Curating the state's natural sounds

Dec 22, 2011

If you go deep in the basement of the Oakland Museum of California you might hear something extraordinary. It’s the archives of the California Library of Natural Sounds. What started with some crickets and a couple of frogs has expanded into a sound collection that's hard to contain inside the gallery walls. Reporter Julie Caine takes us inside the Library for this report from the KALW News archives.

CARSON BELL: I listen to a lot of wild things in here.

JULIE CAINE: That’s Carson Bell. He’s a curatorial specialist at the Oakland Museum, and he’s brought me into his world.

We’re in the California Library of Natural Sounds … office. It’s not completely soundproof, but it’s enough where I’m not going to disturb people with the wild elephant seal calls that are happening in here when someone walks by.

What they’re walking by is something of a secret treasure, hidden behind a plain white door in the basement of the museum. The California Library of Natural Sounds is a collection that started 40 years ago, with the simple recording of a cricket.

The collection now includes more than 2,600 audio recordings of animals, insects, and landscapes from all over the state.

There are wolves, bison, whales, a varied thrush, and of course, that elephant seal.

The recordings have been made by various people over the years, using many different methods and pieces of equipment, but Bell says they all have a similar mission.

BELL: They’re doing it because they wanted to remember what it sounded like. They’re not doing it to geek out on it and make it sound great – they just doing it because they like it and wanted to hear it again. I really like that. I think that’s really charming.

For Bell, this DIY style of sound gathering is familiar. His training is in filmmaking, but his love affair has always been with recording sound.

BELL: I’ve always been a recording nerd. I still have, like, 10 tapes of me as a little kid, walking around with a tape recorder. It’s pretty funny thinking that I still do that now.

Bell spent seven years touring and recording with various Bay Area punk bands – like The Pattern.

But Bell isn’t just a counter-culturalist. He grew up surrounded by mainstream culture. His mom was a curator at a regional museum in Oregon, and Bell spent his childhood…

BELL: Hanging out with my mom, putting on the white gloves and playing with artifacts. Not playing (laughs); helping her catalog artifacts.

He remembers hours spent as a kid wandering around the Natural Sciences section after hours.

BELL: It was completely dark, and there were dioramas set into the walls and lit very beautifully. I just spent a lot of time in there hanging out with all these animals, because I just thought it was so interesting to be able to get so close to them.

Getting close to the animals is now Bell’s job. The recordings in the California Library of Natural Sounds collection don’t just stay locked in a hard drive in his office. They’re used to create the orchestral soundscapes that animate the Natural Sciences Gallery, which is designed as a regional tour of California.

BELL: We’re doing the coastal mountains, then we’ll do the inner coast ranges, and then we’re going to hit the Central Valley….

The collection extends beyond the walls of the museum, too.

BELL: I get requests to use the sounds from artists, people from radio, some television. A lot of musicians. I actually had a woman come in and request some sounds. She wanted the sound of cranes, I believe.

Bell says the musician, Brenda Shuman-Post, used the recordings of cranes to create a performance piece and a track on a recent CD.

BELL: She actually brought her oboe, and was playing along with the sounds.

The Oakland Museum’s recordings serve an archival purpose as well, documenting the calls and songs of endangered and threatened species.

BELL: The lark sparrow, the olive-sided flycatcher, the hermit warbler, the Pacific-slope flycatcher, the sage grouse...

The museum has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to revamp the Natural Sciences Gallery, and other monies are funding a redesign of the museum’s other collections and galleries as well.

While the doors are closed to the public, museum staff and construction workers are hard at work inside, re-imagining and revamping the museum.

BELL: When we started to kind of de-install things and pull walls down, I was like, do you want me to turn the sounds off? And everyone was like, “No, please leave them on.” ‘Cause this is really comforting to everyone – they like having the sound while they’re working. And I thought that was really cool. I was like, yeah, of course, I’ll leave them on. No problem.

The Natural Sciences Gallery at the Oakland Museum is due to re-open in 2012. Until then, sounds from the collection can be heard online, or seeping out of Bell’s basement office – if he leaves the door ajar…

In Oakland, I’m Julie Caine for Crosscurrents

What’s your favorite natural sound? Leave us a message with your best imitation at 415-264-7106. Meanwhile, check out the Oakland Museum of California's "A Walk in the Wild: Continuing John Muir's Journey" exhibit, which uses interactive, multi-sensory displays and digital mash-ups to explore John Muir's life and the ways he continues to influence our relationship with the natural world. It will be on display through January 22, 2012.

This story originally aired on December 14, 2009.