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Originally published September 30, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 30, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Aural auteurs | The sonic artists of the Seattle Phonographers Union

The audience gathers at one edge of a clearing inside West Seattle's Camp Long. The performers huddle around a table at the other edge...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Coming up

Members of the Seattle Phonographers Union will perform at 8 tonight in the "marvelously reverberant" Building 27 at Warren G. Magnuson Park, 7400 Sand Point Way N.E.; free, $5 optional donation (www.kazbar.org/spu).

The audience gathers at one edge of a clearing inside West Seattle's Camp Long. The performers huddle around a table at the other edge, about 20 yards away, on the other side of an algae-caked pond, obscured by trees.

If distance and geography aren't enough of a disconnect, the posture of the six performing members of the Seattle Phonographers Union takes it a step further. They simply stare at their laptop and MP3 screens, immersed in a free-form jam and melding their sound collections of everyday life.

Over the next hour, the still of the woods becomes awash in duets: the growl of a lawn mower with waves lapping shore; gurgling water wending down hollow pipe with a bird's song; something creaking toward a snap with someone shouting down an empty hallway. On it goes, somehow skirting cacophony. Eventually the wind — the real wind — blows in, adding rustling leaves to the ensemble. It is odd to be sure, but, at times, oddly captivating.

Sound, whether melody, words or noise, signifies life. While sight is a matter of reflected light, sound might as well be a verb. Someone or something makes it happen. Just listen. The flapping of wings, a whoosh of wheels on pavement, the drone of a drill, the hum of electricity, the moaning of violin strings, the prattle of a coffee shop crowd. In that respect, the phonographers' purposefully muted presence made sense. They were playing at the annual Arts in Nature Festival, after all, and wanted to make their footprints light. But more than that, the sounds are all that mattered to them. The union is a loose-knit collective of sound artists, composers and "recordists" who tap into the "sonic environment." They mine, harness and highlight what most of us have conditioned ourselves to tune out or at least categorize in a snap. They wander through the woods and crowds, into industrial plants and below bridges, anywhere that makes sound. Armed with digital recorders, they search for power within the pedestrian, that moment inside the mundane.

Phonography literally means "sound-writing," and members of the union agree to keep the sound pure and unprocessed during their collaborations as a group. But many of them bend and crank and enhance sound when doing their own CDs, arts installations, radio broadcasts and other projects.

In the real world, sound is just sound, or even worse, noise. Phonographers, though, find the soundscape especially vast and nuanced. Some are captivated by nature and earth sounds. Some see themselves as historians, capturing events like the WTO riot or chronicling what time and society have rendered obsolete, from typewriters to steamships. Some just angle for that tone our ears seem to miss.

It was tempting to identify each sound wafting through the trees of Camp Long. That's what brains do. Was that the sound of a chair being dragged across a hardwood floor or ice breaking up in Antarctica? That misses the point, say phonographers. Just listen.

Steve Peters is a member of the union and director of Nonsequitur, a nonprofit organization presenting experimental music and sound art. To him, field recording is a "way of listening to the world." In fact, he lately has taken to recording empty rooms, like "Silent Room" at the Greenwood Library (http://steve-peters.blogspot.com/).

"I have been trying to go deep enough to find the something inside the nothing," he says. "For me, it is about paying attention to our lives. I think we can go deeper and deeper and be surprised by what we find."

Steve Barsotti, academic director of audio production at the Art Institute of Seattle, is not a musician but makes his own instruments using found materials like nails, springs, strings and slabs of wood. By attaching contact microphones, he amplifies and reveals dinks, donks and twangs his concoctions produce.

He is also fascinated by life's tones, like the changing sounds of the Fremont Bridge through it's various retrofits. One recent Sunday morning he listened to the Ballard Bridge. He set up on the stairwell beneath the northwest end and placed contact microphones on the steel handrails, which served as conduits. His recorder collected the roiling friction of tires over pavement and the panting of idling cars and wind after the raised bridge deck stopped traffic.

He later stuck his recorder beneath a pile of leaves and junk in case it was hiding some unique sound. Something might be unique enough to use in a performance or on a CD. He used sounds of a can opener, a radiator, an old squeaking chair and some of his invented instruments for his debut solo album, "Say tin-tah-pee-mick."

As with all field recorders, Barsotti says our ears are both underappreciated and underused.

"If there is a really loud crash behind you, you turn around to see what happened," he says. "But your ears made you realized there was something you needed to pay attention to. We rely on our eyes mostly, but our line of sight is limited. Our ears work at 360 degrees."

Phonographers tend to point their ears in distinct directions. Jonathan Way lives in Seattle but makes most of his recordings in the Selkirk Mountains of northeast Washington where he grew up. He doesn't think of them as nature recordings, but his approach has helped him appreciate it, like the time he happened upon two bear cubs in a tree.

"I first saw the mother run across the road, and as I was trying to get recordings of her running through the brush, I noticed I was hearing much closer sounds of other bears ... That's when I saw that her two small cubs had climbed into a nearby tree."

Lately, he has focused on "tree recordings" using contact microphones that pick up physical vibrations more than sound waves.

Chris DeLaurenti is a composer and a sound artist whose style is both academic and head-on. His albums include frontline recordings of the WTO riots and surreptitious eavesdropping at intermissions of symphony performances. He recently circled a University District power station, trying to pick up electromagnetic readings from a power station using coils developed by fellow sound artist Toby Paddock.

In fact, sound art is as vibrant as it is diverse here.

Doug Haire, a member of the union, produces and engineers Sonarchy Radio on Seattle's KEXP-FM (90.3), a show dedicated to alternative music and sounds. One of his live shows was "Phonographers Union Live on Sonarchy Radio," including nine local field recorders. It became an album. Peters' Non-Sequitur provides a live venue and Dale Lloyd, a former rock musician, operates a label called and/OAR that promotes environmental sound and alternative music albums.

Lloyd says it is a matter of opening our minds along with our ears.

"Years ago I wanted to capture acoustics in the lobby of the bank I went to," he recalls. "I asked the manager if I could record. She was very surprised. She didn't know what to make of it. But she said OK. After a while, she came back to me and said, 'I had never noticed the sounds my shoes make when I walk across this marble floor or the sounds this building makes.'

"It was like she was listening for the first time."

Richard Seven: 206-464-2241 or rseven@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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