An Interview with Lang Elliott
Last month I had the opportunity to sit down with nature sound recordist and cinematographer Lang Elliott to hear about his upcoming North American Soundscape expedition. Lang has lived in the Ithaca area since the 1980’s and is a member of the Cayuga Bird Club. His natural sound recordings are used in the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, Eastern Region, as well as the Sibley eGuide to Birds, Audubon Birds and the Audubon Society’s Online Guide to North American Birds. He also has a website, Music of Nature, with many sound and video recordings of the natural world. His next project is to embark on a six-month recording and videography expedition to the western United States; he plans to share these recordings through a new interactive Nature SoundMap that he is creating, to be launched in early March. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
How did you get started with sound recording?
It all started when I was an undergrad at the University of Missouri and I got interested in frogs. I took a herpetology course and the guy who was teaching it was really into frogs and their sounds. So I bought a Uher tape recorder - a little reel-to-reel - and I also bought a parabolic reflector microphone and started wandering around making frog and toad recordings, just for fun. Then I went to grad school in animal behavior and I ended up moving to the Adirondacks, where I recorded frogs but stayed away from birds because I’m high-frequency deaf and couldn’t hear many of their songs. Ultimately, though, I co-developed a device that takes the high pitched bird songs and lowers them so I could hear them.
Is that the Song Finder?
Yes, the Song Finder, developed with my engineer-partner Herb Susmann. Over the years, I had thought, well, I can’t hear a lot of birds so I’m not going to record birds. It’s sort of crazy for somebody half-deaf to be a bird sound recordist… But with my device, which fits in a pocket, I am able to find the birds I otherwise wouldn’t hear, and get good recordings. The SongFinder lowers the high frequency sounds and employs a binaural headset so I can tell what direction they are coming from.
I worked at the lab of Ornithology for a number of years, in photography. I started getting interested in narrated tutorials having to do with birds, in the tradition of Arthur Allen and Peter Paul Kellogg, like [the 1958 recording] An Evening in Sapsucker Woods.
Basically, what happened was I ended up embarking on projects myself, going out and collecting my own recordings. At that time, Steve Kress’s Puffin Project occupied a small outbuilding at the Lab, and it had an anechoic chamber originally used for bat research. Steve was using it as a storage room. When I told him I was looking for space where I could put together some narrated productions, Steve encouraged me to convert the anechoic chamber to a small sound studio. And that’s exactly what I did.
And then around that time I made contact with the director of the National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and suggested I produce a bird song guide just for them. Thankfully, I ended up getting a small grant which was routed through the Lab. The end product was A Birdsong Tutorial for blind people to help them learn something of their surroundings, of the habitats, by keying into the birds they were hearing. Pretty neat!
And that just led to one thing after another. I ended up leaving the lab, and producing some guides, Know Your Bird Sounds, Volumes I and II, which were the repertoires of common birds, mainly from recordings I’d started getting around here. I produced and self-published A Guide to Night Sounds, and Wild Sounds of the North Woods… and this collection of guides started building. It just sort of kept working out… I started doing more trips and collecting sounds (mostly using a parabolic microphone) all over the East, and was lucky, in spite of my hearing, to be able to get songs and calls of nearly every species. I guess I have a knack for it, in spite of my physical impairment that you would think would keep me from doing this kind of work.
Amazingly, I ended up with enough material to do a comprehensive guide to Eastern bird songs, which I initially produced with the help of the Stokes’s: Stokes’ Field Guide to Bird Songs - Eastern. That original collection, which has been expanded to include recordings by numerous of my friends (such as Ithaca-residents Bob McGuire, Bill Evans and Beth Bannister) lives on and is now featured on the Audubon website and in various mobile apps, such as BirdTunes (http://www.birdtunes.earth), which I co-produced with local computer programmer Harold Mills. Our collection currently includes about 2700 recordings featuring the songs and calls of nearly 700 species… quite an involved project, getting close and clean recordings of so many species!
But now my interest has shifted to emphasize aesthetics, soundscapes, the totality of sound, and not trying necessarily to home-in on particular songs or calls. Recordings made with parabolic reflector microphones represent the extreme of pulling a sound event out of the surroundings… isolating it from everything else so that you just hear one particular bird and nothing else. But that’s different from our actual listening experience. So my work has drifted in the complete opposite direction, toward embracing the totality of sound as we humans experience it, toward capturing dimensional, immersive soundscapes.
