Sound Tracker

Doug Quin follows his ear to the ends of earth, recording the music of nature

Doug Quin

It was early morning, and Doug Quin, SMFA84, and I were headed out on a winding ribbon of road leading away from Syracuse, to a patch of wild tucked between upstate New York farms. Next to me, the bearded, soft-spoken Quin, a polyglot with just a hint of an unplaceable accent, looked ahead into the darkness. We could see very little at that time of day, which was exactly what we wanted to see.

Quin and I were headed into strange territory, a place where you’ve likely never been, but where Quin spends much of his time. It’s a world connected to ours, but often invisible to it. It’s also a world that’s changing—and being changed—as fast as any part of the planet. Quin, who has been called the Audubon of audio, is a musician and artist and, most recently, a professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

But his work always leads him back there, to the place he calls the soundscape, a place he has been exploring, recording, sifting through and archiving for the past 25 years, from rare patches of rainforest to the ice at the end of the earth, to his own backyard.

We arrived at Howland Island, amidst a maze of small marshes and lakes that make up the Northern Montezuma Wildlife Management Area, long before the songs of birds and frogs had begun, and while everything else was still asleep.

The car doors slammed shut, and Quin opened his trunk and rummaged around. After a while, he pulled out his giant gray pill of a microphone and put it on its tripod. He donned his headphones and was off, into the soundscape, a place where he existed like some strange insect with special antennae that registered the chirping of tree frogs, the song of crickets, the buzz of mosquitoes and the edge tones whistling off the wingtips of wood ducks flying overhead.

Near us, the car engine cooled down, clicking so loud it sounded like a hammer. Quin looked at it in disgust. He picked up his microphone and moved down the road. Then, all that was left to do was listen as the sounds were sucked into Quin’s recorder, where they would remain on record, forever, in case this place ever changed, which it almost certainly will.

After a while, Quin took off his headphones. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s noisy out there . . . You hear that?”

I didn’t. I didn’t really hear anything, but as I paused, I caught the low roar of a distant highway.

“There are very few places in the lower 48 that are untouched by noise pollution,” said Quin. “There’s an ever-rising noise floor, the effect of which is not known yet. We do know that that kind of vehicular noise blows out whole chunks of the frequency spectrum. It’s called masking.”

Masking is when a louder sound smothers all the others, and it’s a growing concern among scientists who study it, both in the oceans, where increased shipping traffic has caused low-frequency sound levels to double every decade over the past four decades, and on land, where 83 percent of all areas are now within six-tenths of a mile from a road, and only 3 percent are more than two miles from one. “There’s a lot of speculation that it’s inherently dangerous,” Quin told me later, noting that certain species can communicate only within fixed frequency ranges. “But it’s hard to know because of the complexity of the problem.”

Recording of beluga whales, from Doug Quin’s Fathom (Taiga Records)

An Unsentimental Education

Being an outsider listening in on another world is something that comes naturally to Quin, whose journey into the soundscape passed through some unlikely territory. As a boy, he and his sister and two brothers grew up all over, following his father’s postings in the Foreign Service.

To this day, Quin can hear the thud of artillery that rattled the shutters over his bed during Algeria’s war for independence. After Algerian soldiers broke into their house and threatened to shoot them all, his father was transferred to Sweden, where they spent several years in placid Stockholm. But when they moved to Quebec City, his parents realized he could neither read nor write English, his native tongue. They stopped sending him to French schools and enrolled him in an English school, where he was made to repeat third grade.

“We moved around a lot,” said Quin, “so I was always in the position of not understanding a language, and was forced to listen carefully, to pick up bits and pieces.” Quin spoke street Arabic and French in Algeria, Swedish in Sweden and in Quebec moved fluidly between the Francophone world outside and the Anglophone one at home.

Then, a few years later, when Quin’s family was transferred to Iceland, he didn’t join them, but instead went to an unconventional boarding school called Gordonstoun, in Scotland, a school that was the model for the Outward Bound program.

The school had no real grading system besides written evaluations, and Quin spent lots of time outdoors, where he had started to feel at home. But after three years, Quin was sitting in the dining hall when his house master came over with terrible news: his father was deathly ill from a botched operation, and Quin needed to return to the United States. Six months later, at the age of 42, his father died. Quin was seventeen.

