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Berklee professor hears music in the sounds of nature -- and traffic

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  July 19, 2013 04:19 PM

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Steve Wilkes in the Blue Hills.jpg

Jeremy C. Fox for

Berklee College of Music Professor Steve Wilkes recorded traffic sounds from high in the Blue Hills Reservation on Thursday.

It may not appear on most people’s calendars, but for audiophiles like Steve Wilkes, World Listening Day is kind of a big deal.

In observance of the event, celebrated each July 18 since its founding in 2010, Wilkes spent part of Thursday high up in the Blue Hills Reservation, recording the sounds of cars zipping down the highway near the cloverleaf below where Routes 128 and 138 meet.

It was relatively quiet day, Wilkes said, when car traffic and the sounds of planes approaching Logan Airport were less noticeable than usual. But listening with an unaided ear is very different from listening through headphones to sounds picked up by Wilkes’ powerful hyper-directional microphone.

“When the headphones go on … I notice how many things I missing,” Wilkes said.

Wilkes, a Hyde Park resident and longtime Berklee College of Music professor, has made it his mission to notice and record the sounds he and others would otherwise miss out on.

Since 2011, he has devoted much of his time to recording natural and human phenomenon on Cape Cod and sharing the recordings on his web site, He recently took a sabbatical from Berklee to focus his attention on creating music from his recordings.

“It ended up being epic,” Wilkes said.

The product of that year’s work consists of three CDs: a selection of his most compelling recordings presented without manipulation, a compilation of the recordings remixed by some of Wilkes’ favorite electronic music artists, and a set of original songs he wrote based on the recordings, with lyrics and vocals from his wife, singer Virginia Fordham.

The disks were released around Memorial Day, Wilkes said, and he will spend the rest of this year performing and making presentations about the work to promote the CDs and draw attention to the Cape Cod project, to “get more people listening to their environment,” he said.

Wilkes plans to continue to make new recordings at least through the end of 2013, he said, though his original plan was to stop at the end of 2011.

“I still don’t feel like I’ve come close,” Wilkes said “I still feel like I’m scratching the surface of what an amazing sonic environment Cape Cod is.”

Wilkes recently returned from a month spent on the Cape adding to his vast collection of recordings, which now number more than 1,000, recorded at about 125 different spots around the Cape.

One of his favorite experiences, he said, was visiting beehives maintained by the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History.

“I was amazed at the sonic pallet of bees, especially with what goes on inside the hive,” Wilkes said as he hiked down the hill in Thursday’s heat, becoming animated as he described his excitement in discovering unexpected aural textures and layers in such a commonplace phenomenon.

“Driving back to the cottage, it felt like my car was 3 feet off the ground,” Wilkes said. “It was one of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever had to commune with nature.”

Wilkes said that through his experiences making field recordings, he has developed an ear for the sounds that will really capture the essence of an experience or a location.

He said that often after making eight or 10 recordings in a single spot, varying from about one minute to 10 or 12 minutes, he can easily recall which recording and which part of it made the greatest impression.

“I’ll remember — that was the spot when something really special happened,” he said.

Wilkes said that for as long as he can remember he’s listened to the world a little differently, more attentively than most, but his work on Cape Cod has heightened that listening and altered his thinking.

“Being a musician, I’ve always been sonically oriented [but] through doing this project and now being engaged with it for three years, it has changed my definition of a musician,” Wilkes said. “My definition of a musician is now someone who listens to the world in a musical way.”

“If it’s true,” he said of his new belief, “it means the life of a musician is available to all of us.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at
Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Hyde Park on Twitter: @YourHydePark.

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