The haunting beauty of plunderphonics, field recordings and sonic art

By in Features





Maverick composer Janek Schaefer delves into his personal archives to deliver an era-spanning mix introducing the experimental art of found sound, from Brian Eno and John Cage to DJ Shadow.

Back in the early nineties, while I was studying architecture in Manchester and well before I discovered my interest in sound, I learned about the importance of context in creative process and production. I was drawn to artists like Gordon Matta-Clark, Rachael Whiteread, James Turrell and Andy Goldsworthy who worked with the materials around them in-situ. I also taught myself how to develop and print photographs with my inherited Nikon F1, capturing the light/image of a situation in a fraction of a second, and using the camera as a tool for adventure to explore my environment, to bump into chance observations.

In the mid ’90s while at The Royal College of Art, I swapped the camera for a tape recorder [as heard on track 32], which in many ways was the exact opposite. I loved how sound creates images that you cannot see, capturing an impression of spaces and places that can only be revealed again thought playback over time. In 1996, Touch Records put on an RCA lecture/concert with Philip Jeck [track 8], Panasonic, and Chris Watson [track 17], which was to prove very inspiring, as they all worked with found sound sources in different ways: vinyl, electricity, and microphones.

This C-90 style mixtape, entitled ‘New Dimensions In Time, Space and Place’, is a meander through my physical collection of works that have inspired me over the last 36 years, and I still enjoy. The loosely connecting themes explore found sound, ready-mades, collage, samples, sound design, sculpture, performance, field recordings, sonic art, appropriation, alteration, and accidents. The context of these sounds brings meaning to the works, and our understanding of that context brings the work to life when listening to it.

My first recollections of this realm were in my mid-teens, with the 1985 flexi disc by Steinski [track 39] that came on the cover of the NME, a cassette my dad had of flute playing inside the enormous reverb of the Great Pyramid, and listening to Jacques Tati [track 11] films my mum introduced me to when I was about 12.

All of the above experiences proved influential when I started making my own sound work in 1995. I have jotted down sleeve notes and thoughts for each track – and added the date, as its place in history has always interested me. I love how each era of technology can be heard within the tracks, which date back to 1929. Imperfection can be far more interesting than perfection.


01 > [00:00]
Janek Schaefer
‘What Light There Is Tells Us Nothing [for Robert Wyatt]’ [2018]

The title track from my debut album for Temporary Residence records this year. It comes from a commissioned installation by the Sounds New festival whose theme that year was the Canterbury Scene. They invited me to use Robert’s Cuckooland album as the source sounds to create a new work, with his blessing. Using several FM transmitters, I broadcast the music to a collection of battery operated retro boombox radios in the gallery, and incorporated lasers, glitter, feathers, and mirrors. You can view the exhibition film here.

02 > [01:36]
Robert Leiner [The Source]
‘Out of Control’ [1993]

On arriving in Manchester in 1990 to study architecture, I fell in love with the energy of dance music [at the No1 Club & The Hacienda, without pills], and listened to the flourishing ambient and electronica releases while working all night long making models etc. I loved how these genres incorporated recognisable sound samples within the easy beats and drifts. Robert Leiner released on R&S records out of Belgium, who were my favourite label at the time and who introduced us to the (never bettered) debut album from Aphex Twin. I chose this track as it inspired the title of this mixtape, and it’s a cracking album.

03 > [02:52]
Sam Annand
‘Cupar Grain Silo’ [2018]

A Scottish artist who is new to me, Sam Annand took part in a project working with sounds in reverberant deserted interior spaces. I spotted the new release while compiling this mix, and liked how he has composed using electronic rhythmic patterns that were designed to work within the 36-second reverb of the abandoned grain silo, composing for, and activating the delays and reverbs inherent in the structure. I believe this is a live performance in the silo, where you can hear the space vanishing slowly.

