then a genre of music -- or maybe we should say, aural material that
people listen to through speakers -- made up entirely of naturally
occurring sounds, created by the world itself. An "unproduced"
music fashioned from that which we attempt to drown out. The commercial
implications are, need we say, less than earth-shattering.
the most part, the genre's existence is still rather nebulous. The
number of well-known found sound artists is next to nil, and only
the bravest of record shops maintains a "field recordings"
section (Aquarius is one of the few). But San Franciscan Aaron Ximm
is convinced of the style's validity. He spends as much time and energy
making his songs -- or self-contained movements -- as many studio
musicians do. His albums just happen to be composed of sounds created
unintentionally. He calls his project Quiet American, and he uses
his Web site, http://www.quietamerican.org/,
to share his work with others and champion the idea that recordings
of everyday life merit deep listening, perhaps even as music. Last
December, Ximm opened his SOMA loft for "Field Effects,"
an entire evening of field recordings presented by Bay Area artists.
Even with the significant number of works offered that night and the
existence of found sound sites such as http://www.earthear.com/,
Ximm stops short of asserting that there's a bona fide scene emerging
around these roving recordists.
weird -- I got a cold-call e-mail from these guys in England who
were trying to put together a label whose whole mission was to put
out people who were doing processing of field recordings without
the resources of a full studio," he says via phone the week
following the event. "The fact that they thought this was a
viable context for a label just blew my mind. But the more I get
into it and look around for others who do similar stuff, the more
I realize there are actually quite a few artists who work in this
became clear during "Field Effects" that material presented
under the field recording umbrella encompasses a wide breadth of forms
and compositional styles. Some of the source matter seemed heavily
edited and processed with software, while other pieces sounded completely
undoctored. If amplified more, many of the works could have come from
a noise scene performance, with their unidentifiable sources, nonlinear
structures, and call for long attention spans. Ximm's set was different.
He used a mixer to fade between two MiniDisc players like a club DJ
would, piecing together a vaguely narrative flow out of untreated
recordings of a recent trip to Burma. The resulting collage was pretty,
elegant, and didn't require hard work to appreciate -- an accessibility
he attributes to his teenage years spent listening to Rush, Yes, and
really thinking about it, I have tended to create things that are
able to compel people in the manner of a pop song, which I think
is a reflection of the way I grew up," he says. "If you
listen to rock radio for 15 years, you come away with this idea
that tracks are a certain length and you alternate your hard rock
and your ballads."
the way that a prog-rock concept album takes the listener on a journey,
Ximm's tracks re-create the places he's visited. His 1999 album, Vox
Americana (available like all his works on MP3 for free, or on CD-R
for barter or $10), is the story of riding trains, enduring storms,
and wandering through the towns of Vietnam.
back on Vox Americana, in some weird way if you squinted with your
ears enough, it's almost like -- I hate to say it -- a Dokken album
or something," he observes with a chuckle. "That's not
what I set out to create, but it eventually turned out that way."
referencing Dokken's heavy metal bombast, Ximm doesn't mean that the
sounds on Vox Americana resemble electric guitars or power ballads,
just that he assembles the material to impart a sense of drama and
flow. He keeps the original sounds basically unaltered, so that all
the melodies and rhythms come from the bells, chanting voices, hammers,
creaking doors, railroad tracks, and dialogue he's recorded. By editing,
arranging, and repeating particular snippets, Ximm achieves an ebb
and flow, giving a sense of natural space to the listening experience,
especially while wearing headphones. "Circumlocution," for
example, begins with footsteps echoing down the hall of Ximm's hotel,
and then expands into a flurry of street noises, a voice groaning
"Oh my God," and a brief snippet from overheard traditional
how exactly does one progress from listening to relatively conventional
rock to finding music in the ambient noise of Southeast Asia? Ximm
owes his conversion to his stepbrother, Scott Jeneric, who founded
the S.F. noise-art collective 23five.
was because of his interest in very underground music -- he was
always presenting me with these weird mix tapes of stuff like [noise/industrial
experimentalist] :zoviet*france: back in the mid to late '80s --
that I began to realize that there were whole communities of people
that valued noncommercial music," Ximm recounts. "To me
this was quite profound. I remember being completely blown away
when I heard :zoviet*france: looping the sound of what I guessed
to be a metal fence squeaking in the wind. I remember thinking,
"Oh my God, this is an incredibly beautiful musical thing that's
been created out of textures made in the world."
wasn't until a continent-spanning backpack trip in 1996 that he was
inspired to try composing similar pieces.
spent a lot of time on that trip thinking about sound," he
says. "In India and Nepal I found myself immersed in these
environments sonically that I had never experienced anything like
at home. I kept wishing I had some way of taking a sound back and
presenting it to people, because with that more than anything I
could convey the realities of what I was experiencing."
a trip to Vietnam a year and a half later, he brought along his newly
purchased mikes and recorder and began capturing his surroundings.
He came up with the name for his project from the Graham Greene book
The Quiet American, which was available in Xeroxed form all over the
country. In addition to being the title of one of Ximm's favorite
reads, it indicated what it took to make the recordings -- namely,
being quiet -- and alluded to "the all-too-accurate stereotype
of the American backpacker as someone who is loud and thinks that
they know more than they do."
returning to the States, Ximm set about the task of composing tracks
out of the raw information he had recorded. He quickly realized that
the working process he followed was absolutely crucial for arriving
at anything compelling.
working in any experimental medium, the only life raft you have
is self-imposed constraint," he remarks. "If anything
is permissible, chances are you're going to end up with a mess.
The whole project has been an experiment in coming up with constraints
by which I'm able to come up with coherent pieces of sound composition
from what is essentially the overwhelming amount of material that
is around us all the time."
the most part, he adhered to the requirement that all the sounds for
a given track had to come from a particular location or event. The
resulting movements don't come off like travelogues or radio journalism,
however. Ximm edits the source material so that its original context
is obscured, maintaining a sense of mystery to the tracks. When listening,
people can attempt to figure out what the recordist was doing at the
time of the event or whether a bell tone actually followed an overheard
French conversation or was rearranged that way. Ximm draws art out
of the individual noises by not overly contextualizing them, allowing
the listener room to imagine his own little stories and meanings.
I get out of making and listening to these recordings is a constant
return to focus on my own processes of identifying what is musical,"
he says. "I think the music is there, and I hope other people
hear it. I don't know if that's the single most important thing
about making these recordings, but it is an interesting exercise."
far, Quiet American has been just that -- an exercise, and not a leisurely
one at that. The editing and processing demand more time than Ximm
can easily find. He used to send out his painstakingly hand-packaged
CD-Rs for free, but the cost and effort involved prompted him to ask
for art or money in exchange. His next step is to find a tiny label
to take the tedious operational details off his hands.
just want someone to take care of the manufacturing, so I don't
have to paste together the covers and record the CD-Rs," he
says. "I don't even expect royalty checks, I just want someone
else to stock these things and push them on mom-and-pop shops, so
Jane Doe in the Midwest can walk into a store and be able to buy
them. It's probably never going to happen, but this kind of music
changed my life, and other people might have theirs changed too."