Interview Peter Cusack

Das Gespräch fand am 6. November 2012 in Peter Cusacks Privatwohnung im Berliner Prenzlauer Berg statt.

Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein

When did you start recording?

I have always been interested in music. I have been a musician for most of my life. And also in wildlife, when I was a child I was obsessed by bird-watching. And so I first became interested in field-recording in order to record wildlife sounds. This was in the seventies. And at that time the machines became more accessible. And then if you try to record wildlife particularly in countries like the UK or Holland, you realize the world is full of other sounds as well which are louder than wildlife. So have to take account of all the sounds in the environment. And from there I became interested in environmental soundscapes in general. So from that point I became active in recording any kind of sound and was interested in acoustic ecology and the relationships that we have with our soundscapes within urban areas and rural areas.

You say you are interested in all kinds of sounds. Yet when you are recording, are you looking for a specific sound?

Well, sometimes, when I have a job to record a particular sound then I need to record that sound. But actually I am more interested in place. So I go to a place and record what I find there. And often you find things that are unexpected or a surprise. And often you find things which are completely normal and expected.

Can you give me an example for a surprise?

Well, last weekend I visited a supermarket in Neukölln, and I happened to be there at the time when one of the employees was straightening the rows of wine bottles on the shelves. And he did it all along every shelf and they have a big wine department. All the bottles clinked different pitches, and those were actually very beautiful sounds. And fortunately I had my recorder with me and I recorded it. That was a surprise. A pleasant one.

Did the person notice that you were recording?


You mentioned sound ecology. For me this term is two-folded. There is the aspect of awareness. Then there is the aspect of maintaining endangered sounds. Are these two aspects of sound ecology as well?

Well, it's a little bit complicated. Today there is acoustic ecology, there is soundscape ecology, there are five or six different terms that people use, which mean virtually the same thing. And some such people are certainly interested in sound preservation. It is not one of my first interests. I am much more interested in researching the relationship between humans and the soundscape or between all living beings and the soundscape. Because for me they are all completely interrelated. I am just as much interested in how the soundscape changes and in the new sounds that come along as well as the old ones that we might be losing.

So you are not against new sounds?

No, not at all.

When you talk about the humans relating to the soundscape, do you mean the listener of your pieces? Or the human in the soundscape.

I mean the human in the soundscape. Because we hear. Our ears are working 24 hours a day for the whole of our lives. And so we listen even when we are asleep. So the sounds that are around us have an enormous effect on our lives. And that's the relationship I am interested in. You know, ideas about what would be a positive soundscape to live in or a depressing soundscape or a pleasant one. If you have to plan a new area for building, how can you plan that in such a way that it creates a human scale soundscape. And those are issues which interest me.

I want to ask about how you record. Do you have your headphones on? Do you search for places that sound interesting? Or do you leave your microphone and walk away?

I do all of that and more. I mean I do recordings standing still, recordings when I am walking, recordings when I have left the microphone and moved away keeping an eye on it. Whatever is possible, I think I have probably tried it.

Are the results different?

Yes, it does make a difference. If you walk around then clearly the place you are in changes. So the soundscape is changing not just because the soundscape is changing but because your position as a recordist is changing. So if you walk through a selection of different buildings or streets, you get very different acoustic sounds as you move from going into one building or out of it again onto the street or into a narrow passage way, you hear very different acoustic spaces. Which if you stood in one place you would not get. So whatever is appropriate is the one for the project.

When you record wildlife is it important to go in way in order to not scare off the animals?

Well, clearly you can't get to close to an animal without it running or flying away. But sometimes you can, that is part of the skill of being a wildlife recordist. How to get the microphone close to the animal. And again there are several different ways you can do it. You can observe birds singing. Individual birds often sing from the same place. So once you have discovered that, you put a microphone there with a long cable. And sit and wait. Or equally you can be very quiet and move toward a bird. Nightingales in Berlin you can get very close to and they don't seem to mind. So it depends on the birds or the animals. Or you can just sit in a hut or a tent for three days and hope they come near you.

The camouflage technique. The microphone is a mediator. What you capture is like a photo. It is not the reality, but a picture of the reality. How important is it for you to reflect on this?

I am not particularly worried about the philosophy of that. I mean, I think everybody knows that. It is not such a big issue. I mean you can make it into a big issue. But for me it isn't. Most people spend their time thinking of the nature of the recording and not the nature of the microphone or the recording process. So I am not especially bothered by that.

