Interview: Philip Sulidae

There’s no sense in discussing field recording in terms of listening and passivity. What I love about Ramshead – the latest album by Australian sound artist Philip Sulidae – is the active role of its recordist. For one, Philip is an audible presence amidst these recordings of Australia’s Kosciuszko National Park: sounds of microphone bags unzipping, the plop of rainfall on umbrellas. But there’s also the curation of these recordings of buzzing fauna and cracked flora, all of which work to both convey those aspects of the park that don’t reside in fixed locations, or unfold too slowly to perceive in real time (volatilities in weather and temperature), or don’t even exist within the realm of sound at all (undulations in physical landscape, intense humidity, Philip’s own swivelling and craning as he tries to absorb as much sensory stimuli as possible). 

Ramshead is out now on the ever-excellent Unfathomless label. Below, Philip and I discuss the informality of his recording approach, the process of fabricating realities and deafening Cicadas. 

Ramshead is based on field recordings made at Kosciuszko National Park during the summer. What brought you to the park, and how long did you spend there?

When I was younger I visited Kosciuszko and the Australian Alps a few times, and really loved it. What they lack in height (Australia being somewhat flat), they make up for in uniqueness. It is a special place in terms of landscape, flora and fauna. Daniel Crokaert from Unfathomless had approached me about making something, and after thinking through a few different approaches, I decided I wanted to record somewhere that had its own natural character and landscape. I didn’t want to do a “typical” Australian landscape, for example desert, outback, etc, so the mountains seemed like a good choice.

Kosciuszko certainly has it’s own weather characteristics as well, which was an attraction for me. Summer here can be intense, so there was an ulterior motive of having a few weeks out of the city and getting some cooler mountain air!

You’ve mentioned that you opted to take a lighter recording rig with you, in order to work “quickly and informally”. What equipment did you take, and how did this particular set of equipment lend itself to a quicker, more informal means of recording sound?

I wanted to be able to travel and move around quickly, so I picked a few reliable pieces of equipment: Zoom H2, Tascam DR-60D, Rode NTG2, various binaural and contact mics, and headphones. I occasionally recorded on my phone and on an ancient Sony Mini Disc recorder.

All of this equipment is reasonably easy for me to carry around without it becoming a burden. The biggest piece of equipment is probably the Tascam recorder, but even that is almost handheld. I like to be able to record through multiple devices and mics at the same time, so this is pretty much the minimum I can take that will allow me to do this.

What that led you to decide that a more informal approach to recording would be most appropriate for this visit to the park?

It has worked for me very well in the past, so I’ve become quite comfortable with this approach and I tend to work this way frequently. With this release, there were some basic logistical matters to take into account – most of the locations used for recording required several hours walking to reach, so I didn’t really want to lug around too much equipment in addition to water, food, etc. Plus I like to look like I’m anything but a location recorder! Big microphones with windshields tend to attract people … I prefer to be incognito!

I find a low-key approach tends to result in informal recordings, but they are much more interesting to me. I guess I should say, I’m not particularly interested in a “purist” approach to field recording where you are attempting to record in as high fidelity as possible. I like listening to artists like Chris Watson, but for me I want to use field recordings in a musical, filmic way so it is much more efficient to work informally and quickly.

I regularly sense your presence within these pieces; either through the sound of footsteps, or through the clicks and creaks of the recording equipment. At one point I’m pretty sure I hear a bag unzipping, too. I really enjoy this aspect of the record, as I feel like I’m hearing your tactile interaction with this landscape – filtered through your experience as a listener/recordist – more than simply hearing the landscape itself. Do you have any thoughts on how your presence manifests on Ramshead? Did you contemplate the extent to which your “hand”, as the recordist, should be present within the frame?

I didn’t really think about it, but I guess it’s something that I like to incorporate. As I prefer a more informal approach, it’s highly likely that there will be all sorts of sounds leaking in … including bag zippers! Over the years I’ve embraced this much more, as I found that these were the more interesting elements in recordings that I’d made. They provide a context, and I like the ambiguity of location or intent they can create. I have a visual arts background, so it’s a little bit more familiar to me to push the formal boundaries, in the sense that it’s not too dissimilar to allowing a composition to be exposed or revealing mistakes.

It’s interesting, as I also see it as inevitable. You sometimes hear in relation to photography, a common phrase: “the camera never lies”. Well, I don’t agree with that at all. It shapes everything we see through it, as well as the context for how and what we see. Likewise, I think field recording is in a similar position. There will always be some form of subjectivity, the “hand” of the recordist. So why not embrace that?

There’s a particularly pleasant, moist popping sound at around 3:40 on “Dogman Hut, Leatherbarrel Creek”. I don’t suppose you can divulge what I’m hearing there?

