Listening for the Vanishing Sounds of Silence, Gordon Hempton Wishes Civilization Would Lower Its Voice

UPDATED 05/30/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/30/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

On a remote beach along the Washington State coast, the tide rolls in, lapping gently at huge driftwood logs. Ankle-deep in water, Gordon Hempton, 35, cocks his head toward shore. "The wave action is like raking your hand across piano keys," he says. "All those pebbles are the notes."

Choosing just the right log for his sound platform, Hempton unpacks what appears to be a disembodied head. It is, in fact, a German-made binaural microphone; sound is picked up through its flesh-density rubber ears and equalized in the gray plastic head by an electronic baffling system that duplicates the action of the inner ear.

"The nice thing about an incoming tide," says Hempton, "is the sense of anticipation about it." He goes silent, wrinkles his brow, listens and, at precisely the right moment, switches on a Swiss-made tape recorder. Still as a deer, he stretches his head back, closes his eyes and smiles. For the next 7½ minutes, an expression of pure bliss transforms his normally intense, angular face. Once again, he has found what he yearns for—the sounds of nature uncorrupted by man.

Hempton classifies them all "noise-free, rare native acoustics," and they include the babble of brooks, the somber music of wind in the branches, the flutter of water birds in flight. Noise, as defined by Hempton, is any audible man-made sound, and he will go almost anywhere to escape it.

As the tape winds off the reel, Hempton lets out a reluctant sigh. Another Sound Tracker limited edition recording is done, but like most of the 31 other tapes that he has made over the past six years, he isn't likely to market many copies. Of the 200 or so that he has sold, many have gone to patrons of a lone Seattle art gallery that offered his wares. "There's a resistance to buying a cassette that costs more than a recorder," says Hempton of his 7½-to-16-minute nature recordings that go from $25 per copy to $4,500 for a one-of-a-kind master tape.

Ironically, since his fieldwork doesn't support his family (wife Julie, 32, and son Gordon Jr., 2½), Hempton and his wife eke out their living in the noisiest environment in the state. They are bicycle messengers in downtown Seattle, pedaling up to 75 miles during a 10-hour day. He is sanguine about the noncommercial appeal of his art. "I'd rather make memories than money," he says.

Those memories may be irreplaceable. Hempton spent 18 months finding his first suitably noise-free setting in Washington State and since then has discovered only 19 more by poring over topographical maps, charting air corridors, ground and water traffic lanes and calculating the swaths of noise that those transportation avenues produce.

As difficult as such pristine spots are to find, they are much more painful for Hempton to lose. Often on a return trip to make a second recording, he has found that noise pollution has arrived in his absence. He is so certain that untainted natural sounds are endangered that he will share his maps with no one.

Hempton came to his calling by a circuitous route. Born in Monterey, Calif., the son of a Coast Guard captain, Hempton was a military brat who had lived in six cities by the age of 16. In high school he decided to try living off the land; his random grazing thereafter led to two bouts with food poisoning and a self-protective interest in botany. Though he was a superior student, he took six years to earn a bachelor of science degree from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, dropping out periodically to take jobs that captured his fancy.

At one time or another, Hempton worked as a Great Lakes merchant seaman, a live-in youth counselor, a food co-op manager and a Bering Sea fisheries observer monitoring foreign ships. Then in the summer of 1979, on a cross-country drive to graduate school in Wisconsin, where he planned to study plant pathology, Hempton had an epiphany in a Midwestern field.

"Perhaps it was Iowa where I stopped that night," he says. "The crops were all in, and the insects were at the height of sound activity. I remember lying on my back looking at the stars. Some clouds rolled in, and thunder started, just a full orchestration of the sounds of nature. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to record the sound of the crickets and the storm and everything else?' "

In 1981 Hempton moved to Seattle and on a whim took a job as a bike messenger, a job he now credits with sharpening his concentration. He also bought his first tape recorder and began collecting the random sounds of city life. "Listening to the tapes at home was an entirely different experience than when I was there in person," he says. "Before that, I anticipated what I was going to hear, so I didn't hear fully. But the recorder picked up everything. It was more accurate than I was, a more open listener. I realized I could use it to teach myself to listen."

A year later Hempton scraped together his life savings, sold his car and a small piece of land and invested $17,500 in his state-of-the-art sound equipment. Then, taking a two-year leave from his messenger job, he began backpacking into areas that seemed in the most imminent danger of noise pollution. He called his activity seuketat, an Eskimo expression that he says means "the ear of the animal."

Eventually, financial considerations forced Hempton back to his bike—as well as to a nine-aspirin-a-day habit brought on by chronic knee problems from the pedaling. Despite the tight budget that keeps the family quartered in a tiny four-room rented bungalow above Lake Washington, Julie, who married Hempton in 1984, remains firm in support of her husband. "Hempy is very eccentric," she says, "but he's very bright." Too bright not to realize, as he points out himself, that "it's hard on a marriage to be feeding a tape recorder more than you're feeding yourself. All this," he says, indicating his equipment, "could have paid for a BMW or a down payment on a house. Don't think that hasn't crossed my mind."

Still, there are signs that people are starting to listen. Avant-garde composer John Cage, 75, insists that Hempton's recordings of nature are actually musical. "Instead of using instruments," says Cage, "they open the ears to the sounds of the environment. I think it's beneficial for people to be made aware of this type of sound." So does the Seattle office building manager who has begun using Hempton recordings of crickets and birds in his bustling lobby.

Thus encouraged, and with Julie handling the messenger duties two days each week, Hempton returns to the deep woods whenever he can. "What brought me back was the sound," he says. "I don't think this is some great original idea of mine. It was inevitable, and if I didn't do it, somebody else would. But it also might have been too late. That's what worried me. That's why I do this."

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