Why do you go to dangerous places? Do they sound dangerous?

Not necessarily. Depends where you go. And a dangerous place in this context, in the context of my project is a place of major environmental damage. It doesn't mean it is dangerous to you personal. It might be. But it has to do with environmental danger, not personal danger. [...] In the context of my dangerous places projects, danger means environmental danger. So places of great environmental damage. Such as the Chernobyl exclusion zone or oil fields along the Caspian Sea or smaller places in the UK like around nuclear power stations or big waste dumps. And the reason I have been recording that has been that I am interested in those as environmental issues. And it seems to me that sound is one way of exploring the issue. I am interested in what the sounds are, but I am equally interested in what the sounds might tell you. And for me it is a kind of a sonic journalism. Like an aural equivalent to photo journalism. So if you explore the soundscape of Chernobyl for example, you will hear that the dawn choruses and the wildlife sounds there are absolutely fantastic. Full of life. Full of vitality. So that tells you, that the nuclear accident there has not really had too much effect on most of nature. It has had some effect. But nature has recovered. But it has recovered mostly because all the people have left. It really has nothing to do with anything nuclear. But that is interesting. Another sound I found in Chernobyl that I did not expect was the sound of people. 200.000 villagers were evacuated from the Chernobyl exclusion zone. And of course they took their songs and their folklore with them. So I recorded them singing in villages now well away from Chernobyl, some of those people went back to live there. They live there now. Some people never left, in fact. They have their songs, too. And I never new that it is a big folklore area, but it is. And I recorded them singing there. And that tells you about the lifestyle and the kind of people of those who were affected by the Chernobyl accident. That is something you rarely hear about in Western media. So those are sonic, and I discovered those things through my ear rather than through other means. Another example from Chernobyl, the first I actually recorded there was the sound of electricity crackling in overhead power cables. Well, I didn't know why that sound was there. Because I knew that the reactors in Chernobyl had been closed down, so they should not have been producing electricity. So why was this electricity flowing, which I could hear. Well, the answer is, in fact, the electricity is coming from outside. So all the work that is still going on in Chernobyl, of course it needs power from somewhere. So Chernobyl is now a drain on the rest of Ukraine's power sources, but not producing anything itself. It is just kind of taking energy from elsewhere. And you can hear that if you listen. So I wouldn't have asked the questions about the power without hearing the crackling electricity. So if you keep your ears open then you find a lot of information, and there are questions that come up that you might not ask if you were just involved with your eyes or with some kind of written information. So for me this idea of sonic journalism has been very important and it can apply to many things, not just to dangerous places. But it was through the dangerous places project that I got the idea.

When I listening to it, I was thinking, well, this could be dripping water from anywhere in the world, but knowing that it was recorded in Chernobyl it became very threatening. The dripping water seemed to be polluted and radioactive and I mustn't touch it.

With sound you need other information. You need a small text or a photograph. And that is the same with photo journalism. Often there is a title or a text that goes with it, or it is part of a larger piece in a magazine, where another journalist has written a text also. I don't see a problem with that at all. If you trying to discuss an issue then you use as many media as gets the idea across, I think. So for me sound in this context often needs a backup from an image or some written texts. But that is not a problem; it is how it should be.

So can you actually imagine a magazine with a text and pictures and also soundfiles.

Yes, you can find them already on the internet. Obviously with print that is not going to happen. But with new media that already does happen. And I assume it will happen more as time goes on. And even more interestingly, as people use their phones or iPads or whatever to access all this information when they are in the places concerned, you can actually bring sounds to play back in the same space that you are discussing. So you can use GPS and locative media to bring sound information as well as visual or text information. The future of this area interests me very much, and it is still in the very beginning, but it could go quite a long way, I think.

I wanted to ask something about editing and the composition process.

Well, they are not really composed. I mean there are big choices, because usually one records for quite long periods. So you have to edit out a smaller part, and you choose the one which you think is the most clear or effective. Sometimes it is the nicest sounding recording. Sometimes also events happen very slowly and there is a long gap where nothing else is happening, in which case I might edit something from the middle because you can't use up a whole CD track waiting for something to happen. It is not good in that context. So there is an edit in the middle to make sure you don't have to wait too long for the next thing to happen. But I don't change the order of the events. And I don't process it so it sounds different. But I do do a lot of editing. And then the choice of the order of tracks on the CD is also very important. I try to make a kind of journey through these places. And, of course, the order of that is very important. And it often turns out that I use the same order I made the recordings in reality. But not always.

