10 New Year Tips for Sound Artists and Field Recordists (inspired by ‘The Painter’s Primer’)

Many of you will be familiar with John Cage’s famous 10 Rules for Students and Teachers from 1968, which are a constant source of inspiration.  Recently I have come across a similar set of good advice through a different discipline (painting). This blog post recirculated the advice of Irwin Greenberg, a teacher at the High School of Art & Design and the Art Students League of New York who passed away in 2009 age 87.  Although we work with audio and not visual arts, I believe some of the best tips and advice can come from cross-pollination with other disciplines, and as such I dived into the long list (100!) to find a lot of advice easily applicable to any creative pursuit. Some I don’t necessarily agree with, but others are great.  The 10 I have picked and listed below are the ones that in my opinion are wonderful advice and encouragement for us sound artists at the start of a new year:


1. “1) Paint every day.”  – Or, record every day.  I know, I know.  This is far harder than it sounds.  Who can find the time?  Yet we must try to make the time, and if recording is not happening, at the very least sit down and do some editing every day.  Failing that, read up or do some online training.

2. “9) Develop a sense of humour about yourself.” – Too much sound art is far, far too serious and some of its representatives take themselves far, far too seriously.  Lighten up, and the discipline will soar.

3. “15) Know your art equipment and take care of it.” – This made me smile, it could have been written for us recordists really.  Go back to basics in these quiet winter months.  Clean your equipment if it needs it, and give it some love.  Do you know how to use all the functions in your recorder?  Have you genuinely tried them all out?  If not, that may be something to explore if you have no recording ispiration (see 1).  This rule leads nicely into:

4. “16) Have a set of materials ready wherever you go.” –  Make it portable, make it battery-ready, don’t leave it at home.

5. “21) Prizes are nice, but the real competition is with yesterday’s performance.” – Who doesn’t like a nice pat on the back, after weeks recording in the cold or slaving away at the laptop on your own?  But if you feel that’s what your work is geared towards, you’re on the wrong path.  Turn back before you lose track of why you do this, and what you have to say with your work.  I have seen colleagues becoming positively aggressive and petty over competitions, and it’s not a good look- those should see n. 9.

6. “37. Find the artists who are on your wavelength and constantly increase that list.” I like this a lot.  It’s not just about the obvious networking element, but about kinship, companionship and moral support.  Since what we do comes (or at least should come) from the heart, seeking the friendship of others who feel like us and share our working principles should help lighten the load.

7. “50. If you’re at a loss for what to do next, do a self-portrait.” – or an audio portrait, there are some interesting examples on Soundcloud.  Or study and truly listen to what’s around you, and what your ears have perhaps become too accustomed to.

8. “72. Let your picture welcome the viewer.” – Sound art works and even field recordings can be self-indulgent, overlong, or obnoxiously self-referential.  If your piece is not just for your own pleasure, then it is your duty to also think of the listener and find a suitable way to invite them in.

9.  “77. If what you have to say is from your deepest feelings, you’ll find an audience that responds.” – I believe this is true of any work of art, any public talk, any human relationship.  Be genuine, because if you’re not it will always, always show.

10. “95. When painting outdoors, sit on your hands and look before starting.” – Listen first, record later.

These are just some of my favourites.  Have you read Irwin Greenberg’s list, and what are your picks?

4 thoughts on “10 New Year Tips for Sound Artists and Field Recordists (inspired by ‘The Painter’s Primer’)

  1. I like number 4. I have a tiny little clamshell case that carries a zoom h1 and a tiny shotgun and fuzzy windscreen that fits over the end of the recorder and mic, and a set of earbuds. Fits in my backpack or coat pocket. Or if I wanna go super light and simple just wrap the windmuff on the zoom and put it in my pocket. It’s something I learned from photography. Sometimes being as simple as possible to the basics or limiting your equipment can be a relaxing refresher to keep the creativity going. Number 10 is my fave, I always look before photographing or sometimes don’t even click the camera and just enjoy the sight. Number 1 is helping me getting back into doing audio again really well. Number 7 is really nice too I was doing some sounds of a toilet flushes of all things the other day.

    • Hi Emily, thanks for stopping by and for your comment. I like your idea of the deadcat wrapped around the zoom, I might try that next time! N. 10 is so true, sometimes there can be an eagerness to just ‘get something’, to the detriment of actually listening out for what’s best. And as for the self-portrait…whether voice, biog, toilet flushes…whatever works!

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