I had to listen back to that track as I finished working on Ramshead a few months ago, but as soon as I heard it I remembered. It’s light rain on an umbrella that I had rigged with contact mics. The weather in Kosciusko changes quite quickly and there were some days where it felt like every season in one. There was one day where the temperature ranged from about 3 to nearly 40 degrees in 12 hours, with sun, rain, wind and everything else in between.

If any come to mind, could you tell me about any of the non-sonic aspects of your experiences in the park (images, smells or sensations) that are particularly protrusive in your memory?

Kosciuszko is really one of my favourite places, so I’m not sure I can do it justice. The weather, the landscape is so varied. It really is unlike anywhere else, but one thing that is definitely non-sonic are the smells. Some good; alpine ash, snowgums, alpine grasses after rain. Some not so good … a lot of wombat droppings!

You also talk about constructing a “sonic equivalent” to the extremities and densities of this environment. I often feel an oppressive heat hanging in the air of these pieces; no doubt that’s partly derived in the chorus layer of insect sounds, but I also sense an evocation of that thick, rippling air that epitomises the peak of summer for me. How did you go about evoking those sensations and landscape characteristics that aren’t normally transmitted (at least, not optimally) through the medium of sound?

Ahh, I’m not too sure on the methodology! I try not to over-analyse it, but what you have described really appeals to me: I always like to find a structural side to composition. To me it is a form of architecture or landscape. That sense of being able to build some sort of sonic structure, that almost has its own weight, form, and really feels tactile is something that I strive for. To me that is a key element of a piece of music. I’m not going to go out on a limb and definitively say it’s synesthesia, but the descriptions of auditory-tactile and spatial-sequence synesthesia sound very familiar to what I experience writing and making music. I don’t get colour or anything like that, but definitely texture, form, tactility and structure.

It also relates to your previous question about the presence of the recordist. I think the inevitable subjectivity or hand of the recordist is there to be exploited. It is essentially a fabrication, so constructing a sonic equivalent is almost like building a stage set. It ties in a lot to the ideas in some of my previous releases: “History of Violence” and in particular, “Appropriated Field Recordings from Temporary Data Sources”. That particular release was built from field recordings made in situ from digital games. Maybe you could listen and not know that? That’s really intriguing to me, as it provides an actual tangible sonic object that creates its own reality.

I’d love to know more about the process you took for editing these pieces. For me there’s an exploratory movement to how they unfold – the environment changes fairly quickly, and there are moments that feel akin to my head swivelling to ingest the view all around me. Can you tell me about what informed your approach to editing these pieces? Is there a balance to be struck between doing justice to your experience of Kosciuszko National Park, and producing a narrative that feels satisfactory in a compositional sense?

I think it is reflective of two things: one, that the Australian landscape is generally pretty intense. I mean, the amount of stimuli you can have in one place is overwhelming. The deafening chorus of cicadas in Summer is a pretty good example of how in-your-face it can be. Two, I think it is reflective of the time we live in. I don’t think there is any other way for me to deal with the sheer abundance of information and ways of interpreting and engaging with this information. It has to be a hyper-realist, maximalist, head swivelling.

Having said that, the sheer act of editing means there are compositional decisions. For me, I want to try and find some sort of balance, or as I mentioned earlier some sort of weight to the overall form. All of this is, of course completely subjective! But it is the essence of composition for me, and it can take a long time finding that balance between the place, and the composition. I guess one final aspect is that I like the idea of music revealing itself over time. That each listen reveals something extra, something you may not have noticed.

Can you tell me about a recent memorable listening experience?

There is so much great music out there at the moment, I really think we are pretty spoilt for choice. Here are a few highlights from the last few weeks:

Yiorgis Sakellariou in Aulis on Unfathomless and also Stikhiya on Cronica.

Astor – Astor

Bowditch ‎- Southend Objectified

Everything on Emmanuel Mieville’s Bandcamp

Lots of things on Marginal Frequency, in particular Fraufraulein and Andrea Borghi. Kindred by Joda Clement and Mathieu Ruhlmann is brilliant. I can’t listen to that enough at the moment.

Charles Mingus – Mingus plays Piano

What’s next for you and your music?

I have quite a few new things upcoming, but what is really exciting is the release of a whole batch of tapes on Hemisphäreの空虚. This is a tape label focusing on field recordings, phonology and acousmatic music, and will feature releases by myself, Leo Okagawa, and Masayuki Imanishi.

Also, Conurb, a piece for Linear Obsessional which is the result of hundreds of field recordings made here in Sydney, Australia. I guess it’s my ode to a city that has changed and grown quite a lot of the last decade. Similarly to Ramshead, there is a lot to sonically digest.

I’ve also got a few things upcoming on Verz Imprint and 1834 as well.