Jez Riley French interview

photo-by-pheobe-riley-law Find Jez Riley French @
Official website
JrF Contact mics
Engraved glass
A quite position
Verdure engraved
Photo credits: Pheobe Riley Law

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do for a living?

I’m fortunate that I make my living from listening & looking closely – as an artist (photography, field recording, composition, installation) + giving workshops and lectures on field recording & creative sound. I’m based in East Yorkshire, UK but spend a lot of time in other countries when I’m working.

I also run a label (engraved glass) & the ‘a quiet position’ series of online releases, audio screenings & facebook group – focusing on the act & art of listening through field recording ( ).
I publish the pdf arts zine ‘verdure engraved’ ( ) & in 2015 in partnership with my daughter we’ll be venturing into photobook publication.
I also make and sell a range of specialist microphones: contact microphones, hydrophones & coils.

Even though it seems I do a lot of very public things, in fact I’m quite a private person, a ‘home bird’ as we say here & of course my main focus in life is being a father to my daughter.

How do you perceive sound every day?

In a seemingly limitless number of ways. I live in a fairly quiet location, luckily, and so I’m able to take pleasure in small sounds amongst the usual volume of modern life. Of course most days are spent dealing with the basic practicalities of life – working on microphones, packing orders, cooking, eating etc – but I see everything as connected & I know that for me an ability to listen with pleasure to even the simplest commonplace act has contributed to whatever sensitivity my ears have. However, there is a difference between that all encompassing enjoyment of almost all sounds & recognising moments that offer something ‘more’, in a creative sense.

You also do a lot of lecturing about field recording. What do you think would be the most important part about field recording?

I think, to some degree, that does depend on what your motivation is – but one thing I feel strongly is that ‘field recording’ is not a genre. It always should be an individual response. Its democratic in so much as the technology is now available to almost everyone in one way or another (though of course different pieces of equipment, at different price levels, offer often totally different results) but the one element that, in effect, ‘makes’ the practice something unique is the person doing the recording. If you simply want to document places then its relatively simple to learn some basic skills in terms of technical knowledge, but if you want to go beyond that & indeed if you want to create work that stands out in some way then it takes time & involves thinking about ones relationship to locales & situations. Of course the most elemental aspect of field recording is the listening – & how far one engages with that act is down to yourself. Its surprising how often the listening is the element that has been given the least amount of time or attention.

What would be your advice to a newcomer to a field recording?

Don’t get interested in field recording unless you’re interested in listening. That sounds simple, obvious even, but I know for sure that it can take years to get past ones own ideas of what one is hearing & that process is even harder if your interest is only in the outcome & not the actual material.

How do you decide which sound is appropriate for a certain event (whether for a game, film or live event)?

I actually do very little work for games or broadcast media (films, tv) – I’ve always created much more work in an artistic setting – & I create all my work for my own pleasure & research also. What I’m trying to say there is that ‘field recording’ was never a career choice for me – I am fortunate to be offered work because of my interest in it rather than having an interest in it in order to get work, if you see what I mean. So, when it comes to decisions about which recordings have that something extra and can be used for a project than I have to say this is one of the those intensely personal aspects. Its the same as when a photographer knows which single image from several rolls of film is the right one, or when a painter knows a brush stroke just created the right line and space on a canvas.

Speaking in terms of commercial work (tv, radio, film, games etc) then of course there might also be technical considerations, such as how strong the recording is & how little post production is needed. That is important because its likely ones recordings will be subjected to further editing by the production & editing process, so it’s important to deliver recordings that speak clearly of their subject and have enough stability to withstand any further processing. That’s one of the reasons I don’t do much work in those areas really – my work is personal & I’m very interested in the quality of the listening, so processing of the sounds or indeed having them submerged below other elements (scored music, dialogue etc) means most of the work I feel most passionately about I wouldn’t really want to place in those contexts per say.

How would you define silence and how important is the use of silence in media?

I guess we should first step over the fact that ‘silence’ doesn’t actually exist – yes? It is an invention of perception rather than a concrete reality. This same question of ones perception applies to all sound anyway & when it comes to ‘field recording’ we, as members of the human race, tend to hear what we expect to or want to. This is most obvious perhaps in ‘nature’ recording, with a long history of presenting work that reinforces the human idea of what nature actually is – the ‘tranquility of the natural world’ for example – the reality, different for all the varied species within it, is sonic chaos way beyond our hearing range or ability to comprehend.