After finishing up at Gordonstoun, Quin found that the school’s lack of grades, or even diplomas, left him with no clear path when he got back to the States. So he washed dishes at Sambo’s, sold encyclopedias and took a few community college classes, until finally an admissions officer at Oberlin College told him to create his own application. He put together a presentation with pictures of some Goyaesque clay busts he’d sculpted (a skill he learned from his artistically inclined mother when he was four years old) along with essays about them. Surprisingly, it worked.

At Oberlin, Quin studied sculpture and electronic music. He explored the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. In his senior year, he did an internship with the renowned sculptor Jackie Winsor, who suggested that he look at the joint M.F.A. program of Tufts and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where he could focus on both his mixed-media installations (elaborate combinations of neon lights, photographs and drywall) and his electronic music compositions. In the M.F.A. program, he studied sound art under Richard Lerman and Larry Johnson and continued to work as an assistant to Winsor. Upon finishing his degree, in 1984, he set off for Italy.

Quin spent half a year teaching electronic music at the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory, in Florence, then came back to the United States, where he got a job teaching art and art history at Georgetown Prep outside Washington. He also continued to work on his own projects, choreographing for dance troupes, performing his own pieces. Gradually, the world of sound and music came to dominate Quin’s output, and he moved away from sculpture, although he still juried gallery exhibitions and guest lectured at schools in Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States.

Ear to the Ground

One day in 1987, Quin was working on a project with a soprano named Marilyn Boyd DeReggi, and wanted to include primate sounds. It was the dawn of the digital recording era, so he took a carload of equipment to the local zoo to record the vocalizations of siamangs and white-cheeked gibbons, which he would then weave in with DeReggi’s voice, for an eerie, unearthly kind of duet.

The experience was something of a revelation, and before Quin knew it, he was filling out applications for grants to let him go record some of these same sounds in their natural environments. In 1989, he got a composer’s fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to travel to Kenya and Madagascar, where he spent six months listening and making field recordings. One time, he followed elephants for three days to get 30 seconds of trumpeting at a watering hole. Another time, at night, he listened as a lion circled his tent, its whiskers brushing the nylon.

All his life, Quin had been listening to music, but this work opened up a new dimension of sound, what he came to think of as the music of the world, the songs that are all around us if we care to listen. Quin applied for other grants, and went to more places, like the Atlantic rainforests in Brazil, the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary in Bristol Bay, Alaska, and Antarctica, where he spent three seasons. He collected a massive Antarctic sound library, much of which ended up in Werner Herzog’s Oscar-nominated 2008 documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, on which Quin worked as sound designer and mixer.

Quin provided authenticity, the film’s producer, Henry Kaiser, told me. “Unlike most documentaries about Antarctica, which would be filled with a lot of fake sounds from a sound library, everything in there is the real sound from the correct thing in Antarctica, because Doug was there and already had it recorded before we went. He knows more about sound on Antarctica that any human who has ever lived.”

Before long, Quin left his teaching job at Georgetown Prep, founded his own company, DQMedia, and struck out on his own as a sound designer. Some of his recordings found their way into movies like Jurassic Park III and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, as well as video games like Spore, while others he compiled into CDs for sale, or secured away in zoos and biology departments to be used for educational or research purposes.

At the same time, however, Quin also wanted to find some meaningful way to share his sounds with others. So he enrolled at the interdisciplinary Union Institute and University and designed his own doctorate in acoustic ecology, a field started by R. Murray Shafer, the Canadian composer and environmentalist who coined the term soundscape.

Acoustic ecologists study the relationship of humans and animals to their sonic environment—how they use sound, and how sounds in turn affect them. Lately, there has been a flood of discoveries about the role of sound in nature, including the fact that certain owls hunt by listening for mice through the snow, that some whales don’t have breeding grounds but instead listen for faint sounds heard over hundreds of miles to find a mate and that prairie dogs use different “words” to describe animals of different sizes and colors and shapes coming into their territory.

