BEDLAM (ˈbɛdləm)
-n 1. a noisy confused place or situation.
Discovering my own totem sounds – fire

Bernie Krause writes in his book about this idea that each individual has their own set of totem sounds. These are sounds that a person is somehow deeply connected to for what might be unexplainable reasons.

Based on my ever growing interest in filed recording and assembling audio compositions from these recordings, my totem sounds are those that I discover or continue to return to with renewed fascination, intrigue and an unexplainable attraction.


I’ve always enjoyed building fires. It doesn’t mater if it’s in a backyard fire bowl for chilling after a cookout, a campfire to use for cooking or a spectacle to enjoy as the sun goes down. In Boy Scouts it was one of the things that I could do really well. A regular challenge was to start a fire with wet wood and a single match using only the dry tinder that you packed in. No liquid fire starting fuel allowed (A rule I abide by to this day). I built up some pretty good skills. Recently, I’ve been able to put these skills to good use again through a series of bonfires and campouts around Iowa. It started in Grinnell, IA during my artist residency at Grin City. Each week they have a potluck. Weather permitting and participants so inclined, this regularly transitions to a bonfire. The first one I was there for, I jumped in to help and was quickly handed fire duty. I really like it. I’ve always loved how it looked but it wasn’t until these Grin City bonfires along with a recent camping adventure with Mrs Formalplay that I realized just how much I also love the sound. There were so many textures, so many clicks and hisses, and a subtle roar that still wasn’t enough to mask the birds in the distance.

It’s that thing were you can’t help but stare into the fire. The colors, the light, the warmth and the sound. It all harkens back to something much older than any of our conscious memories. It connects to a world we are now entirely removed from. The energy. The power. The ability to change – positive and negative (and even positive from a negative like natural forest fires). When thinking of totem sounds, I feel a strong connection to fire from my youth as I developed into an adult, partially from the process of earning the Eagle Scout award. I am also filled with a sense of wonder at all of the things that have and still come from fire.

Listening on the Farm – thunder in the farmhouse

There have been massive storms rolling through two nights in a row. I am such a fan of storms when outside of the city. They look and sound amazing. The whomp, gzzzzz, rumble with the flash and the counting for distance (5 seconds is about a mile) is definitely a favorite listening experience. Being outside of the city and experiencing intense storms such as these reminds me of the power of the natural world and there are things that no matter how we try, we humans just can’t control. We can’t make storms and we can’t prevent them. We can do our best to seek shelter but there are times when the storm decides to come inside too, as the basement in the second house on the farm fell victim too last night. The moment when the full realization takes hold that nature is still pretty well in charge is the moment when the power goes out, you hope it’s just a flicker, it stays off, and you realize after a couple minutes that you now don’t know if it will be minutes, hours or days until the power comes back on. In the early hours of this morning, the power went off for a couple hours making it very clear where I stood in the larger order of things. Luckily I had the storm to listen to with a sense of reverence and enjoyment.

I wonder if there is a name for stormfans like there is for railfans–who I’ve recently learned are called “foamers” by train workers. It’s not storm chaser because I don’t go looking for them. But when they descend upon me I thoroughly enjoy watching and listening. Here on the farm, the experience of these storms has been quite amazing. First, the openness of the farmland surrounding the house creates an expanse that allows the light and the sound to travel and reverberate all throughout the landscape. Similar to the wind, the effect of the lightning and thunder has very little mitigating it as the weather cell blows through. Adding to this are the characteristics of the house and the room that I am staying in. The farmhouse is over one hundred years old and it feels like it. With many bedrooms, a couple bathrooms and several closets and common areas, the house is open and many of the surfaces are hard, adding to the reverberation of the thunder as it reflects around the cavernous room in which I am staying. The room is also on the southwest corner of the house, meaning that it has been facing the majority of the storm activity rolling through the landscape. The lights are amazing. The sounds are beautiful. The storms are powerful. They wash the landscape with a range of frequencies as they rattle and resonate throughout the built structures. Hearing the old structures of the farm respond to the storm has been a really fascinating experience. With mostly indoor artist activity, the weather and its affect on the material of the farm has become another defining characteristic of the soundscape during my time here.

Listening to the Wind on the Farm

There’s a lot of wind here in Iowa. The Iowa drivers license even has a wind turbine featured prominently in the background image. Wind has the power to produce energy which means it has the power to create. As the very recent extreme weather events in Oklahoma show, it also has the power to destroy. Moving air causing moving objects creates a horrible path of destruction that one can’t even begin to imagine unless you’ve been through it.

Wind can be very strong. This morning, the wind flipped over the pen that was recently made on the farm to hold some young turkeys. Joe Lacina, co-director of Grin City Collective, and I were able to get it turned upright but it wasn’t easy. The wind continued to fight us the entire time. We eventually got it right-side-up and reinforced how it is anchored to the ground and created vents in the roof tarp so that the wind had somewhere to go in the hopes that the structure would become less sail-like. This demonstrated that wind can emphasize weakness of both design and structure.

Contact mic on workshop

Contact mic on workshop

On the edge of the farm, there’s a metal shed that houses a small workshop with some loose corrugated roof panels that flap and bend when the winds are strong enough. The nails holding the panels in place are loose and the sheets of rusted metal lift and crash making a series of loud scraping, clapping, high-pitched grinding sounds in concert with the strength of the wind. I posted some sounds of this captured with contact mics in this earlier post.

