Sound of Silence. Q&A with Listener Gordon Hempton

Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who cares
very deeply about quiet. His recordings of steadily vanishing
natural soundscapes have been written about and reviewed in
People, Time, Newsweek, and many more American and international
magazines. His work has enriched numerous television documentaries
including the PBS documentary Vanishing Dawn Chorus, which earned
him an Emmy. In 2010, he wrote One Square Inch of Silence:
One Man’s Quest
to Preserve Quiet, with co-author
John Grossmann.



Q. The media gave you many titles, such as environmental activist, field recordist, acoustic ecologist and sound artist.Which one do you like?

A. I am a listener, everything else that I do is
the result of listening. I can’t help but cringe when I hear sound
artist or acoustic ecologist. While I have made a career out of listening,
then recording, and applying what I have learned to products as
diverse as museum exhibits and video games, I am still learning
to become a better listener, particularly when I’m around young
children, for they have much to teach us. We are all born listeners,
but as we grow into adults we learn to focus our attention on
“important” sounds while filtering out what is not important.
This is NOT listening, this is unconscious impairment. True
listening is a process when all sounds are given equal value,
including the faint ones, often in the background. These faint
sounds often provide information about our future. For example
if I hear birds singing from a great distance, in other words
faintly, then I can presume that there is a prosperous area there,
perhaps even out of sight and choose to go there, perhaps even
camp or build a home. It is no surprise that the human ear is
tuned to hear birds, they are the primary acoustic indicators
of habitats prosperous for humans.

Q. How do you define silence? What does silence mean to you?

A. I define silence not as the absence of something but the
presence of everything. The whole earth is vibrating with energy,
much of it audible, so true silence or the absence of all sound
does not exist on land water or in the air. Yet, we can go to
extremely quiet places. The quietest place on Earth is Haleakala
Crater on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The sound pressure level
is measured in negative decibels. The faintest sound the human
ear can hear is 0 dB–this is the threshold of human hearing
measured at 1000 Hz. But below the threshold of human hearing
there is still acoustic energy, so places can be measured in
negative decibels. My recording career inspired me early on to
expand upon this definition of audible silence to include all
places that are free of noise pollution. I often use quiet and
silence interchangeably, and I know this can get confusing, but
I naturally do this because both terms describe the same feeling
that I get whether I am well below the rim of a volcanic crater
or deep in the Amazon rainforest. If noise pollution is absent,
then my auditory horizon becomes vast, I can listen to many square
kilometers at one time. If I am in an area with active noise
pollution, like traffic noise, my auditory horizon is very limited.
The opportunity to record pure nature sounds disappears, and I am
aware of a much smaller area at a time.

Q. Could you describe an amazing experience you looked for
perfect sound to record?

A. In June, 2012, I was invited by the Cofan, an indigenous people
of the Ecuadorian Amazon, to record their native forests. They are
reaching out to the modern world via a website for financial support
to defend their lands from poachers and multi-national corporations
seeking their abundant untapped natural wealth. I met one of their
chiefs, Randy Borman, at a TED-X event in Manaus, the largest city in
the Amazon, and learning of his land and way of life naturally
intrigued me. We agreed that the sounds of the Zabalo region
would help attract website visitors and possibly increase funding.
I arrived in Quito with my two adult children, Abby and Oogie, to
help carry my heavy equipment cases; then it was a 16-hour roller
coaster ride through the Andes, then down into the Amazon basin;
then two days by motorized canoe before we reached the edge of the
jungle—home to anaconda, poisonous snakes, spiders, swarms of stingless
bees, mosquitoes, and piranhas. We then hiked yet one more day, with
Randy’s sons wielding machetes to carve a path, stopping frequently
to observe Wooly monkeys, Toucans, even the world’s largest eagle,
the Harpy, whose wingspan reaches up to two meters.
During our pilgrimage the music of the forest was ever changing–so
precisely, I learned that the correct time of day can be determined
to within five minutes just by observing the combinations of jungle
sounds. There is a constant string section of insects, always
humming, sometimes plucking, clicking. The frog section is almost
as numerous, trilling, croaking and sometimes growling. Birds are
most active a dawn and dusk, accented by the occasional solo
performance of a howler monkey claiming expansive territory. I even
heard the hiss of a jaguar, possibly alarmed by the smell of 100% deet,
or the ultrahigh pitch produced by my sophisticated electronic
equipment. Finding the right location to setup my equipment was no
problem. All positions were good choices. As the men established
camp, I set out alone, having been warned not to crouch down without
a tree to my back to shield me from the potential lunge of a jaguar
who lurked, curious of our activities. I recorded for hours, day
and night, as often as I could. Even here, 1200 miles kilometers
from the nearest road or towns with electricity, jets passed overhead
as many as eight to ten times per day. I’ve recorded on six continents
but nowhere have I been at a location so untouched by modern man, and
nowhere else have I heard nature more musical. It is impossible to
describe, and fortunately, I don’t have to, because I have the sound
recordings. But more important than the recordings, my work is about
listening, and then becoming changed by what I have heard. I hope
that these recordings will draw attention worldwide to the significance
of the Cofan people and this precious piece of Eden that remains.
You can learn more about the Cofan and listen to some of my recordings
by visiting

