Far Afield

With Quiet American, Aaron Ximm transforms the whole world into a recording studio

On the introduction to John Cage's 1965 album Variations IV, a narrator quotes the composer: "Music is all around us, if only we had ears. There would be no need for concert halls if man could learn to enjoy the sounds that envelop him, for example, at Seventh Street and Broadway at 4 p.m. on a rainy day." Cage's idea was radical then, maybe more so today -- with Walkmans and Muzak, man-made music is more omnipresent than ever. Environmental sound is just interference to be overcome by better headphones or a louder sound system.

Imagine then a genre of music -- or maybe we should say, aural material that people listen to through speakers -- made up entirely of naturally occurring sounds, created by the world itself. An "unproduced" music fashioned from that which we attempt to drown out. The commercial implications are, need we say, less than earth-shattering.

For the most part, the genre's existence is still rather nebulous. The number of well-known found sound artists is next to nil, and only the bravest of record shops maintains a "field recordings" section (Aquarius is one of the few). But San Franciscan Aaron Ximm is convinced of the style's validity. He spends as much time and energy making his songs -- or self-contained movements -- as many studio musicians do. His albums just happen to be composed of sounds created unintentionally. He calls his project Quiet American, and he uses his Web site, www.quietamerican.org, to share his work with others and champion the idea that recordings of everyday life merit deep listening, perhaps even as music.

Last December, Ximm opened his SOMA loft for "Field Effects," an entire evening of field recordings presented by Bay Area artists. Even with the significant number of works offered that night and the existence of found sound sites such as www.earthear.com, Ximm stops short of asserting that there's a bona fide scene emerging around these roving recordists.

"It's weird -- I got a cold-call e-mail from these guys in England who were trying to put together a label whose whole mission was to put out people who were doing processing of field recordings without the resources of a full studio," he says via phone the week following the event. "The fact that they thought this was a viable context for a label just blew my mind. But the more I get into it and look around for others who do similar stuff, the more I realize there are actually quite a few artists who work in this area."

It became clear during "Field Effects" that material presented under the field recording umbrella encompasses a wide breadth of forms and compositional styles. Some of the source matter seemed heavily edited and processed with software, while other pieces sounded completely undoctored. If amplified more, many of the works could have come from a noise scene performance, with their unidentifiable sources, nonlinear structures, and call for long attention spans. Ximm's set was different. He used a mixer to fade between two MiniDisc players like a club DJ would, piecing together a vaguely narrative flow out of untreated recordings of a recent trip to Burma. The resulting collage was pretty, elegant, and didn't require hard work to appreciate -- an accessibility he attributes to his teenage years spent listening to Rush, Yes, and King Crimson.

"Without really thinking about it, I have tended to create things that are able to compel people in the manner of a pop song, which I think is a reflection of the way I grew up," he says. "If you listen to rock radio for 15 years, you come away with this idea that tracks are a certain length and you alternate your hard rock and your ballads."

In the way that a prog-rock concept album takes the listener on a journey, Ximm's tracks re-create the places he's visited. His 1999 album, Vox Americana (available like all his works on MP3 for free, or on CD-R for barter or $10), is the story of riding trains, enduring storms, and wandering through the towns of Vietnam. "Looking back on Vox Americana, in some weird way if you squinted with your ears enough, it's almost like -- I hate to say it -- a Dokken album or something," he observes with a chuckle. "That's not what I set out to create, but it eventually turned out that way."

By referencing Dokken's heavy metal bombast, Ximm doesn't mean that the sounds on Vox Americana resemble electric guitars or power ballads, just that he assembles the material to impart a sense of drama and flow. He keeps the original sounds basically unaltered, so that all the melodies and rhythms come from the bells, chanting voices, hammers, creaking doors, railroad tracks, and dialogue he's recorded. By editing, arranging, and repeating particular snippets, Ximm achieves an ebb and flow, giving a sense of natural space to the listening experience, especially while wearing headphones. "Circumlocution," for example, begins with footsteps echoing down the hall of Ximm's hotel, and then expands into a flurry of street noises, a voice groaning "Oh my God," and a brief snippet from overheard traditional Vietnamese musicians.

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