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Playing by Ear

Sound artist Douglas Quin
tunes in to Antarctica

By David Templeton

IN LESS THAN 10 DAYS, Sonoma composer Douglas Quin, having checked and rechecked his necessarily minimal baggage and high-tech recording equipment, will board a plane destined for Christchurch, New Zealand. After a brief stopover, he will catch a military transport bound for McMurdo Air Force Base on Ross Island on the Ross Ice Shelf off the coast of Antarctica.

There, after several days of intensive safety training, Quin will spend six austral summer weeks working outside in temperatures ranging from a balmy 32º to 10º Fahrenheit--that's 22º below freezing, warm for Antarctica. His tasks will include boring holes in the ice, through which aquaphones will be lowered on 30-foot cables into waters teeming with coccolithophorids and krill. He will mount parabolic microphones on stainless steel poles to record the shudders of the ice. He will aim boom mikes in the direction of lovesick seals. And that's not all.

"I'll be celebrating my birthday on the ice," he says, clearly thrilled, an unstoppable grin spreading across his face. "I'll turn 41 in the company of Weddell seals and penguins."

Quin, a renowned musician, composer, naturalist, and "sound artist," is a former teacher whose decade-long interest in bio-acoustics--the pursuit and acquisition of uncontaminated natural sounds, often requiring 200 hours of field recording for a yield of 15 minutes of usable sound--have led him from the Brazilian rain forests to the plains of the Serengeti to the tundra of the Alaskan Arctic.

These sonic forays into the wild have resulted in thousands of hours of field recordings. Much of this auditory information is employed within Quin's imaginative musical compositions, such as Oropendola: Music by and from Birds (available in CD from the Dutch label Apollo Records), an evocative weaving of bird song, insect vocalizations, electronic music, and the more traditional instrumentations of flute and clarinet. He has composed similar nature-music hybrids for the Lawrence Pech Dance Company in San Francisco and for dozens of music festivals and radio stations throughout America and Europe. His efforts have brought him numerous awards, fellowships, and grants.

An art and theater instructor at Georgetown Prep School in Rockville, Md., until August of 1995, Quin relocated to Sonoma County, where he now works with fellow bio-acoustics pioneer Bernie Krause, the man whose recordings helped lure Humphrey the Humpback Whale from the San Francisco Bay. Wild Sanctuary, the company Krause started several years ago, has set the industry standard for sound-based environments for zoo, museum, and aquarium exhibitions. With a digitized library of hundreds of thousands of distinct creature and habitat sounds, Wild Sanctuary is a bit like a candy store in which Quin is the sweet-toothed kid.

And sweet indeed is the anticipation with which Quin awaits his upcoming Antarctic adventure, a prestigious honor made possible by the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artist and Writer's Program. The result of this excursion, in addition to the fresh data he'll be bringing back to Wild Sanctuary, will be a soundscape composition titled Australis/Borealis: Sounding Through Light, combining the sound recordings and a chamber ensemble complete with chorus. While "on the ice," Quin will upload sounds and images, along with weekly journal entries.

"I feel so thrilled to have been invited by the National Science Foundation to be a part of this process," Quin says. "It's a very enlightened, and I think important, component to the overall work in Antarctica." Each year, a handful of artists in a variety of disciplines are sent to this ultimate Southern destination, to experience and translate a part of the world that most of us will likely never see. Quin's co-explorers will include a photographer and a children's picture-book author.

"In some ways, this program brings together two disciplines that have been divided from Leonardo da Vinci on. This is a way for people, through art, to understand science."

As an added distinction, Quin will be the first such honoree to visit Antarctica with the intention of collecting its sonic qualities.

"I have a narrow window of only a few weeks during which the male Weddell seals are very vocal as a part of their breeding cycle. They have 12 different types of vocalizations in 34 different categories.

"To be able to take that sound, to give it a musical voice," he continues, "that's going to be one of my challenges, and may present a different facet of their sounds."

Quin will not be after vociferous seals alone, but the full spectrum of Antarctic life.

"I'll visit the penguin rookeries," he grins. "Emperor penguins, Adelle penguins. I'll record the songs of whales and pelagic birds--skuas, petrels, albatrosses. Anything that makes sound."

Separate from the utterances of the continent's many creatures are also the remarkable sounds of the continent itself.

"The ice breaking up along the sea edge, that breaks up in the late spring, just when it's turning to summer," Quin says. "Fissures cracking along. Farther inland, I'll record the glacial ice streams and also the calving of icebergs as they break off from the tip of the glacier.

"There's a lot of sound out there," he says, waving an arm presumably toward the earth as a whole. "Most of what we know of the world we've learned through hearing. When I think about what I'm about to do, to record natural sounds in an environment this inhospitable, I know what a lofty goal it is. I've heard people say that once you've seen Antarctica, it changes you somehow.

"Of course, all things are reliant on the weather," he adds. "It could close in for a couple of months and be nothing but summer raging blizzards. In which case the only sound you'll hear is the sound of one person's teeth chattering."

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From the October 10-16, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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