Q. What’s the difference between the sounds of people and the
sounds of nature?

A. The sounds of people are natural, so long as it is only their
voices, footsteps, and such and not the sounds from man-made
mechanical creations. Sound is information; this is because
sound is created by events. A snap of a twig on the forest floor
sends out the information in all directions that a footstep has
occurred–how loud? how quick? how resonant? will further inform
the listener of possible intent; also if the event was caused by
a foot, a hoof, or a padded paw without claws. Listening to the
constant news and information flow of natural living systems is
essential for survival in all animal species. There are blind
animal species, but no deaf animal species. The usual series of
sensual data gathering in the wild is to hear something, then look
in that direction, perhaps step closer to get a better look, then
maybe touch, smell, taste. The order can vary, but you get the
idea–our sense of hearing often initiates information gathering
by naturally curious and intelligent creatures. The problem with
noise pollution is that it not only contains simple information,
like a car is moving, but noise pollution levels are loud enough
that it will cover up and mask faint, information-rich sounds,
such as the presence of birdsong that signals food and water, the
hum of insects that acknowledges pollination and a stable ecological
pyramid, the roll of distant thunder which warns us to prepare for
an impending weather change. The faint sounds of nature give us a
sense of place and being in the world. Humans rarely whisper and
noise pollution, which has been linked to all manner of physical
harm, causes us to be essentially homeless, lost, and confused.

Q. What are the biggest noise sources from human world?

A. The loudest natural sound I have heard was the eruption of
Mt. Saint Helens on May 18th, 1980-I was fly fishing in North Cascades
National Park in Washington State, more than 100 miles and a state
north of the eruption, which blew the top off the mountain in Oregon.
I thought, “Who would be blasting off dynamite on Sunday morning?”
Only later did I realize what I’d really heard. The biggest source
of man-made noise pollution, confirmed by the World Health
Organization, is transportation noise. Cars, trucks, trains,
planes, boats, motorcycles, snowmobiles…the list is long. These
use fossil fuels generally, and the epidemic rise in noise pollution
has pretty much shadowed our consumption of fossil fuels.

Q. Do you think people are born as “good listeners”? If so, how do
we lose it and how to regain it?

A. Yes, absolutely. All animals listen to survive. Sound can convey
so much information rapidly without effort. It is interesting,
too, that while eyelids are common in the animal world, “earlids”
or coverings of the ear never evolved. Not once, even in the fossil
record, do we find that an animal species found it advantageous
to cut itself off, even momentarily, from the constant sonic
information flow. So young children are born listeners, naturally.
The problem is that, especially when going to school, these listeners
are instructed to focus attention on human speech or music or other
recognized sounds of cultural importance and screen everything else
out. We develop deeply ingrained bad habits and misplace our inherent
ability to listen. I find during my travels to the most remote places
on the Earth that the indigenous people who still rely on hunting and
live a self-sufficient life remain good listeners–in fact exceptional
listeners, commonly attuned to the language of other animal species
as much as three kilometers away.
So I recommend two things to adults who wish to regain true listening
skills. The first is to invite a young pre-school child to go for a
night walk. Hoist the child onto your shoulders and set off. The child
will tell you everything you need to become a better listener. The second
is to listen through a microphone. A microphone does not have a brain.
It “hears” all sounds with the same level of importance provided it
is high quality and has a level frequency response curve. Our brain
will naturally give equal importance to all the sounds that the
microphone picks-up. The experience is basically an epiphany,
especially when the volume level is turned up and we can listen to
even silence now amplified. The interesting thing is that once the
brain experiences true listening, even through a microphone, it then
listens well without the microphone.

Q. You lost hearing for a while. That is a devastating thing for
a sound master. How did you go through that? How does that change
your view on the world?

