on exposed skin.

The denser Still this is not, of air and hours follows. Farmer’s source is the hum given off by power lines, which here sound like deliberate electronic music. Subtle changes in overtones and dynamics provide an unexpected variety in the middle of the drone’s overall sameness.

By contrast the final cut, You through all the things I hear, the kindness of chance, is a very quiet and sparse soundtrack of vague scratching noises and buzzes. These strange sounds were produced by a wasp hollowing out bamboo – this is eavesdropping taken to a microcosmic level.

Field recordings like these often seem to demand a particular type of listening. In reproducing and re-presenting ambient sounds and making them the objects of attention, the artist invites us to listen in, to borrow a conceit from Salome Voegelin. The kinds of sounds we ordinarily listen through or ignore altogether we now encounter as events in themselves, though still with the flavor of things overheard. By virtue of focusing our attention on the sound alone, field recording lifts one dimension – the aural – from an integrated perceptual gestalt encompassing the visual and tactile modalities as well. With these other modalities neutralized, we can seem to become a transparent ear.

In an impressionistic essay accompanying the CD, Farmer writes about the place of field recording in his own sensibilities. It would seem that field recordings represent excerpts selected from an ongoing infinitude of sounds, the way a line segment represents a finite section of points extending indefinitely in either direction. This is where the artist’s intention reveals itself, in the setting off of some sounds from others, and in capturing a slice of overheard time that can recur with every replay of the disc.

I seldom confess my unrealized intentions where writing projects are concerned, but I will say at this juncture there are two musicians in the U.K. I have long meant to write about, Daniel Jones and Patrick Farmer. At present, I can only partially redress this with a brief appreciation of Farmer’s Like falling out of trees into collector’s albums, three bare-boned field recordings that hold me for reasons I genuinely cannot explain. That’s a happy state at this point. Farmer captures here a seasonal sign in nature people in my state are intimate with, ice melting off a body of water [the sound of dissolution]; power lines along a stretch of highway in Hertfordshire [reminiscent of a mini-series of recordings Jeph Jerman did of power lines along roads in the Southwest United States – these boys have keen ears for the luxuriant drones occurring all around us – the sound of sustain]; and the indescribable sonics of a hornet coring out a nest in a bamboo pole [the micro-sound of hard work]. This release bears the most affinity with the vibrational studies of Tsunoda. I can tell you that Farmer’s work, here and elsewhere [do visit his web page for hints] conveys an alacrity of attention and focus that I find in fellows of a much more advanced age. For all that his on-line persona suggests his approach is tossed-off and unfussy, Farmer’s sound environments reveal worlds-within-worlds, whorls-within-whorls, finely attuned to, and carefully presented to us, the lucky listener. I posted some time back on another forum Patrick Farmer’s playing partner is the world at large. I am always alert to what he’s up to, and strongly encourage you to be as well.

Oxford based Patrick Farmer’s art consists in making himself attentive to sound as the element that uniquely makes a place, or an experience. On his Ideas Attached to Objects website he displays work in a range of artforms, from location recording and improvisation with a resonating drum, to poetry that stretches the limits of syntax and meaning in a fashion reminiscent of the poetry of JH Prynne and Douglas Oliver. His compost and height label is one of the more astringent platforms for sound art that connects rarefied electroacoustic improvisation with a strong sense of the literary, or so-called ‘art writing’, and of concept art.

Like falling out of trees... is a portmanteau of three longish field recordings. Farmer’s somewhat tail-chasing sleevenotes (“Field recording is for me the feeling that I was recording before I knew that I was”) end up unhelpful, so we’re thrown back on the environments themselves. Stood for thirty minutes, before the picture without moving is subtitled The frozen surface of a pool dissolving in aeolian layers is 27 minutes of thawing ice punctuated with alight aircraft. Track two is a throbbing power line recorded through a wire fence. Either nothing happens, or they’re packed with micro-events, depending on how fast or slowly your brain is moving today. You through all things I hear, the kindness of chance aka A wasp stripping the inside of a bamboo cane for a nest draws field recording-as-art down a new cul de sac: 17 minutes of far-off traffic hum with a bit of buzzing and rattling in the last third. It’s a large demand on your time for comparatively little return. And yes, I realise that attitude is probably precisely what Farmer’s work is ranged against.

