Appellate Judge James A. Stewart often hears leopards growling about.
"I'm the Soundtracker. What I love is sound. That's what I want to do."
Gordon Hempton recalls pulling off into a field while driving to the University of Wisconsin in 1980. "I could hear the chanting chorus of crickets and the thunder around me," he says at the start of Soundtracker. While many of us would have headed for shelter, Hempton headed for a career as a "nature audio recording artist."
Soundtracker follows Hempton as he works, recording the sound of tall grass wind at a Yakima reservation and the voice of a meadowlark at Pipestone Canyon, to name a few. He also tells stories of his life—the best may be the one about how he felt fear during a recording session in Sri Lanka but only realized he'd heard a leopard when he played back the recording—and laments the growth of noise pollution. He pines for the days when 15 minutes of uninterrupted recording was commonplace, not a rarity. He isn't totally against modern noise, though; you'll see him trying to capture the sound of Amtrak.
Mostly, though, you get to see him work and hear examples of his work: streams, birds, wind along a rural road, frogs, a coyote's howl. There's some use of music as he's seen driving from place to place in his van, but director Nicholas Sherman wisely lets the sounds speak for themselves often. Hempton is reasonably interesting as he talks about his work, but there's nothing that matches those sounds in telling his story.
The audio is just Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, but I found myself looking out the window once when I heard the rumble of thunder on the DVD. The natural scenes look good as well.
Notable among the special features is "World of Sound," billed as "a 72-minute sonic tour of the world." It's a hefty sample of the sounds that Hempton has recorded over the years, from a babbling brook to a sharp tail ick, with no video. It's fascinating. I'll note that there's no way to go right to your favorites, at least until you've listened often enough to memorize the times of each sound bite. You might not go back to the documentary, but some of you will be hooked on this part.
There's also a piece called "One Square Inch," which looks at Hempton's efforts to draw attention to a quiet spot at Hoh Rainforest at Olympic National Park. It's one of only three spots quiet enough for Hempton, and he's not telling anyone where to find the other two. You'll find more of Hempton's comments in the deleted scenes, including his understandable but impossible wish that the FAA would redirect flight paths around natural spots. A short interview with director Sherman, who describes his "let the land speak for itself" approach to both the natural sounds and Hempton's comments in the movie and a trailer round the disc out. If that's not enough, there are web links to more information on "One Square Inch."
If you've ever unwound with a nature sound cassette or watched a nature documentary, you'll enjoy seeing a master of recording natural sound at work. Soundtracker is also important because the decline of quiet spaces does suggest that soundtracker isn't a growing career field, at least until one of the people who can't relax without the hum of electrical wires and the roar of traffic takes a crack at it.
Not guilty, but that's not an endorsement of staying in open fields during
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