04 > [04:55]
Stephan Mathieu
‘Remain’ [2011]

I met Stephan playing at Mutek on the same evening in 2002. I was entranced by his elegant engulfing drones and jealous of how he appeared to be so economical in a performance that was so mesmerising, as I struggle sometimes not to overcomplicate things. This track is the first of 3 pieces in this mix that play back and record sound again and again into the same architectural space. It is a process of entropy. Stephan used several copies of my work ‘Extended Play’ deployed around his house, recording with ‘an entropic setup, spectral analysis and convolution processes’. I love durational pieces that ebb and flow and you can keep on loop for days. It creates its own place that you feel you can inhabit as it envelopes your environment, always moving onwards but staying in the same place. We made an album together in 2005 in the home of Sir John Tavener.

05 > [05:35]
Alvin Lucier
‘I am sitting in a room’ [1969]

Heralded as one of the iconic pieces of the 20th century, you can imagine how excited I was to first discover this, as it definitively places architecture and space at the centre of the work. It uses recording technology in a very simple way to reveal the site-specific qualities of that acoustic space.

06 > [08:30]
Jacob Kirkegaard
‘4 Rooms’ [2006]

I like this update to the previous piece as it was produced in abandoned spaces within the Chernobyl exclusion zone to reveal their emptiness. Jacob chose places that had formerly been social spaces, capturing and enhancing the voids.

07 > [10:35]
Harry Bertoia
‘Sonambient’ [1970]

This piece is as old as I am, and from the wonderful life’s work of Harry Bertoia in the US. He constructed dozens of sonic sculptures with long resonating rods that are tuned and, when agitated, activate the space in which they are played beautifully. There is a wonderful DVD out on Important Records of them being performed.

08 > [11:25]
John Cage
‘Imaginary Landscape 1’ [1958]

This is one of the earliest pieces for turntable composition/performance that I have a recording of. The composition is from 1939, but the only recorded version that has any sense of history is this performance at the Town Hall, New York, in 1958. You can hear the history in there, the acoustic of the hall, the quality of the recording and the early electric record players. I found it in an expensive Cage double CD that I bought from These Records in the late ’90s.

09 > [12:42]
Janek Schaefer
‘His Masters Voices’ [1997]

I invented my three tonearm, any speed, bi-directional, three level ‘Tri-phonic Turntable’ in the spring of 1997. I was inspired by seeing the video Philip Jeck showed in his lecture of his 180-record player masterpiece Vinyl Requiem, and decided to build the opposite. I premiered it outside Kylie and Jason’s recording studio on my birthday. In trying to find a way to ‘demonstrate’ what a three arm record player sounds like on the eve of the debut, I stumbled on an LP my mum had passed on to me of T.S.Eliot reading his own poem – a poem about time past, present, and future, which linked the concepts together neatly. You can hear the tone arms dropping one after the other across the stereo field as the disc rotates, revealing the revolving results.

10 > [15:58]
Janek Schaefer
‘I can hear myself’ [2016]

A little one from the family recordings archive here. I remember well the first time I put on headphones, pressed record and listened to how my environment sounded quite different through a microphone, compared to our own sensational hearing system. In the summer of 2016, I took my two kids on our little boat for a float on the Thames, and helped them experience their very first sound recording trip, as they listened to themselves discovering how it sounded. It appears they enjoyed it! I was a very happy father to have captured that moment.

11 > [18:22]
Jacques Tati
‘Trafic’ – soundtrack [1971]

I adore Jacques Tati. As mentioned in the introduction, I was introduced to his films in about 1982, and they only improve the more I watch and learn about them. Unlike albums, I rarely put on other films more than once. Tati’s dedication, production values, sense of humour, comic observations and use of sound are all a tour de force. He rarely used visual close ups, preferring the wide gaze of the lens, with the details brought to life with his foley and sound design, bringing them to the foreground. This is the audio from the motorway car cash scene.

12 > [19:25]
David Tudor
‘Rainforest’ [1968]

Vibrations take place in all things all the time. Transducers different to speakers in that they are designed to drive ‘sound energy’ through solids rather than the air. In Tudor’s ‘Rainforest’, a hotchpotch of objects hung in the space connected to a network of transducers that resonated them, create a very sophisticated lattice of localised sound around the entire room. A highly three dimensional sonic space.