Three imaginary approaches to Patrick Farmer’s triptych Like falling out of trees into collectors’ albums:

1. Sound

The first track is a recording of ice melting and moving on the surface of a pool in Wales. Immediately the temperature drops and the thermometer registers zero. A cold breeze bites and the trees are without leaves. The rustling, crackling nature of the predominant sounds brings to mind frozen grass and the sharpness of frost.

Personally it takes me back to a pool in North Yorkshire where I stood on a small jetty looking over the ice and listening. I can’t hear this now without recalling that day, with no one else around and the ice gently quaking along its fracture lines. It was a time for standing and absorbing.

This seems to be an unadulterated document of the actual scene as it unfolded before Farmer. If there is any editing or enhancing it has been very well disguised and there are no departures of focus. Due to its near 30 minute duration we are given the opportunity to locate ourselves deeper and deeper in the core of this acoustic universe. Hard edges of sound shards rub together, the effect being spread over a large surface area delivering a sense of distance.

A couple of planes fly over, but then you’d be hard pressed to record for half an hour anywhere in the UK without planes flying over. Every now and then a water bird calls and occasionally the wind buffets the microphone slightly. The wind is probably the engine that drives this piece, the agent that moves the ice, that and the water beneath.

The second track is an electrical field, a manifestation of the manmade. Like an Alan Lamb exploration of the taut wires stretching across the Australian outback, or a Jukka Vakkinen-Kannonen trip around the power facilities and generators of Finland, this is a flow of electrons rendered palpable as a river of vibration.

Thrilling undulations occur. Deep bass notes emerge every now and then and intensity eddies and ebbs along the course. This was made from a recording of overhead power lines through a wire fence, so it carries the taste of metal in its throat and resonates industrially. Dense fluctuations of the field create the sense that at any time this humming plasma could untether itself and split into a billion flying particles.

The third track is extremely quiet and requires some auditory readjustment after the barely contained thrum of pure energy that goes before it. It involves sound occurring on an almost microscopic scale. A wasp is working to strip the inside from a bamboo cane against the gentle hum of distant traffic. This event is captured with no attempt to filter out the infiltrating sounds of the surrounding environment, which grounds the wasp’s effort to build a nest firmly in the real world. Farmer has not presented us with a pared down reality, he has given us a totality. We are just closer to one particular event in that totality than any other.

2. A portal

Like falling out of trees into collectors’ albums can be regarded as a portal into the world view of Patrick Farmer, because all his work seems to exist as a continuum. Words play a large part, as the titles of the three tracks on the CD show. Farmer has written a lot, often impressionistically and poetically, sometimes about the processes of phonography.

Even when his writing is not specifically about recording the environment, it is about a way of experiencing things. A slowing down and a true connection with the subject or object seems central to Farmer’s philosophy.

An extract taken from Farmer’s site ‘ideas attached to objects’: ...the pen is a loudspeaker, one of many medians, ears are misplaced as the onlistener talks into what he hears and refutes composition... From ‘full’.

Stood for thirty minutes, before the picture without moving for example, is clearly centred on spending time without interacting. Inertia before nature allows an opening up, a dilation of possibilities. I didn’t know the work of Farmer before hearing this, although I’d seen his name several times in various places, often linked with others from Oxford who seem to share a vague exploratory aesthetic.

Choices were made in the programming of this disc other than the actual sonic material. Why choose these three unrelated tracks? Why do they last as long as they do before suddenly cutting off completely? Why name them in such a way that an extra impression is layered over them? I like to be left with more questions than answers.

3. A waste of time

1. Stood before the picture for thirty minutes without moving: Nigh on half an hour of ice melting. Crackling sounds. The odd bird call. A bit of wind. 2 x planes.

2. Still this is not, of air and hours: A quarter of an hour of buzzing. The occasional disruption. Electricity in wires.

3. You through all things I hear, the kindness of chance: 17 minutes long. Nothing happens for ages, then a wasp makes a bit of very quiet noise. That’s it really.

All the tracks, and the CD itself, are given pretentious names to make them seem worthy of more artistic merit than they actually are.

Whole chunks of nature and art can be dismissed by reductionism, and that’s what often happens, and everyone is impoverished as a result. It isn’t even always about looking beneath the surface, it’s about looking at the surface properly.

The ways in which I comprehend a landscape lend themselves to a lack of speed, I find myself in protraction, experiencing as much as I can, often spending all day in one small area, ear to the ground. – Patrick Farmer: Writing Sound Symposium essay.