I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Continuing a conversation with composer, field recordist and sound designer Douglas Quin. In our last program, sounds of ice and glaciers in the Antarctic. This time, we explore the challenges of recording in warmer conditions, places where we experience the world of sound in a very different way.
What’s it like to be in a situation when you’re not maybe see anything, but you’re hearing a whole hell of a lot. I guess we’re talking about the Amazon now? Can you just paint a picture of what it’s like to be there and then, over time does it in fact change you to be in the situation where sound is numero uno and the visual is in the backseat?
Doug Quin: One of the challenges of working in a tropical forest environment is you don’t have the privilege of wide sweeping vistas. and more often than not you will hear before you will see anything. and sometimes never see what you’re hearing.
It also helps to learn how to read the landscape through sound. By that I mean you can hear features of the landscape once you’re there in a given place long enough. so an example listening in an area of the Amazon north of the city of Manaus, the forest is very very dense in places, and you have certain open areas but they’re not terribly open. so you begin to hear how reverberation and echoes can work and where animals concentrate almost themselves using the landscape to amplify their signals for communication. [00:02:24.03]
There’s a subtlety to it. and I think that’s something that birds in particular but also things like howler monkeys – they understand this and the power of their voice is pretty intense.
Ambience: Howler Monkeys
DQ but you begin I think to be able to say “you know there is a Valley over there or there’s a cliff that is reflecting back some sounds.” so you really have to rely more on your ear to kind of navigate things. the other thing I found – I was just chasing sound and I realized that I was so determined to find the source of this that I went blithely going off in one particular direction, only at a certain point to turn around and realize I have no idea where I had just come from. There was a sameness to everything around me — incredibly beautiful and rich but I neglected to kind of break twigs and leave a trail for how I got to where I got. you gotta have that balance of listening but also pay attention what going. so I learned very quickly to leave little markers: a bent twig here and there. It took a while and it probably took another hour to be longer than the voyage out to find my way back. It was definitely a lesson. We talk about mindfulness. Job One – pay attention to your immediate surroundings as you chase that hidden sound.
JM OK, I’m out there. I’ve pressed the record button. I got an hour of sound. Well I actually have to go back and spend another hour listening to that sound if I ever want to come into relationship to this recording. But the recording is a way back. it’s not the recording is to help me get out of the rainforest, but it’s the recordings is going to take me back in time to this moment of being on the trail of whatever I was searching for.
DQ I think that’s part of the magic of recordings is that they do have the capacity to put you back in that sense memory of a place. Although I have to say having worked in this area for more than 30 years, I’ll listen to some recordings and I find myself going “Jeez, I don’t remember that.” Part of that – the quirks of memory, is that I realize when I record — and I don’t know if you have this experience — but sometimes I’ll come away thinking “God that was fantastic.” and then you know some time goes by .. and I listen back to it and it’s kind of mediocre. What was that about? Where did you get the impression that this was an awesome recording? I realized, maybe it was a nice sunny day that day. maybe you weren’t being eaten alive by mosquitoes. You realize that your emotional disposition in any given situation colors how you think you remember that recording. And by the same token I have other recordings that I went “God,another tough day. I got nothing. And l’ll listen back (and say) “What were you thinking?” That’s one of the best recordings you’ve ever made!” And it was because I was miserable. I’ve been out for weeks or months. I was tired. I had been eaten alive and you’re just exhausted and realize that emotion colors your perception of your memory of what you thought the recording was. So keep good notes because when you go back, you may surprise yourself.
DQ One thing about working tropical habitats around the world is how ubelievably rich and varied they are. People think of “the rain forest” as one sort of monolithic entity. But when you listen look at the dynamics at work in central Africa or in the Amazon or Central America, there’s incredible variety in biodiversity. it’s important to acknowledge and recognize in light of this catastrophic loss of habitat, how much we stand to lose ultimately, not only in terms of resources, but in terms of what makes us fundamentally human, which is that we are part of a broader ecosystem.
DQ: [00:07:46.25] One of the things that I’ve tried to do through my work is to engage with scientists, because I learn from them and I feel that my work primarily as a sound artist is to kind of reveal to people a complementary perspective to what the science is telling us – to appeal to the emotion, to appeal to the senses, to animate that aspect of our being, as we need both. We need the intellectual understanding, but we need to feel that emotional connection. That’s why people go to the Zoos; they want to connect with animals.
