Stephen Cornford: Music for Earbuds

Stephen Cornford's Music for Earbuds provides an interesting case study vis-à-vis musical reception: heard in the absence of any context as a pure listening experience, the recording induces a dramatically different response in the listener than if he/she knows what is actually being listened to and how the sound artist brought it into being. That it's issued on 3LEAVES might suggest that it's a field recordings-based recording, and certainly some of the sounds that appear during its thirty-five-minute run sound like wildlife sounds captured in the natural world. But how, then, would one account for the title, which, interpreted literally, might be taken to mean that the recording needs to be heard via headphones in order for its details to be fully appreciated.

In fact, all such reasonable assumptions turn out to be somewhat off-the-mark, as Music for Earbuds is a work that Cornford, currently an exhibiting installation artist and Research Fellow at the Sound Art Research Unit of Oxford Brookes University, composed entirely from headphones feedback generated by those familiar earpieces (Cornford's liner note reads, in part: “These pieces were assembled exclusively from unprocessed acoustic recordings of the feedback between a single earbud microphone and a cassette walkman tape head”). It's not the first work Cornford's presented, of course, with a representative one such as 2011's Binatone Galaxy, whereby dozens of obsolete cassette players fill the room with the whirr of their automatic fast-forwarding and rewinding, having preceded it.

The five pieces on Music for Earbuds (numbered rather than formally titled) pair settings that are heavily electronic-sounding in their makeup (the buzzing noises that unrelentingly thrum, pan, and grind for three minutes in the opening piece versus the minimal, high-pitched tones that resonate like electrical wires throughout the austere second) with one that strongly resembles a conventional nature-based field recording. This piece, placed at the recording's center and the longest at fifteen minutes, powerfully evokes a nature setting such as an aviary or forest, and a diverse array of bird and insect species is documented within it. On a purely technical level, Cornford's simulation of bird chatter and nature sounds is remarkably convincing (even the flutter of an insect's wings is suggested, as is as the presence of a nearby stream), and the accomplishment is rendered all the more amazing the more one reflects upon the means by which the material was generated.

The recording raises interesting questions about the phenomenology of listening and the relationship between natural and abstract sounds. Having heard it, we look afresh at the earbud as something more than a mere conduit for sound and instead as a sound-generating device in itself, and we ponder the nature of listening reception when the buzzing of an earbud can so convincingly evoke the natural sound of a bird or insect and so easily be mistaken for it. In turn, Cornford's approach reminds us that all natural sound is rendered unnatural the moment a microphone (or any recording device, for that matter) is factored into the equation. Ultimately, Music for Earbuds turns out to be as legitimate a 3LEAVES recording as any other in its catalogue: despite the different means by which Cornford reaches the end product, the recording's content presents micro-worlds of insect life and birdsong that, on a purely listening level, seem perfectly natural and authentic—even if they're wholly fabricated ones.

December 2013