With more than 30 years of professional activity, Gordon Hempton has dedicated most of his life to listen and record the sounds of nature, an endangered soundscape that he has sworn to protect as a recordist and an activist. Part of his life work has been made available for the rest of the sound community since 2012 trough the now very popular Quiet Planet sound libraries. Gordon has also released a book recently, Earth is a solar powered jukebox, in which we can find a profound reflexion on his recording methods and philosophy. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in field recording and one of the many subjects addressed by this interview with the ‘sound tracker’.
How you decided to make part of your life’s work available to other sound professionals trough the Quiet Planet’s collection?
My goal has never been to commercially profit from these recordings. But, in 2012, I found myself falling in love and moving to the small town of Indianola, which is in the outskirts of Seattle. It’s a charming community on the beach, it has all kinds of natural beauties, but, on the background, you can still hear the kettledrum roll of the city. At Indianola, I had to create a new economy for me and I decided “Well, maybe now it’s the time for me to take my nature sound portraits and turn them into a library of nature sounds.”
You’re launching a book right now, Earth is a Solar Powered Jukebox. What’s the relation between the book and your work with the Quiet Planet’s libraries?
After I’ve launched Essentials, the very first collection, I received a very good response from the public. Everybody had enjoyed the sounds very much. Although I was very happy with this, I realized that most of the people that wrote those really nice things to me spent most of their time indoors, in the studio, in the city. They didn’t have the knowledge I had about how these sounds actually existed in nature and how to use them in a more accurate way. So that’s why I decided to write a series of articles that would go along with the Quiet Planet’s sound libraries. The book is basically the reunion of all these articles with a an introduction and an epilogue written specially for it.
All the chapters in the book are divided in two parts How to record and Sound designing with. Could you tell me what’s the purpose of each one?
I believe that field recording and sound design, even if they happen at different places and at different times, are actually different aspects of the same job. In the book, the How to record section is more about practical advice on how to record: what you should carry with you, how to set up your gear etc. I don’t write a lot about the natural environment at this section because I assume that the field recordist, once he is there, at the location, will be able to feel the environment by himself. In the Sound Designing with section, this is where I feel the bigger picture needs to be woven together because most of the sound designers that will eventually use my sounds will never go to those places and therefore need all the in formation I can provide about them. A lot of people that I work with tend to think that nature sounds are just in the background, that they provide the setting. Sure, they do, but what a lot of people ignore is that these sounds are also a form of data stream, informing us of the current events that happen all around us at any given moment and that this is our first form of contact with the environment, preceding vision itself and all the other senses. Today we somehow find ourselves in these work environments where the vision of the product drives the product instead of the natural situation where the sound of the place basically determines all outcomes. So, it’s a little upside and backwards the modern design process. My work is to try to change that kind of reasoning with the Quiet Planet sound libraries and this new book.
Could you tell what differentiates your work from regular sound design?
My approach compared to traditional sound design would be similar to the relation between a photographer and a painter. Many sound designers have taken colours from photographs, sampled the colours from these photographs and painted a picture that they might feel is realistic, but that actually isn’t. If that’s your goal, that’s fine with me. But ultimately it’s the real world that supports us. I sincerely believe there are more beautiful leaves that grow from plants than any artist could ever paint. When we begin to give too much importance to our creations and put more energy into that than actually saving the place that supports us, our lives become shallow. My work has never been more important than the places it comes from. And that’s why that 10% of sale of Quiet Planet goes back to those places and help save them. It’s not just a business; it’s a cause.
The analogy you’ve just made between your work and photography, how does that translate into your recording methods?
I record in the same style as classic landscape photography, in which there is a certain point of view where it all comes together, in balance. And when I say balance I don’t mean equal amplitude on left and right channels, but balance in the composition. Every sound has a feeling and when you take all sounds in with equal value those feelings summarize into a greater emotion. I use a “human-head” binaural system microphone almost exclusively which gives a very precise perspective of what it’s like to be in an exact position in a natural soundscape. So, my work in the field is to find that exact position. For doing that, I’ve established a background, middle ground and foreground approach. The background is actually the most important. These are the faint sounds. All of our evolutionary process is about faint sounds. If you’re an individual surviving in the forest what you have to do is to stay alert for these very first indications that happen on the background. You should locate a geographic area that has the right background perspective and, for me, this means without noise pollution. After that, I try to listen to the middle ground and bring it to a balance. Finally, I listen to the foreground. The foreground is the detail that attracts our attention and very often nothing is occurring there at the very moment of the site selection. At the end, it’s all about what you’re feeling instead of thinking; somehow, the place you’re recording becomes special to your ears. At the very least, you want to roll for 5 minutes, 3 and a half to 5 minutes for the shortest sounds. At the very longest, I’ve recorded many times up to twelve hours. From these sound portraits, I do also select later, in a secondary process, to pull sound effects out of it. There are certain events that fit very nicely for that, but this is never my original intent. The portrait of a place is really what I’m trying to achieve all the time, hoping that the image of that place will be evoked trough sound to its future listeners.
I’ve noticed that the space around the sounds is as important as the sources themselves on your recordings. I remember one amazing sound of coyotes over a canyon on the Quiet Planet Essentials library
I have learned over the years that my work is more about the space than about the sound. Thoreau describes how an event produces really two sounds. One is the original sound, the sound from a bell, and then the other is the sound of a bell as it travels the distance. Rarely, we listen to these two sounds as separate, but this can happen. The recording you’ve mentioned is not only the sound of the coyotes, but also the sound of silence made audible by the coyotes, because the echoes are ever expanding.
What led you, in the beginning of your career, to specialize in nature sounds? Why these were more compelling to you than other types of sound?
