Last Sunday we were honored to welcome one of the world’s great listeners to campus, Gordon Hempton. Hempton, Grammy Award winning natural sound recordist, has circled the globe capturing the Earth’s most subtle and thrilling music in recordings of unsurpassed fidelity. Yes, I said the Earth’s music, because that is exactly how Hempton hears it—not mere sound, but music. Hempton regularly sits motionless for hours at a time as he listens to all that nature has to offer. As you can imagine, Hempton’s virtuoso listening skills make him a rare and invaluable guest at our Conservatory, where listening is at the heart of everything we do, yet is often taken for granted.

John Cage told Hempton that our ears are our musical instruments. To me, this powerful statement expresses the importance of the listener in creating musical performance. What we hear, how we hear, how we listen is different for each individual; partly because of the slight variations in ear shape, ear canal length, and even the placement of the ears on one’s head; and partly because of how we listen.

Hempton was inspired early in his listening life by the great naturalist John Muir, who Hempton considers one of the great recorders of nature’s music. The fact that Muir lived at a time when “recording” nature’s music meant crafting vivid musical descriptions in his notebooks, in no way diminishes the importance of his “recordings.” It is Muir who describes “snow melting into music.” What at first may just sound like a poetic turn of phrase took on new meaning during Hempton’s presentation. Gordon played a recording of melting snow that created a rhythmic groove that made the audience want to dance! Snow truly melting into pure music.

Part of the key to becoming a better listener is to embrace silence. Silence in nature, Hempton reminds us, is never truly silent, but rather contains worlds of music just waiting to emerge. To listen into such silence takes a quiet mind. Gordon mentioned that after spending time in the noise of a city it may take up to three days of silence to reach a state of mind and clarity of listening to begin to take in the true subtleties of nature’s music. Since it was somewhat impractical to take everyone in the conservatory to the remote Utah wilderness for three days, Gordon started us down the path of better listening by leading a series of sound walks around our campus and surrounding area.

The sound walk is really a type of sound meditation. Hempton’s instructions were simple:
1. There will be no talking.
2. Participants should listen without discrimination, as if they were a microphone.
3. If the mind starts focusing on a particular sound, let it go, and once again listen to everything.
4. Explore your sonic environment.

Then we were off, slowly following Hempton around campus. Exploring the very familiar landscape in a completely new way. Our group must have looked odd to curious onlookers. As one students rotated slowly on Main Hall Green, another had her ear firmly planted on a storm drain, and another had his ear ever-so-close to the craggy bark of an oak tree—listening. It was so easy, so natural to filter out the traffic while listening to a passing bird, but that was exactly what we were trying to avoid. “Be the microphone, be the microphone, be the microphone.” The task is difficult but wonderfully revealing.

I encourage all of you to try it. During the hour walk, there were brief moments of complete openness, lost seconds later as the mind celebrated its fleeting victory. But it did point to the fact that we can all become better listeners, deep listeners, with practice; and if there is one thing we musicians know how to do, it’s practice.

Thank you Gordon for sharing your passion with us. It was an ear-opening experience for us all!

Submitted 21st October 2010
By Brian Pertl, Dean, Lawrence Conservatory of Music

Published by

Brian Pertl

Brian Pertl, Dean of the Coservatory of Music at Lawrence University, has degrees from Lawrence University in Trombone Performance and English, as well as a graduate degree in Ethnomusicology. He is a passionate advocate of music and music education. He is thrilled to be back at Lawrence working with an exceptional faculty, and an exceptional student body.