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Mixed Media: Music

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The Art of Natural Sound

by David Rothenbergs

How carefully do you listen when you're out in the wild? Do you recognize the sounds of the birds you hear? Maybe you know their names, but do those calls get into your soul?

"The world," says Jim Cummings, founder of EarthEar Records, "is constantly performing for you." Cummings runs a business with an unusual mission: getting people to listen more deeply to the planet around them by providing high-quality recordings and books that present the sounds of the natural world as a new art form.

Nature recording is at a point where photography was a hundred years ago. Photography was first used for portraits, while recording in the wild was first devoted to the documentation and identification of species. But just as creative people began experimenting in the darkroom to produce works of new beauty and power, sound artists are listening carefully in the wilds to produce aural art.

And like all artists, they're heading off in several directions. One approach is purely documentary. Lang Elliot waits, listens, records a piece of the environment, and puts it on a disk unaltered as a captured wild moment. Incredible whooshes that sound like huge airliners amazingly turn out to be green-winged teals recorded from close range. These are not simply sound snapshots, but composed images with most of the creative work done in the field. By contrast, "reconstructionist" sound artists combine many source recordings to create a single soundscape that captures the essence of the place recorded. Bernie Krause, author of Into a Wild Sanctuary: A Life in Music & Natural Sound (Heyday Books, 1998) and founder of the bio-acoustic recording company Wild Sanctuary, often uses this technique.

Other soundscape artists use wild sound as raw material for compositions that transform natural sounds. Hildegard Westerkamp's "Beneath the Forest Floor" turns the sounds of an old-growth forest into a musical composition, carefully concocted in the studio, with themes, variation, development, surprise, and resolution.

Even further on the journey between nature and music is the work of Douglas Quin, who artfully blends these natural tones with human voices and instruments, resulting in a rich, complex structure.

How will all this listening change your commitment to the environment? You may decide to travel to places known for their interesting sounds. Or you may become more sensitive to what's swirling around your ears every day. Such sensitivity, however, can have its drawbacks: Even in wild country, natural sounds can be marred by the drone of an airplane or the distant swoosh of cars on highways in the rain.

Not all nature recordings meet Cummings' standards. "There are a lot of inferior recordings out there," he warns. You may have already been bored by an hour of the same rushing stream or some soft new-age piano music repetitiously blended with the cry of loons. Serious environmental sound artists are up to something deeper and more complex that takes a bit more effort to comprehend, but is much more satisfying.

For more information on environmental sound, check out the Nature Sounds Society at For a sampling of online catalogs, go to EarthEar's Web site at or Wild Sanctuary at

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