Nature sounds have a way of address me deeply. While my work as the sound tracker is to record vanishing soundscapes around the world, it is also my personal and spiritual pilgrimage. But, in the beginning, I was just interested in becoming a better listener. The first time as an adult that I had an authentic listening experience was on my way back to graduate school, at the University of Wisconsin, when a thunderstorm rolled over me. I was totally unprepared to grasp what was about to happen, all the information that would be conveyed to me trough the way the thunder rolled and defined the valley, the topography… I was able to visualize in my mind the dimensions of the place surrounding me from miles, even though I didn’t have to turn my head around at all. How was this possible? I was 27 years old and never had truly listened before. I realized that my life up to that point had been a paint by numbers kind of experience. So I dropped out of graduate school and I devoted myself to become a better listener. I decided to use a microphone to bypass my brain and its selective listening. With the microphone I felt that I had become for the first time a true listener since I could record all sounds with equal importance. I began then to explore my immediate environment sonically. I had returned to Seattle, but I was just not happy with my life at that point, at that place. So I decided to simply hop freight trains, and so I did. During the long wait in between trains, there was really nothing to do besides just being there. And, during that wait, I was listening to this western meadowlark and, as it sang, I wondered: “Isn’t that interesting? That a bird could be music to my ears. “And I decided this was in some way another step on my pilgrimage and I felt this really strong bond. So, from that moment on, I decided that I would just go to a natural place and record those sounds. At first, I was very naive. My first choice was a really large park in the Seattle area, which still had a lot of noise pollution. I kept pushing out: I went to eastern Washington; I went to western Washington; I’ve pushed to the furthest reaches I could go and I found that it was extremely difficult, even at that time, in 1983, to find a place in Washington State that was free from noise pollution. But it was possible, at least for 15 minutes at a time, which is the definition of our notion of a quiet place, that you could listen to nature for at least this period before some kind of interruption. In Washington, in 1983, there were 21 places like this; today, there are only 3, none of them protected. As I got to record places that were pristine I found that my auditory horizon was no longer one or two city blocks long, but it was miles distant.
Not everyone is familiar with your work against noise pollution pictured on The Soundtracker, the documentary about yourself and your career. Could you tell me a little bit about that? How did it all start?
In my work, recording in every continent except Antarctica, was clear to me that nature’s soundscapes were quickly vanishing, even more quickly than species themselves. I thought however that it was really someone else’s job, namely the National Park service here in the United States, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and other public agencies that do have preserving natural quiet in their management policies, even though, in practice, very little attention has been given to that. There is not one place in the United States or in the whole world for that matter that is entirely off limits to noise pollution. And there is a very big difference between reducing noise pollution and preserving natural quiet. How I decided to try to change that, has to do with my first hearing loss. In 2003, at the height of my recording career, I was laying in bed one night when I began to hear this tum-tum, tum-tum… This was as matter of fact the sound of something happening within my ear and in about two weeks I was practically deaf. But, worst than being deaf, there was a storm of sound inside my head and the little I could hear sounded like it was coming from a long tube. It was very much like a distorted radio. Of course, it drove me nuts. I went to see a lot of doctors and nobody knew what it was and the risk of damaging my hearing forever in case of a surgical intervention made me just wait. After 18 months, suddenly my hearing came back in an instant when I was sitting back in my grandfathers’ rocking chair, next to the wood stove and the stove began to crackle crystal clear, and it was just so beautiful, but suddenly my hearing disappeared again. It was just like that. Nevertheless, I knew that having perfect hearing was possible and I was so inspired. And my hearing did finally come back. I was so happy about regaining it that I thought “Ok, saving quiet places might be someone else’s job, but I might as well give it a try.” So I established One Square Inch of Silence on Earth Day 2005 (April 22), at the Hoh River Valley. This is an ancient forest, it’s a world heritage site, the tallest living forest in the world and also the least noise polluted place in the lower 48 of the United States. I placed a stone at a moss-covered log over there and promised to defend it of all noise pollution. We’re now on our 11th year and our board continues to pursue this goal.
Could you comment on your more recent hearing loss and the progress you’ve made so far towards a cure for this condition?
The more recent loss of my hearing happened because of stress. Stress led to an immune system imbalance, which created allergies that finally caused the swollen of my middle ear and cut me off from the world around me. So, I’m in the process of reducing my stress. Right now, the current condition of my hearing is that it is so bad that I would actually have trouble understanding my voice. But my stress level is reducing considerably since I’ve returned to this primitive place at Camp Hayden, so I’m very optimistic that I’ll be able to reconnect. Until then, I have been practicing my lip reading skills of nature. I can look at the surface of water at the two frog ponds that are just right in front of me now and occasionally detect the expanding rings on them, so I know that are light drip sounds coming from that place even though I can’t actually hear it.
And what are your plans for the future?
I plan to retire the 1st of january 2017. Retirement means that I will continue to do projects but only projects that deeply inspire me. Those projects would include an academic speaking tour, where hopefully I would also give workshops. I will also be giving echo tours in Seattle where people would go to natural places just to listen. I can’t wait to record as well. I keep a database of all the places that I would like to go and all the sounds in particular that I think will be fascinating to explore and that database has more than a thousand records on it. An important thing too is that I do offer one on one tutorials and I’m very much interested in communicate with students that want to become professional recordists.
What kind of advice would you give for a novice interested in nature recording?
I would give the same advice my mother gave me which is: be yourself, do your best and accept whatever happens. I would also say that you shouldn’t wait for the right equipment or for the right opportunity. It’s the same with photography and field recording: the more you do it, the better you get. Make, if you can, a daily practice even if you’re trying to find nature in the city. Do it, get out there, feel it. Just pay attention to your feelings and everything else will come.