13 > [20:50]
Janek Schaefer
‘Ashley rainforest’ [2012]

The outcome of a workshop I ran with thirty 8-year-olds from my children’s school, using their voices and bodies to create the sounds of a rainforest soundscape. The recordings were broadcast using several FM transmitters to a dozen retro radios in the school hall that students and parents could walk around and listen to.

14 > [22:44]
Janek Schaefer
‘Villanueva de la Concepcion’ [2006]

While on our holidays in Spain, we stayed in a tiny village in the hills. From the terrace, I could hear a distant cluster of bells in the valley below. Wandering down with my recorder I discovered a huge herd of goats wearing bells, making no bleating noises, silently ambling around, creating a pure cacophony.

15 > [24:17]
Charlemagne Palestine
‘La Beaute et la Bette’ [2007]

I had to follow the goat bells with Charlemagne’s delightful farmyard of animalistic noises!

16 > [27:44]
Francisco López
‘Wind [Patagonia]’ [2007]

Wind is everywhere, but I believe Patagonia is said to be one of the windiest places in the world. So send in Francisco to relish in its raw power.

17 > [29:12]
Chris Watson
‘Casa in Galapagos’ [2005]

Chris Watson travels the entire globe recording nature. So when I was creating Vacant Space, an installation amplifying recordings of empty interiors, I invited Chris to record indoors while on his adventures. Here he made it to an empty house on the Galapagos Islands.

18 > [30:03]
Francisco López
‘Buildings [New York]’ [2001]

Recordings from building interiors and structures including the World Trade Centre. This extract sounds like it could be a contact mic on the windows of the top floor, filtering the city outside up in the clouds.

19 > [31:10]
The Orb
‘Little fluffy clouds’ [1990]

Manchester. Summer of ’91. I’d just moved to my concrete flat in Hulme which cost me £6 a week, and I got hooked on this album. Good vibes for an exciting time. Matt Wand lived a few doors down but I didn’t find out until 1999 when he released my first 7”. ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ defined the era of chill-out rooms in clubs, uniting interview samples by Rickie Lee Jones, and instrumental samples from Steve Reich. It’s ann iconic track for me. I usually play it at the beginning of my Lucky Dip Disco parties.

20 > [33:33]
Steve Reich
‘Come Out’ [1966]

This is another classic inspired by early recording technology, which uses the inherent imperfection of tape recorders to stretch out the particles of speech as they slowly slip out of phase, each copy playing at a slightly different speed. An accidental process transformed into an idea for a revealing gem.

21 > [35:28]
Martin Arnold
‘Alone, Life Wastes Andy Hardy’ [1998]

There comes a tipping point in the history of all media technologies. This piece has added depth and meaning for me, as it was not digital, but a tactile, craftsman-like, physical, hands-on production during the early days of decent home computing. Arnold took original 35mm film and its associated optical track and hand-printed a succession of frames back and forth, revealing new interpretations in the found footage and the associated soundtrack. I first saw him present it at Avanto 2001 and was blown away.

22 > [38:26]
Christian Marclay
‘Maria Callas’ [1988]

Marclay is the most prominent artist to first refine the conceptual art of vinyl manipulation or turntablism. In this piece, he uses just the LP’s of super diva Maria Callas. I shared the stage opening for Christian at Sonar 2002, and after the gig was intending to go for dinner, when a friendly Spanish fan wanted to carry my custom TWIN turntable case for me, and the handle fell off as we headed out the door, and in the confusion dinner never happened. Marclay has just been announced as the composer-in-residence for the HCMF Festival in November 2018. His sculptural work with found objects is probably my favourite work of his.

23 > [39:24]
Martin Tetreault
‘Je suis a Londres‘ [1996]

Martin is from Montreal, and curated the Turntable Hell UK tour, which was a lot of fun. I like this piece from an LMC concert in 1996, which admirably represents his charming and fun personality. Narrative improvisation with a suitcase of found vinyl.

24 > [41:53]
DJ Shadow
‘Building steam with a grain of Salt’ [1996]

Plenty has been said about this elsewhere, but for me it’s an accessible, beautiful, and fluid concoction from found sources.