I remember that some recordings from dangerous places were made in different decades even.

Yes, that is right.

It is almost like a time journey.

It is important that I go to places a number of times, if that is practical. It is not always practical. But I prefer to go many times. Because you just make more interesting stories and recordings that way.

Apart from the dangerous places there are more nature-oriented, places not heavily populated by humans. Is that important for you?

No, not really. For me the intersting relationship is between wildlife and humans. Because most of the world is populated by humans it is kind of unavoidable that you get human sounds in your nature recordings. And today, especially in Western Europe or highly developed countries, there is almost nowhere you can go where there isn't a human sound. It's just virtually impossible to find. Sometimes if you are lucky. But what is interesting is the wildlife in cities. In London for example the variety of wildlife inside the city is actually greater now than outside the city. Because the farming practice around London is very high tech and so there are huge fields and tons of chemicals, and that is not good for wildlife. The wildlife has moved into London, into people's gardens. So actually you can make more interesting wildlife recordings inside the city. And the same applies in Berlin. Berlin has some places inside the city which are very good for wildlife. Along the Spree at Rummelsburg for example. Very good bird song in the spring time. So I don't need to go to some remote part to record wildlife. In fact, it is rather more interesting how you record wildlife within an urban context. Although I have been to remote places, like Lake Baikal in Russia.

And you did find animals there.

Well, actually not that many. But there were some, yes.

Now you see foxes in the daytime even. One more thing about the editing. There is one special piece. It is a collaboration with Max Eastley.

Yes. Well, that has a 25 year span in the making. Max is a kinetic artist and sound sculptor. He makes pieces often where he uses the wind or flowing water as the energy source. I mean he also makes pieces for electric motors, but many of his works are for natural energy sources. That means he is also very interested in the environment. He has made a wind harp. When you put it somewhere you become intimately concerned with whether the wind is actually going to blow or not. He has done exhibitions and he put a wind harp up and there was no wind for a week. So nobody actually hears it. But these are all issues to do with using the wind and natural energy. And he also makes many field recordings. So we collaborated. In most cases on that CD we mixed and combined and composed pieces. So that is not straight recordings, it is not documentary like some of my other projects.

Were you working together in studio?

Well, again, it was very varied. We actually did work quite a lot together, but we also worked seperately. I tended to do more of the editing, because that is my area of skills. But of course I would always ask Max if he thought it was OK. So we always had to agree on the final results. And Max, he makes the instruments that create the sounds. That is not my thing. There are areas where we work differently. But most of it was done together, I would say.

Some of these pieces seam almost narrative or a sujet.

Yeah, that is true. It is an issue of coherence. Both of us are musicians, and that is a very musical approach I would say. So I guess it shows in what we have done.

When you talk about the artistic production and journalistic production, do you make a difference?

Well, they are two different things, but they are also related. Because of the way that you hear and listen. In my view we have two basic listening modes. One is aesthetically, like we do in music and where we are concerned with what is going on inside the sound and whether it is harmonious or balanced or whatever. And the other mode, which is the more usual one, is more documentary type listening, where we identify the source of the sound. We are interested in the information it gives us. For example if it is a car, whether the car is going fast or slow, whether it is coming toward us or going away, because, of course, partly our survival depends on that kind of listening. Which is quite different from the aesthetic. But they mix and there is a middle where they overlap and I think the CD with Max Eastley is exploring the middle area, where you hear both things about the tracks at the same time. And you feel yourself wavering about "what is he doing" or just enjoying the actual sound. Those areas where they overlap have always been interesting for me.

You mentioned the enthusiasm of the young boy watching birds. Is that enthusiasm still there?

I don't think I have ever lost my enthusiasm for recording. And that is still very much the case. I was recording yesterday. And you can get very drawn in by a soundscape and quite excited by the small things that you find. So yes, it is just the same.

It keeps you going?

For me by far the most pleasurable part in all this stuff is the actual recording. To be out there with the microphone, just listening and recording. There is nothing else in any of the complex parts of making pieces or CDs that I enjoy more.

What comes after that is work.

Kind of, yeah.