At the same time, just as fast as we are learning about the soundscape, the soundscape is changing. In Europe, bioacousticians have found that entire forests are going silent as birds disappear. On the U.S. coasts, pile driving for construction is preventing dolphins from finding food and communicating. In the ocean, North Atlantic right whales have changed their calls to compensate for noise pollution, and in rivers, fish exposed to shipping noise have shown doubled levels of stress hormones.

Quin has kept busy on the research side, publishing papers in journals such as Polar Biology and Soundscape and releasing collections of field recordings, the latest of which, Fathom, came out last year. He has also been active in music, most recently with his Polar Suite for the Kronos Quartet and a collaboration called Racines au Cosmos with Suzie Gagnon, an accordionist with the Cirque du Soleil.

In 2009, he traveled to the Pacific island of New Caledonia to assist with a World Wildlife Fund project to gather sound data on the critically endangered kagu, a rare, flightless bird that calls only in the hour before and the hour after dawn. Kagus are very hard to see, and no one even knows how many there are. Quin’s work may help wildlife specialists plan an appropriate conservation effort.

“I entered into this in the 1980s as a way of broadening my musical horizons,” Quin told me. “But it wasn’t long before I came to appreciate the immediacy of the catastrophic loss of habitat. There are places that I’ve been to that don’t exist anymore, like the Atlantic rainforest in Brazil, and vast regions of Madagascar. At least we have a record of them.”

The Deafening Roar

A few days after our first outing, Quin and I ventured off into the soundscape again. This time, we drove east from Syracuse, up into the rounded, ancient peaks of the Adirondacks.

Along the way, we talked about many things—the death of his father, the feeling of being from everywhere and from nowhere and all the sounds that we either don’t listen to or can’t hear.

One of the strangest phenomena he’d encountered, he said, was the atmospheric whistler, which I had never heard of. When lightning strikes the earth, Quin explained, electricity flies up into the plasmasphere, and then returns to earth through the poles. Normally, humans can’t hear the whistling sound it makes, he said, but in Antarctica, Quin was able to record it. These whistlers sound eerily similar to the call of a Weddell seal. No one knows why.

Recording of Weddell and leopard seals and orcas, from Doug Quin’s Fathom (Taiga Records)

“To hear a Weddell seal,” Quin said, and shook his head. “My God, what an extraordinary sound!” He likened its psychedelic buzzing and whistling to what one might have heard at an early electronic music concert. (Hear one here.) “But then again,” he said after a pause, “every place I’ve been has something that just blows me away. Even here. You don’t have to travel to the ends of the earth to be open to some amazing sounds.”

We turned onto a dirt road that, on the map, looked isolated, but proved to run alongside a river whose reddish water ran over boulders: Beautiful to look at, but too loud to record. We drove on.

The next dirt road veered off into the forest, and seemed more promising. Quin and I rolled the windows down to scout the soundscape for good acoustical niches to record. Suddenly, he stopped the car. We got out, and Quin geared up, then went over to a tiny stream trickling over rock, lowered his big gray pill down next to the water, where it drank in the gentle sound.

Then, out of nowhere: BLAM!!!! Again: BLAM!!!! A shotgun had gone off just a hundred feet or so away from us. Hunting season, apparently. I ducked behind the car and looked over at Quin. He hadn’t budged. He held his microphone down to the water, motionless. He was lost, off in his own world.

A few minutes later, he reemerged and we hurried into the car and drove on, gunshots echoing behind us. We rolled through the feathery woods that cover the mountains, stopping at a few more places to listen. That in itself, even more than saving sounds from oblivion, or performing complicated bioacoustic analyses, is at the heart of Doug Quin’s crusade on behalf of the soundscape.

“We’re deafening ourselves on a cultural level,” Quin said with a touch of regret. “We fill our time with things. We fill our silences. We rarely pay attention to what’s going on right now, unless we’re deliberately doing meditation or something.”

He thought about this for a minute, then went on. “But we’re sensory beings. And for me, actively listening is a way of feeling a part of your environment more fully, like feeling a cool breeze blow across your skin on a windy day. It engages you more fully in the world you live in.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Frank Bures is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.

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