25 > [42:30]
Pierre Schaeffer
‘Etude aux Chemains de Fer’ [1948]

Tape came along during and after the Second World War, and Schaeffer was the first to have a go at cutting the portable recordings to vinyl and collaging the results. It’s a pure and primitive sonic exploration.

26 > [43:14]
‘Runaway Train’ [1948]

I picked up this single sided 12” on Ash International in the late ’90s. Simply a live recording of the train driver and dispatcher discussing the peril of the runaway in the US, moving fast through space, broadcast over radio.

27 > [45:27]
Marina Abramović & Ulay
‘Rest Energy’ [1980]

I have listened to the 15-CD autobiography of Abramović’s incredible life’s adventures. The quest for the ‘eternal moment’ that fused so well with Basinski’s oeuvre when they collaborated together. Abramović, I learned, has produced a number of sound art works, but I chose this piece, which is the close up sound of them both leaning back holding a bow and arrow. A powerful and elegant piece infused with proper peril captured in their breathing.


28 > [46:17]
Philip Jeck
‘Vinyl Requiem’ [1993]

At the RCA lecture in 1996, Philip showed a video of his Vinyl Requiem, and the idea dawned on me to create one record player (discussed in track 9) with several arms, in order to make my own found sound collages, and take it out the door to start to tour. By complete serendipity I was to learn that Philip had known me since I was a young child and we’d been on holiday together around 1979. One of my oldest friends! This extract is the sweet interlude solo Philip played in the middle of the Vinyl Requiem performance.

29 > [48:18]
William Basinski
‘Watermusic II’ [2003]

This is possibly my favourite of Basinski’s pieces, as it ebbs and flows in unfolding ways. He told me how he had this on shuffle mode around his space for a long time before releasing it. It made me smile as I like to do the same. I like William’s economy of means, and in our ongoing collaboration I am aiming to restrict my own impulses to do too much.

30 > [54:28]
Alan Lamb
‘Beauty’ [1986]

Lovely recordings from the Australian outback where Lamb purchased some abandoned telegraph poles and wires, and set about recording them with a contact micover time. This is the result. Most beguiling, and indeed very beautiful found sounds.

31 > [57:24]
‘Mass Observation’ [1994]

It’s exactly 20 years since I sat on a London double decker bus with my new girlfriend and got driven around London listening to Robin/Scanner capturing the mobile phone conversations in the airwaves live mixed into electronica textures. A super combination of my love for vocal samples/electronica and a live performance.

32 > [61:19]
Janek Schaefer
‘Recorded Delivery’ [1995]

My first sound art work. Inspired by the exhibition taking place in a self-storage building, it features a sound activated and auto-edited recording over night of the parcel moving though the post office to the room of the installation, captured on a single C-90 cassette. From the beginning to the end of the journey, I first saw the opportunity to pitch ideas for the show in the lift at the RCA. I wanted to do something with sound for the show, and realised that a self-storage facility is all about the secret life of boxes that end up in secret rooms. At that moment in time I was meant to be re-designing the Post Office for an architecture project with my tutor Ben Kelly, but the magical post office I felt was something to be celebrated rather than changed, so this was my submission! It was released on Matt Wand’s label Hot Air, on red 7”. The exhibition was curated by Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson, and produced by the wonderful site specific facilitators Artangel, in London.

33 > [66:36]
Stock Hausen and Wallkman
‘Bye Me, Sue Me 7” [1997]

This is Matt’s masterpiece of locked grooves: multiple samples of the word ‘Me’ from popular films and songs. Endless fun, and a classic, again purchased from These Records in south London, which was such a great and important shop in my early record shopping legacy.

34 > [68:54]
Brian Eno
‘Fullness of Wind’ [1975]

Eno was there at the start of my career, and this is my favourite piece of his from the start of his ambient career. Tape manipulation of recordings of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Gradual evaporation and elongation and looping of the acoustic source sounds. You can almost hear the spools spinning. A divine use of found sound through sheet music for a composition from 1680 as the source material.