Wind is not the friend of microphones. Mics record sounds by picking up vibrations, or changes in air pressure. If the air is moving, then it simply becomes a large amount of pressure hitting the microphone’s condenser. Wind on its own doesn’t make any sound. Bernie Krause describes this quite well in his book. We don’t hear the wind. Instead, we hear the results of the wind on something else. This might be grass, leaves, metal sheet roofing, natural resonance champers that make howling sounds or the wind’s affects on the condenser in a mic. The farm has been extremely windy during the day which at first was interfering with recording the birds and poultry stock that are here. It was, however, creating a few great sounds on its own. To record these sounds, I created two monaural contact mics that I could attach to different metal surfaces with magnets mounted inside the project housing. This made it possible to record the results of the wind, the vibrations of the metal sheet roofing, without recording the effects of the wind on a condenser mic.

The wind has become a defining feature of the landscape here during the residency. While getting settled into my studio space, I found that there were 2 old wind chimes crudely constructed from a series of steal pipes of varying lengths, some thin chain to suspend the elements and some basic acrylic shapes to act as both wind-responder and percussion implement. There’s something very elegant and logical about the construction of an instrument that performs the wind. It’s a responsive system that begins with an element of control through the defined material of the pipes, the lengths of which determine the pitch performed. However the structure of the performance is determined by the wind. Calm or active, the results reflect conditions occurring in the environment. It is not removed, or closed off. It is not working to separate itself from a larger natural structure. It is not too refined or all that imposing. It of course can be quite chaotic if the wind is intense or highly variable but on the whole, I find this interjection of a dynamic instrument waiting to be performed by nature quite harmonious with the space that I am encountering here during this residency.

Listening on the Farm – high winds & loose roof panels

Two contact mics on loose roof panel. Grin City Collective

The farm contains layers of materials, textures, timelines and sounds. It’s a mix of old and new, perfectly functional and barely in tact. Winds of this speed reveal weaknesses and inconsistencies. Howling over the gaps and the textures. Rustling the tall grass and the long wires. Clapping, scraping and vibrating loose panels of a corrugated metal roof. Loose nails on two panels create instability that the wind exploits. Wind cannot be heard, it makes no sound. Instead we hear the result of wind.

Hunting vs Foraging

This is an important distinction for me.

There’s a lot of language about “hunting” in reference to field recording and capturing of sound. Even there, the use of the word “capture” leaves one with the sense that sounds are elusive and difficult to attain – which is true. Anyone who has spent time waiting for a sound to record can attest to the evasive sensed during the act of waiting, listening and anticipating. Even the naming of the shotgun microphone makes reference to the language of hunting and capture. The issue that I have with the idea of hunting lies in the result of the act. The act of hunting results in leaving something else fundamentally changed. In the case of animal, it is dead. Hunting is the act that leads to killed. (This is of course unless you grew where I did and hunting simply translates to drinking cheap beer in the woods. But let’s assume actual hunting.) Other things besides simply the capture of something are at play in the use of hunting language in field recording. There is the planning and preparation. The gear needs to be prepped and organized. The locations need to be scouted, mapped and selected in the hopes of best results. The timing needs to be just right to increase your chances of success. This means time of day and time of year but it also refers to the fact that enough time needs to be allotted for the task at hand. It is an act of patience, of waiting, and of anticipation. These are phases of the process that build up to the final act of collection.

The reference to hunting, stalking and tracking of sound is definitely accurate but there is another way to think about this activity. A relationship can also be drawn to search itself. A quest guided by insight, information and inspiration that leads to the investigation of a soundscape for what it has to offer. It still requires planning and preparation. The process most definitely involves patience and awareness. Instead of language about leaving something fundamentally changed that results from a hunted object, foraging provides the sense that it’s there for collection if it happens to be the thing that you are looking for. Foraging is about the search, the investigation. The open awareness to the surroundings in a connected and knowledgeable way that leads to the collection of material for later use. Like foraging for the ingredients of a soup. There for anyone with access to attain. Foraging provides a method of observation and collection with language that resides in the experiential knowledge of context and growth as apposed to the occupational or invasive violence associate with the climax of the final kill or capture. Noise foraging is the act of collecting otherwise unwanted sounds from the urban soundscape. What is traditionally blocked or ignored is instead scooped up for inclusion in different forms.

Kansas City SoundWalk Research & Performance Documentation

Carte Voliére Mécanique

Beautiful images found while location scouting.

Rapport de la Volière Mécanique: 02012-02.0022 Sighting #01

Rapport de la Volière Mécanique: 02012-02.0015 Sighting #09

Visualizing Audio – Commotion – Noise Collage Test 018

A visual exploration of the track “Commotion” from my cassette See Also Noise. The cassette is a collection of compositions created as part of my research into the noise within the urban environment. All of the noises used in the composition were recorded in and around Los Angeles. Each track is created to explore a different synonym for the word noise.

More information about the cassette is available here:

Visualizing Audio – Commotion – Noise Collage Test 011

This image is screen capture from an experiment made to visually represent an audio track. The audio being explored in this study is the track “Commotion” from my cassette See Also Noise released in 2011.

Mysterious Hum: 6th Bridge – On & Over

Noise Collection Organizational Measure

Organizational Measures on Flickr

I’ve continued to realize the importance of noting the sounds that I record at the time I record them. It helps to remember where I was when I was recording and why I made the recording in the first place especially after long trips. I’ve tried several different systems over the years for documenting these recordings but nothing has ever been streamlined and fluid enough to work for me very long. Separate sketchbooks are cumbersome. Notes programs on my phone makes for too many devices in my hands. I’ve even tried syncing up photos from my camera with audio recordings by the time stamps on the files. A few months ago I came up with the idea of integrating a documentation system directly onto the recorder itself. This simple system using some trimmed notecards and a couple rubber-bands has served me well on a few trips thus far. And the way the rubber bands secure the folded note cards, access to the battery compartment is not blocked. I finally found something that works for me so I thought I’d share it for anyone else who might be wrestling with similar issues.

All content ©2014 Alex Braidwood unless otherwise stated.

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