Where art, science and environment intersect

by Lani Diane Rich

November 13, 2019

Professor Doug Quin on the power of sound to change the world

Doug Quin in a snow-covered shoreline
Quin takes a break during the remote field recording masterclass at the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture in the Australian Alps. Photo by Justus Pipinis

Television, radio and film professor Doug Quin’s appreciation for aural experience began in childhood.

“My father worked for the state department, and so I grew up in North Africa and Europe,” he says. “I had to learn languages. I had to learn how to fit in, so a lot of my hook with sound was just trying to keep up.”

Quin, whose background includes collecting soundscapes of various locations around the world for museum exhibits and helping to build the velociraptor calls for “Jurassic Park 3,” spent eight months earlier this year as a visiting fellow at the University of Tasmania (UTAS), collecting the sounds of nature and wildlife as part of a lifelong passion for preserving sonic experience.

“I think just like a wildlife photographer, you do a lot of research to figure out what's there,” Quin says. While in Australia, he used an ambisonic setup, which employs a number of microphones to get sounds from all different directions, allowing for a fully immersive experience.

“[Australia is] physically a big country, but the population is just the size of New York and LA,” says Quin. “It’s the size of the U.S. but a tenth of the population, so it's wonderfully vibrant and dynamic.”

He first connected with UTAS at an Antarctica conference, at which he met Carolyn Philpott, a musicologist at the university. The two bonded over their passion for Antarctica, to which Australia has strong cultural ties, and have since collaborated on a few projects, including concerts, sound exhibitions and book chapters. While the natural sounds Quin collects around the world may not seem inherently musical, he argues that there is music in every sound.

“My background in this comes out of music composition,” says Quin, referencing composers like John Cage and Oliver Messiaen. Both have used natural sounds in their music, something that recent advances in technology have made possible.

Quin in a rainforest
Quin in Melba Gully, a pocket of old growth rainforest in Victoria. Photo by Peggy Droz

“It's kind of like turning the sound inside out and exploring musical potential that before, in an age past, you wouldn't,” says Quin. “The sound becomes an object that we can… capture, manipulate, transform.”

During his eight months in Australia, Quin’s tour included giving lectures on film sound design and environmental sound art while also venturing out into places like Daintree Rainforest, Mowbray National Park and Kangaroo Island to collect soundscapes and wildlife recordings, which are useful not just to composers or film sound designers, but to scientists as well.

“[It’s] deep immersive time making field recordings, building collaborations with people involved in different aspects of where art, science and environment intersect,” he says. “'I’ve ended up working a lot with scientists both as a collaborator [or] co-author on some studies and papers, but also making my work available to them for research that I'm either directly or indirectly involved with.”

That collaboration includes collecting environmental sounds which, like much of our natural world, are slowly disappearing.

“I was in Costa Rica working on a project more than 20 years ago, and I went back four or five years ago to the exact same location,” says Quin. “And one of the big changes was that hotels had come in and the road had been paved. Everything that I had heard there was gone. There was this beautiful sound of crabs that would be brought in on the high tide and find their way up into mangrove trees. At night, you could hear them falling out of the trees and the kind of ‘pop’ of their shells hitting the roots of the mangroves, just this beautiful, percolating sound of crabs falling from trees. All gone. It was just deathly quiet.”

“Every place I go, I wonder if it’ll still be there if I have the opportunity to come back,” he says.

Even with that experience, Quin is philosophically optimistic about the future, and has no doubts about the importance of the work he does. The key to inspiring people toward change, says Quin, isn’t in berating them for not caring enough, but through sharing a sense of wonder at what the world has now, and what it sounds like.

“It's another strategy to just have people be present and aware of the world in which we live,” says Quin. “That's the big mission for all of this. It's [creating a] more gentle awareness, rather than beating people over the head with ‘all that man does is vile,’ right?”

Visit Quin's website for more information>>