A. Unfortunately, I am now experiencing my second bout of hearing loss.
My first loss occurred in 2003 but my hearing returned after 18 months.
No cause was ever determined. However, it was devastating and I was
unprepared. As you say, loss of hearing for someone who listens for
a living is devastating. My eyes well up with tears even now recalling
how my world fell apart emotionally and financially. My current loss
of hearing started more than two years ago, and I am still in the
recovery stage. I’ve, regained 80% of my hearing in my right ear but
only 25% in my left ear. Everything I do in the studio now requires
a healthy hearing young person sits beside me to answer my questions
as I decide which recording to include in my sound libraries that I
license to professionals. This has been a fascinating process. I often
notice sounds, even with hearing loss, that the young person does not,
at least until I describe it to them and they hear it, too, upon second
listening. Fortunately, I also took very detailed field notes for my
sound library catalogue, so I know what sounds should be there and ask
the young person sitting beside me to help me listen for the noted
sounds, be they leaves rustling in a stiff breeze or a think alpine
waterfall–both sounds are similar when heard from a distance.
Over the last year I have trained and used about a half-dozen
young people beside me. None of them ever suspected the natural
would sound so beautiful. Each one feels spiritually awakened to
our planet.
In both instances of hearing loss there have been great positives.
The first hearing loss resulted in the One Square Inch of Silence
Foundation, which was established on Earth Day 2005 and the book
One Square Inch of Silence which was published four years later.
And the second hearing loss, still in progress, resulted in my Quiet
Planet project, which promises to bring my work to even a broader
audience. It is also interesting that my current hearing loss has
been diagnosed. It is the result of living a modern life. I moved
from my almost wilderness home in Joyce, population of only 100
people, to the outskirts of bustling Seattle with a population
in the millions. The added stress to my life caused my immune
system to become imbalanced and develop severe allergies to
almost everything. I remain in this environment because I fell
in love here. This is where my wife works and where our families
live. Life is sometimes complicated, and, like hearing loss,
offers epiphanies in disguise.

Q. Is it possible that we find one square inch of silence in China?

A. Yes, I believe so. But increasingly it will be harder. If given
the opportunity to travel to China and seek out the least noise
polluted natural place, I would do this in a heartbeat. A quiet
place, according to my definition, requires more than 1000 square
kilometers without motor noise. As you might imagine, those places
are rapidly disappearing all over the planet. There is no time to
waste to record these valuable natural soundscapes and use these
recording to campaign for their preservation. Ten percent of all
Quiet Planet sales goes back to various environmental non-profits
that include quiet preservation in their mission statement.

Q. Do you think our mental chatter is also a noise keeping us
away from silence?

A. Never before has the human mind been so full of chatter, fed
by the nearly constant distractions of cellular technologies.
It is extremely important to a person’s health to designate
quiet times in each day–dedicated interludes where we simply
turn off all electronic devices, sit still, and admire without
words something natural around us, such as a growing leaf. We
exhale carbon dioxide that the plant needs and in return it
breaths out oxygen for us. Spending quiet time with such miracles
inspires hope and allows us to be who we really are.

Q. We know how bad the noise is to wildlife. As you mentioned before,Yangtze dolphin in China extinct because of noise pollution from shipping traffic. But at the meantime, people want better life. I guess few of them are willing to give up modern lifestyle. So, how can we seek a feasible plan? What can we do in our daily life?

A. Two things. First, include a quiet time, described above, each day.
This exercise should last at least 20 minutes but preferably as long
as is needed so that a person feels ready to get up, move on, and return
with ambition to modern life. Second, work to establish places in
nature that are off limits to noise pollution. To date, there is not
one place on planet Earth that has been officially designated a quiet
place. One Square Inch of Silence, my personal haven in America’s Pacific
Northwest, is my self-proclaimed demonstration project. The first quiet
place to become nationally and internationally established will be of
long lasting global significance. Not only will it provide a sanctuary
for us to rejuvenate our spirits but also begin the process of
preserving the world’s remaining pristine natural soundscapes, places
where wildlife can still communicate as they have done for millennia.
Remember, all animals hear, and the ability for wildlife to listen and
communicate is as essential as food, water, and shelter.

Q. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of silence?

A. Absolutely optimistic. In fact, this is the greatest time to live
in all of human history. It’s easy to say the world’s problems have
never been worse, but on the other hand, these problems have been in
the making for thousands of years. We are, out of necessity I might
add, on the verge of a ecological spiritual awakening, one that I
believe will build an enlightened economy that includes environmental
impacts, and will restore a world worth listening to. Why do I believe
this? When I am in a quiet place, I ask questions. Quiet has a voice.
Answers come in raw emotions, from deeply within. I imagine our distant
ancestors who also faced life threatening circumstances had to do the
same. They were obviously successful, for we are here. Each time I
listen for our future in the quiet about our future, I swell with
wellbeing and hope. Why should the future of our planet be any less
difficult than our own evolution?


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