Ironic ailment hampering sound tech’s greatest work

Voice of America photo Gordon Hempton edits his ‘greatest hits’ at his home studio in Indianola, Washington.

In a busy world filled with the sounds of traffic, airplanes, construction equipment and crowds, noise pollution has emerged as a leading environmental nuisance.

However, quiet places remain if you know where to look.

Eight years ago, audio engineer Gordon Hempton identified the quietest place in the continental United States, a place he calls the “One Square Inch of Silence.” Via this symbolic spot in a northwestern rain forest, Hempton has campaigned against noise pollution.

But the self-described Sound Tracker is now going deaf, and is in a race to edit his life’s work before losing more of his hearing.

For Hempton, it started with an experience familiar to many people, having to keep asking, “What? What did you say?”

Then the stakes got higher.

“I was laying in bed in the springtime about a year ago. The sun was shining. The birds could be singing,” Hempton said. “They should be singing and I was hearing none.”

Hempton leaned over to his partner at their home in a wooded, rural neighborhood on Washington’s Puget Sound.

“And I said, ‘Kate, do you hear birdsong?’ She said ‘Yes.’ I knew my life was going to be different,” he said.

Hempton’s eyes get watery as he describes the cruel irony. More than two decades ago, he trademarked his The Sound Tracker nickname. Keen ears drove his career as an Emmy award winning sound recordist and spurred his activism against noise pollution.

He has literally circled the globe three times in pursuit of the sounds of pristine nature from howler monkeys in a tropical forest in Belize, to a coyote chorus in an eastern Washington canyon.

Hempton’s hearing loss is accelerating, which lends real urgency to a culminating project.

“It is a race, very much,” he said. “I’m not totally deaf, but I have lost most of my hearing in my left ear and my right ear is quickly disappearing. So I am running a race to finish the Quiet Planet collection.”

That’s the title of a planned 19-volume set of nature recordings. The sound tracks could be licensed for use in movies, video games, exhibits and plays.

Volunteer assistants now help Hempton review and edit sound files and identify imperfections.

“I miss the sounds, I miss it,” he said. “I feel so connected when I can listen to the place I am. The difference between hearing where you are and not is like the difference being awake and not.”

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