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Capturing place and time through sound
Awhile back, we took you deep into outer space:
CHRISTOPHER HEDGE: You’re always going to have a whoosh sound when you go through something in a planetarium, so I was thinking, “Well what if those whooshes were made with the real signatures of what you’re going through?”
KALW’s Martina Castro spoke with sound designer Christopher Hedge about how he came up with the sound design for “Life: A Cosmic Story,” the show recently housed at the state-of-the-art Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences.
But beyond imagining what Saturn sounds like, Hedge is also an accomplished composer, and likes to gather sounds from all over our planet. He’s been composing for over 25 years with artists such as Neil Young and Paul Horn. Hedge has a unique approach to gathering sounds – once he records them, he uses them again, as if they were instruments themselves.
In this second part of his interview with KALW’s Martina Castro, Hedge explains how his approach to recording music takes him all over the globe.
CHRISTOPHER HEDGE: I think that’s a good way of putting it: it takes me there because I’m not really driving, in a way. It’s those things that I am going to record and then interpret, because, to me, sound is like a photograph: the moment that happens stays with that sound in this unique sort of way.
A lot of people think of recording as recording a group that’s all playing at the same time – but a lot of us grew up building things piece-by-piece. Which means that the sound then becomes not only the instrument that you’re playing, not only the notes that you’re playing on it, but the moment that you’re playing it – so that the thing that’s in your mind sometimes is what’s recorded. The emotion is what you’re recording, as much as the sound of the instrument and the notes that you’re choosing. It becomes a different thing.
MARTINA CASTRO: How so? I’m curious – how is it different?
HEDGE: Alright. Think of a little bluesy guitar-line. You know: perfectly recorded in a soundproof room. And then take that same guitar-line and put it in 1932, in a hotel lobby, in the hands of somebody who’s not making a nickel to play that music. It’s the same notes – and it could even be the same exact guitar. But it is an entirely different thing. It’s affected by the room that it’s in, and it’s affected by the situation that it’s in. The moment of recording is the thing that’s – it’s what’s happening. It can’t be taken apart into notes, and the perfection of playing, and things like that. It has to be kind of an emotional thing, or it’s not worth recording.
CASTRO: As you say, it’s like a photograph – so which one just takes you straight back?
HEDGE: There’s a million of them. One that came up very recently was in this tiny little postage stamp of a rain forest that’s left in Paraguay. The whole county looks like Kansas. And inside this little reserve is a girls’ school, and the girls are a combination of the farmers – who, you know, a lot of them poached the rain forest for trees – and the Ache Indians that live in the rain forest.
Well, there’s only a tiny number of elders that are left, and not even their children know how to sing the songs that they sang in the forest. And I wanted to make a point to these girls that, unless they learn those songs now, from these six or seven remaining elders, they would never learn them.
And so, in trying to make this point, I recorded these three or four elders. And this woman sat down to sing this song and just burst into tears, and was crying. And I thought I was scaring her to death, with my boom microphone and binaurals and all this equipment that was on me. But it turned out that the crying was the song.
The next day, we invited her over to the girl’s school, and she performed this for the girls. And of course, they’re just in tears, they’re completely destroyed – because they had no idea, A.) that these elders even sang, or did music at all, and B.) it was apparent that it was disappearing, that they would lose this thing.
CASTRO: And so, do you think you listen differently when you’re traveling, or when you’re out in the world?
HEDGE: Yes. Specifically – there’s a great little invention of microphones called the binaural mic. They used to put them in these plastic heads that had modeled heads, so that the two microphones would be at the natural distance between the ears. And I found this set that you could actually take off of the little dummy head and wear in your own ears – almost like a stethoscope. And those recordings are so three-dimensional that it brings a certain reality to the sound that’s unique. And so, with the little Zoom recorder in my pocket, and a pair of these binaural microphones on, you can walk around and literally be the microphone.
Many of my favorite adventures out in the world have been with Paul, and one of them was in a Tibetan nunnery, outside of Kathmandu. The nuns there had invited us to record: they allowed us to sit there all day and record their chanting, and then they gave us their main monastery room for the night. And here’s all these tongas on the wall, and this big golden Buddha at the end of the hall. And Paul was starting to warm up.
I went over, and I stood in front of him, and I gave him that look – and he knows I’m recording – and he’s playing, but he’s playing to me like I’m recording with you. See, he’s just looking at me and just playing, like this. And the sound is reverberating off of this place – and it’s nighttime, uplands of the Kathmandu valley, and these things inhabit that sound – it becomes something... It becomes something that you can’t do at the studio, with a pan pot. It was really exciting.
All the music you in this piece was composed by Christopher Hedge for the award-winning PBS series, “The New Heroes.” Hedge is currently working on a new show for the Planetarium about earthquakes, and is also heading back to Paraguay this December to do more recordings with the Ache Tribe.