I spent a lot of time last summer down at Shindagin Hollow. I am always on this quest to get the best Hermit Thrush recording I can get. And it’s not a parabolic recording-- it’s the Hermit Thrush recorded in context, in the hemlock woods, or wherever. I desire a strong element of spaciousness, and a nice balance of, say, a main singer and various subordinate singers. The special mic I use doesn’t focus like a parabola does, it doesn’t distort the actual sound experience. It “hears” everything, so I have to place the mic with care, in order to capture a pleasing and unified soundscape.
So I’m attempting to capture what’s beautiful for humans. It’s more art than science. There’s some science to it, but that isn’t where my interest is-- I’m not recording for analysis. You could say, this is a document of a sound event, a soundscape event, and sure, it would have some scientific significance. But I’m not performing a controlled experiment. I’m picking and choosing based on what I am attracted to, on what sounds good to my ear.
And you are going on a big sound recording trip.
Beginning in late February, I’m heading out to spend five to six months exploring wild places, mostly out West. I’ll be gathering soundscape recordings, long recordings, interesting sound events or mixtures that I am excited to share with others. Like I would love to get a beautiful desert soundscape with Cactus Wren, Gambel’s Quail, and other common desert species… a pleasing representation of what it’s like to be among the Saguaro cacti.
I use a special soundscape mic; it is like the human head... with omnidirectional mikes placed 7” apart— it’s like your ears— with a baffle in between. Recording this way, you are simulating the human head. So if you play this back, especially over headphones your brain receives natural binaural cues and is tricked into thinking what you’re hearing is real, with sounds appearing to come from “out there in nature,” as opposed to from inside your head.
It sounds sort of like you’ve gone from being a portrait photographer to a landscape photographer.
Yes, I often use that example as I explain it. I’m like a photographer focusing on landscapes rather than closeups of birds or flowers or whatever. Rather than capturing a particular sound object, I am now more interested in capturing the totality of sound. That said, I readily admit that closeup recordings of species are also useful, so I’ll no doubt spend some time wandering around with a parabola.
So on this journey I will be going to a lot of places I haven’t been before. My trip will be rooted in aesthetics, in communion and celebration of place, and will be more artistic than scientific. I am interested in the immersive experience itself - in what it’s actually like to be there. At least that’s what I’m hoping to achieve. I want my trip to be a poetic journey. My personal challenge, of course, will be getting myself into the right frame of mind to accomplish this goal.
Also, I was recently treated for throat cancer. So I’m coming off that and happy to get back on the road. My voice has suffered somewhat from the treatment… I sound a little croaky these days, but at least my voice is workable. I actually plan to produce podcasts during my trip, most of which will be on-location chats where I share my impressions of places and feature one or more soundscape recordings.
What’s really exciting is my new nature SoundMap, which will allow folks to track my journey. Each marker on the map will feature a soundscape recording, along with a description and a habitat photo. Location markers will start appearing on the map in early March… allowing you to see exactly where I’ve been and listen to the fruits of my labor. If you sign on to my mailing list, you’ll be automatically notified by email each time I add a new location on the map.
Where are you going first?
I plan to arrive in coastal Louisiana by the end of February. There should be plenty of things going on in the marshes by then. I’m hoping to get rails, like King and Virginia Rails— this will mostly be in freshwater marshes— especially Sabine, Laccasine, and Rockefeller National Wildlife Refuges. After that I’ll visit the Hill Country and Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Then on to New Mexico and Arizona. As the months roll by, I’ll visit numerous wild areas in the Great Basin and all the western mountain ranges, perhaps even taking a short trip to the northern prairie states.
I will be hugely excited to see dozens of recording locations appearing on my SoundMap as my journey progresses. And when I finally return home, given that the map has caught on, I will spend the winter adding gobs of additional soundscape recordings I’ve made previously in the East. Altogether, I plan to post at least several hundred recordings on my SoundMap by the beginning of 2018, with markers spread all the way from Newfoundland to California and even Alaska!
How can people support your trip and soundscape project?
Come to musicofnature.com. Check out what I do. I do need money to help pay for my expedition. My donation page includes several choices for supporting my work. Why donate? Well, these days I’m mostly just giving away content. It’s the new model … give freely and be supported by those who enjoy the content. I rather like that concept, which is related to crowdfunding. My life is only going to last so long and I would like to have given as much as possible before it ends. That’s the first and foremost thing I believe I should do. Give now, before time runs out.