So, getting back to ‘silence’; I think it is better to use the term ‘stillness’ perhaps. When recording this relates more to a sense of space within the sonic environment. Space (sonic or visual) is something successive generations of the more mainstream creative industries forget & ignore. Take film for example; everything is about impact & its only in more experimental work that the audience is able to stop, to think, to notice detail (nb. hearing detail is not the same thing as having small sounds compressed so they are as loud as the loud sounds !) etc. When it comes to sound design I find it telling (& I admit quite amusing) that film directors / production companies often push sound designers in the direction of filling the film with high-octane sound & yet if we look at contemporary mainstream film the most iconic scene in the last 20 years is regularly stated as being the one at the end of ‘Lost in Translation’ where Bill Murray’s character whispers & the audience cannot even hear what is being said.

‘Sound’ is not only about what we hear, it is about what we try to hear, struggle to hear, can’t hear. In this sense the idea of ‘silence’ has to be considered as an idea rather than a description of reality.

Can you tell us more about your photographic scores project? What was the idea behind it?

I’ve been fascinated with photography for most of my life & I always felt a strong link between certain images and sound / music – I find the emotions that can be triggered are not always dependent on the medium. So, it occurred to me to ask people to respond to images & this then developed into a series of ‘scores’. There are scores for performers, where the image acts as a trigger for a played response & then there are the ‘scores for listening’. These are visual cues for listening experiences – but I should state that there is no overt theory per say. They are very open, as they should be.

What is engraved glass?

This is the name of the label I run, releasing limited edition audio works by myself. There’s a side edition called ‘. point engraved’ releasing work by other artists & the ‘a quiet position’ series of online releases & audio screenings focused on other artists work also. I chose the name ‘engraved glass’ via the work of Laurence Whistler, an english poet & glass engraver. To etch very fine lines onto glass surfaces has some affinity with the way myriad minute sounds play across the audible surface of a place.

How do you find inspiration? Do you have some specific routines for finding it?

I don’t – in fact I think if one tries to find inspiration it is much harder to come across. Its more about being sufficiently aware to sense it when it begins to arrive. That sounds very obvious and cliched, but what I mean is that I really can only ‘work’ by these things simply being part of my daily life. I don’t try to find ‘interesting sounds’ – I just journey to places, enjoy placing microphones in different places & taking pleasure in doing that. During these times, if I’m lucky, something else will start to form – a sense of the unique nature of the moments being captured & from there there is a clear line towards the work finding new levels and its ‘place’.

On what projects have you been working recently?

I have a series of releases that I’m working on the feature recordings from key projects:

a photobook & 3 cd set of recordings from Iceland recorded on trips over the last couple of years. One discs of geophone & hydrophone recordings, one of the Krafla geothermal power plant valley & one of bethlehem cables & other sounds from Snaefellsness Peninsula.

a release of recordings from the ‘teleferica’ project, documenting these fascinating structures in rural villages in Italy

dissolves: a project that records the sound of minerals in states of flux

(you can hear one piece from this series on the British Library website:

salts / adagios: a series of recordings of re-scored pieces for strings, recorded using contact microphones placed under performance spaces and on resonating structures within them.

Do you have any audio creation techniques that resulted in something interesting?

I think every recordist must find their own way with technique. There are certain aspects of ‘field craft’ that can be helpful to learn about from others of course, but when it comes to more personal approaches to technique and what they reveal I’ve become more and more certain that reading about how other recordists / artists work isn’t always the best idea. It can tend to give the impression that, for example, field recording is a technical exercise or something that depends only on the science of sound.

As for the question you asked then my simple answer is: yes, every technique results in something interesting – because its ones interest in what one records that should be constantly fascinated. Its the listening that should trigger ones interest & can be adjusted to draw positives from any experience.

We have to talk about your widely known contact microphones. What inspired you to start making them? What is different about your contact microphones than from others?