35 > [72:22]
Janek Schaefer
‘Radio 101 FM’ [2013]

When I discovered that JG Ballard lived just over the river, I was preparing to go and say hello, but by 2009 I was just too late. At the end of his road is the M3 motorway, that was built past his house in the early ’70s. This must certainly have been a big inspiration for his novels Concrete Island and Crash. There is a little magical concrete footbridge at the end of his road that passes over the motorway that I used to take my kids to when they were young, to watch the traffic to and from London in Ballard’s shadow. One late night I made some location recordings on the bridge of the passing traffic for my Asleep at the Wheel installation, and these became the backbone of my album Lay-by Lullaby. You can listen to the wisdom of many different knowledgeable people discussing the future of our global culture from the Asleep at the Wheel soundtrack. Download it for free here.

36 > [74:58]
Janek Schaefer
‘Is this Just?’ [2003]

Composed for ‘60 Artists Protest the War’. 60 x 1min responses to war, released by Atak records, Tokyo.

37 > [17:58]
John Duncan
‘Hymn’ [1996]

I was in Valencia for a festival show with Robert Hampson, and witnessed a John Duncan performance for shortwave deep dark drones in the middle of the day in an enormous tent in the hot town square. It was quite a wonderful experience. Again this is found sound from the ether caught and repurposed in real time. Mind expanding stuff live.

38 > [77:54]
Charlemagne Palestine
‘schlongo!!!daLUVdrone’ [1998]

This is an epic organ piece from Valentine’s night in LA. A couple of years previously I had one my earliest ‘experimental’ concert experiences in a church near Waterloo station, London. Charlemagne Palestine was in town, and it turned out to be a formative concert. Charlemagne played a field recording from Brooklyn where he grew up, announced it, and began to walk around the perimeter of the pews. Then he started to jog, and then sprint as fast as he could.

Then he did some piano, but finally went up to the organ, held notes, then chords, all held with cardboard between the keys, and it took for what seemed like a lifetime for him to bring in the bass (20mins). The whole church was massaged with sound energy waves, occupying every crevice, truly playing the room – and it was immersive. I wanted to create those sonic ‘spaces’ my way and in 2008/9 I went to make an album at his new warehouse studio in Brussels. At the second visit he did not feel in good shape to make music, so I worked around the problem and suggested we take my gift of a set of tuned desk bells out to the local café, and have a drink and play the bells for passers by!…. the results are here.

39 > [82:18]
Steinski interview
‘The Motorcade Sped On’ [1985]

I received this track on the cover of the NME as a give away 7” flexi and loved its cut-up collage musical vibes. This is an extract of an interview with Steinski on Jon Nelson’s ‘Some Assembly Required’ radio show based in Minneapolis. You can listen to the whole podcast series themed on cut ups and plunderphonics via iTunes.

40 > [85:50]
John Oswald
‘Power’ [1975]

Some say this is the first hip-hop track. Either way, it certainly is a powerful early plunderphonic piece by a master of the art.

41 > [86:09]
John Oswald
‘z24’ [1993]

Here Oswald was asked to come up with something ‘Straussy’ for a commission. So, obviously, he collected every known recording (24 copies) of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ and overlaid them on top of each other. Sweet and simple – and Straussy, for sure!

42 > [86:58]
Janek Schaefer
‘Minneapolis Office Max Messages’ [2003]

While Composer in Residence for the American Composers Forum in Minneapolis, I needed to buy a very lightweight recording device to tie to a weather balloon so I could record the clouds. I went to Office Max as they had every model out on display to try out. One little one caught my eye. I was told it was the last one in the shop, so persuaded him to sell me that display model. In the car outside I opened it up to discover a series of test messages that had been left by other shoppers. It was an amazing variety… what on earth do they all choose to say when they can say anything at all! I love serendipity, so this was a golden moment. The last spoken word sample is from the radio I recorded there and then in the car, about the satisfaction of making things work.

43 > [88:42]
Jonty Semper
‘One Minute Silence Remembrance Sunday’ [1929]

Finally, an ancient recording full of texture and history within ancient equipment, of one minute’s silence at the Cenotaph in London, and Big Ben striking the passing of time.

Janek Schaefer (For Robert Wyatt) – What Light There Is Tells Us Nothing is out now on Temporary Residence.