For as long as there’s been music, (read: organized sounds), there’s been music attempting to mirror humanity’s awe, wonder, bewilderment, and terror of the landscape around them. From the British pastoralism of Vaughan Williams to the soaring epic strings of F. Grofé’s The Grand Canyon Suite; from the lavender, liliac, and honeysuckle perfume of a British garden that seems to hover, like a nimbus, around the music of Nick Drake, and the sharp, bitter tang of mesquite and sage around Southwestern artists like Townes Van Zandt, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Roky Erickson, whose music evokes the alien desolation of Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Park, as much as it does visions of Wurlitzer-lit saloons.
Most of the time, however, music tends to focus on a person’s relationship to nature — their experience of it, what it does to them, rather than the nature itself. While the intersection of music and landscape has produced countless works of staggering beauty, it remains, for the most part, an anthrocentric pursuit.
This started to change in recent times, with the advent of cheap, portable, and high-quality recording gear, and a burgeoning interest in records comprised of field recordings — or audio documents of a place, untouched by human hands (except for the one holding the microphone).
Archival Feedback, the new audio-visual collaboration from Florida’s Other Electricities Records, is a bit of both, straddling the fence between both natural and manufactured environments, as well as people’s relations to them. Its origins come from Emile Milgrim and T. Wheeler Castillo, who set out to document the landscape of their hometown, Miami, FL, after both returning around the same time, from a stint living in Portland, OR.
Wheeler Castillo found himself living near Biscayne Bay — whose crystal clear blue waters and coral reefs serve as home for any number of endangered species — in a much-transformed Miami. The experience left Wheeler Castillo wondering how best to convey the strange sensations of inspiration and alienation, as he told a reporter for the Miami New Times.
It is rather telling that Wheeler Castillo, despite being a visual artist and making hundreds and thousands of sketches of the bay, settled upon sound as the most in-depth way for people to experience what he was experiencing. Milgrim and Wheeler Castillo began making field recording forays, getting snippets of raw audio which would serve as “calls”, for other artists to spin, sculpt, and re-interpret as the “responses”.
Archival Feedback is dichotomous, split in two: the A-side being made up, solely and completely of field recordings, and the B- being more musical evocations of the landscape.
A curious sensation occurs, within the first few seconds of “Biscayne Bay Storm Drain”; without looking at names or information, you’d think you were listening to the Euphrates River flowing, or the sounds of the Orinoco lapping up against a log canoe. Any second, you expect a tribal voice to rise up and greet the sunrise in song, as birds trill their salutations. That doesn’t happen. This is just the knocking, cavernous, slugging sound of a runoff drain near the Bay, desperately trying to keep the rising waters at bay. Chances are, it’s ugly, and rusted, a pock on the terrain.
Recordings have a tendency to give a certain air, an “aura” if you will, to what you are listening to, imbuing every vibration in the air currents a mysterious, nearly religious air. This may be conditioned, but within the first few moments of Archival Feedback, we already find an interesting observation on the nature of sound, music, recording, and the possibilities between the three. Listening to sounds from faraway places, a listener is filled with visions and inspiration, imagination splashing over into their daily life. The bathroom sink becomes a cavern of mysteries, the refrigerator, a futuristic techno symphony of whirring buzzes and frosty clicks. This is, perhaps, the true, and overarching, call and response of Archival Feedback.
The A-side unspools like a guided walking tour through Miami, making stops in Little Haiti, with its dominoes and ice cream trucks (“Little Haiti Ice Cream/Dominoes”) before crossing a busy intersection, (“Downtown Miami Traffic”) and through a weirdly empty glen, where cicadas hum like rusting robot dinosaurs (“Everglades Electrical Chirr”).
The monolithic “brassshipbell”, from Felecia Chizuko Carlise, is an apt segue into the fabricated sounds of Side B, as ringing, bronzen tintinnabulation is shaped and sculpted, to land somewhere between Tibetan Singing Bowls and a doom metal band’s call to prayer. It’s a real mind-melter, well worth the cost of admission, alone.
Archival Feedback really begins to scream/speak/sing volumes about the layered and nuanced relationship people have to sounds and the place where they live, starting with “The Worst Drummer In Little Haiti (Amamnesis Memory Test)” from io.ko, which blends the futurebeat transhumanist glitch hop of The Knife with a kind of 8-bit kalimba afro-bounce, with some ice cream truck ambiance, to wit. It has the air of the hyperreal about it, the atomization of the virtual, telling us we are leaving the sandy beaches and crystal waters behind.
“Ache” from Dim Past is another standout track of Side B, layering the buzzing cicada whirr of “Everglades Electrical Chirr” with airy, ambient wordless vocals, like a split second from a Grimes single, on endless loop, with mechanistic beats and digital didgeridoos. This is what it might sound like, 450 years from now, after our civilization has vanished or ascended into the stars, leaving behind Ziggurat temples where Kississimme St. Cloud used to be.
I want to comment on every sound vibration contained here-in, but can’t, for sake of brevity. I will say that “Strand” by Coral Morphologic (composed by Jared McKay) is interesting, in illustrating music’s ability to give the inner experience of a moment. Lapping waves are processed and manipulated into a digital spray, like pastel seafoam kissing your cheeks and eyelashes. What was he thinking, sitting on that beach, listening to those waves?
I greatly enjoyed my time with Archival Feedback, while walking down the silvery springtime streets of Portland to the coffee shop, listening to mechanical resonances from 3,000 miles away blend with the sounds of traffic. And when playing this in my second-story bedroom, turned up through speakers, letting the vibrations blend and mingle with the spattering of rain, like the muttering of distant conversations. In these moments, I felt close to the folks behind this record, that we were all in it together. That they were trying to show and tell me something, and that I was listening, trying to figure out what it was. In those moments, 3,000 miles collapsed like a wrinkle in time, and we were all together… talking, listening, relating.