I became interested in non-conventional microphones at a fairly early age, during my first explorations of experimental music, but back then I only knew about mass produced contact mics that were & still are often constructed for musicians & therefore they have some of the freq. response restricted (ie. a piano contact mic will be calibrated to remove some of the resonant frequencies of the instrument that might be seen as unwanted when it comes to amplification). They were expensive for a young chap & so I mostly used very cheap tuning contact mics that clipped on to objects. Later on I discovered very simple diy piezo based mics & met improvising musicians and sound artists who used those but I was always somewhat disappointed with their thin, flat sound. So, I began to explore ways to improve contact mic design & this took several years. I sold them to friends & contacts in the broad fields of experimental music & then back in the 2000’s I started a blog on various aspects of field recording (‘in place’ – now renamed to ‘a quiet position’) & began testing all the different makes of contact mic & hydrophone on the market. It’s fair to say that I was actually quite shocked at how poor the quality of some were, especially at the lower end of the price range & so this resulted in my deciding to sell mine to the public. It was / is important to me to get the best sound possible from the technology but keep the price within the reach of most people.

The main differences between my contact mics & others on the market is, simply, the freq. response range is wider – the mid & low end is significantly better than with the diy designs or indeed all of the commercially produced designs, which tend to use cheap, mass produced microphone elements. With the hydrophones there are different challenges and I’ve designed mine so they offer a broadly better all round performance / value than models costing up to £1000 each. In fact in all but the best scientific hydrophones the basic design principals are the same – an element constructed for the specific sound world of aquatic environments, housed in a capsule & connected to cable designed to reduce handling noise (which I also use on the contact mics). Again, some manufactures will change several hundred £’s / €’s but use mass produced microphone elements and instead concentrate on making the units look slick. For me its the sound that matters most.

What is the most inspiring moment in your career so far?

I thought about this question for a long time & I find it impossible to answer. All I can say is that if I had a ‘career’ that was constructed in such a way as to have one most inspiring moment that really stood out then I don’t think that would interest me. I find inspiration regularly & at an often ecstatic level. So, the answer I can give is really to the question ‘what is the most inspiring aspect of your life’ & then the answer is my daughter. In terms of ‘work’ then it is the listening that inspires me & its infinite vistas.

Any tips, hints or motivational speeches for the readers?

There could be such a large number of replies to this question but, in writing rather than face to face & knowing who one is talking to, its not ideal to assume that readers either don’t already know certain things or would want to. However here are some things that I think are true:

Listen: That sounds obvious but it is often the one thing that is forgotten when it comes to field recording & sound art. If you aren’t fully open to what listening is or can be then how can you expect your work to represent something that others can also find fascinating at various levels. It is going to sound very music-snob like I know but if you’re only interested in one genre of music for example then that is going to restrict your approach to listening – not because of any ‘personal taste’ reason but because 99.9% of all commercial & broadcast sound is compressed & this has a dramatic effect on our hearing, and on our ability to engage with listening (something to also consider when thinking of the audience for ones work).

Listening to just one or two genres of music also doesn’t help this as it further restricts ones ability to perceive different acoustical properties and it also doesn’t challenge your ears and thought process to think about sound as more than entertainment. I’m not saying you should force yourself to listen to jazz if you really don’t like jazz for example – but that if you have only ever listened to one or two genres of music then admit to yourself that that is a restrictive approach to music & it therefore follows that your listening response is also going to be restricted. In fact I’d go do far as to say that if someone gets interested in field recording & after a few years doing it is still only listening to the same music as they were before then that isn’t a good sign. Why ? because the most fundamental aspect of field recording is that it should open up ones ears, re-set ones ability to listen rather than merely hear & doing that should impact on other areas of ones life. I’m puzzled as to why it wouldn’t.

Equipment (from the cheapest to the most expensive) does not make the work – ones ability to listen and the time one spends developing ones artistic approach is more important.

if you reach a point where you consider yourself an expert in sound recording, give up – you’ve lost your way. Anyone can learn the technical aspects of field recording – understand how to operate equipment as per the instruction books or scientific principles, but this is so far from having a creative response to sound.

Record for much longer. What we hear in any space is determined by how long we listen for. Our ears constantly filter out lots of everyday sound and so if we listen to an environment or object for a few minutes we are still imposing ourself on it, it takes time to allow the environment to begin imposing itself on us. Its a question of breaking down ones expectations of a place or situation & beginning to perceive ever more subtle shifts, ebbs & flows of the sounds.