[00:08:32.00] One of the opportunities that I had was to work in New Caledonia in the Pacific, that looked at a flightless bird called the Kagu. It looks like a heron, a beautiful beautiful bird, has a wonderful display with a crest that’ll rise up on its head and wings stretched out. Very endangered because of invasive species like rats, cats, pigs prey on .. their eggs. the kagu’s ca;;. Get a bunch of them together, they sound like a pack of barking Chihuahuas basically.
[00:09:21.20] DQ an interesting sound. One of the surprises that happened on one recording venture, this was at dusk. I was out with the scientist Sophie Ruiz, and we left the recorder up and running in a small clearing near big Cowry tree, a very large tree, and just stepped away, so that we weren’t right next to the recorder, probably 50 yards away, out of sight. And just let it run and quietly listened as the evening settled in – that beautiful transition from dusk where things have you have the last call of the day before everything beds down for the night and the night critters come out.
[00:10:08.26] so we come back.. and listen to it and lo and behold what we heard are two species: one are Friarbirds and Friarbirds are fairly common in the Pacific — very lively, very gregarious birds. But in this was a recording of a Crow Honey Eater. Sophie said that she had only seen one in 10 years of field research. There are an unknown number but probably no more than 5o to 150, maybe 200 birds, individuals left on the island. They only live in New Caledonia. Like the Kagu, critically endangered because of introduced species of rats and the cascading cats, dogs, pigs. So listening to this recording, we both — I can still see the expression on her face. She said, “you don’t know how rare this actually is.”
[00:11:15.01]JM I have this picture of you being an active listener being out there waiting for the – whatever it might be – for the Kagu to vocalize. All these moments “in between” where “nothing is happening” and yet YOU are happening. You’re there. In a sense that relates to all of us. There is a world of sound out there and I’m usually in an in between moment where nothing incredible is happening. And that’s a good thing I’m not on 14th St. (in New York City) with the subways are so loud I have to cover my ears. I’m not next to a jackhammer (thinking) “get out of here!” I’m in between and yet the world the sound is still going on. So what does it mean to be an active listener, waiting and yet attentive, and maybe the record button is on and maybe I’m just walking down the road.
[00:12:12.07] DQ Active listening for me i… it’s almost a form of meditation. People think of meditation as a way of blissing out. I think meditation for me as a practice is actually very demanding, because it requires you to clear your mind and to pay attention to what’s going on around you, without the distractions of your cell phone, without being distracted about what’s for dinner, who you need to call, what you need to do. It’s to open yourself .. where the unit are quite vulnerable when you allow all of the sound in. But I think the benefits to that are that broader awakening of the entire sensory apparatus that we base our whole sense of reality on. Everything comes alive. So for me, you have to love the process of doing this. If you’re going out there to get a sound, you’re going to be very frustrated because you may get lucky – you have to do the research – it’s a combination of library work and hunting. You have all the research that goes into figuring out what’s where and even then there going to be big holes in your knowledge base. But you have the thrill of the hunt in the sense of that you are sensorally alive in the sense of pursuit, which I think is deeply ingrained in us as hunter gatherer types, even though we’ve come a long way from that.
[00:13:45.10] But rather than the thrill of the kill, it’s the thrill of hearing something; whether you record it or not is another matter. You may be on pause waiting and say “Oops, I didn’t hit record,” or you may get lucky and record. Butthe process of being mindful, of being aware and of being in that heightened sense of anticipation of what might be coming, but being perfectly at peace with the fact that a day or two, three, go by where nothing happens. If you’re not comfortable with yourself in that quietude, in those moments of simply being aware, then maybe this is not the job for you. (laughs) For me it’s very rewarding; it’s demanding; it’s exhausting; but I always come out at the other end no matter how exhausted I am or how beaten up by the environment, whether I got anything or not, just feeling far more grounded and at peace with whatever it is I’m dealing with. So that’s why I come back the idea that .. active listening is a form of meditation with this heightened sensory awareness to bring the world into you, and to realize that goes on out there, goes on in here.
My thanks to Doug Quin. If you want to learn more about his work, check out his website, Douglasquin.com, and Quin is spelled with one n, Q-U-I-N. If you have any questions or comments, you can contact us on our website, pulseplanet.com. I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet,