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  • Writer's pictureChris Bradbury

Borrowed Soundscape

A friend introduced me to a design concept called borrowed scenery or shakkei, 借景. We were speaking of it in reference to its use within Japanese garden design practices. **

“The literal meaning of the Japanese word shakkei is “borrowed scenery” or “borrowed landscape” - that is, distant views incorporated into garden settings as part of the design. In its original sense, however, shakkei means neither a borrowed landscape nor a landscape that has been bought. It means a landscape captured alive. The distinction here is Japanese, and it reflects the psychology of the garden designers.“ - Space and illusion in the Japanese garden, Itō, Teiji, 1922

Shakkei design features create a miniature landscape in the garden

The phrase borrowed landscape really resonated with me, and seemed especially fitting to express and contextualise sound field recording within sound art and design practices. Is it fair to say that we are borrowing the soundscape when we go out into the field to record? How can we address a landscape captured alive with regard to sound?

Consider a sound I could record in a far away location, and how I might incorporate it into a piece of audio work on my laptop. It might exist digitally on the web, or be broadcast on TV or radio. It could be placed into a real world environment, such as an art exhibition, thus existing as a new acoustic event. It may be presented as a raw recording, without any editing or deviation from the original recorded state. Or it could be resampled, mixed, modulated and affected in a way that it becomes an abstraction from the original source. I believe, in any of these cases, that we can say we are borrowing the soundscape.

However, I also see comparing sound design directly to shakkei being problematic. What if we make the sound too abstract from the original recording with effects, resampling and post recording processing? When does the concept of borrowed soundscape stop being applicable, and we start to cross over into the world of musique concrète and found sound?

Field recordists operate for a vast number of reasons. They may be documenting soundscapes, highlighting new sound or preserving disappearing sound, analysing ecological settings, capturing rare acoustic events, or even seeking sonic inspiration through a microphone. But Teiji's definition of shakkei states: incorporated into garden settings as part of the design, that perhaps highlights an important aspect of field recording within sound design. And I think this suggests an important framework for how we separate field recording from sound design. Sound as an object has a particular relationship with place and time. Its volume, tone, pitch, duration and echo are unique factors that are shaped by regional properties, such as the acoustic qualities of its environment. Likewise, our position to a sound as listeners forms a temporal bond. The proximity to a sound, and the duration it takes to get to our ears, perceived echo and reflections affect how we hear a sound.

Perhaps the shakkei borrowing of sound is applicable when we give the listener context; by placing a sound within a wider design frame. As the borrowed landscape is part of the design by the gardener, the borrowed soundscape is part of the designers rich sonic image. Many individual sounds may exist within the design, but they are brought together under a common thought. The sounds are captured alive in the sense that they are placed into a new sonic environment, brought together and living in an aesthetic.

R.Murray Shafer has argued that sound is highly subjective, and single sounds can affect individuals differently, often stimulating a wide assortment of reactions. Sound is ethereal, and has the ability to drift between our reality and imagination. So the power to borrow lies in the design. I can capture a sound from the outside world, and place it into a new setting, thus giving it a new life for the listener.

My recent exhibition with Majbritt Huovila: Hyvä Paikka, features sound we recorded at her house in Sipoo. One track titled Purossa or in the stream was a very detailed recording of aquatic life underwater in a stream which runs by her house. Using a hydrophone we are able to hear frogs, insects and other wildlife sounds which are inaudible to our ears above the water line. Majbritt was understandably quite excited with this discovery of life, literally right on her doorstep. So much so that we installed speakers to play it at the Hyvä Paikka exhibition alongside her painting:

“The piece became an interdisciplinary place, where the life of the stream and the sounds of my backyard, seen, heard and experienced by two authors, were combined into a whole where a person is. The work Hyvä Paikka is a continuation of the series of paintings I started last year, where I deal with my own place and space through my childhood games. It is also about how we dare to become visible to each other during the process and how we hear and consider the other.” - Majbritt Huovila

Borrowed Soundscape. Recording underwater soundscape from a stream in Sipoo, Finland.

In the context of Hyvä Paikka, Majbritt is recreating a space and place of her home, and her childhood through the abstraction of her paintings. The introduction of sound in this instance, helps to heighten our connection to the literal space she is creating in the gallery. Furthermore, as the audio track we used had very little modification from the original source, the placement of the real (sound) next the abstract (painting) might bring us closer to the idea of shakkei: distant views incorporated into garden settings as part of the design.

The recording presented by itself does not give us the context for borrowed soundscape. By making the distinction between the art of field recording, and the art of sound design, we are better able to clarify Teiji Itō’s definition: It means a landscape captured alive.

Borrowed Landscape features in this water colour drawing of a Japanese style garden

A final perspective for consideration of borrowed soundscape is form through performance. What if the place of borrowing is abstract, and the returning is the reality? The brilliant Fake Creek by Kate Carr comes to mind (if you haven’t heard this work, I highly recommend it). In her own words: I have spent many years recording waterways, and here I thought to try and sound like one, emulating the snap of shrimp, the grunting of fish, and the mysterious rustles and groans I so often have enjoyed listening to underwater. - Kate Carr.

I would argue that this too constitutes borrowed soundscape, albeit in a completely different form as discussed earlier. But the principles are the same. The soundscape as we know it (the creek), the borrowing (Kate’s concept), and the incorporation into a design (Kate’s performance).

Borrowed Soundscape. Recording forest soundscape in Sipoo, Finland.

I am an avid field recordist myself, with a collection of soundscapes and binaural ambiences on my hard-drive. Not only does it take a lot of technical know-how when choosing and operating the right equipment, but there are a host of skill sets needed when trying to document the sonic world. Composition, much like the approach to painting a canvas or taking a photograph, is the artistic choice when it comes to field recording. Balancing subject, timing, location, proximity, format; mono, stereo or ambisonic, are all creative choices that the recordist needs to make. However I would put forward that the shakkei of field recording lies in the context of design and listening to the sound, rather than the recording itself.

“Gardeners and nurserymen of former times, when they constructed borrowed-landscape gardens, never spoke of shakkei for they considered the term inappropriate. From their point of view, every element of the design was a living thing: water, distant mountains, trees and stones . . . Understanding of the term shakkei does not mean true understanding of the concept unless there is an actual sensation of what it signifies.” - Space and illusion in the Japanese garden, Itō, Teiji, 1922

“…is the soundscape of the world an indeterminate composition over which we have no control, or are we it’s composers and performers, responsible for giving it form and beauty?” The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Schafer R.M, 1977

**The concept of Japanese shakkei is said originate from Chinese garden design practices. However I am drawn to it by the philosophical reasoning behind the Japanese definition.

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