By Ryan MacDonald
Have you ever wondered what it would sound like if you stuck a hydrophone into The Port of Seattle and recorded the ecosystem that lurks down below?
Well thanks to sound artist and field recordist Jake Muir, now you can. Just don’t expect it to be music in your ears.
“You’ll get all kinds of weird crackly, burpy noises,” joked Muir about the sounds his microphone picked up while recording under the docks at Shilshole Bay Marina.
“Unless you really know the source of that material, you probably wouldn’t guess that it’s from nature.”
And as for what’s making those noises? “Probably crabs. There might be shrimp. But who knows.”
Muir is part of small community of musicians in the city who blend pure nature sounds (like waterfalls, oceans, and underwater creatures) with man-made noises (like power lines or generators) to create their own style of music.
His first studio album Muara (meaning “estuary” in Javanese) was released in September. The tracks on the album are full of field recordings captured from around the Pacific Northwest that Muir then layered on top of samples from stock library records from the 1970s, including one from a sci-fi score by Jerry Goldsmith.
“It was a nice package overall to use natural sounds with these scores,” he explained about the juxtaposition of the two sounds. The result is an esoteric journey that’s part atmospheric, part stream of consciousness, and entirely one of a kind.
Even though he knows fans of ambient music and other listeners will interpret his music through their own filter, Muir finds it funny when people think it’s new-agey.
“I think it’s pretty sad,” he said about the tone of his sound. “It’s gonna get perceived in so many different ways.”
Muir began documenting various sounds over a decade ago with only a handheld recorder and no professional background in the industry.
“At the time, I was so inexperienced,” he joked. “I didn’t really know I needed to have a wind stream to protect against the wind.”
Today he uses an arsenal of devices to record, including omnidirectional microphones, hydrophones and coil pick-ups. Once he arrives at his desired location, like the Port of Seattle or a nearby park, he opens himself up to the possibilities of noises that surround him.
“It’s like integrating yourself in an environment,” he said. “I’ve found that it really heightens your senses.”
Having confidence in his craft didn’t develop over night. When first starting out, Muir thought every sound he noticed was worth documenting. He’d venture to places like the Angeles National Forest in his then home of Los Angeles and point his microphone in any direction.
“I was like, “Oh I’ll record this little stream, even though it’s not that fascinating,” he recalled of his early days.
It took him three years before he felt confident that he could record interesting material, he says. But it was a five day tutorial with Gordon Hempton, one of the leading natural recordists in the world, that made the biggest impact on his career and how he now interacts with his environment.
Together the two visited the Hoh National Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula and Salt Creek Park where Hempton taught him that even the smallest detail should be considered.
“If you move or remove pebbles in a stream, it’s gonna change how that sounds, which is something I had totally never considered back then,” explained Muir.
Originally from Southern California, Muir moved to the Pacific Northwest region in 2013 because he was enticed by the varying landscapes and the music scene. It took him about a year but he was able to establish himself within the community, and today’s he’s a member of the Seattle Phonographers Union, a group of musicians who perform together by using live field recordings to create soundscapes on the fly.
“I understand that improvised, unprocessed, field recordings is probably a tough sell for most people,” Muir said about the type of performances they put on. “But, you know, I think it’s pretty interesting.”
Though experience, Muir has learned to leave his expectations behind rather than trying to force something upon an environment. During a hiking trip to Tiger Mountain, he was hoping to capture some traditional nature recordings to use on his album.
When he noticed massive power lines that he traced the perimeter of the trail, he recognized an unexpected opportunity.
“You might get somewhere and nature doesn’t do what you want it to do,” he explained.
So what he did score? “I ended up filtering out all of the high-end information in the same recording. It was more or less road traffic noise,” he remembers.
But after using some editing techniques, he was able to pitch down the tones and use it as bass drone.
“Man made stuff can be really interesting,” he said. “Sometimes happy accidents happen.“