Enjoy Nature Exactly the Way God Intended It, As an App
Irv Teibel’s esteemed series 'Environments' is now an application thanks to the diggers at Numero Group. It’s both a historical document and a salve for modern ills.
The album cover of 'Environments 11'
At this point, it seems pretty safe to say, there is no escape. If you delete Twitter, it will still find you. Research chemicals seem to help, but only for 15 minutes to 12 hours at a time. The most devoutly religious still fall prey. No matter how many mindfulness apps with minimalist design and muted color schemes you download, the slow corrosive creep of techno-overload will eventually catch up to you. That’s just how things are now. Fated to ping forever back and forth between frayed sensitivity and emotional catatonia, the digitally poisoned embrace conspiracy with open arms, downplay outright disaster, and are anesthetized—for fear of feeling anything too extreme—to both the joys and the ills that the internet can offer us. Empathy is over. We are doomed.
This is my inner monologue on my worst days, and I imagine, a similar version runs through the heads of those who choose to endure the gauntlet of Being Extremely Online every day. I have no answers—though my general (ill-advised) tactic involves downing enough coffee to white-knuckle the precipice between panic attack and productive adrenaline rush—but I have found some comfort in the past couple of years in realizing that we are not the first generation to feel such panic, and to desperately seek such release.
A few years ago, I was hipped to the bizarre, one-time commercial phenomenon of the Environments series of records. Beginning in 1968, a New Yorker by the name of Irv Teibel drew upon his histories as a designer, audio recording enthusiast, and photographer to create a collection of special collection of field recordings of nature sounds. He wasn’t the first to work with audio of the world around him, but he was the first to really be able to sell it. Both due to Teibel’s business acumen—he’d take trains across the country pitching the practical applications of his records—and the genuinely soothing effects of formless sonic experiences, the records were a success from the start. According to a great Pitchfork piece about Teibel’s life as a “new age hustler,” a radio station in San Francisco played the first Environments during a two-week strike, apparently improving listenership.
Teibel himself pitched the series for its palliative qualities. As Jennifer Ballow, his daughter, told Motherboard last year, he quickly realized that “recording[s] had qualities that made him feel at ease.” Customer testimonials that populated the record’s sleeves promised the same: “Better than a tranquilizer!”
Its this that I find comfort in, revisiting the Environments records, which just became more widely available thanks to an app from the reissue label Numero Group. In listening to the sounds of, say, the patient burbles of A Country Stream or the wheezy bird calls on Pacific Ocean, I can experience its moderate stress-relieving effects. But I can also connect to a whole legacy of anxious people before me, who long before the digitalist overload would trek to a store or send a check in the mail in hopes that they might receive some much needed rest.
There’s this illusion of transportation implicit in Teibel’s enterprise, this idea that if you drop the needle just so, your turntable's 33⅓ RPMs might fully whisk you away from the worries of your day-to-day onto a placid shoreline or a pristine meadow in springtime. There is some power in that escapism, in turning off your brain and getting away, but the beauty of Environments is that its construction also illustrates how facile that whole endeavor is.
Teibel, despite what the concepts of these releases may imply, was not a documentarian in any straightforward way. He treated his recordings as “perfect,” massaging them in the studio to maximize resonance, sometimes editing them altogether, evoking “the psychologically ultimate seashore”—as he called his first piece—or capturing the idea of a “Wood-Masted Sailboat,” even if the sounds that made it up were spliced together from different sources. It was more important to capture the truth of the scenario in the minds of the listener rather than be a literal depiction of it. As long as you felt like you were in a thunderstorm, the logic might go, it wouldn’t even really matter if that record was one thunderstorm or the best bits of many. The Pitchfork article demonstrates just how far he’d go, echoing his claim that he’d once put thousands of crickets on a soundstage in order to get a better recording.
The app that Numero Group released is particularly interesting because it highlights these manipulations. Along with the 22 Environments pieces—most around half an hour long—and the warm photography Teibel paired with them upon release, there’s also a little information button that tells the brief backstory of each release, offering the locations where it was recorded, and hinting at the degree of trickery Teibel exhibited. It lays bare these fictions he’s created, sorta like a commentary track you can opt into. Of course, if you’d rather believe the fantasy, you have that option too. Right next to the information icon is an button that allows you to loop the piece you’re listening to infinitely.
But there’s a beauty in what Teibel’s constructions offer, especially if these records are intended as ballast for suffering brains. They offer the seductive promise of other places and other times, but they often never really existed in the first place. These picturesque landscapes are fantasias, a place to escape to, but not one you can actually live in. When you’re listening and feeling like the grass is greener, the waves more harmonic—it’s because they actually are. It can be grounding in its own way, knowing that Teibel made these recordings, walking the same earth, because it means that true escape really is impossible. This digital wasteland... it’s all we’ve got. And we can surrender to it or we can attack the tape with razor blades, splicing together new worlds from the refuse around us.
Colin Joyce is on Twitter, for now.