Jana Irmert is a sound artist and composer based in Berlin. Her practice involves live performance, multichannel composition and music and sound design for film and stage productions. Often relating to temporality and impermanence, alienation and the ecological crisis, she creates atmospheric audiovisual and sonic spaces ‘that work with dis/harmony in such a way as to mirror our imperfect world at the moment.’ (TJ Norris, Toneshift).Jana Irmert has released multiple albums on Fabrique Records and Important Records which received critical praise and have been internationally broadcast on RAI 3, Resonance FM and BBC Radio 3. For her soundtrack for the documentary STRESS by Florian Baron, she received the German Documentary Film Music Award 2019. In 2021 she was nominated for an Icelandic Edda Award for her sound design on Jóhann Jóhannsson’s film ‘Last and First Men’.
Jana was also one of the guest artists we invited onto the murmuration field trip in 2019
JrF: when & why did you become interested in located sound (inc. field recording)?
JI: Sometime after finishing school in quest of what and where to study, I became interested in contemporary music, music concrète etc. and from there developed an affinity for sounds and noises that are not produced by instruments or in a musical context in the first place. But it was really when I started studying at film school that I became really enthusiastic about field recording, for several reasons. Listening for and analysing the ‘sound’ part of film soundtracks, I became very fascinated by the use of subtle sound environments in order to build a strong dramatic effect and how a certain sound like a train whistle or a tonal wind could make a scene work in a way that music couldn’t. I really wanted to do things like that myself and being film school, I could find projects where I could explore that notion of sound design. I then also started doing location sound recording, and recording and listening to my environment through that technology became a focus. It was like suddenly having a sonic magnifying glass. I bought a hand held recorder and started recording outside of film projects, basically wherever I went, often making the best recordings when I didn’t have a plan of what to record exactly, or when I had a plan and ended up recording something completely different along the way.
JrF: how do you use located sound (inc. field recordings) in your own artistic output?
JI: It depends on the project – sometimes the unprocessed recordings directly become part of a composition, but mainly I edit and manipulate them. Manipulation has a bit of a negative ring to it, but what I am looking for is an aspect of the sound that only comes out once you filter or pitch or loop it. Especially with very “well known” sounds – like animal sounds, waves crashing or sounds of everyday objects altering them in various ways can lead to very unexpected and fascinating results.
Sometimes I incorporate recording ‘accidents’ or technical ‘mistakes’ – like looping the sound of a hydrophone accidentally hitting a metal pole under water into a rhythm or making a melody from an accidental feedback. I try to invite lucky accidents and to let go of the concept or fixed idea after I start working on a composition, and instead try to find out what this piece wants to be.
I think it can be really magical when you can’t really tell what exactly you’re listening to – if it’s an electronically generated sound or a processed field recording, an animal or human or a machine. It’s then more about the texture and the sound itself and the world that you enter through the sounds. What is astonishing though that even if I process and edit field recordings for a piece, I still very much connect the place the recordings were made with the sounds and those places are in a way ingrained in the compositions. I think that’s a very beautiful aspect of working with located sound.
JrF: do you regard ‘natural’ sounds as a musical element (bearing in mind that the conventional definition of ‘music’ is rapidly becoming obsolete) or as sound ? is this definition important to you ? does it matter ? (nb. the term ‘natural’ is used in this instance to describe any sound from any object, animal or human that is observed or documented rather than generated with apparent compositional intent)
JI: I personally don’t like to distinguish between what is musical and what is sound. I am astonished that it is still often being discussed whether certain ‘sound art’ pieces are music or not. In film that’s also still very much the case, that hard distinction between sound design and film music, despite that there are many films being made now that have an exceptionally interesting soundtrack that oscillates somewhere between sound design and music.
However, to say that in relation to my work I don’t regard ‘natural’ sounds as musical elements would be wrong – after all, I am often decontextualising and intentionally building musical structures with them. But I also try to do the reverse, regarding and treating musical elements “just” as sounds – meaning I don’t use them to create harmonic or melodic sequences, but to listen and use them for their inherent quality of the sound, their timbres etc.
But I also think it’s maybe difficult to make the distinction between musical and natural sounds from the view point of intentionality: when you are recording a ‘natural’ sound, even if you are observing or documenting, you are intentionally selecting how, what and when you record. I think the recordist is in that sense always also automatically a composer. And from that perspective the distinction between musical elements and natural sounds is blurry or maybe not really relevant – as it would mean all sounds are always musical.
JrF: how has the act of field recording altered the way you listen to your everyday surroundings and how has it affected the way you listen to other music and sound (if at all)?
JI: I would say it definetely has changed my sensitivity for the sound of places – I think if you practice listening often, the perception of your sonic environment becomes more detailed in a way, you just notice more. I certainly appreciate the absence of human-made sounds even more now, it’s just as rare as being in a place without light pollution at nighttime, or maybe even rarer. I like that you asked how it has affected the way I listen to other music and sound – implying that the everyday surroundings are music as well!
I am not sure to what extent it has changed my way of listening to music, as for me this changes constantly, depending on what interests me currently most. Surely I notice things like recording techniques and the ways sounds are used way more than was able to before I started recording myself. What hasn’t changed is that I often love beginnings and endings of compositions, these in-between parts where the piece can go in any direction, everything is possible and the sounds are kind of floating in the air.
JrF: perhaps you could let readers know what you’re working on currently, or planning?
JI: I am working on finishing another album which will follow my fourth release ‘The Soft Bit’. Apart from that, I have a rough concept for a soundwalk and performance in mind that I want to realise over the next months. Then there are also some collaborative projects in planning, with film makers and other artists, for which I’ll work on the soundtracks, and hopefully there will be some live performances too after a long time of basically no in-person events!