Wednesday, September 28, 2011

In the Open Air

The greatest thing about having so many different friends--especially the oddly creative friends I seem drawn to--is the constant challenge to look at things from a different angle, to try things a different way.

My friend Mara, the painter from Sheridan, enjoys painting "en plein air."  This is an artistic French term which means, reassuringly, "in plain air."  You grab your gear, head out under the sky, and paint nature as you see it.  If I were a painter, I would want to work this way.  It's natural, it's outside, it requires a good mix of planning and spontaneity.  Mara's work sometimes makes me wish I had time to take up painting again.

We receive Backpacker Magazine, courtesy of an outdoor gear company who apparently thinks it will encourage us to buy more stuff.  (It might be working)  I recently read an article therein about Gordon Hempton, a man who has made it his life's work to seek out wild places in Washington state that are completely free of human noise.  What with airplanes, dogs, and freeways, he has a surprisingly difficult time finding such places, even in National Parks and so-called wilderness areas. But once he does locate such an area--here's the cool part--he hauls in a semi-portable, stereo recording rig and spends hours, sometimes days, recording the silence.  Yep, that's what he does.

Why would he bother?  Well, there is, of course, no such thing as true silence in nature.  I recall, as a boy, standing in the Bighorn Basin badlands, amazed at the sounds of a mouse munching on roots under my feet.  That's quiet.  Once you recalibrate your ears to nature's level, it's amazing the things you hear.  That is what Hempton is going for--trying to get people to get away from the traffic, quit yacking, turn off the ipod, and just listen.  His recordings have won Emmy awards; they are in the Smithsonian.  No effects, no added music.  Just nature, in all its acoustic glory.

Reading that article, I kept thinking of Mara's "en plein air" adventures.  I wanted to do music this way--get out there and record my music directly on the canvas of nature's noisy silence.  So when I found myself with a free afternoon recently, I grabbed my shiny new low D, some snacks, and the video camera, and headed for the desert.

I'm fairly pleased with this maiden voyage into "en plein air" music recording.  I like the way the lighting turned out.  I like the spaces in the music where you can listen for crickets and flies.  If I had had a better microphone, you might have been able to hear the magpies squawking in the distance.  

I'm starting to look into portable recording rigs.  Thinking about locations.  Trying to figure out how in the world I'm going to do this in the winter.  Maybe my next CD will feature music recorded in the open air.  Maybe I'll get some friends together and do a series of wilderness concerts some summer.

Or maybe not. This is a good start, though, even if I'm not sure, just yet, what it's the start of.  That's another great thing about trying things a different way:  You never quite know where it will end up.  But getting there sure is fun.


  1. Test. Test. Test. Something funky going on with comments on my blog. *thump thump thump* Is this thing on?

  2. This is a test comment especially requested by Tom himself. (I swear it.)

  3. Nice! I once recorded about an hour of nothing on a beach in Ireland. After I was settled back and listening for about ten minutes, I started to be able to hear sheep baa-ing in the far distance!

  4. Brilliant! Music en plein air! What an adventure this will be. I will be excited to watch what you come up in the rain, next to a creek, with the thing about painting en plein air that I always think about when I am out there is that it is surely a "sport" that takes dedication and practice. It's easy to be out of shape and not quite up to the challenging elements. But, there is something about real, live nature that cures even the most bland creative expression. Something from the place you were becomes grafted into the thing you create while you're there. It's weird. Can't wait till you post the next, and the next...

  5. Beth--is that the one you sent me? The sheep didn't come through very well on the CD (The Winds of Badbea, I think it was), but the idea was terrific!